In February, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a consortium of 2,500 climate scientists, attributed climate change directly to human activity. According to environment secretary David Miliband, it was "another nail in the coffin of the climate change deniers".
Consensus has grown in the scientific community since the last IPCC report. But business, too, is taking note, with some adopting ambitious green plans. Among the most far-reaching is Tesco CEO Sir Terry Leahy's promise to "transform our business model so that the reduction of our carbon footprint becomes a central business driver". Tesco aims to introduce a carbon footprint label for all its products-a move that could have a revolutionary effect on it, and its suppliers.
Business leaders' engagement has surprised some- environmental campaigner George Monbiot for one: "Embarrassingly, for those of us who have scorned the idea of corporate social responsibility, some of these companies now claim to be setting higher standards than any government would dare to impose on them," he recently wrote in The Guardian.
Tom Delay, chief executive of the Carbon Trust, isn't surprised: "Business contributes almost half of the UK's total carbon emissions, so it plays a key role in leading the fight against climate change. It is in a prime position to influence and respond to consumers."
So, climate change is a "live" issue for business leaders. But what do young people, the UK's future leaders, see as directors' roles and responsibilities where climate change is concerned? Sustainability charity Forum for the Future teamed up with the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) to find out. Surveying 54,240 people, around 15 per cent of all those aged 17 to 21 applying to higher education last year, Forum asked how they viewed the future and their place in it.
"We felt it was important to give young people a voice. Ironically, it is rare to hear their opinions about the future, a topic that will affect them most," says Forum CEO Peter Madden. "We also wanted to get an idea of the sorts of responses that future leaders might make to the challenges of sustainable development."
The results are unequivocal. The vast majority-91 per cent-believe the effects of climate change will be felt in the next 25 years, and four out of five believe they will be personally affected in a negative way. The world they anticipate living in when they're in their early 40s is one of environmental stress and shortages, with wars fought over water access and the gap between rich and poor growing. Even so, around 85 per cent think we will survive into the 22nd century-as long as we change lifestyles. And 20 per cent believe that little or no change is necessary for human survival. So who will lead these changes?
Nine out of 10 say government, through the political process and legislation, should lead changes. Yet, confidence in political leaders and parties is low. As City University student Bindi Senghani says: "World leaders have the opportunity to change the consequences of poverty and climate change, but don't seem to be making much effort. If this continues it will be years before anything is done."
But where Forum for the Future would put business next on its list of critical change-makers, 70 per cent of the students surveyed selected individuals as having the ability to create change most urgently, with fewer than half (47 per cent) choosing business. The figure was even lower among women, with only 42 per cent of them, compared to 54 per cent of men, believing that action from business was urgently needed.
The apparent lack of awareness of business is, says Forum founder-director Jonathon Porritt, unsurprising. As he notes, "young people tend to have an ambivalence towards big business." He also admits that media coverage is mostly negative: "When companies get it right, the only people to see it are the recipients of that good. Young people never see it, so they view businesses as on the wrong side, or with neutrality."
But current business leaders such as Stuart Rose at M&S and Leahy at Tesco may change this perception. And even if pressure isn't coming from young stakeholders, notes Porritt, it's coming from other areas-from government, supply chains, other consumers and employees. Susanna Wilson, corporate social responsibility manager at First Choice Holidays, agrees. "When I was a student, I was pretty sceptical about the role business could play-or was prepared to play. Now that I work within business I am much more optimistic about how it can help-both through creating more sustainable products and by driving public demand for them."
Business is responsible for shaping systems that allow for sustainable personal behaviour. The BBC's Newsnight programme recently showed that, even in the most environment-conscious home, carbon dioxide emissions could only be cut by 35 per cent. According to Professor Tim Jackson from Surrey University's Centre for Environmental Strategy, further cuts are down to the companies that supply household goods and services. As Delay points out: "Effective carbon management is now increasingly recognised as a business issue that shareholders, customers and staff are looking to the corporate sector to address."
The onus is on companies to lobby government for change, rather than opposing it. "Many small firms wait for the agenda to be set by regulation or supply-chain pressures, rather than shaping it," says Porritt.
Mark Goyder, director at business-led think tank Tomorrow's Company, agrees: "Businesses tend to be viewed as resistors. But," adds Goyder, "they usually just want to get on with it." Government needs to have a clearer line on climate change initiatives and incentives, too, so business gets a "longer-term view" on issues such as public infrastructure investment.
Goyder identifies investors as a key group of change-makers to add to Forum's list. "They are the link that connects businesses and individuals, complementary actors working towards a shared vision." And he believes businesses have a longer-term outlook than individuals or government and claims that directors "get" the opportunities as well as the risks presented by climate change, something Forum's survey group failed to recognise. Students don't appear to connect what a business does with the potential for positive environmental outcomes, a key challenge for SMEs.
"Small business directors should be aware of the advice and support available from organisations such as the Carbon Trust and the Energy Saving Trust," says Porritt. There is a strong business case (for any size of company) where benefits will result from investing in clean technologies and cutting energy consumption and carbon emissions. Porritt cites (BP's) Lord Browne's "option creation" idea, whereby a company can find opportunities opening up as a result of such actions-staff motivation improves; new partners emerge; a new set of customers are drawn to the business. As companies grow more comfortable with the valuation of intangibles, he predicts more engagement.
But according to Sarah Redshaw, director of human resources at Unilever UK, sustainable development is not yet a major factor in attracting new talent: "Talking to graduates and undergraduates on the milkround, social and environmental issues rarely come up. Career path, training and the amount of responsibility they'll get take precedence."
Redshaw sees an opportunity to link young people's idealism with the business of sustainability by "putting sustainable development at the heart of the employee proposition". Progressive firms must carve out a positive role and offer sustainable development to attract young people. Forum plans to repeat its survey next year, and will follow this year's applicants through university and into the world of work. "We'll see how their view of the future changes, and we'll find out whether companies are able to convince these 'future leaders' that sustainable development depends on business action," says Madden.
Director will publish the results of its own survey of readers' attitudes to sustainability and leadership next month.