COP27: ‘Statement of the bleeding obvious’


Date: 12/04/23

It may seem a statement of the bleeding obvious, but when I’m looking to bring about social change or organisational growth, I always start by first looking for what has worked. And if I find something strong then I say, “We’ll have more of that, please.” You’d be surprised how often organisations don’t do this.

Perhaps the best example of this in my career to date was when I was CEO of SolarAid and its social enterprise, SunnyMoney, which sold small solar lights to rural people in Africa. When I arrived, SunnyMoney was selling 300 lights per month. On my first visit to see our work in Tanzania, I witnessed my colleagues undertake a sales promotion through schools which resulted in 3,000 sales in a week. It was astonishing and, as a new CEO in my second month, a gift. That night, over a cold bottle of Tanzania’s best lager, I said “We’ll have more of that, please.” In the face of significant resistance within the organisation, we stopped trying to be creative all the time and focused on aggressive replication. Fast forward four years and SunnyMoney was the biggest last mile seller of solar lights in Africa, selling 75,000 lights per month. The amount of carbon we saved as consumers discarded their kerosene lamps was mind-blowing. All by doing the bleeding obvious. When it comes to the somewhat more complicated task of getting governments to go net zero, if you’re looking for examples of what has worked, look no further than the UK. The UK has decarbonised its grid faster than any other G20 country.

According to the National Grid, “Zero-carbon power in Britain's electricity mix has grown from less than 20% in 2010 to nearly 50% in 2021. In contrast, power provided from fossil fuels was down to roughly 35% in 2021 compared with over 75% in 2010.” Blimey, what happened in 2010?!, you might ask. The answer is simple: the UK government (Labour as it happens) introduced two market interventions:

  • The Renewables Obligation: an obligation on energy producers to source a proportion of their energy from renewables.
  • A Feed-in-Tariff, a financial incentive to smaller-scale generators (small businesses and homeowners) to put PV on their roofs.

After that, the market took over and did the rest. That’s the power of markets. Get the incentives right and one can unleash extraordinary levels of capital and ingenuity as entrepreneurs, investors and consumers move fast to take advantage.

David Cameron’s government understood this when they introduced a 5p levy on plastic shopping bags. I have been an environmentalist all my adult life, and yet how often did I show up at supermarkets having forgotten to take shopping bags, relying instead on their single-use plastic ones? It turns out I was not alone. Before the levy was introduced in 2015, the average UK shopper used 140 single use plastic bags per year. Extraordinarily, post-2015, that number was down to three. Overall, the UK’s consumption of plastic bags is down by 97%, saving billions of plastic bags going into landfill. A mere 5p! The government increased it to 10p last year, resulting in a further 20% reduction on the 5p levels. These reductions are clearly not just because of the cost – 30p on a bunch of plastic bags wouldn’t make much difference on a 6-bag shopping spree. In this case, the signal which the government sent was as important as the tax itself.

The next UK success story will be the adoption of electric vehicles – once again due to a government policy intervention, the ban on sales of petrol and diesel cars from 2030. An Experian report in September 2022 showed a 291% increase in EV sales in the previous two years. The market is actually outdoing government predictions: we’re switching to EVs faster than expected.

So, as we look to our world leaders at COP27, what can we learn from this? For me, the lesson is very clear. We don’t need to dismantle the whole global economic system, as some environmentalists believe. No, for me, the lesson is that we need to harness it. To get its extraordinary power working in our interests. To incentivise the right behaviour and disincentivise the wrong. We are not going to save humanity if we do not put a proper price on carbon. We need to stop taxing the things we want more of (like employment) and start taxing the things we want less of (like pollution).

To me, this is a statement of the bleeding obvious.

Steve Andrews, CEO, Earthwatch Europe

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