Andrew O’Brien is Director of External Affairs at Social Enterprise UK

COVID-19 is the most pressing emergency that faces our country and the world. But whilst we face this global pandemic and its economic shock the other big policy challenge of our lifetime, the climate emergency, has not gone away.

The disruption that we face has forced every business to rethink its operations and this has led to more working from home, greater use of digital tools and reduction in personal travel. These are the obvious “carbon positives” from the disruption that COVID-19 has caused. But businesses are also relying more on delivery services to reach their teams and customers. Many of the people working from home may also be using gas to heat their homes or powering their devices through environmentally unsustainable fuel sources. These are the “carbon negatives”.

On balance, experts think that carbon emissions could fall by as much as 5% this year due to COVID-19 a combination of the shutdown and slower growth. But we have been here before.

After the 2008-09 financial crash, carbon emissions fell slightly due to reduced economic demand. But in the years following the crash, emissions rose by 5% as governments relied on fossil fuels to drive growth and businesses went back to “business as usual”. The pivotal COP26 global summit on climate change, due to be held in the UK this year has also been pushed back till 2021. This comes at a time when experts say that we have less than a decade to cut global emissions roughly in half.

Economists are predicting that there may be a surge in production once the lockdown has been lifted, as pent up demand is met. So, could we see history repeat itself with a temporary reduction in emissions being cancelled out by a huge upswing in emissions following COVID-19?

Business has a critical role to play. According to the latest UK data, UK business emissions fell by 1.8% in 2019. This is positive, but when you consider that we need emissions to fall by around 4% in order to meet the IPCC’s recommendation for emissions to be 45% lower than their 2010 levels, then we are way off the pace.

UK businesses’ fall in carbon emission have also been slowing. Between 2005-2010, emissions fell by around 4.2% a year – in line with the IPCC target. Between 2010 and 2018, the pace of reductions fell to 2.1% a year. Half of what we need to achieve if we are to have a realistic prospect of hitting the IPCC’s target.

Although businesses themselves are only responsible for 18% of emissions directly, their decisions have far reaching consequences for every other part of our economy. What we buy, how often we buy it and how it is made are all heavily influenced by businesses. Business needs to lead the way in fighting the climate emergency.

Social enterprises are businesses which trade primarily for the good of society and the planet. If we didn’t recognise this before, we now know that these are both interlocking missions. Every social enterprise needs to take the climate emergency as seriously as their core social/environmental mission.

Our sector must lead the way in the climate response, because we know that historically the rest of the private sector has failed to live up to expectations. Social enterprises must show that can be done when we put people and planet ahead of profit, to inspire others and show governments what can be achieved with the right structure and incentives.

SEUK is thinking about ways that we can support social enterprises to do their part to respond to the climate emergency and show leadership. But we are keen to hear from members and social enterprises directly about what we can do to help.

If you have ideas of what we can do as a sector or examples of how you are tackling the climate emergency, either before or during COVID-19, then please get in touch.

Please email andrew.obrien@socialenterprise.org.uk with your suggestions, case studies and ideas.