EXCLUSIVE: UK’s leading employers’ body welcomes launch of XR Business group, as Greta Thunberg delivers stinging address to MPs
Street protestors and corporate giants are the most unlikely of allies, but could Extinction Rebellion (XR) find itself being welcomed by big businesses even as some of its members continue to call for capitalism to be overthrown?
Today the CBI, the UK’s largest employers’ body representing over 190,000 businesses, offered a qualified welcome for the catalysing impact the XR protests have had on the debate on UK climate action and welcomed the launch of the new XR Business initiative.
“As protests in recent days and weeks have shown, climate change is an issue of truly unprecedented proportions facing every nation on earth,” James Diggle, CBI head of energy and climate change, told BusinessGreen in an emailed statement. “Put simply, the world needs to get a grip on it. It requires real solutions from the government and business – as well as changes to the way each of us lives our lives – right now.”
He added that the UK had a critical role to play in driving deep decarbonisation at a global scale.
“As the country that first harnessed the power of hydrocarbons to drive the industrial revolution, the UK has a unique responsibility – and opportunity – to lead again,” he said. “The first step to doing this is to be even bolder in our climate ambitions.”
Like most business groups, including the new coalition of green business leaders that wrote to The Times this weekend in support of XR, the CBI has some reservations about the short terms costs for businesses caused by disruption from the XR protests. But there is also an understanding of the long term benefits that would result if public engagement with climate risks helped to drive bolder decarbonisation policies and avert escalating climate impacts for economies around the world.
Diggle stressed that many businesses are committed to playing a central role in delivering the economic transformation many supporters of XR want to see.
“From school strikes to Extinction Rebellion, the protests have raised absolutely the right questions – ones which business is committed to answering,” he said. “From offshore wind to electric vehicle batteries, businesses are leading the move away from fossil fuels by delivering the technology needed to cut carbon emissions.”
As an organisation with a relatively decentralised leadership structure, XR has sent some mixed signals on its approach to the business community. Some supporters have argued that capitalism should be “overthrown” in order to avert climate catastrophe, while the protests last week targeted the offices of oil giant Shell. But at the same time the group has signalled a desire to engage with business leaders – an approach that has been formalised with the launch of XR Business, a new arm of the campaign described as “an evolving platform for people in business who understand that business as usual is not going to work anymore”.
Responding to the launch of the new group, Diggle said the CBI “warmly welcome initiatives which constructively bring together business, experts, and those pushing the need for change”.
The latest developments came as School Strikes founder Greta Thunberg this afternoon visited the Houses of Parliament where she is scheduled to address MPs and meet with the leaders of all the main Westminster Parties, with the notable exception of Prime Minister Theresa May.
The organisers of the meeting – which brought together Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn, the Lib Dems Sir Vince Cable, the Greens Caroline Lucas and Ian Blackford and Liz Saville Roberts of the SNP and Plaid Cymru – staged an empty chair and name card for May.
The Prime Minister chaired a Cabinet Meeting on Tuesday morning and spokespeople for Number 10 said they were not aware whether an invite had been received, although the meeting organisers insisted an invite had been made.
Thunberg also met Commons Speaker, John Bercow, as well as former Labour leader Ed Miliband, and Lib Dem MP Layla Moran, who organised the recent Commons debate on climate action.
Thunberg was joined by members of the UK Student Climate Network who wrote on Twitter that they “have reached an agreement with Westminster leaders on some important first steps they can take together to tackle the climate crisis”. Promising that more details would be made public soon, they added that “we need to keep pressure up to ensure actions, not just words”.
Later in the afternoon, Thunberg delivered a characteristically blunt and hard-hitting address to MPs, accusing the political class of lying to younger generations and giving them “false hope”.
“We probably don’t even have a future any more,” she said. “Because that future was sold so that a small number of people could make unimaginable amounts of money. It was stolen from us every time you said that the sky was the limit, and that you only live once. You lied to us. You gave us false hope. You told us that the future was something to look forward to. And the saddest thing is that most children are not even aware of the fate that awaits us.”
She also criticised the UK’s carbon accounting techniques, arguing that the much-touted data showing UK emissions have fallen sharply in recent decades fails to include emissions from aviation, shipping, and imported products.
And she called for a renewed push to deliver net zero emissions as a matter of urgency.
“Perhaps the most dangerous misconception about the climate crisis is that we have to “lower” our emissions. Because that is far from enough.” she said. “Our emissions have to stop if we are to stay below 1.5-2C of warming. The ‘lowering of emissions’ is of course necessary but it is only the beginning of a fast process that must lead to a stop within a couple of decades, or less. And by ‘stop’ I mean net zero – and then quickly on to negative figures. That rules out most of today’s politics.
“The fact that we are speaking of “lowering” instead of “stopping” emissions is perhaps the greatest force behind the continuing business as usual.”
Thunberg concluded with a stinging rebuke to politicians who praise the school strikes and then fail to deliver bold actions to slash emissions. “We children are not sacrificing our education and our childhood for you to tell us what you consider is politically possible in the society that you have created,” she said. “We have not taken to the streets for you to take selfies with us, and tell us that you really admire what we do.
“We children are doing this to wake the adults up. We children are doing this for you to put your differences aside and start acting as you would in a crisis. We children are doing this because we want our hopes and dreams back.”
Meanwhile, XR is understood to be preparing a new wave of actions as the protests continue into their second week, although it remains to be seen if the group will seek to emulate the disruptive tactics of last week or pivot to focus on promoting its core demand of building a net zero emission economy by 2025 and discussing how the target could be achieved.
Many expert commentators have dismissed the 2025 target date as unrealistically ambitious, but calls are growing from businesses, MPs, and campaigners alike for the government to adopt a longer term net zero target once the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) reports on the proposal next month.