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The ESG Review: Culture war fears over emissions and household budgets

As fears simmer over military conflict on Europe’s eastern borders, UK conversation has begun to turn to the prospect of a sustainability ‘civil war’ on the domestic front.

Yet while the shots exchanged in recent days have predominantly been political, talk about the heightened challenges of maintaining action on emissions in the face of spiralling household budgets has implications for ESG strategy and reporting too. Not in the short-term perhaps, but it does further highlight the need to understand the multitude of forces in play and their impact on stakeholder value.

Given the profound socio-economic changes demanded to tackle climate change, the ability to force emissions reduction is inevitably not just the preserve of investors, politicians and business leaders. At its most everyday level, it is about convincing every citizen that they may need to stomach increases in the cost of goods and services now, as a cleaner and sustainable world needs paying for somehow.

This past week, we’ve had Green MP Caroline Lucas in The Guardian making a plea for net zero action to be protected rather than slowed because “it is hurting poor people”. And we’ve had the Daily Telegraph’s Ben Wright - in a piece headlined ‘Let’s not make net zero the new culture war’ - arguing that conservation is a “deep conservative trait”. He makes the point that a clash of ideologies over climate change and household budgets risks picking up where a decade of civic animosity over Brexit (hasn’t yet) left off.

Step outside of a metaphoric West End or City bubble for a while and listen to conversations in pubs and on trains (yes, I’ve almost missed the nosey earwigging) around the country and these points of view become more understandable. In the past couple of weeks, I’ve heard everything from net zero being something for the consultants and lawyers to make money from, to people needing to give up many of life’s comforts to be able to afford heat pumps rather than gas, to COVID vaccines being a government ruse for tracking our every move to monitor our personal climate impact.

Then there are the media stories around climate change and the extent to which investor, corporate, shareholder behaviour and attitudes, and those of the general public, are changing, particularly in light of the pledges and plans that came out of COP26. This week has seen SKY News and the BBC cover research into big banks continuing to fund the coal sector despite assertions to the contrary, and The Guardian cover more UK/EU tension over apparent rows within the UK Government over net zero action and the cost of living.

What does this all mean for communicators, you might ask? Several things. Firstly, understanding materiality across all aspects of ESG and how they may cut across each other is clearly critical. Greenhouse gas emissions cannot be addressed in isolation from a strategic view across the likes of access and affordability, or product quality and safety, for example.

Secondly, listening to the public and political mood, and all of the nuances and spectrums, is as important as knowing what is most material. It may shift rapidly, it may be interconnected, it may be short-lived.

And thirdly, as conversations around such topics get frothier, particularly against the backdrop of the divisiveness of Brexit, it’s important to not get disproportionately distracted by perspectives and understand what the long-term impact is on reputation, on trust, and on planned delivery against ESG strategy.

The ESG News Review is written by Steve Earl, a Partner at BOLDT

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