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November 2015 - Terra Infirma

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30 November 2015

Hopes for Paris

chuckles climate marchYesterday, I threw off my cynicism about such things and went on the Climate March in Newcastle, taking the little one with me (right). All the climate marches around the world were portrayed as 'protests' in the media, but I wasn't protesting – I was simply standing up to be counted, making it clear to those negotiating in Paris this week that we expect them to deliver.

I'm quite optimistic about Paris. The approach of Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) to reducing emissions is broadly what I thought they should have been doing back in Copenhagen (in my dreams someone read this blog and said "That's where we went wrong!"). In addition, while the INDCs don't yet add up to maintaining temperature rises by 2°C, they don't include commitments by private companies, many of whom are a. huge and b. much more ambitious in their aims than nations. The media isn't rep

India seems to be the emerging villain this time around, with Narendra Modi seemingly wedded to development through coal. Hopefully he can be persuaded that India doesn't need to follow the high-carbon, smoggy path Europe and China pioneered, but can leapfrog it using cleaner technology. Can't be too difficult a shift to make for a country with a manned space programme and nuclear weapons...

Anyway, I'm optimistic a deal can be done, and, if not, there's no good reason those INDCs and business pledges can't be implemented anyway. Let's do it!


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27 November 2015

Sustainable Stupidity


I sometimes read stuff on-line that makes me go all "why oh why oh why?"

This week it was yet another article from an employee engagement for sustainability 'expert' who suggested that you should try talking to employees about recycling/switching stuff off at home in order to get them better engaged in sustainability at work.

But why?

If I want to learn a tune on the piano, why would I pick up my guitar?

If I wanted to do a half marathon, why would I train on a bicycle?

If I want to visit Canada, why would I buy a USA guidebook?

Yes, in each case there is a degree of overlap, but tenuous at best. Why not aim at the bullseye rather than hoping for a lucky ricochet? If you want to get your colleagues to behave in a more sustainable way at work, then talk to them about how their work relates to sustainability. Is that not obvious?

Better still, ask them how they think their job relates to sustainability and how they would change things. It may be worth watching The Art of Green Jujitsu again to see why this works...

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25 November 2015

Who is the keystone of your sustainability programme?


The keystone of an arch is the one which completes it and lets the arch bear weight. Whether in a structural engineering sense it is as critical to success compared to the other stones as it is in figurative use is up for debate, but it is usually taken to mean the critical element in a system.

Who is the keystone of a sustainability programme? As a sustainability practitioner, it probably isn't you, I'm afraid to say. And the answer may not be as obvious as you think.

For example, I'm currently helping develop a sustainability strategy for a processor/distributer of perishable goods. In this case, from a technical point of view, the keystone is the guy in charge of the 'cold chain' – all the refrigeration whether in fixed locations or on wagons, plus the systems in place to ensure that the goods don't perish en route. This refrigeration is the biggest contributor to the company's carbon footprint and has a big effect on waste, too. We are going to have to do some highly targeted engagement to ensure that this individual and their team is fully on board and helping us with key parts of the strategy.

It's quite common that a small number of individuals in an organisation have disproportionate effect on sustainability (as the 80:20 rule suggests). Do you know who they are in your case, and what are you doing to engage with them?


Photo: G Dollardo, uploaded to Wikipedia

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23 November 2015

The last thing the planet needs is conspiracy theories

Crazy WomanI've had it up to here (holds hand above head) with climate conspiracy theories. First it was claims that the group behind the Paris attacks was funded by big oil to scupper the COP21 climate change talks that start in the city next week, then it was Naomi Klein, who has somehow grabbed the climate justice throne despite no discernible track record, claiming Francois Hollande has exploited the attacks to silence the oppressed, by banning climate marches during the talks.

Yes, that's right, it's all a conspiracy by the elite to maintain their feather nests, and nothing to due with the fact there are several murderous jihadis still on the loose and possibly looking for a nice soft target like a huge crowd of civilians. This level of idiocy is almost up there with the libertarians who think that climate change science is a mass conspiracy to sneak socialism in by the back door, or, my personal favourite, the socialists who believe that climate change science was fabricated by Margaret Thatcher to destroy the coal miners' unions in the UK.

The science is the science and it is as clear as it can be. We have to act. Multiple studies have shown that, with smart policies, we can bring carbon emissions under control. The Paris talks are an important step in that process and there are plenty of indications that momentum is finally moving in the right direction.

Success would not just be a threat to vested interests in the fossil fuel industry, but also radical greens who would rather sink under rising seas proclaiming "told you so!" Let's hope that neither group gets a chance to scupper it.


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18 November 2015

Cast off the recycling blinkers!


Yesterday I was at the North East Recycling Forum annual conference, which believe it or not is one of the very few events I attend as a punter (all those commercial conference promoters are wasting their time). Why? Because the speakers are uniformly great and there's always plenty of food for thought.

However, the focus of the 5 speakers was almost entirely on the supply side of recyclates. So I stuck up my hand in the Q&A and asked should we not focus on the demand side - after all in a circular economy, demand will have more influence over supply than vice-versa. The speakers agreed and gave some really good ideas, such as dropping recycling targets altogether and shifting them into producer responsibility legislation to drive the use of secondary materials.

Great, but why aren't we talking about this more? Well, because we still largely see recycling as a way of keeping material out of landfill rather than as a way of creating raw materials. For a circular economy, we've got to cast off those blinkers and see the bigger picture. Basic economics.

There were other, positive, examples at the conference where casting off a narrow focus produced great results. For example, Andrew Gadd of Link2Energy pointed out that while it was standard practice to turn Energy from Waste ash into building blocks, but nobody was extracting the precious metals therein first. So we're locking valuable material up in our walls. Why? Because we are obsessed with quantity over quality which encourages down-cycling (and ultimately impacts on quantity). Recovering those metals first not only boosts the economics of the recycling process, it also removes the need for all the environmentally destructive mining of those metals in the first place.

And such recovery is often cheaper than mining – yesterday the press was reporting that a Chinese municipality has found that its sewage sludge ash has 50-100 times the concentration of gold that you get in the most productive Chinese gold mine. Where there's muck, there's brass.

As we walked to lunch, another delegate was musing on why we don't do this stuff. It's the blinkers we decided, we need to cast them off and think differently about the material we currently call 'waste'.


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16 November 2015

When bad things happen...

durham tricolore

Checking social media early on Saturday morning, I started to get that dread feeling that something terrible had happened overnight. Flicking up the news, the horrors of what happened in Paris became all too clear.

But what did I do then? I made breakfast for the kids, took them to their karate class and then in the afternoon, we headed to the Luminere festival of light in Durham. If you haven't seen this, it is incredible, but somebody had been hard at work through the day as the artworks were interjected with tributes to Paris, including bathing Durham Cathedral in Tricolore colours. This was a poignant moment, completely unannounced, and you could feel the ripple of understanding cross the crowd. Then the fun began and we ooh'd and aah'd en masse.

I grew up in Belfast in the 70s and 80s under the shadow of sectarian terrorism. If you think the barbarity of IS/Daesh is anything to do with ethnicity or a particular religion, then google 'Shankill Butchers' – those depraved murderers were from exactly the same ethnic/religious background as me – white Protestants. (IS-style suicide attacks were pioneered by the avowedly secular Tamil Tigers, so us atheists cannot see ourselves as fundamentally above the brutality either).

I wasn't affected directly by 'The Troubles' but as my family and almost all my friends'/neighbours' families had in their midst at least one 'legitimate target' according to Republicans (the bar was quite low), the dread was always there – the elephant in the room. But we got up every morning and went to work and to school. Some had to check under their cars before they did so, but we went about our daily lives.

The aim of all terrorism is to disrupt the rest of us, whether violently or indirectly via fear. The best thing all of us can do to defy them is to keep working to make the world a better place.




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13 November 2015

The climate doesn't care if you're left or right

world brainIn the Telegraph this week, some sad sack 'controversialist' did a hatchet job on the talented comedian David Mitchell for being a "uniform Lefty bore". Amongst the evidence for this conclusion was Mitchell's 'belief' in man-made climate change. This was probably the most egregious piece of many I've seen recently which perceives climate change purely through the lens of the left-right political spectrum.

You know the kind of thing. Left wingers see climate change as evidence that capitalism is evil, and right wingers think the science has been fabricated purely to allow lefties to argue that.

But climate change is not about politics. It's about the laws of physics – simple thermodynamics applied to a complex system of feedbacks.

On top of that, I think the whole left/right/climate argument is flawed. Socialism/communism has proved just as effective at destroying the planet as neoliberalism. I was inspired to dedicate my life to sustainability by seeing the destructive legacy of the Soviet Union, China is hardly an eco-paradise and the Venezuelan economy is based on oil, to name but three. There is no evidence that a swing to the left will, in itself, lead to sustainability, whatever Naomi Klein tells us. In my opinion, the only thing hard left greens achieve is to give the right an excuse not to act.

My whole green jujitsu approach to engagement is to translate sustainability into the language of your target audience. For this reason, I find a good right-of-centre argument for tackling climate change much more exciting than than a left wing one as it is the right who we have to bring on board. There is little point in preaching to the choir.

UK Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond gave a quite brilliant right-of-centre speech on climate change this week. He evoked the leadership given by Margaret Thatcher on climate change in the late 1980s, and Ronald Reagan's action on the hole in the ozone layer before her. By co-opting the memory of the twin gods of neoliberalism to the climate cause, he pressed the buttons of every right winger. He then proceeded to make the economic case for tackling climate change, driving home the message.

The proof of course will be in the pudding. The one person that Hammond needs to bring on board is the UK Chancellor George Osborne who is busy switching subsidies for clean fuels to fossil fuels (despite the latter already enjoying a 4:1 advantage of Government largesse) and blowing public money on an over-priced nuclear reactor. If he can bring Osborne on board, Hammond will make himself a real climate hero.


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11 November 2015

Leadership, Sustainability & Visibility

bowlerI'm very proud to be working on a project with the world leaders on corporate sustainability, Interface. The results of this work will be made public next year, but it is very clear from my many interactions with Interface employees and stakeholders that Ray Anderson, the founder of the company and its Mission Zero sustainability programme, is still held in highest regard some four years after his death.

I follow a couple of twitter feeds who supply inspiring business and management quotes (I like a good quote, even if many are misattributed) and one caught my eye this morning:

A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves ~ Lao Tzu

Now I know I'm walking on thin ice criticising the (purported) author of the Tao Te Ching, but is this always the case?

On one level I understand the need to get individuals to claim ownership of sustainability issues, solve them and take credit for the results. But 'barely know he exists'? We look to our leaders to show us the direction of travel, for permission to act and for permission to fail. Otherwise every organisation could run itself.

I certainly don't think Interface could have gone through the radical transformation it has over the last two decades without Ray Anderson nailing his colours to the mast. And where Interface has led, competitors and other industries have followed. Visible leadership matters in sustainability.


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9 November 2015

Obama steps up, will the other world leaders?

ObamaLast week, Barack Obama sent out a clear message to the US and the world when he nixed the Keystone XL pipeline which would have opened up Canadian tar sands to international markets. I've long argued that the litmus test of a true sustainability leader is not so much what they start doing, but what they stop doing. in this instance at least, Obama has passed the test.

And what a timely fillip ahead of the COP21 climate talks in Paris starting on 30 November. Already being billed as "the last chance to save the planet" (wasn't that Copenhagen 2009?), the doom-mongers are out in force. I think we should be building on the fact that national commitments to cut carbon are rising fast. OK, they're not enough as yet to keep us to 2°C, but those calculations don't include industrial, regional or city-level commitments.

Speaking of Obama and Copenhagen, it was POTUS who saved the that meeting from complete disaster (a disaster precipitated by the destructive perfectionism of green NGOs according to my friend the environmental journalist Fiona Harvey who witnessed it unfolding first hand). With the other world leaders attending as well as Obama, I'm hoping for some constructive one-upmanship to drive forward commitments. Maybe even David Cameron, who loves striding the world stage with the big boys and girls, will get back into 'greenest Government ever' mode.

Yes I'm an optimist, but you know what they say optimists and pessimists have in common? Both their predictions tend to come true.


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6 November 2015

Milton Friedman was not only wrong on CSR, but dangerously wrong

1024px-Portrait_of_Milton_FriedmanThe continued fall out from the VW scandal has made me mull on the risks of ignoring corporate social responsibility (CSR) in the favour of profit. Milton Friedman, the late guru of the Chicago School of Economics and advisor to both Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, had no time for CSR, famously saying:

There is one and only one social responsibility of business – to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game, which is to say, engages in open and free competition without deception or fraud.

Now you could argue that if the business case for CSR is as strong as people like me argue it is, then CSR is compatible with the Friedman Doctrine as it will lead to increased profitability.

There is some logic in that, but the problem is the mindset. As soon as you read the doctrine, your mind narrows down to a purely financial/economic frame. You start ignoring the fact that any business is completely dependent on society and the environment to survive. If you forget that crucial truth, you are putting the long term future of your business at serious risk.

We have to do business in the real world, not within the models of economic theorists.


Photo: The Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice

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4 November 2015

How will the SDGs affect your business?

In this edition of Ask Gareth, I discuss how the brand new UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) may impact on an individual business.

You can see all editions of Ask Gareth by clicking here.

If you'd like to send a question to Ask Gareth fire away!



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2 November 2015

3D Storytelling for Sustainability


Two days of motorway driving just to spend a day queuing for rides at a theme park – my weekend couldn't have been designed more around my pet hates. The theme park was Legoland and, even though my expectations weren't that high, I was still disappointed. There were very few 'Wow!' moments and everything was aimed at kids.

You may be surprised at my surprise at that last bit, but if you think of last year's Lego Movie, it worked on different levels – the kids loved the crash bang wallops and the slapstick, the adults got all the quest-movie parodies and jokes about overpriced coffees. Just a soupçon of that wit sprinkled across Legoland would have lifted it from over-priced banality to something everybody could enjoy, not just the kids (especially those who were paying for it!).

Much 'green communication' is similarly one-dimensional – it assumes that everybody is interested in rather bland hand-wringing. People who aren't interested ignore it, people who are interested don't get anything extra out of it (they already switch the lights off) and people who may be suspicious of greenwash don't get the proof they need to allay their fears.

So how about designing you communications to handle 3 dimensions of interest from your target audience?

  1. Interest in green issues – ranging from tree-hugger to eco-sceptic;
  2. Learning – how does this apply to me, from simple efforts to step changes such as eco-design;
  3. Depth – ranging from punchy slogans to detailed data.

This can be done on websites and reports – you start at the shallow end and gets deeper and more involved as you explore further.

The wider the audience you appeal to, the more successful you will be – sustainability doesn't benefit from the pester power that Legoland does!


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