National Sustainability Taskforce Interview with Prof Bill McGuire

In this guest blog, IoD member and member of the IoD’s National Sustainability Taskforce Zoe Cohen interviews Professor Bill McGuire.

Bill McGuire is Professor Emeritus of Geophysical & Climate Hazards at University College London. He was a contributor to the 2012 IPCC SREX report on climate change and extreme events, and author of, “Hothouse Earth: an Inhabitant's Guide”.

So Bill, how bad is the reality of the situation we are in?

It is no exaggeration to say that we are in deep trouble. A 1.5°C global average temperature rise (since pre-industrial times) marks the guardrail that protects us from very dangerous climate change. To stay this side of it, greenhouse gas emissions need to fall 45 percent by 2030. but we are on track for a 14 percent rise, perhaps more given the energy problems arising from the Ukraine war. In blunt terms, this means that we can no longer dodge perilous climate breakdown that will affect everyone and insinuate itself into every aspect of our lives. All businesses ignore, at their peril, the fact that they will be operating in a climate-changed world, and must adapt or fail.

Is there still hope? What can be done to change this trajectory?

There is still hope, but only so far as there still being time to prevent a very dangerous situation becoming a cataclysmic one. Even this would require unprecedented action to slash emissions as fast as possible, which would, in turn, mean turning our backs on fossil fuels now. So, no new exploration or exploitation, no more funding or insurance of facilities, the switching of government subsidies from fossil fuels to the renewable sector, and a swingeing tax on carbon at the well-head and mine entrance.

What are we facing even if we do get to net zero by 2050?

Many countries are coalescing around 2050 as a target for net zero carbon. I honestly believe that in many, if not most, cases, this is because it is far enough away to be able to put off serious action today. In any case, it is far too late. By mid-century, the global average temperature rise is likely to be 2°C or more, and tipping points could well have been crossed that put us on a collision course with cataclysmic heating of 3°C+.

But we’re in a cost-of-living crisis and inflation crisis at the same time, can’t we deal with that first and put net zero on hold for now?

Absolutely not! In fact, the cost-of-living crisis provides the perfect opportunity for the widespread introduction of ‘green’ measures. A major ramping-up of investment in renewables, including solar, onshore and offshore wind, and tidal, would make the UK far less exposed to future gas price hikes. At the same time, a massive programme of insulation would slash energy usage and cut emissions at the same time.

What does this mean for the UK, and small and medium sized businesses especially?

No businesses will be cushioned from the dangerous climate breakdown that is now certain, and small- to medium-sized businesses operating to tight margins will be especially at risk. And it isn’t only the direct effects brought about by the effects of extreme weather on vital infrastructure, utilities and food production that will cause problems. Climate breakdown is a threat multiplier that actively promotes harvest failure, famine, civil strife and conflict worldwide. To provide a single, disturbing example, the world will need 50 percent more food by 2050 to feed extra mouths, but climate breakdown will ensure that agricultural yields could be down by up to 30 percent. If realised, this nightmare scenario would mean nothing less than widespread and unprecedented famine and the societal breakdown and conflict that would inevitably accompany it. There is absolutely no reason to think that the UK will be immune.

What is your opinion on what the UK government should be doing to support the transition to net zero?

The government is heading in completely the wrong direction. It is still shovelling money at the fossil fuel sector while only grudgingly supporting renewables. Retrogressive measures abound, including cutting the air passenger levy, doing away with electric vehicle grants, scrapping the zero-carbon homes programme and paying lip service to the need for home insulation. Notwithstanding the fact that net zero in 2050 is far too late, its current policies will ensure that even this is not achieved. What is needed now is the scrapping of fossil fuel subsidies, a ban on new oil and gas exploration, a massive programme of home insulation, and much more investment in wind, solar, tidal and battery technology.

What can and should businesses and especially Directors be doing? Immediately? In the next 12 months? In the next 3-5 years?

Businesses, and their directors, need to recognise that the world they will be operating in during the decades to come will be increasingly unpredictable, and they will need to plan for this. Immediately, they need to introduce a policy whereby every single decision is taken in light of how it will affect the climate. If the consequences are positive for the climate, then fine, if not, decisions should be rescinded. Over the next 12 months, they need to start planning for how they will survive in a world where dangerous, all-pervasive, climate breakdown will impact upon every aspect of their operations. In the years ahead, they must do everything possible to achieve net zero. And this doesn’t mean offsetting by planting the odd tree. It means making serious efforts to slash air travel, switch to a renewable energy tariff, and abandon any support for the fossil fuel sector. As a matter of urgency, directors also need to lobby the government, because it is their inaction that is causing the whirlwind that the business sector will reap.

What would be your message for any young aspiring Directors?

If you want your company to continue to exist and do business on Hothouse Earth, then you must make action on global heating and the ensuing climate breakdown your top priorities. Work to slash emissions and plan for operations on a far more dangerous and unpredictable world. It is your only chance.

This is a guest blog and therefore does not necessarily represent the views of the Institute of Directors.

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