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October 2015 - Terra Infirma

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26 October 2015

New technology vs old rules...

swegwayLast Friday, my partner, Karen, and I sat down to rewatch Back to the Future II, only to find a. we had never actually seen it before and, b. this wasn't a bad thing, given some of the acting, dialogue and plotting. There has been a big fuss in the old and new media about how accurate the movie's 2015 sequence turned out to be: the video communication system looked surprisingly close to a Skype/Facebook hybrid, but sadly we haven't got the hover boards, unless you count the rather earth-bound Swegway (above right).

I saw someone trundling along our local cycle path on one of these this morning. He was probably breaking the law as they can't be ridden on public highways according to the Highway Act of 1835.

Yep, you read that right. 1835.

OK, all the attempts at revolutionary personal transport from the Sinclair C5 onwards have been a bit pants, but that's how innovation works. Version 1.0 of anything is a bit pants (the original iPhone had no video capability, already standard on other phones), but version 2.0 generally starts to be useful. But we need to get demand going for those early versions in order to get to up the innovation S-curve.

If we are strangling innovative ideas at birth with legislation set down 180 years ago, no wonder we get stuck in the old, high carbon ways of thinking. Maybe the Swegway is the start of something useful, but we'll probably never find out.

If the rules don't work, let's change the rules!


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23 October 2015

The mentality of sustainability targets

Athlete compete in paul vault

The installation of a pull-up bar on my school run route last year started a "challenge Daddy" thing with my kids where they joyfully count reps as I huff and puff, lugging my beer gut into the air over and over again. As I could barely manage 10 when we started, I set myself a target of 20 by the end of 2015. I achieved that by March and slowly crept up to about 24 by the summer. Last month I decided to reset my target to 30 and managed 32 last week. This morning I was disappointed with 29.

The psychology fascinates me. I quickly met my original target and was then happy to coast until I set another target – unthinkable this time last year – and easily met it again, hardly noticing the extra effort.

A sustainability manager I was interviewing a couple of weeks ago (for an exciting client project you'll hear about next year) used a high jump analogy for this. You have to be able to see the bar to clear it. If the bar was replaced by a laser detecting how high you jump, you would never manage the same height. In the same way you need clear, ambitious sustainability targets, and, when you hit them, raise the bar or the organisation will coast.

That sounds obvious, but I've been reviewing the new UN Sustainable Development Goals for the next edition of Ask Gareth, and, of the 169 'targets' only a minority are quantified. "Substantially increasing the share of renewable energy" is highly unlikely to drive change (and provides plenty of cover to justify poor progress).

So set the bar, and if you clear it, raise it.


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21 October 2015

The People's Front of Sustainability? Splitters!

[Warning: this clip is much swearier than I remembered it - take care at work or in front of sensitive ears!]

This week, veteran Green Jonathan Porritt launched an extraordinary attack on pro-nuclear Greens, in particular Mark Lynas, Chris Goodall and George Monbiot, on the basis of UK Chancellor George Osborne's flawed deal with China to build a new nuclear plant.

Porritt's argument, which he comes close to admitting is ridiculous, is that, by breaking ranks with the green anti-nuclear dogma, these three individuals have freed Osborne from (clearly imaginary) shackles and destroyed any hope of a low carbon future in the UK. He blames them for everything from the Government's slashing of renewables subsidies to its crazy Hinkley Point deal (described as 'PFI on stilts' by one conservative commentator) and tells them to be ashamed of themselves.

I'm not particularly pro-nuclear, in fact I often call it out on its flaws, but I've come to believe that if we are to put our faith in scientific evidence on, say, climate change, then we must apply the same objectivity to other controversial topics such as shale gas or nuclear. Like Lynas, Goodall and Monbiot, this has opened me to accusations of hypocrisy when actually I'm trying my best not to be hypocritical.

I have found many times over the years that strict Green dogma is often a block to sustainability as naive idealism flounders in the real world. I have often told the story of my role in introducing a simple recycling system here in Newcastle, which was condemned as a sell out by the Greens, but increased recycling rates by 50% overnight because ordinary people liked it. When Porritt's Forum for the Future ranked Newcastle the most sustainable city in the UK, the local Green Party, instead of welcoming this success, wrote a lengthy piece on how Forum for the Future's methodology was flawed. Nothing is ever good enough. Success is failure. Let's sink below the waves polishing our halos.

So, hurrah for Lynas, Goodall and Monbiot, if only for their challenging of received green wisdom, and shame on Porritt for his self-righteous, one-eyed pomposity.


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19 October 2015

Hurrah for the sustainability doers!

The ThinkerThis morning, I came across this quote from John William Gardner:

An excellent plumber is infinitely more admirable than an incompetent philosopher.

It resonated with me as we have a tendency in the sustainability field to lionise the thinkers well above the doers.

Years ago, I started a 'Green Gurus' blog with the intention of turning the text into a book once I had gathered enough material, but I started noticing a trend. Many of the those I held in high regard – William McDonough and Amory Lovins to name but two – were very good at condensing sustainability down to some easy to grasp principles, but had left a trail of failed projects in their wake. Others simply did nothing but write books, give speeches and react to the efforts of others. I started to lose interest in the project as I had to fight to keep it from going in a rather negative direction.

On the flipside, many of those who were getting stuff done such as the late Ray Anderson of Interface (full disclosure: Interface is a client of Terra Infirma), were using some relatively clunky analogies (eg Interface are climbing the seven faces of Mount Sustainability – to climb a real mountain you only have to climb one), but they demonstrated that step changes in sustainability could be used to drive business success.

Thinking doesn't cut carbon, doing does.

Maybe for sustainability we should re-write Gardner's maxim:

An excellent plumber is infinitely more admirable than a competent philosopher.



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16 October 2015

Capitalism, Obsolescence and the Planet...

rusty carAlas dear iPhone, I knew him so well...

I've finally bitten the bullet and bought a new iPhone which I'm picking up tomorrow. This came with a huge chunk of buyer's guilt as there is nothing technically wrong with my current 4-year old model, just a litany of problems with updating apps, the operating system, storing audio files and pics, and, I have to admit it, the lure of the new whizz-bang gizmos. I, dear reader, am a (semi-willing) victim of planned obsolescence.

Planned obsolescence is the backbone of the modern consumer society. Popularised in 1924 when Alfred P Sloan's General Motors embarked on a strategy of annual car design upgrades to make drivers want to ditch their current car in favour of a new model long before it breaks down, it is often held up by anti-capitalists as the epitome of waste and greed.

Up to a point I agree. But the flipside is that obsolescence represents a huge driver for the technical innovation we need to create a better world. Without creative destruction, we'd still have smog-choked cities, people stuck in hardscrabble subsistence farming, and the crudest of medicines. And, importantly, with a few Government incentives, it is capitalism and its attendant innovation which are giving us the current clean energy revolution. I'd rather live now than anytime in history, quite frankly.

I'm always bemused by those who believe that state socialism is the answer to our environmental and social problems. I was inspired to dedicate my life to sustainability by witnessing the colossal environmental destruction left behind by the Soviet-era in Russia in 1997 (the reporting of which was still leading to the harassment of journalists and activists). China is hardly the cleanest, greenest and open of the world's nations. Venezuela's socialism is powered by oil and intolerant of dissent.

Plus, there's nothing more ironic than seeing an anti-capitalist activist enjoying freedom of expression to tweet about the evils of consumerism on their smartphone via a 4G mobile phone network. Right on, comrade!

Don't get me wrong, I'm not an emotionally frozen free-marketeer either. The market can't be trusted to operate on its own, it needs a broad steer in the right direction. On top of basic state services, we need Government interventions: regulation on the most destructive activities, smart incentives for emerging technologies, the internalisation of externalities (aka the polluter pays), the funding of socially useful research, and the breaking up of vested interests locking us into destructive paths. Driving change for the good, in other words, but never smothering it.

It's probably quite healthy that I get a pang of guilt whenever I upgrade my phone. But I'd be lying if I claimed that I'm not looking forward to it too!


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14 October 2015

Getting more from third party sustainability services

CoSM WelcomeFriday before last saw the twelfth meeting of the Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group, held in the medieval Undercroft at the wonderful Live Theatre in Newcastle. Lunch was in the award-winning Caffe Vivo which is part of the Theatre complex. The third rule of CoSM is "No dreary executive buffets."*

The topic of the meeting was "Third Party Services" and members shared their experiences, positive and negative, of different services provided by private and public sector organisations. I'm not going to share the heroes and zeroes emerging from that conversation (that's for the members), but here's a sample of some of the wisdom emerging:

  • Selection criteria for services: compatibility, support, track record, ease of use;
  • Integration capability of software is critical, otherwise the tail wags the dog;
  • Data needs translating into the language of the stakeholder concerned before it can be used effectively for engagement;
  • Intellectual property concerns can stifle work with public bodies;
  • Energy Performance Contracts (EPCs) can give guaranteed savings with no capital outlay;
  • Carbon offsetting isn’t a big seller in todays’ markets, customers want to see tangible change;
  • Demand response electricity contracts can be very cost effective.
  • Waste contracts can be made more efficient by paying by weight/volume of material rather than per lift;
  • LCA can’t measure potential, just a snap shot, which discriminates against maturing supply chains;
  • LCA is only as good as the database behind it;
  • LCA quality can be improved using sensitivity analysis to identify key pieces of data for further analysis;
  • There are too many disclosure projects, some with dubious methodologies, fuelling suspicions that it has become a self-serving industry;
  • Sometimes people take part in schemes because ‘we’re scared not to’ rather than any internal or external benefit;
  • Some of those top ranked for disclosure in the past have since been shamed, so good performance in such schemes shouldn't be relied upon.

* The first rule is "No Powerpoint" and the second rule is the Chatham House Rule.

The Mastermind Group consists of sustainability practitioners from some of the world's leading organisations who meet quarterly to learn from each other through structured discussion. If you'd like to know more, please drop me a line.


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12 October 2015

Reasons to be cheerful (about green issues)

I had an old college chum over for dinner last week and we did a lot of reminiscing about our student days and the years of optimism post-graduation in the mid-90s - Brit Pop and all that. I made the comment that the period between the fall of The Wall in 1989 and the Iraq War in 2003 was a period of hope where everything seemed to be going in the right direction. Democracy was spreading and peace-processes were popping up in long term conflicts from Northern Ireland to the Middle East. Then I had to correct myself - except for Rwanda, of course. And the former Yugoslavia... and Sri Lanka. before long we realised that the 90s weren't that great after all – we were looking at the past through rose tinted spectacles.

I've made it a rule that I fact check my assumptions, so over the weekend I did some Googling and found that we were wrong about the 90s - despite the ghoulish terror tactics of ISIS/Daesh, the world has been safer in the 21st Century than it has been for decades (see the graph below from the Centre for Systematic Peace). The Rwandan conflict in particular was a huge spike in misery, yet I had shunted it to the back of my head.

annualdeathspv3sWhen we are dealing with a threat such as climate change, it is easy to get misty-eyed about the past and negative about the present. If you check the data, rather than the headlines, we are making steady progress. World carbon emissions have stalled, oil demand has plummeted (one of the factors in the falling price), and many nations are surging past significant renewable energy milestones. Even here in the UK, with Government support that could charitably be described as lukewarm, last quarter over 48% of our electricity came from renewables or nuclear, with coal falling to its lowest contribution ever.

Let's not get despondent by the negativity. Like a rugby prop forward we have to keep throwing ourselves a couple of yards forward into enemy territory, crashing into the opposition, then presenting the ball cleanly back for the next player to do the same, grinding our way towards the goal line. The gaps to dart through to score will open eventually – and often more quickly than we expect.

[Maybe I should apologise to all my English readers for a rugby analogy at this sensitive time, but those of us from the Celtic nations will appreciate it!]

Chin up!


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8 October 2015

Sustainability and the The UK's Conference Season

cam huskie splitEach year, I analyse the UK political leaders' conference speeches to gauge their party's commitment to green issues. My theory is that the leaders' speeches are a much better indicator of the priority the parties give sustainability than those of their environmental/energy spokespeople. In my analysis I have disregarded any glib statements and attacks on political rivals. Instead I try to focus on positive proposals and/or visions for a sustainable future.

So, in chronological order:

Tim Farron, Liberal Democrats

Given the beating the Lib Dems took at this year's General Election, new leader Tim Farron had to make an impact and certainly surprised a few with his oratory (usual disclosure: I'm a Lib Dem and I know Tim quite well). While most of the green elements of the speech involved knocking the Tory Government for dismantling policies the Lib Dems put in place in the previous coalition, he put sustainability at the centre of his economic vision:

The heart of [the future] economy will be green industries: renewable energy, low-carbon transport, green finance – all areas in which Britain is already a world leader.

There are more offshore wind turbines around our coasts than everywhere else in the rest of the world put together.

These industries are making products and technologies which a decarbonised world will want to buy. They will bring jobs, exports and prosperity and at same time reduce emissions and tackle climate change.

Natalie Bennett, Green Party

As you would expect, the environment featured widely in the Green Party leader's speech, but most of it concerned either what the Green Party was against (fracking, coal bed gasification, nuclear power) or how rubbish everybody else was at tackling green problems. In terms of policy, Bennett pushed addressing fuel poverty and a 'small is beautiful' vision for the economy:

The Green Party has long championed treating our homes as the critical national infrastructure that they are – a plan to lift nine out of 10 households out of fuel poverty, to create at least 100,000 jobs, and cut carbon emissions. Not bad for just one Green policy!

The Green Party has long demanded investment in public transport, not the botched, illogical HS2, but local and regional schemes that help to rebalance our economy, linked to local bus services under the controlling hand of local councils. Such a transport policy would not only tackle congestion and air pollution, but also help to cut the NHS bill for dealing with obesity and diabetes. Not bad for just one Green policy!

And we've long understood that the only secure, sustainable economic future is based in strong local economies, with local needs met by local suppliers, with a rich ecology of farming, manufacturing and services businesses supporting each other.

Nigel Farage, UKIP

Following a general election where they racked up millions of votes yet only won a single seat, the UKIP conference was the most combustible with public shouting matches between major figures. UKIP have never pretended to be green and the sole reference to climate and industry in Farage's speech was "[The EU's] climate change obsession has destroyed industry across Europe." Moving swiftly on...

Jeremy Corbyn, Labour Party

The new leader of the Labour Party was a surprise (not least to himself) – a 30 year veteran of the left. Never known as an orator, Corbyn's ramshackle delivery was rescued by the fact that we knew he genuinely meant every word he said. However, his sole green policy proposal was a rehash of an old, recently ditched one, and didn't come with any detail attached.

A Green New Deal investing in renewable energy and energy conservation to tackle the threat of climate change.

David Cameron, Conservative Party

The Prime Minister gave a quite extraordinary speech to his party faithful, driving his tanks not just into the centre ground, but arguably into the centre-left. However, this didn't include what would be to me the obvious target, climate change and the green economy with the former getting an oblique reference and the latter nothing. As one pundit put it, plenty of 'hug a hoodie', no 'hug a husky'.


So, from a sustainability point of view, the leaders' speeches were rather depressing, with only Farron and Bennett having anything of substance to say and them having but 9 MPs between them. The choice between those two is the 'small is beautiful' idealism of the Greens and the 'green growth' vision of the Lib Dems.


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7 October 2015

Getting Green Stuff Done

In the latest edition of Ask Gareth, I advise Stephen (a pseudonym) on how he can break free of the 'green tape' – ISO14001 documentation and reporting requirements etc – and deliver some meaningful change in his organisation.

Is this a problem you suffer from? If so, do you have any suggestions for Stephen on top of my three ideas? Put it all in the comments below the video.
We are always after fresh questions for Ask Gareth. If you have one, please check out the past editions in case it has already been covered, and, if not, fire it through by clicking here.


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5 October 2015

New! Workshop Facilitation Masterclass

workshop lo res

I'm really, really excited because, following months of work, my new workshop facilitation masterclass is now available on Udemy. Clients and regular readers will know that the workshop is the key weapon in my sustainability arsenal. This is for three reasons:

1. You get more brains working on the problem;

2. If you are an outsider, those brains know their day job much better than you do, so using that knowledge for sustainability gives better solutions;

but most importantly...

3. You get buy-in. Psychologically, if you propose something new to someone, they exaggerate the downside and are lukewarm about the upside. However, if they work it out for themselves, they exaggerate the likely benefits and downplay the risks. Your playing field tilts from uphill to downhill.

So I've done getting on for 100 workshops ranging from board level strategy development to external stakeholder engagement. This course means you can learn how I do it for yourself! Just click here for more.

Note that subscribers to the Low Carbon Agenda will get a 50% off code on Thursday 8 Oct. Fill in you details in the box on the right to make sure you get your discount.


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2 October 2015

Compliance, compliance, compliance

vwA long term mantra of mine is:

Go beyond compliance, but don't neglect compliance.

As the fall out from the VW emissions cheat continues, the car behemoth has set aside an initial $7.3 billion to cover the costs of the scandal, 30% has been wiped off the company's value and criminal investigations have begun. But the wider damage to the brand's reputation (which was built on dependability, after all) is much, much bigger. As one board member put it "The damage done cannot be measured."

Compliance underpins sustainability. If you get compliance wrong, it doesn't matter what absolutely fantastic things you do, the whole pyramid comes tumbling down. As my schoolteacher (and no doubt yours too) used to put it "You're only cheating yourself."


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