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June 2012 - Terra Infirma

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29 June 2012

Sustainability Champions, Subsidy Junkies and Green Canoeing

I gave two keynote speeches this week: one at The Value of Sustainability organised by Newcastle University Business School and TADEA, the other at the Energy & Environment North East 2012 conference. Events like these are great for producing debate and stimulating thinking, so I thought I'd share.

For the former event I was on familiar ground on corporate sustainability, concluding the following:

  • “Go Green Save Money is for Amateurs” - it is now a matter of competitive advantage;
  • Sustainability is going mainstream - into products, processes and cultures;
  • Litmus test is: what are you going to stop doing?
  • Stretch yourself and think different;
  • Ultimately about leadership rather than management.

During one the other sessions, I challenged the idea of 'sustainability champions' - asking what do you expect these guys to do and how do you expect them to do it? No-one had a clear answer, which reinforced my belief that the "champions" approach is usually taken up because other people do it, rather than having a clear role in mind.

At the EENE 2012 conference, I was covering the political slot after a local MP had pulled out. This gave me a chance to pontificate freely on "The World According to Gareth" and, in particular:

  • We appear to be in the oil/fossil fuel endgame - not a matter of "low carbon or growth" as the Treasury may think so much as "low carbon or stagnation";
  • The democratisation of energy production with renewables means we are entering the brave new world of Energy 2.0 - much in the way Web 2.0 revolutionised the internet;
  • Energy 2.0 presents us with a range of challenges which translate into business opportunities;
  • Green sector businesses are not charities: they must deal with uncertainties and must not become subsidy junkies;
  • Top politicians (ie Prime Ministers) need to show more leadership (I had some fun with the fact that the only UK PM to make a big green speech was Margaret Thatcher).

Given that I was talking to an audience from the environmental sector, the most controversial phrase I put in the speech was "subsidy junkies." I strongly believe that thinking that you are due public subsidy because you are 'doing good' leads to what I might euphemistically describe as less than robust business planning. Subsidies should only be used to ease the way over the initial barriers to mature markets, rather than being used as a life support system.

No one threw anything, no one walked out. Only one person challenged me on this in a later talk, arguing that subsidies represented the internalisation of external costs from "brown" energy. He was in turn asked from the floor whether this shouldn't be done by altering the tax system, rather than by direct handout. He thought no, I would say emphatically yes.

My favourite case study of the year so far was presented just before my slot. To get ready for the Olympics, the canoe slalom at the Tees Barrage needed to be upgraded with pumps so the flow could be kept artificially high if the river flow dropped. The civil engineers, Patrick Parsons, turned this problem into an opportunity. By installing four two-way archimedes screws, the barrage could generate energy when the river's flow exceeded what was required, then switch and pump water back upstream when that flow fell below the minimum to give it a boost. Overall the system would export a net of 100,000 kWh of clean hydro energy a year and extend the operating hours of the course, facilitating the Olympics and improving its long-term financial performance. Superb.


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27 June 2012

Try out Green Academy

You may have seen or heard about our Green Academy on-line training sessions and wondered if it would work for you. Well here's an opportunity to experience Green Academy offline by following the recording of yesterday's "Go Green or Go Bust: An Introduction to Green Business" webinar.

The session covers the business case for sustainability, defining sustainability, business & sustainability, inspiring case studies, and potential pitfalls. You can access the recording using this link.

To get the full experience, you should download and print out the workbook which allows you to apply the learning to your organisation. You can get it using this link: Green Academy intro workbook.


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25 June 2012

Blame it on Rio+20: Consensus or Competition?

So the Rio+20 conference chugged to its almost inevitable anticlimax. The NGOs and green-friendly press are looking for villains - missing big name leaders, lack of commitment by those who were there, the (allegedly) pernicious influence of the oil industry have all been blamed, but I've got a completely different view. It's no-one's fault. It's the process.

I think it's blindingly obvious that if you try and get over 100 countries - all with different economies, cultures, political systems and languages - to agree a single text on a hugely complex issue, you are going to get the lowest common denominator - and that common denominator is going to be pretty damn low. Consensus kills inspiration, innovation and ambition.

In my lighter moments, I mull on the idea that we should be holding international competitions rather than conferences. We would expect delegates to turn up and compete as to which country is doing most to shift towards sustainability. This already happens a little on an informal basis - witness the timing of UK Deputy PM Nick Clegg's announcement that London Stock Exchange listed companies would face mandatory carbon reporting. But what if we could do it on a grand, Olympics of Sustainability scale? We would have countries striving for a gold medal, pushing themselves to greater heights.

This isn't just idle beard stroking, some of the best sustainability moves have been driven by competition. With my local authority hat on, I witnessed the effect of Forum for the Future's Sustainable City Index. Our city, Newcastle, won it in 2009 and you could feel everyone in the Council and key partners striving to retain the title in 2010, which we did. Unfortunately Forum for the Future then killed off the Index and the pressure has come off. In business, Steve Jobs launched an ambitious green programme at Apple after being stung into action by a Greenpeace ranking of the environmental performance of consumer electronics companies. UK supermarkets battle it out every year in a green ranking scheme - nobody wants the wooden spoon.

And going back to the subject of this blog, competitions have been hugely successful in stimulating green behaviour within businesses. Researching the Green Executive, I found sustainability competitions between teams in a medium sized law firm, Muckle LLP, and in international drinks giant Diageo. They are fun, compelling and drive ambition - everything that consensus isn't.

But how would the idea work on the global scale? Hmm, back to the beard stroking.


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22 June 2012

The Biggest Barrier to Sustainability

Here's the latest in my Green Business Confidential podcast series. It's called "The Biggest Barrier to Sustainability" and you'll have to listen to find out what that is.

Audio MP3

Or, you can download it here and listen on your MP3 player:

GBC15 The Biggest Barrier to Sustainability

You can get the whole podcast series here or subscribe on iTunes.



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20 June 2012

Why Rio+20 and the G20 should be one meeting

Two big global jamborees at the same time: Rio+20 trying save the planet and the G20 in Mexico trying to save the global economy. Really they should all be meeting in the same place as to a large extent the same problem is causing both ecological destruction and the global slowdown - our addiction to fossil fuels. Countries should be listening to their own advisor, Fatih Birol, Chief Economist of the International Energy Agency who has said:

"When we look at the oil markets the news is not very bright. We think that the crude oil production has already peaked in 2006." (June 2011)

"Oil prices are a serious risk for the global economic recovery." (Feb 2011)

"Energy will become viciously more expensive and polluting if governments don’t promote renewable and nuclear power in the next two decades instead of burning coal." (World Energy Outlook, 2011)

"Oil prices remain a threat to the fragile global economic recovery. Even current prices are far too high for the current economic context. I'm concerned for Europe and I'm also very concerned that these high prices would hit the still hesitant and slow U.S. economic recovery.” (May 2012)

The IEA was set up to advise Western nations on energy policy after the oil shocks of the early 1970s. They are not some lefty green pressure group but hard nosed economic analysts. Dr Birol wouldn't make such pronouncements if he didn't believe they were true.

Yes, sceptics, might say, but alternatives to fossil fuels are too expensive. But this is short sighted - renewables technology will only get cheaper whereas fossil fuel prices, according to Dr Birol, are only going to rise. When will we jump trains to get on the one headed in the right direction?


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19 June 2012

Why the #EndFossilFuelSubsidies campaign is so clever


For over 24 hour this week, the hashtag #EndFossilFuelSubsidies has been trending on Twitter.

Standing back from the politics, this is a very clever piece of green communications. Broadly speaking the extremes of the green debate are:

  • The archetypal green activist with their anti-corporate, anti-commercial instincts, especially "Big Oil". Thinks Government should interfere as much as required to deliver sustainability as it distrusts the market (and market based solutions);
  • The libertarian who believes individual human freedom comes ahead of all else. Sees the debate on environmental issues like climate change as a left wing plot to curtail those freedoms. Thinks Government should be as small as possible, let the markets manage everything else.

Normally these two are polar opposites and there is little they can agree on. However fossil fuel subsidies should be one of those things. The greens hate the subsidies because they're promoting carbon emissions. The libertarians should hate them as they are against the use of taxpayers' money to distort markets.

I say "should", because some from the libertarian movement like the head of the libertarian Taxpayers' Alliance have stuck their head above the parapet to knock the campaign, maybe showing that tribalism trumps principle.

But all and all, a very clever piece of green campaigning, neatly triangulating the two extreme positions - and a good example of what I call green jujitsu - using your 'opponent's' strength against them.


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18 June 2012

From Total Football to Total Sustainability

Oh, how the mighty fall! The Dutch national football team limped out of Euro 2012 last night without a point to their name. I was disappointed as I've always been a fan of the Oranje, remembering the imperious triumvirate of van Basten, Gullit and Rijkaard who swept all before them in Euro 1988 with that uniquely Dutch brand of soccer known as Total Football.

Total Football, exemplified by the legendary Johan Cruyff in the 1970s (right), was the concept that every player had to be proficient in every position, so the team could adapt fluidly to any circumstance arising during the game, taking responsibility for all roles, no matter what their nominal starting position was. It was developed by national coach Rinus Michels who took the team to the World Cup finals in 1974 and that 1988 title.

There are clear parallels with Total Quality Management (TQM) where Quality became everybody's responsibility, not just that of designated quality staff. This lead to revolutions in motor manufacturing and consumer electronics.

My model of addressing ethical, social and environmental issues within business is based on TQM, so it could be dubbed 'Total Sustainability' - where every 'player' in the company has responsibility for sustainability, no matter what their nominal job role. This takes awareness, skills and willingness to 'own' environmental and ethical problems and not just leave them to others. Achieving such a culture change is no trivial task, but the TQM revolution shows that it can be done.

Despite their mastery of Total Football, the Dutch team's success has often been undermined by their notoriously combustible team spirit - that's one aspect best not copied!


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15 June 2012

Why Sustainability Programmes Fail

I diagnose the most common causes of failure of sustainability programmes as:

  • No leadership: leadership is critical to any successful corporate transformation programme and, given the scale of change required for sustainability, a lack of leadership commitment and drive will kill off sustainability programmes before they get going;
  • Lack of integration: “Green” and “sustainability” are seen as tangential issues to the mainstream business processes and get stuck in a green silo;
  • Misalignment of responsibility and authority: most environmental managers have lots of responsibility and precious little authority. Conversely people who have the power to push sustainability are given no responsibility to do so;
  • Lack of accountability: If you want to get somebody to do something, give them a target to hit and hold them to it. Make it a "must", not a "nice to have" - especially important for middle management;
  • Lack of ambition/wishful thinking: "We've appointed energy champions. Job done.";
  • Inertia: "We've always designed our products like that!";
  • Fear: “if we try this, who’ll get the blame if it goes wrong?”

You will notice that these are all about attitude and culture - very rarely is the real reason money. The true barrier to sustainability is about 6 inches wide - the space between our ears.


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13 June 2012

Are we on the cusp of Energy 2.0?

The Facebook/Twitter/Flickr/YouTube/Wordpress revolution of the last 5-7 years has famously been dubbed Web 2.0. Web 1.0 was like a huge electronic catalogue of information to be searched and read. This content was generated by a relatively small number of producers and consumed by a huge number of surfers.

The Web 2.0 revolution lead users to generate the content, democratising the process. The emerging big players stood back from the frontline, instead providing the framework within which that content was stored, catalogues and distributed - and made handsome rewards doing so.

There is a clear analogy here with energy. In traditional energy systems, let's call it Energy 1.0, a small number of producers keep a tight control on the flow of primary energy sources (gas, oil, coal) and distribute it to a large number of consumers. The rise of domestic microgeneration, farm based renewables and the adoption of renewable technologies by non-energy industries has started to wrestle the 'ownership' of energy from the few and handing it to the many. You could call it Energy 2.0.

Digging a little deeper into the analogy, the people who are making most money out of Web 2.0 are the providers of the platforms for content, not the content generators. If Energy 2.0 follows the same route, the big money will be made by those providing the storage, distribution and co-ordination of that energy - ie the semi-mythical Smart Grid. So who will become the big player, the YouVolt or the Wattr of Energy 2.0?

And the big fossil fuel industry? They could soon end up like the newspapers of today - declining circulation, no sustainable income streams in the new set up and abandoned by their political friends. The fossilised fuel industry.

Where the analogy falls down, of course, is in reliability of supply. If Twitter or Facebook went down for a few minutes, all you'd end up with is a couple of million smartphone users with itchy fingers. If the energy system went down, everything stops. The democratic and redundant nature of the internet allows the new providers to come and go, but it still took decades for the system to mature enough for Web 2.0. But then again, the smart grid could emulate the resilience of the internet, passing energy along random routes from generator to storage to consumer.

But with renewables hitting a new record of peaking at 50% of Germany's electricity consumption one day last month, and record investment in renewables (2011 saw 6 times as much investment as 2004), and the UK Government keen to break up the stranglehold of "the big six" electricity, we could be on the brink of something big.


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11 June 2012

Compost, Natural Cycles and the Circular Economy

Here's a grubby little secret - shhh - don't tell anyone - but I'm a closet compost fanatic. At last count I operate at least nine compost bins of various shapes and sizes, plus a few pre-treatment buckets where I drown persistent weeds before adding them to the main process. I just love the way that the composting process makes a product out of 'waste' materials - all you have to do is provide the right ingredients and the right conditions and you're off.

Compost is amazing stuff - check out the picture of part of our allotment - the bed at the front has about three barrows of my home-made compost as a mulch whereas the one at the back is just natural soil. The crops in the compost are bigger and the weeds are fewer. The compost not only returns nutrients to the soil, but also provides soil structure, suppresses weeds and retains moisture.

What I am doing of course is harnessing the natural cycles of nature to work for me. The Earth has had about 4.5 billion years to work out a sustainable system and after about 1.5 bn years of chaos, it came up with natural solar powered cycles of substances which didn't systematically poison itself. The system is continuously evolving - adaptation and diversity making it ever more resilient.

We know from nature that this circular model works, so it is strange then that the main focus in sustainability is on pursuing a system which doesn't work very well - making our economy more efficient. You need massive gains in eco-efficiency (the amount of use we get out of each unit of natural resource) - and hefty resource prices/ecotaxes - to outstrip the 'rebound effect' - the tendency for efficient systems to simply consume resources faster. Anyway, Nature isn't efficient - how many seeds are released to produce just one tree?

There are some great examples of the circular economy in practice - whether the industrial symbiosis cluster at Kalundborg, Marks & Spencer making school uniforms and umbrellas out of recycled polyester, or Interface using old carpet as the raw material for making new carpet. This is about delivering on the oft-uttered but rarely implemented platitude of "treating waste as a resource" at scale. The biggest challenge is making the mental shift from trying to deal with a problem (waste) to trying to source sustainable raw materials. Once you make that mental leap, all sorts of opportunities open up.

One of the potential pitfalls is trying to design a circular economy - efforts to recreate, say, Kalundborg have largely failed, often at great expense. Going back to the natural cycles, this sort of economy has to evolve. It can be helped along by eco-taxes, research & development and information sharing, but like my compost, you have to create the right conditions, provide a helping hand when required, but ultimately you must let nature take its course.

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7 June 2012

Book Review: Mad Like Tesla by Tyler Hamilton

As soon as I walked into the meeting room, I knew I had made a mistake. The huge table was at least 6 inches deep in paper, rising up to a couple of feet of documents in the middle. Two of my then University colleagues were sat to one side, bemused looks on their faces. Around the table danced a rotund gentleman in a pin stripe suit, grabbing pieces of paper and shoving them under our noses, sometimes obscuring sections of text with another sheet, hardly taking a breath as he painted a picture of a bright new tomorrow.

Whatever this guy had invented, we never found out, but it was clearly going to change the world. If we questioned him too far (ie at all), he would turn aggressive, so, too polite/intimidated to walk out, we sat back and watched the show. After an hour and a half I grabbed an excuse to make my escape, promising to find out whether we had high security research labs available for the next stage of development. I did actually go through the motions of checking we didn't and faxed the gent to tell him (this cutting edge innovator had no e-mail account...) and wished him luck. He responded with vitriol and attempted to get some of my section's funding cut.

That was my first and closest encounter with a mad inventor and ever since I've kept them at arms length, usually politely asking how their revolutionary energy systems comply with the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Cleantech journalist and blogger Tyler Hamilton is much more tolerant and indeed fond of this particular breed of one-eyed energy enthusiasts ploughing lonely furrows with would-be technical revolutions. He reminds us in the introduction to his intriguing new book that energy pioneer Nikola Tesla - who gave us the AC motor, radio, robots, x-ray photographs and more - was clearly bonkers with bizarre aversions to hair and ladies' earrings and some really outlandish behavioural problems.

Hamilton takes us on a tour of some potentially quite amazing pieces of technology being developed outside the scientific mainstream - space-based solar, nuclear fusion, algae-derived biofuels and instant charge energy storage devices - all trying to make the leap over the "valley of death" from lab bench to commercial scale. My favourite is mentioned in passing - controlling electronic devices by mimicking the constant chatter of swarms of bees to even out peaks and troughs in consumption. Some of the more rational inventors here might be put out at being lumped in with the perpetual motion loons - the acid test between the two being how they respond to being challenged - the latter reacting like my pin-striped passive-aggressive friend above.

Hamilton's central thesis is that it would only take one or two of these ideas to work at scale to revolutionise the way we generate, store and use energy in the future, so we shouldn't be too quick to dismiss idea just because it doesn't fit with what we know now. He also points out the challenges these guys face. Energy revolutions are hard come by - the sheer scale of investment committed in the current systems and the obsession for reliability above all else, make it much more difficult for new ideas to flourish in this field than in, say, social media.

I really liked this book - zippily written and bursting with enthusiasm without getting starry eyed. Hamilton clearly enjoys telling the inventors' stories and while he gives his 'madmen' the benefit of the doubt, but always gently asks the killer question of each technology and its technologist. Given the subject matter, it will inevitably date quickly and its target market may be limited, but it's an entertaining, informative and thought-provoking read.

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5 June 2012

Keep Britain Untidy?

Spent Sunday morning down at "our" allotment - it is officially "hers", but I'm slowly getting dragged in more and more - particularly as "she" is 6 months pregnant which I have to take some responsibility for. This combination of wet then hot then wet weather we've had recently, coupled with a couple of weeks of neglect from our part, gave both the crops and the weeds a real shot in the arm, so we had our work cut out hacking, hoeing and plucking.

I take a very pragmatic approach on days like this - focus on the tasks which will keep the 'allotment police' off our backs. Like many allotment associations, ours has a schism between those for whom a single blade of grass in a bed is a sin and those who take a live and let live approach provided plot holders keep within the rules. Fortunately for us, the latter seem to be in the ascendency, but I am told the battles can be bloody.

While our plot's scruffiness is mainly a product of us having other priorities - namely small children - there is an eco-element to our thinking. We want to encourage biodiversity, retain moisture, support soil structure etc, etc. In particular, many of our town birds suffer if there aren't enough invertebrates around for them to feed their young in the spring. Scruffiness is good for bugs and beasties.

One of the simplest environmental projects organisations can undertake is to set aside space (if they have it) for wildlife. This can have an immediate impact on biodiversity, provides a fantastic opportunity to get employees and other stakeholders involved in some worthwhile hands-on volunteering, gives employees an opportunity to enjoy nature during their breaks, and, whisper it, can cut the costs of grounds maintenance. But be prepared for the tidiness freaks to pop up - they are everywhere - my friends at EAE Ltd in Scotland have had to post signs saying "wildlife garden" virtually every 10 yards along their depot fence as they were getting complaints from those who think grass verges should be maintained like bowling greens.

Let's be scruffy and proud of our green and pleasant land!

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1 June 2012

Legislation changes. It's the law!

There's an old(ish) tech saying "Never buy version 1.0 of anything." The thinking is that the first version of anything hasn't been 'battle hardened' by use and is usually in need of immediate upgrade to make it work as expected.

I'm reminded of this when I hear discussions about changes to new environmental laws - the Carbon Reduction Commitment, the Feed-in Tariff, the Green Deal etc. Most of these descend rapidly into rants about the stupidity of politicians who just don't understand what it's like etc, etc.

As long as I've been in this line of work I've heard similar complaints. I remember a company who a decade ago invested in a waste electronic/electrical equipment (WEEE) recycling facility to get first mover advantage when the WEEE Directive came in. The Government of the day decided the industry as a whole "wasn't ready" and delayed implementation for a year. Frustrating for the company - who had done what the Government wanted - but a year or so before, new legislation on the disposal of ozone depleting substances had led to an embarrassing 'fridge mountain' as there was no capacity to process them, so the risk of delay was there.

One of the most interesting points made at last week's sustainability mastermind group was (I paraphrase) "markets change, legislation changes, that's the way of the world, get over it." I found this a really refreshing point of view - after all we are (largely) talking about for-profit businesses and the first rule of a business is that no-one owes you a living. We are used to working in uncertain markets, so we should be able to handle uncertain policy frameworks.

This isn't to play down the frustration of those affected by Government prevarication, but railing against the world won't help your business. Much better to prepare up front - identify the risk(s), assess potential scenarios and impacts and make the necessary arrangements to manage that risk. Trying to build a whole business model on the back of a forthcoming piece of legislation without considering potential changes, delays and even last minute cancelation is simply naive.

Unintended consequences, unforeseen loopholes, unexpected events, media campaigns, skittish politicians, changes in Governments - there is a whole raft of reasons why laws change, good and bad. But they change - get used to it.

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