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Positive action on climate change

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With many parts of Europe enjoying the warmest January since records began, climate change is big news and big business finds itself under pressure from consumers and government.

This month tension between the U.K. government and the aviation sector rose as Ryanair Ltd.'s Chief Executive Officer Michael O'Leary continued his war of words with government departments over the industry's contribution to climate change. The Environment Minister Ian Pearson called Ryanair the "irresponsible face of capitalism." Ryanair's O'Leary has been vocal about the government's plan to increase air passenger duty.

But big business is fighting back, with some leading companies following the example of many consumers and looking at real ways to reduce their impact on the environment.

Chairmen and chief executives from some of the United Kingdom's biggest companies attended the inaugural meeting of the Confederation of British Industry's climate change task force. The group, which takes as its starting point last year's "Stern Review" on the economic impact of climate change (BIE November 6, 2006), hopes to determine the role business can play in tackling climate change and recommend actions necessary to enable business to make that contribution, the CBI said in a statement.

Earlier this month U.K. retailer, Marks & Spencer, launched its five-year £200 million (€304.6 million) "eco-plan" in which it has committed to some very impressive ethical targets. By 2021, M&S aims to become carbon neutral, whereby its carbon emissions are either reduced or offset by investing in climate-friendly schemes such as renewable energy. M&S also committed to no longer sending waste to landfill, to set standards in ethical trading and extend sustainable sourcing of the products its sells.

M&S Chief Executive, Stuart Rose said: "Every business and individual needs to do their bit to tackle the enormous challenges of climate change and waste ... our customers, employees and shareholders now expect us to take bold steps and do business differently and responsibly."

This month Swiss Reinsurance Co. also announced a practical and innovative way to reduce the impact on the climate of its operations.

The company, which in 2003 declared that it would make its own operations carbon neutral by 2013, is offering its staff cash incentives to help their employees reduce carbon emissions. Swiss Re is offering its staff as much as 5,000 Swiss francs each to buy low-emission hybrid cars, use public transport or install solar panels.

Insurers have long warned over the perils of ignoring climate change. Even within the past few weeks Lloyd's of London Chairman Lord Levene has warned that the cost of weather-related catastrophes will accelerate due to climate change, adding to the growing number of insurers concerned over global warming.

In the speech, hosted by the World Affairs Council in Washington D.C., Lord Levene added Lloyd's voice to other European insurers such as Allianz S.E., Munich Reinsurance Co. and Swiss Re, all of which have expressed concern over climate change in recent years.

Like M&S, Swiss Re appears to be leading the pack in terms of taking positive action. These companies appear to have decided that climate change poses a significant risk and that they are better off taking action themselves, rather than waiting for legislation or the potential consequences of climate change to be felt.

Many more companies should surely follow suit.