Anglian Water’s chief executive and recently appointed co-chair of the Corporate Leaders Group Peter Simpson shares his thoughts on the role of big business in tackling climate change when we emerge from a locked-down world. How we can use what we’ve learnt to ‘build back better’ than before?

Today, as for many weeks, tackling coronavirus is the priority of governments, healthcare institutions, individuals and business. Key workers, like the team at Anglian Water, have stepped up, keeping taps running, toilets flushing and drains draining. We are humbled daily by stories of courage and bravery as we share our deepest sympathies with colleagues and friends whose lives the virus has touched.

The brute force of the pandemic has highlighted just how interconnected we are, not only that we all face the same indiscriminating risk, but how joined-up positive responses drive change. We’ve collectively demonstrated the power to reimagine our operations – often considerably, and frequently for the better.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be so surprised by the risk, or the resulting speed of change. The World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report identifies “infectious disease” in its top ten risks in terms of impact and the vulnerabilities it would expose in our healthcare services, economies and society. Yet, in that same report, failure to take action against the climate emergency is considered to be the biggest risk of all.

Imagine that, for just one moment. A threat considered even greater than the global pandemic we are currently living through. And then ask yourself, knowing what we now know about the catastrophic impacts of what is actually a lower-rated risk: do you think we’re doing enough to tackle the most significant challenge out there?

I have seen first-hand the impacts of our changing climate, temperature rises, and extremes of weather causing drought and flood. The east of England, where Anglian operates, is the driest part of the UK and is already feeling these impacts sooner and more keenly than elsewhere. I’m also alive to the fact we are a very significant energy user: getting water around our large and flat region requires a tremendous amount of pumping.

Seeing these impacts reaffirms my view that the time to act is now. My hope – and my plea to you – is that we align this obligation to act with the opportunity to Build Back Better presented by the imminent recovery from Covid-19.

A word of caution though. Some people have observed that with economic activity suspended our environment is cleaner and quieter, our carbon emissions are much reduced, and we’ve given the planet some breathing space. But this is not a lasting change, or a viable route to a sustainable future.

What we are experiencing now is categorically not the more prosperous society we are seeking to build through our net zero and climate-resilient ambitions. While we should actively consider how to lock-in some of these benefits, we need to do this through changing how our economy runs, not shutting it down.

So how will we do it? We’ve brought forward some ideas in our recently published Climate Change Adaptation report. The report, which will be submitted to the UK government, describes our climate-related risks and the steps we are taking to deliver sustainable adaptation action through innovation, collaboration, investment and education. There remains a short window of time for you to add your thoughts in response to our considerations.

In doing so, we hope we can lock in the benefits without enduring the cost. We’re confident we can do this because we’ve done it before. Sustainable thinking has long been part of our DNA, following the ground-breaking (and at the time seemingly incredulous) commitments we made a decade ago to cut the carbon in our business. Smashing those targets gave us confidence to announce earlier this year that the water sector will be carbon neutral by 2030.

It’s a tall order, but we’re making progress. Over five years we’ve saved 389,266 tonnes of carbon. This has been achieved in collaboration with others, by designing carbon out of our construction projects, delivering hundreds of energy efficiency schemes and generating more and more renewable energy. And while it can be tempting to think about the climate emergency solely in terms of risk, we also see adaptation as an opportunity – not least in terms of unlocking sources of capital perhaps otherwise unavailable, such as the numerous Green Bonds we’ve tapped since our first back in 2017.

Of course, at Anglian, we know collaboration drives the greatest impact, hence our commitment to groups such as The Prince of Wales’s Corporate Leaders Group (CLG). Shortly before lockdown, one of my final engagements helped launch the CLG’s new call to action, Acting Together, which set out a cross cutting agenda for business and government to work collaboratively to accelerate climate action. We now need to update that and the group’s work to account for this new context, and I’m keen to do that.

I’m sharing this because I believe openness, transparency, holding each other to account and collaboration must underpin the opportunities of a post-Covid-19 recovery. When we emerge from lockdown we must draw closer together than ever before when it comes to pushing for action. Because that’s the way, brick by brick, we’ll Build Back Better.