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July 2007 - Terra Infirma


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30 July 2007

Now the rain has gone...

While I must repeat the mantra of "no one weather event can be directly attributed to climate change", the recent floods across England have shifted the emphasis from climate change mitigation (reducing the likelihood of rising temperatures) to its less glamorous cousin, adaptation (reducing the impact of those raised temperatures).

The first thing we have to do is stop siting new developments in places susceptible to flooding. The Housing Minister's statement on the Today programme last week that "it is unrealistic not to build on flood plains" must have raised howls of incredulity from the soggy households of the West Midlands and Yorkshire, and her logic is baffling under any circumstances. Flood plain. The clue is in the name.

The next thing that has to be done is to slow down and reverse the concreting of our country so rainwater does not run off so quickly. There are plenty of proven technical solutions from permeable hardstanding to full blown Sustainable Urban Drainage Systems. Unfortunately the latter take up a large amount of space and cannot be easily shoehorned into existing towns and cities.

Lastly we have to provide physical protection to key infrastructure under threat from flooding. The problem with barriers is they have a tendency to shift the problem elsewhere and this must be taken into consideration.

There is evidence that climate change impacts lag carbon emissions by about 50 years, so even if we went zero carbon right now, we're stuck with changing weather patterns for the foreseeable future. It looks as if we will be hearing a lot more about adaptation in the months and years to come.

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27 July 2007

Green Consumers are 'Mushy', US study finds

I've just been reading an interesting piece on GreenBiz on a study of consumer attitudes in the US. The conclusions of the article are:

1. That green consumerism is still in a niche,

2. That attitudes are 'mushy' - ie that actions don't always follow attitudes.

I thought that the first conclusion was a bit harsh - the study found that only 29% of US consumers didn't care at all about the environmental impacts of their behaviour. Not bad, in my opinion.

But the mushiness is a real issue. The sales of A-rated energy efficient white goods may be booming, but the Energy Savings Trust estimates that sales of patio heaters are likely to double in the next year. Just after hearing this on the BBC, I got a call from a local radio station looking for my views. I usually try and give a balanced view on any environmental issue, but when it comes to patio heaters I have to be scathing. From a green point of view they are evil incarnate and I told them that straight. I suspect, like 4x4s, public opinion will start to turn against such heaters and trying to heat the atmosphere while you finish your bottle of rosé will become unfashionable again.

BTW, the best solution to living an outdoor lifestyle in a cool climate I have seen was in Copenhagen where pavement cafes provide you with a big fleecy blanket to wrap yourself in while you enjoy your Carlsberg. Fantastic.

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25 July 2007

Social Enterprise: business or charity?

A Social Enterprise is a business which puts its profits into social and/or environmental programmes. And according to recent government figures, the sector is booming - accounting for 5% of all businesses and contributing £8.4bn a year to the UK economy - almost 1% of annual GDP.

One of the problems with the Social Enterprise concept is that anybody thinks they can do it, assuming that the nearest public body (council, regional development agency, government department) owes them a living. These groups tend to be focussed "a bit too much on the social and not enough on the enterprise" and usually fade away grumbling into their beer, cursing "the man" for not giving them the backing they deserve.

Good Social Enterprises, on the other hand, act and feel like a business. Visit the furnishing provider/recycler FRC Group in Liverpool and you will be given a funky visitor's badge by a smart receptionist. The ethos is not just skin deep - the company has won awards for its employment practices and sustainability reporting. They do charge their clients a premium, but for a premium service that a commercial company would struggle to provide. Everything is professional - not a grumbling hippie in sight.

The same principle applies to a 'green business'. Green businesses are not charities - you need to compete on price and quality with mainstream businesses, but push your green credentials as a market differentiator. If you expect someone to throw money at you just because your product or service is eco-friendly, then you are in for a big shock. I've seen it happen many times and it always ends in tears. Be warned.

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23 July 2007

Sustainable Business Awards

If you feel you have a truly great sustainable business, then you have a chance to prove it as the 2008 Queen's Award for Enterprise is now open for applications. The Sustainable Development category covers the following:

i. The invention, design, production (of goods), performance (of services, including advice), marketing, distribution, after sale support of goods or services.

ii. The management of resources (including natural, manufactured and human resources) and relationships (with people and organisations).

At the other end of the scale, if you have an idea that needs developing, the Shell Springboard programme gives out up to 6 awards of between £20,000 and £40,000 in each of 3 UK regions. They are looking for business plans for a product or service which will lead to greenhouse gas reductions, are commercially viable and are innovative. Deadline is 9 Nov 2007.

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20 July 2007

What does "Corporate Social Responsibility" mean?

A couple of weeks ago I went along to an event on Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). Before the presentations started the chap next to me asked what I did. I explained I was an environmental and sustainability consultant and described what I did. His eyes narrowed a bit and he asked me "so why are you here?". I was a little confused by this until he explained that he thought CSR began and ended with donating sums to community groups in the localities around his company's development projects.

This is a perennial problem in the sustainability industry - everybody has a different idea of what each term means, leading to misunderstandings and confusion. So here are a few definitions of CSR.

The UK Government:

[CSR] is about how business takes account of its economic, social and environmental impacts in the way it operates – maximising the benefits and minimising the downsides.

The World Business Council for Sustainable Development:

"Corporate social responsibility is the continuing commitment by business to behave ethically and contribute to economic development while improving the quality of life of the workforce and their families as well as of the local community and society at large."

Wikipedia:

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is a concept that organizations, especially (but not only) corporations, have an obligation to consider the interests of customers, employees, shareholders, communities, and ecological considerations in all aspects of their operations. This obligation is seen to extend beyond their statutory obligation to comply with legislation.

All of these are roughly the same but with differing emphasis on the environmental side of the equation. Some companies and organisations now talk about "Corporate Responsibility" instead, believing that the word "Social" is leading to confusion. But all of them are much wider than the donation-based scope that my new acquaintance had in his mind.

Of course, there is quite a bit of evidence that links good CSR performance to good financial performance, for example this rather heavy academic paper.

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18 July 2007

Global Wind Turbine Shortage

According to the Guardian, there is a world shortage of wind turbines, which the paper is "blaming" on George Bush giving tax credits to stimulate the US wind industry. You will rarely hear me defend the current US Pres, but this must be one of those times. The shortage is pushing up prices (and threatening the viability of projects in the UK), but this can only be a good thing in the medium-long term as demand will increase supply - although there are worries that the tax credit scheme might not last for long.

Wind is currently the most cost effective form of renewable electricity generation, but will always be controversial due to the visual impact of turbines. There has been much debate over the years about their output and the length of time they take to generate more power than they consumed during their construction. Estimates for the latter range from 3 months to never. For a comparison a modern gas fired power station will take 7 years make up for their embedded energy. The problem for the wind industry is that output is highly dependent on location and weather, which doesn't affect fossil fuel plants.

The energy market is so political that it is hard to determine who is telling the truth on these figures - you tend to find that research tends to back the interests of those who commissioned it.

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17 July 2007

How low (carbon) can we go?

During this month's Live Earth concerts (remember them?), Al Gore was asking for pledges to reduce carbon emissions by 90% in an unspecified timeframe. This matches George Monbiot's target in Heat: for a 90% reduction by 2030. And the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT) has published "zerocarbonbritain" - a blueprint for a 100% reduction by 2027. These targets make the UK Government's climate change target to reduce carbon emissions to 60% of 1990 levels by 2050 rather pedestrian, but the big question is, can it be done?

The gurus above claim to show that it is technically feasible to meet these targets, but the big question is whether it is feasible on a practical basis. For example the UK's Sustainable Development Commission has estimated that 85% of buildings in 2050 currently exist - so even if the 15% of new build homes are completely carbon neutral, the vast majority won't be. When we moved into our 'Victorian Villa' in 2000, it had holes in the walls, no insulation in some roofs, precious little in the rest and terrible single glazing. We've fixed most of these since and put a solar hot water panel on the roof to boot, but we're still a long way from being low carbon, never mind carbon neutral.

CAT addresses this issue using Tradable Emissions Quotas for individuals (you get a set amount you can emit and after that you have to buy more TEQs from someone with lower emissions). This would incentivise consumers to improve their carbon footprint by addressing their homes, transport etc. While the Government have been looking into quotas recently, it is debatable whether the public is ready to accept them (cf the fuss over bin collections during this year's local elections). So while sustainability is certainly feasible, there is a huge amount work to do to make it practical.

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13 July 2007

William McDonough: Cradle to Cradle

Another video from the Californian TED conference series, this time from architect Bill McDonough. The start of the talk can be a bit heavy on philosophy, but the case studies are a treat.

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11 July 2007

Internet shopping: good or bad for the planet?

Internet shopping looks like another area where the "is it or isn't it good for the environment" debate will rage ad infinitum (cf carbon offsetting, biofuels).

In his book Heat, uber-green George Monbiot holds up internet shopping as a potential climate saviour, calculating from DTI data that every delivery van will take three private cars off the roads. But the Times reckons this might not be happening in practice, with the increase in emissions from vans exceeding the reduction in emissions from cars.

The answer to this difference in opinion may come from internet marketing expert Graham Jones who was told unofficially that a whopping 80% of home deliveries fail. This leads to a constant flow of delivery vans trying to catch customers in, failing and taking the parcel back to the depot, taking it out again etc. I'm sure you have plenty anecdotal evidence of your own for this, so I won't bore you with my own tales of frustration.

Fundamentally, the problem is that the design of the service fails to meet the needs of the customer. Ideally we would all have large secure boxes to receive goods (actually I have, it's the house of the lady across the road), or, even better, we could stipulate exactly when we wanted the delivery to arrive. Is that really too difficult to organise when any backstreet garage can get same day delivery on car parts? If the so-called 'home delivery specialists' could crack this, then internet shopping could slash emissions from shopping trips.

Of course, this debate focusses only on the purchase of tangible goods. The big environmental benefit of internet shopping is the opportunity to buy products that never take a physical form - eBooks, MP3s, ringtones, movies on demand etc. While these require energy, it is almost guaranteed to be a fraction of that needed to manufacture and distribute the physical equivalent.

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9 July 2007

Industry not exploiting carbon reduction business opportunities

A report by the Economist Intelligence Unit has found that industry is not yet exploiting the business benefits of carbon reduction. The conclusions of the report are:

● Business is not keeping up with the changing public mood. 50% have no intention in reducing their carbon emissions in the next 3 years.

● Business is reacting to reputational risk, not exploiting business opportunities.

● Companies do not expect the costs to be high - most expect measures to have no or a low net cost.

● Companies starting out on carbon reduction face a steep learning curve.

● Government regulation is the single largest factor in shaping how companies address carbon issues.

Given all the coverage climate change has had recently, these are worrying results. They suggest that despite the opportunity for quite a bit of gain for relatively little pain, industry still needs to be forced into reducing their carbon footprint. Simply aiming for mere regulatory compliance like this is a very expensive hobby as legislation will continue to tighten for the foreseeable future. The alternative is the sustainable business mantra of "beyond compliance" but this message obviously isn't getting through yet.

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