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June 2009 - Terra Infirma


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29 June 2009

I'm on the road...

...well, rails actually. By the time you read this I'll be getting on board Eurostar for a speedy trip to Belgium where I'll be interviewing the MD of a revolutionary paint company for my next book (more details on this to follow) and attending a consultants' workshop. My ability to blog may be compromised as I don't know what the internet facilities will be like and I'm taking the family for a city break to Bruges at the same time.

As well as book #2, there are a number of other exciting developments in the pipeline. Stay tuned.

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26 June 2009

Obama's big moment

Barack Obama is about to put his climate change bill to Congress (the news story in this month's Low Carbon Agenda was a little premature). It has been battered, swollen with compromises and slightly watered down, but given this is the home of Big Oil, big cars and big bellies we are talking about, it would be unreasonable to expect even the saintly Obama to execute a handbrake turn in this mother of all economic supertankers. A key moment, and one which will resonate around the world.

Meanwhile the UK Government is working up a strategy for financing the shift to the low carbon economy for the Copenhagen conference later this year. Details are a bit sketchy so far, but it appears to be based on a form of contraction and convergence. Cynics may suggest that they need to focus on national leadership as well as making international noises. But overall, there is the impression of building momentum for a post-Kyoto settlement and one which will really deliver.

So, if dawn breaks on a brand new low carbon world, will you be ready for it?

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24 June 2009

What's your budget? Uh...

The killer question I ask when helping organisations improve their sustainability is "What's your budget?". The answer is usually a "uh..." accompanied by a slight blush.

Like most organisations you have an environment/sustainability policy. It says you are committed to good things X, Y and Z.

How committed? Where's the money?

To do X, Y and Z someone has to go cap in hand, trying to filch part of someone else's budget. And you're surprised things happen slowly?

Make the commitment. Assign a budget. Yes, in a recession. Put your money where your mouth is.

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22 June 2009

Are you ready for the CRC?

If you are a UK-based large organisation and you haven't checked whether you will come under the Carbon Reduction Commitment (CRC) yet, then you'd better get moving. In this presentation, Jane Dennett-Thorpe of The Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) explains some of the latest developments as the consultation on the CRC comes to an end (source: edie).

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18 June 2009

Which green thinkers do you rate?

For a wee side-project I'm doing, I'd be grateful for suggestions of your favourite breakthrough green thinkers - people who have really made a difference in the sustainability field like Rachel Carson (of Silent Spring fame) rather than communicators/campaigners like Al Gore and George Monbiot.

For example, the people who I rate are Amory Lovins (RMI), McDonough & Braungart (MBDC), Jaime Lerner (Curitiba), Prof Tim Jackson (Surrey Uni), Janine 'Biomimicry' Benyus and Bob Frosch (ISIE). Other candidates could be Nicholas Stern, James Lovelock (gaia) and David Pearce (Blueprint for a Green Economy).

Thanks in anticipation of your wisdom!

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16 June 2009

Free: 101 Carbon-busting Tips

Now available from the resources page.

You can't say I don't spoil you...

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More free resources

I've just added two new free resources on the Resources page:

1. Climate Change FAQs for Executives - a quick guide to the science of climate change.

2. Terra Infirma Brainstorming tool - useful for developing green solutions.

There's more in the pipeline.

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15 June 2009

Feedback from the Low Carbon Innovation Exchange

As promised, some notes from last week's Low Carbon Innovation Network. Numbers were slightly depleted due to the Tube strike which brought central London to a standstill.

I facilitated two sessions:

1. Long-term Environmental Strategy

In this session we had a food wholesaler, a recycling company, an energy monitoring system company and 2 consultants (including myself). It was very clear that companies were getting started by identifying and exploiting 'quick wins', but were struggling to convert this momentum into a long term strategy.

The most interesting point from this was that the maximum time frame that participarts were working to a 2 year timeframe - so anything over this was regarded as "long-term". This was reflected in the tendency for the conversation to drift into operational issues rather than strategy.

2. Empowering Staff to Take Action

We had 3 council officers, 3 from industry and 3 consultants including myself and an organisational psychologist. The latter worried me a bit as I was an engineer talking about her area of expertise, but she agreed with the vast majority of what I put forward.

Many of the participants had done the basics - setting up committees, appointing green champions and running awareness events. We discussed ways of making this fun for people - quizzes, clothes swaps and green away days were some of the examples given.

When I asked whether anyone had witnessed a manager showing leadership in this area there was embarrassed silence until one of the consultants recounted a business she knew where the directors had built an ethical business from scratch, recruiting only people who would be committed to those values and behaving in a low carbon manner always.

No-one had really tried getting their staff to generate solutions (I distributed the Terra Infirma brainstorming tool to help those who wanted to try).

As always I really enjoyed the sessions and I'm always trying to stretch the people who come along out of their comfort zone. But I'm getting frustrated that while participants think they are really making progress, they're not really breaking through to making a real difference to the way they operate.

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12 June 2009

Ray Anderson, Interface

Interface is one of the world's leaders in green business in the rather unsexy field of carpet - they also happen to be the biggest producer of modular carpet in the world. CEO Ray Anderson is not the greatest public speaker in the world, but his message is compelling.

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9 June 2009

Sneak preview...


Coming soon...

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8 June 2009

Green Energy Investment Overtakes Fossil Fuels

In 2008 wind, solar and other clean technologies attracted $140bn (£85bn) compared with $110bn for gas and coal for electrical power generation (source: Guardian). There was a slight drop in investment at the start of 2009, but this is apparently recovering.

Given this background, it makes the decision by many 'big oil' companies to pull out of renewables an odd one. I'm sticking with my prediction that they will become the vacuum tube manufacturers of the 21st Century - the fossilised energy industry.

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5 June 2009

Don't forget...

...I'll be facilitating those two sessions at the Low Carbon Innovation Network, next Thursday, 11 June at the Olympia, London.

Just to remind you, the sessions are:

1. Long Term Environmental Strategy, 10:00am

2. Empowering staff to take action, 3:30pm

My summaries of previous events can be seen here and here. Of course, I'll be posting a summary of next week's sessions here after the event.

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3 June 2009

Nudge, nudge!

OK, so I'm a 12 months behind the curve, but I've just finished last year's political must-read "Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness" by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein. The central thesis of the book is that we humans like having choices rather than being told what to do, but paradoxically we're not that good at making the best choice for ourselves or society if the issue is complex. Thaler and Sunstein introduce the rather clunkily titled concept of "libertarian paternalism" which translates into plain English as "the choice is yours, but if I were you I'd pick that one", the second part of this being the 'nudge' of the title.

The book is long on examples and arguments and a little short on the 'how to' aspect, but I've gathered that the three main types of 'nudges' are:

1. The default choice is chosen carefully to be the 'best' one eg should we have to opt out of organ donation rather than opt in?

2. The 'best' choice is the easiest, cheapest or most obvious one eg lower car tax for less polluting vehicles.

3. Sufficient information is disclosed to help the chooser make a good choice (would the current MPs expenses scandal have happened if they all had been forced to disclose their expenses claims to the electorate?).

On some levels this may appear manipulative, but the authors make a strong argument that the alternatives are to either ban undesirable behaviour (the infamous 'nanny state'), or to abandon people to make suboptimal choices.

Chapter 12 of the book is entitled "Saving the Planet" and examples of eco-nudges include:

1. Cap-and-trade for industrial carbon emissions (not cutting emissions is going to cost you, but the choice of how to cut them is yours).

2. Information provision through disclosure, labelling or feedback eg the US Toxic Release Inventory, domestic smart meters, and cars that tell you if you're overdoing the accelerator.

3. Voluntary schemes and standards for industry (the authors use the US 'Green Light' label as an example).

I can think of many more cases where these have been, or could be applied. The EU's energy label (below) has been brilliantly effective in transforming the white goods market, raising the market of share of the most efficient A-rated models from 0 to 76% in a decade. It's easy to see why this nudge works - you can buy any washing machine you like, but as you're spending the money you might as well go for an A-rated machine rather than a D. Who wants a D? And, if no-one is buying Ds, why would anyone manufacture one? The market is transformed, but the only rule is that showrooms have to display the certificate.

Kerbside recycling shows how communities can nudge themselves - once a certain proportion of a street puts out their separated waste participation suddenly shoots up. In contrast, when UK councils started trying to reduce residual waste collections from weekly to fortnightly by dictat there was uproar in the media and some councils changed political control due to this issue alone. Maybe if councils had introduced it by saying "you can keep your weekly collections, but you have to opt in for this on an annual basis" the uproar would have been subdued and the laggards would have gradually caught up with the mainstream as those neighbours who went with the default option demonstrated that the system is OK. Actually, it strikes me that local authorities could benefit most from the 'nudge' approach - they tend to bear the brunt of media attacks on any change ("Town Hall Bullies/Loonies" etc) and this could deflect most of that initial ire and transform behaviour more gradually.

Having read Nudge, I'm not surprised it caused such a fuss in the political sphere and there is a huge opportunity to use it to transform environmental behaviour both within industry and consumers alike. Highly recommended reading.

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1 June 2009

"Nice idea, but it will never work"

There is a lovely story (probably apocryphal*) of a student taking a design proposal to the head of Cambridge University Engineering Department. The Prof looked at the plans and said

"Nice idea, Whittle, but it will never work."

The student was of course Sir Frank Whittle and the design was for the jet engine.

Whether or not exchange really happened, there is a whole cadre of such eminent thinkers, either retired or in the twilight of their careers, who regularly try to throw similar sticks into the spokes of green/low carbon technology. Letters regularly appear in the press from these chaps, typically saying:

"Before everyone rushes to embrace wind power/the hydrogen economy/electric vehicles/biomass (delete as appropriate), a few simple sums show that to replace all electricity/gasoline vehicles/domestic heating systems would require [something impossible/very expensive]. This headlong rush to do [X] is foolhardy if not downright dangerous".

Those simple sums usually assume that the technology involved is intended to replace its conventional equivalent entirely, without any change to usage patterns, without any evolution in the technology concerned and at current prices. They ignore the immutable laws of technological development - as technologies mature their costs plummet, efficiencies improve, synergies emerge and user behaviour changes to suit. But you have to start at the beginning of that cycle, you can't just parachute into the maturity phase.

The annoying thing for me is that these would-be Cassandras know this better than anyone. I don't know if they're just stuck in their ways, need to feel important and relevant, or whether they just resent the world passing them by. But given all their knowledge and experience, the world would be a better place if they would open their minds and become part of the solution, not part of the problem.

* The Cambridge angle to the story doesn't seem to match up with Whittle's biog, but he did apparently meet such resistance in the RAF.

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