The hottest day in British history was not one to celebrate: school closures, fires, transport disruption, yet more pressure on the NHS. July 19 2022 was a clear reminder, if we needed one, that climate change is not conceptual nor theoretical but real and tangible. Its effect on our lives is felt now.
So, what does that mean for us as regulators – particularly those with stretched resources, competing priorities and limited in-house expertise and knowledge in relation to sustainability? That was the topic of the day at the Institute of Regulation’s first ever roundtable event, hosted by PA Consulting in London on 29 June.
It’s always powerful when regulators, from all our different domains, get together. In fact, that is the fundamental premise of the new Institute itself: that together we are better, more insightful and more able to grapple effectively with the challenges on each of our desks.
I’m grateful to colleagues from the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, the Care Quality Commission, Ofcom, Civil Aviation Authority, Professional Standards Authority, Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency, North Sea Transition Authority, and the Food Standards Agency – along with our hosts PA Consulting – each of whom shared experiences, what they’re doing so far to tackle the sustainability challenge and lessons for us all to learn. Here are four takeaway reflections from the discussion:
1. Sustainability is on the agenda for us all
Very few regulators have statutory footings that explicitly address issues of sustainability, yet it’s clear it’s on the agenda for us all. Stakeholders rightly expect that the care industry is not frivolous in its use of resources; that our food is produced not only safely, but sustainably; that the future of aviation is getting serious about emissions.
In fact, we heard that many regulators are choosing to be proactive, driving the sustainability agenda in their industry irrespective of whether it is mentioned explicitly in statutory mandates. The MHRA, for example, is looking at how to play its part in reducing the NHS’s carbon emissions from medicines and medical devices. In response to these new areas of work, some regulators are choosing to recruit in new skills or work with external partners to secure the necessary expertise and experience.
2. Taking the broader view
Reducing carbon is important. But it’s not the whole picture. Regulators are optimally placed to make serious, long-term contributions across the full range of all 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Some regulators are already taking steps in this direction. The EHRC is beginning to consider the equalities impacts of a shift to a sustainable economy.
3. Shining a light
Within our distinct domains, the voice of the regulator holds weight. When regulators comment on the extent of sustainable practice in the industries we regulate, stakeholders can and do trust what we say. We can shine a light on good practice, to expose poor practice, and so to provoke change and have real impact. Just using our voice, just shining a light is a significant regulatory tool for change. We at Ofqual are considering how we can deploy our position in the industry to highlight good sustainability practice and raise the bar across the qualifications industry.
4. Measurement is key
Though carbon may not be the whole picture, it is a part of it. Yet at present there is no one single, consistent standard for the measurement of carbon emissions in the UK. This will become increasingly important for regulators if those we regulate, and their customers, are to have confidence in the information they collect and receive about environmental impact. Ofcom is grappling with this question of how its regulated sectors can measure and maximise the enabling role of digital communications to decarbonise (commonly referred to as scope 4) for which there is no agreed methodology. There is significant opportunity for government and regulators to work together to establish consistent measurement standards to unlock reliable information for consumers and industry alike.
Future opportunities for regulators to work together
The Institute of Regulation wants to establish a special interest group specifically on sustainability and regulation. It will be a forum to take forward these discussions and open them to all members of the Institute. Please contact us if you would be willing to participate in such a group.
Michael Hanton, Director, Institute of Regulation & Executive Director Strategy, Ofqual