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December 2009 - Terra Infirma

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23 December 2009

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

We're closing down this afternoon for the festive season, so I'd just like to wish all readers, friends and colleagues a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

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21 December 2009

Sustainability in the Service Sector

I now have the details of the Sustainability in the Service Sector event on 11 Feb 2010.

The event will run from 9 - 12 noon at the Newcastle Falcons Rugby Club. I'll be doing the main talk on sustainability in the sector and, as my conclusion is that branding is the key driver for the sector, my good friend Graeme Mills of GPM Network will go into green branding in much more detail. We'll have lawyers Muckle LLP and the Northern Stage talking about their experiences.

The event is hosted by The Service Network. They charge £30 for non members. Click here to register.

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18 December 2009

Crunch time in Copenhagen

Looking on from afar, it is hard to judge how the climate change negotiations are going - for every 'breakthrough' story there is a counterbalancing 'deadlock' tale. But today is the day that all the world leaders are going to have to face reality - can they agree or can't they? The biggest driver now will be face - which world leader wants to have been seen to have stood in the way of success?

I'm always an optimist, so here's my worst case scenario...

1. Not getting an agreement does not stop individual action on a national level.

2. The political capital of having so many of the world's leaders turn up makes that local action much more likely. This is now a mainstream issue, not one for environment ministries.

3. The discussions have brought home some inconvenient truths about who is responsible for climate change (rich nations) and who's feeling the pain most (poor nations). A world where Tuvalu can take on China is the sort of world where I want to live.

4. Not even the best efforts of the denial dinosaurs, CRU e-mail hack and all, could impact on the process*.

5. Business can lead where Governments fear to tread. The increased awareness amongst the general public will boost green markets, lower resistance to innovations and reduce tolerance of high carbon behaviour. Green performance is already a source of competitive advantage and it will become more so.

If, through some unlikely last minute breakthrough, a legally binding agreement is made, then it is game on. High carbon businesses will soon become fossils, low carbon business will boom. I'm an optimist, I live in hope!

* If you want a bit of festive Friday fun, watch Ian Plimer, darling of the denial circuit, squirm as his "science" comes under scrutiny on Australian TV.

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16 December 2009

So now I'm an author

Yesterday I got my consignment of my first book, The Three Secrets of Green Business. So now I'm officially an author - something I have wanted to achieve since I was about 12 years old - although back then it would have been derivative swords and sandals nonsense rather than trying to save the world. I am genuinely chuffed with it and am glad to see it pulling away from a major rival in the Amazon rankings.

If I was going to sum up this book in three words, I would say punchy, practical and provocative. Personally I get bored with business books which are just a compilation of theory and case studies - I want advice, guidance and hints and tips that tell me how to do what I want to do from someone who has been there and done it. I brought these principles to The Three Secrets and I hope readers will appreciate them.

BTW, if you're not a subscriber to The Low Carbon Agenda, then check out the Free Resources page here this afternoon as this month's issue has a whole load of goodies relating to the book.

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14 December 2009

You can't kill a zombie

Ben Goldacre writes the regular Bad Science column in the Guardian. Normally he sticks to medical issues, particularly the MMR scare, but he turned his scathing eye to climate change denial this week and gave us a new phrase - "zombie arguments". These are the arguments that keep coming back no matter how many times you blow them to smithereens - global cooling in the 70s, mediaeval warm period, no warming since 1998 and all the usual suspects. You can try using the well rehearsed responses listed at Grist, New Scientist or try the heavy artillery of scientific argument at Real Climate, but you won't kill zombies with mere facts - they keep coming back.

BTW, I had lunch on Saturday with a leading climatologist. He's very relieved that none of his e-mails to Phil Jones at CRU have been through the denialists' distortion mill, and says that Phil Jones is a true gent and completely above reproach. The New Scientist debunking of the e-mail allegations is worth a read - there really is nothing in the allegations.


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11 December 2009

The benefits snowball

When I do workshops with either professional or student engineers, I always emphasise the need to take a systems approach to design. If you optimise component by component then you will only get incremental improvements, but if you consider the whole system, you can let benefits accrue like a snowball rolling down a hill. For example if you design a process plant with short, fat, straight pipes to reduce friction, you can reduce the size of pumps required to move things around which cuts both capital and operational costs. Likewise if you design a highly thermal efficient building, you can order a smaller heating system.

The same principle applies to your supply chain. Say 60% of your carbon footprint is in the supply chain and 20% from electricity generation and 20% from on-site activities. If you want to cut that footprint by 80% by 2050, it looks like a tall order. But if the supply chain and electricity provider manage to cut their own footprint by, say, 50%, then you're half way there without lifting a finger! So rather than simply trying to optimise your own performance, you may want to directly engage with your supply chain. Walkers Crisps famously found that their suppliers were storing potatoes in a humid environment because Walkers were paying them by wet weight. This not only consumed energy at the warehouses, but it meant that the crisps required more energy to fry (to drive off that water). Now the company buys by dry weight, the humidification systems have been switched off and the frying requires less fuel. Systems thinking = wins all around.

So, always bear the big picture in mind, and allow the benefits to snowball.

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9 December 2009

Throw out the doom, gloom and conspiracy theories!

So the Copenhagen juggernaut judders on, with daily starts and stops, waves of optimism and pessimism, and the CRU e-mail leak providing a nice counterpoint for the press (as an aside their reporting on this has been atrocious - the phrase "hide the decline" cannot possibly refer to the last couple of years' observed data as it was written in 1999 - doh! - and they have the cheek to criticise the quality of the CRU science...). The completely coincidental, erm, coincidence of the two have given the sceptics and deniers their moment in the sun.

Most of the climate change scepticism bouncing about the media and the blogosphere at the minute seems to be predicated on the idea that it is some sort of a scam to raise taxes and curtail free trade. Leaving aside the preposterous implications of these loony conspiracy theories (thousands of scientists and politicians secretly building a world socialist government - most of them can barely manage a national government), the media has been obsessed with the "sacrifice" the world will have to make to "save the planet".

A report in New Scientist says a low carbon economy will have a minor effect on consumers, with the exception of air travel where there are no significant techno-fixes available as yet. I would go further - a high tech, low carbon future to me is an exciting one. One where the idea of sitting in a traffic jam on the way to an expensive gym after a day stuck in an air-conditioned strip-lit box would be ridiculed. I'm sitting writing this in my home office, looking out at the birds playing in the trees, having just taken a run up the valley where I live. No commuting, no air con, no strip lights, but with all the office technology I need - you can't beat it. But most of our "knowledge economy" is still acting as if its participants are making widgets, chained to their desks like 19th Century mill workers.

The UK's Climate Change Secretary, Ed Miliband, hit the nail on the head when he said "If Martin Luther King had come along and said ‘I have a nightmare’ people would not have followed him”, but he needs to practice what he preaches - the Government's recent "climate nightmare" TV ads got rightly panned by both sides. Back in the 1980s the spread of information technology presented us with the vision of a bright new future. We now need to do the same for the Low Carbon Economy.

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7 December 2009

Feedback from the LCBPE, 3rd Dec

I had a brilliant but exhausting day at the Low Carbon Best Practice Exchange last Thursday. A late train led to a missed connection wiping out my planned acclimatisation/caffeine hit period before I was straight into the my first workshop, Empowering Your Staff. As with the second session it was over-subscribed and I was relieved not to keep everyone waiting.

During the session, I used Arnstein's ladder of participation to lead the attendees away from beating staff over the head to making them part of the solution - by getting them involved in developing solutions and delegating power as low as possible in the organisation. What always hits me about this session when I run it is the fear of getting staff involved - a lot of excuses were made why this just wasn't possible. "Empowerment" has become a bit of a cliché, but few people are really doing it. Getting client teams involved in developing solutions is the basic technique at the core of much of our consultancy work now as a. it gives better solutions and b. buy-in is automatic. We know it works.

There's always something new for me at these events and when I shared Northern Food's colour coding of machinery technique, one attendee from a food company pointed out how this could solved language barrier for her - her company has 32 different native languages on the factory floor. I hadn't considered that as a barrier to engagement before.

The second session was on long term environmental strategy. I got the participants to analyse their organisation using the sustainability maturity model. All agreed that they would have to move to the full integration level to address sustainability properly. We then discussed the difference between forecasting and backcasting in developing strategies and I got them to describe a vision of their business in 2020 to get them into the backcasting way of thinking.

As well as the two sessions, four people had requested individual meetings with me (two because they couldn't get on the first session). I also interviewed Nick Coad, Environmental Director of National Express, for The Green Executive - a really interesting guy, describing himself as "a failed elephant tracker" - and caught up with the two clients I had invited to the event who appeared to have really got lots of value it. My last meeting at 3pm was cancelled, so I finally got a wander around the stalls and then got out for some fresh air before getting the train home.

I've said it before and I'll say it again - these events are brilliant. Learning, sharing and networking are maximised and, while there were some powerpoint driven seminars in side rooms, I got through the whole day without hearing the words "I'll just get the technology sorted, and then...".

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4 December 2009

How to settle the climate debate...

A bit of fun for a Friday to get us ready for Copenhagen next week* - "Al Gore" and "Christopher Monckton" have a rap battle to settle the climate debate for once and for all.

* I was actually invited to Copenhagen, but didn't fancy drifting around the cocktail circuit pretending I'm more important than I am!

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2 December 2009

No place for tree-huggers

Running a green business is tough. I have seen many people get bitten by the green bug and then just get bitten. I have seen green product manufacturers use self (badly) printed labels on their products and not understand why they break into the mainstream. I've seen a recycling technology developer wonder why local authorities wouldn't buy his hugely expensive sorting machine. I've seen a recycling company try to jump ahead of the pack with a new processing line then lose money when the Government delayed a piece of legislation.

US green marketing guru Jacquelyn Ottman talks about the 'Green Graveyard' where poorly thought out products go to die. It is a repository for all ideas that aren't rooted in the real world. In the real world:

  • Mainstream consumers want smart looking products in smart looking packaging.
  • Local authorities want cheap, reliable technologies.
  • Political pressures can lead to unexpected changes.

A smart businessman or woman knows they have to work in the real world, acknowledges the realities, and plans accordingly. Being green won't cover up for poor business acumen. But add green and strong entrepreneurial skills together and you're on to a winner.

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