Wednesday, 28 January 2009

BT Sustainability Discussion

I went to a lunch at BT today, ostensibly to 'discuss the current sustainability topics with key influencers in the marketplace'. Some of BT's high-powered Strategy & Marketing Advisory Board were there (it's the first time I've sat next to an ex-head of state at lunch) together with a bunch of analysts.

I'm not really sure what BT's motives were. The (one hour) discussion was wide ranging, which meant not very deep, and by the time I got wound up enough to say my piece the hour was over.

Nevertheless, the discussion did help me refine my view on the role of governments in fighting climate change (which I touched on yesterday) and which will clearly have an impact on the IT sector.

It seems to me that there are three areas where governments can get involved:

1) Legislation and regulation. I make the distinction between the two because setting emissions targets and creating a cap and trade system simply sets limits but doesn't constructively help to achieve them. By regulating the economy and corporate behaviour it is possible to direct economies towards a more carbon-friendly future. (If we learn nothing else from the current economic mess it's that greater regulation of companies and markets can save a lot of pain).

2) The second area is that of investor and enabler. Investing in infrastructure designed to support a greener economy will help companies help themselves. The $825bn package to help stimulate the US economy is a case in point - much of this is green-related. Other countries will be introducing similar packages and those with vision will focus on the means to support a lower carbon business environment.

Governments also have a role as enablers. The biggest challenge in addressing climate change is that it is multi-faceted and interconnected (and global which is another story). Only governments have the big picture and broader responsibility to make things happen. Some of this can be achieved through regulation, but there is also a pro-active role, for instance in promoting the use of IT as a green enabler. We all know that IT can make a significant contribution, but to be really effective it needs co-operation, co-ordination and support. Governments can, and should, provide some impetus. As I reported yesterday, the EU is looking at an action plan to boost ICT as an enabler of a greener EU. National governments need to do the same.

3) Thirdly, the public sector must lead by example, which it is currently failing to do, at least in the UK. One challenge that all companies providing sustainability solutions face is 'what did you do in the war?' If you haven't done it internally why would another company let you lose on their organisation? The same argument holds for the public sector. For governments to set targets but not be seen to be leading the way in achieving them is counter-productive.

So where does this leave BT? Well the point was well-made in the discussions that BT should aim to be an enabler, rather than a leader. In my view no one will be a leader in this market, where success (in terms of reducing carbon emissions) will only come from companies working together. The point I would add is that this is a long-term opportunity - targets are set out to 2050 and it looks like we are going to be fighting all the way. It needs investment and commitment for success. But commitment also means belief in your contribution. BT is a (the?) leading provider of videoconferencing in the UK and rightly proud of the impact it has on reducing carbon emissions from travelling. But, again as was pointed out in the discussion, if it believes in reducing business travel why did it not stand up and condemn the building of another runway at Heathrow?

Which brings us back to the role of government.

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