Following years of steady improvement in carbon emissions, energy efficiency and sustainability R&D spending, U.K. companies have seen a backslide during the last year, a sign illustrating the challenges they face in boosting the bottom line without growing their environmental footprints.
And while there are more than a few glimmers of hope on the landscape, companies by and large are not moving quickly enough, or far enough, to meet the challenges that face us, namely climate change and the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050.
SB11, the first of a series of annual reports from Forum for the Future (FFTF) and ENDS, is focused on businesses in the United Kingdom instead of the U.S., in an effort to gauge how fast and deeply industry is adopting sustainable business practices. In short, there is a long way to go.
The same can be said for the progress we've observed here in the U.S. -- too slow, too incremental -- according to our own research. GreenBiz.com has tracked the environmental impacts of the burgeoning green economy in the U.S. for the last four years, focusing a set of 20 indicators ranging from green building office space and employee telecommuting to growth in renewable energy and toxic chemicals releases.
While we hewed closely to environmentally-focused metrics, FFTF and ENDS took a more expansive approach that delved into other facets of sustainability, such as pay equity between top and bottom earners and adherence to human rights, labor and supply chain standards.
What we both found: a mixed bag.
On the one hand, long- and short-term progress are undeniable in several areas in the U.K:
• The number of major pollution incidents has dropped nearly 55 percent over the last five years, and by 17 percent in the last year.
• Sustainability reporting has soared an impressive 81.3 percent over five years, including nearly 19 percent in the last year.
But some of the momentum in certain areas stalled in the last year following improvement:
• The emissions of facilities participating in the European Union Emissions Trading Scheme fell between 2008 and 2009, but resumed their upward trajectory last year as the economy rebounded and cold weather created demand for heating.
• Long on the decline, industrial energy intensity crept up 1.5 percent in 2010, the third increase in a decade. The result is no net improvement since 2007.
• Carbon intensity of grid electricity in the U.K. ticked up in 2010, largely due to a 10 percent drop in nuclear generation. This follows a big decline between 2008-2009, but overall, carbon intensity here is still well below 2000 levels.
A few areas have simply deteriorated, such as social performance, which is a measure of how well companies are performing according to labor rights, human rights and supply chain standards. Over the last three years, performance has steadily slipped downward, and while the U.K. exceeds the global average in social performance, it lags the continental Europe average.
One of the things I liked about the report was the fact that it assigns progress on each of the 16 indicators based on both year-over-year and long-term performance. It also outlines areas of future examination, such as resource efficiency and community engagement.
Overall, it's a good read for anyone curious or concerned about the uptake in sustainability in U.K. industry. As is the case here or in other matters, it's good to take stock and examine where we are, how far we've come, and where we need to go.
We'd love to hear from readers if they wished we had more non-environmental metrics in our State of Green Business report. Thoughts? Send us an email or share your feedback in the comments below.