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December 2015 - Terra Infirma

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18 December 2015

As we say goodbye to another year...

robin snow

It's time to dust off the old seasonal stock photo cliches (I'm sure I've seen that robin before...) as it's the last proper working day of 2015 here at Terra Infirma Towers. And what a year it's been!

We've been delighted to have been able to bring on board a global brand of the stature of Stanley Black & Decker, and being invited to work with a sustainability pioneer like Interface is a bit like being asked to play rhythm guitar in a Led Zeppelin reunion in my book. That's not to do down other great new clients such as Sage Group plc and Dover Corporation, both of whom joined us via Green Academy, or our ongoing work with NHSBT, NHS Newcastle, Johnson Matthey and Innovia Films. And I got to drive a Tesla!

By any stretch of the imagination, that's a great year, and in many ways I felt Terra Infirma was operating the way I've always wanted it to – helping great clients around the globe tackle the biggest challenge in the world armed with only a laptop in my home office.

Right, that's enough not-so-humble bragging. I'd like to you make a New Year's Resolution right now – join us on 20 January for our free webinar and get your 2016 off to a flying start:

16 Kick Ass Sustainability Ideas for 2016

Have a great Christmas and join us in the New Year!

All the very best,




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16 December 2015

Engineering the (low carbon) future

cibse cropped

Last night I was the speaker at the Chartered Institute of Building Service Engineers (CIBSE) North East branch. Doing a last minute piece of homework on CIBSE yesterday afternoon, I found the above on the CIBSE website – not hidden in some obscure page that I had to dig out, but the third point on the 'About Us' page.

It makes me smile, as when my own Engineering Institute, the MIET, launched an 'Engineering for a Sustainable Future' network about 15 years ago, a section of the old guard got out their quills and wrote spluttering letters that environmental issues were for politicians, not engineers.

I'm glad to see how far our profession has come. Engineers are fundamentally problem solvers and the current sustainability problem is arguably the biggest problem humanity has ever faced (save the occasional plague). CIBSE have clearly taken this fully on board (although I think their 50% figure above is a little high, I quoted a figure of 37% from Government stats).

I ran a highly interactive session – the flip chart pages filled outnumbered the Powerpoint slides I used. We teased out a number of key challenges for building service engineers, including:

  • Immature/expensive technologies;
  • Distorted incentives – the developer isn't responsible for paying the bills in use;
  • Behavioural change of users/influencing behaviour through design;
  • Retrofitting existing building stock;
  • Integrating heating/cooling systems with the building design to optimise performance.

These are not trivial problems to overcome and we did some chewing over possible solutions.

I finished the session by returning to the CIBSE graphic above and telling the delegates, semi-tongue in cheek, that the future of humanity was in their hands. I'm sure I heard a collective gulp.



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14 December 2015

So is the Paris climate deal any COP?

people hands

It's the Monday after the week before. They did it in Paris, signing an international treaty to tackle climate change, the world is rejoicing and the climate change deniers are left bleating ineffectually into their beer.

What did we get? Just this:

  • A commitment by 195 countries to keep temperature rises to 2°C, with an aspirational target of 1.5°C;
  • A mechanism to keep updating and reporting individual countries' commitment (known as INDCs);
  • Various mechanisms to transfer technology and cash from richer countries to poorer.

There was an interesting transition while the ink was drying on the agreement. The knee-jerk reaction of many NGOs was to condemn the proposals as 'weak' and a 'betrayal' – mainly because the INDCs were not 'legally binding'. By this morning's papers, those same NGOs seemed to have reeled in their reaction to 'good, but not perfect'.

Indeed 'good, but not perfect' seems to be the verdict of the commentariat, but I disagree. I think the flexibility of the part-binding/part voluntary agreement will turn out to be its strength, much in the way a tree will flex in the wind but not break.

For a start, I don't think there's any such thing as 'legally binding' when it comes to such agreements. As one wag put it, "who's going to invade Canada if they fall short?" Rigidity will encourage default, not enforce it and a rigid agreement would never have been signed. Peer pressure got the agreement signed, lets use it to drive it forward.

Secondly, Governments, technology and society changes, often abruptly. Different countries have differently cultures, demographics and geographic – the UK won't be doing concentrated solar any time soon, Chad unlikely to invest in offshore wind. The flexibility will encourage innovation, investment and bring market forces to bear.

Thirdly, the part-voluntary nature undermines the argument from the loony end of the climate denier scale that climate change was invented by communists angry at the fall of the Soviet Union who wanted a world socialist Government. Left-leaning Governments can use more interventionist efforts, right-leaning Governments can use market mechanisms. Horses for courses.

And lastly, let's congratulate the French. Just weeks after those horrific, nihilistic attacks in Paris, the French President François Hollande and his colleagues steered through an agreement to make the world a better place. It helps restore my faith in humanity. Bravo!


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11 December 2015

We're not going to save the planet...


...because, in geological timescales, the earth is quite capable of looking after itself. The question is whether the human race is part of the equation at that time.

No, the reason why we have the big climate change jamboree in Paris is to protect the human race. Drought, extreme weather, sea level rise, ocean acidification, mass migration etc will all have massive impacts on us and our way of life.

And, with my green jujitsu cap on, I think we should emphasise potential human impacts over, say, the plight of the polar bear. Let's drop talk of "destroying our planet" and talk about coastal cities likely to get deluged.

And before I get screamed at by the green lobby, yes it is selfish, but frankly we're not talking to you. We're talking to the people for whom 'the environment' isn't on their radar. We need to appeal to the congregation, not the choir.

If we are going to ask people to radically change behaviour, we need to persuade them of two things:

1. The risk of 'do nothing' is massive;

2. The low carbon alternative is not (much of) a sacrifice, but a desirable outcome.

While everybody is altruistic, when push comes to shove, they're going to ask "what's in it for me?" Let's focus on answering that question.


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9 December 2015

Adding friction to unsustainable behaviour

shopping plastic bag

Regular readers will know I'm a bit sceptical about the plastic bag tax – mainly because it's aimed at a minor environmental impact rather than a major one such as home insulation. But what I can't argue with is its effectiveness, with Tesco (the UK's biggest retailer) announcing that plastic bag use had fallen 78% within a month of the tax coming into force.

And I'm quite surprised at the change it has made in my own behaviour. I've endeavoured to take reusable bags to the shop with me for 25 years, but I all too often forget. Strangely enough, the thought of having to pay 5 or 10p for a bag has sharpened my memory and I go much better prepared. The proof is in the pudding – the once huge stash of plastic bags under the sink is dwindling fast.

The difference really hit me yesterday – I had to do an unexpected grocery shop between meetings as old friends announced they were visiting out of the blue. I ended up cursing myself for not having a reusable bag with me always in case of such a situation.

This goes to show the power of adding even small amounts of friction to habitual unsustainable behaviour. It's classic 'nudge'-style behavioural change – remove obstacles to desired behaviour and throw a few in the way of undesired behaviour. Very rapidly people will adjust their behaviour to the path of least resistance.



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7 December 2015

Raising Cash for Solar Aid

Yard sale

I'm exhausted this morning after doing the grunt work for my sons' yard sale yesterday. Every year the boys raise cash for Solar Aid, but this summer they saw the multifarious yard sales in Portland and decided to import a little of that to Newcastle. It was a lovely event with friends, neighbours and the occasional passerby having a good rummage through our old stuff.

solar lampThey raised £168 – enough for 54 of Solar Aid's signature solar lamps/phone chargers (right). These bring clean electricity into remote villages allowing kids to study at night without choking on kerosene fumes and people to charge portable electronics. The lamps aren't given away, instead Solar Aid creates social enterprises, creating employment and ensuring the recipient values them. That hits all kinds of buttons for me (I believe hand outs can often do more harm than good).


It was a good introduction to the world of commerce for the boys – these guys would skin The Apprentice candidates with nary a shiny suit in sight!

You can see more about Solar Aid & donate here.



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4 December 2015

The myth of bottom-up sustainability

vektor image sizif

I couldn't have picked a better antidote to this dismal autumn than to spend 24 hours with the Interface Europe sustainability ambassadors in Scherpenzeel, Netherlands. Hearing the latest on Mission Zero (and beyond) was truly inspirational. Unfortunately I can't share the really exciting stuff (yet), but I left with no doubt in my mind that Interface will continue to be the foremost sustainability exemplar for at least another 20 years.

I had a wee mission of my own at the event. Regular readers will know that I am not a fan of the 'sustainability champions' model of delivery. Every network of sustainability champions I have come across has atrophied except the ambassador programme at Interface. So what do Interface do right that everybody else gets wrong? What's the secret sauce?

I spoke to about a dozen people at the event to see what I could glean.

And the answer, surprisingly, is nothing to do with the network (although Interface does nurture the network very well).

No, what Interface has, and others don't, is transformational leadership at the top of the organisation and a robust sustainability framework in place. This gives the ambassador network the space, direction and resources to thrive.

In most other organisations sustainability champions are simply recruited/press-ganged and set loose in the sustainability jungle without a map, compass or provisions. Even if they manage to stumble in the right direction for a few steps, it is no wonder they usually end up wandering around in circles, getting lost and perishing.

In other words you have to do top-down before you can do bottom-up. Then the two can meet in the middle.


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2 December 2015

Nobody does it better

Interface Gala Dinner

I'm in Scherpenzeel in the middle of the Netherlands for one particular reason: it's the base of Interface's European operations and the location for the company's Mission Zero Sustainability Ambassadors Summit. I'm doing a piece of work for Interface Europe on employee engagement, so I'm here on a watching brief to get a better understanding of how Interface gets it so right.

In particular, I am really intrigued as to how the Ambassador programme is the only green champion programme I have come across which really delivers. Most sustainability champion networks crumble into poorly-attended whinging shops, to the extent that I never recommend clients set one up and, if they already have, I usually challenge them as to why they did. The Ambassador programme is clearly different and my undercover mission is to work out why.

The summit kicked off last night with a fabulous gala dinner (above) and a couple of things really jumped out at me:

1. Leadership: Interface founder and Mission Zero instigator Ray Anderson may have been dead for 4 years, but his spirit clearly lives on. Rob Boogaard, CEO of Interface Europe, gave a really powerful speech, leaving no doubt that he sees Mission Zero and Interface's business strategy as pretty much one and the same.

2. No half measures: you don't become a Mission Zero Ambassador just because you were the only one from your office to turn up to a lunchtime meeting. No, at Interface you have to go through a multi-layer training programme and have to deliver an assignment before you achieve that status. And I mean status – it's more like earning a belt in a martial art than joining a bunch of volunteers.

3. Restless ambition: the vibe at the dinner was "well done, we're very proud of you, what are you going to do next?" Laurels were certainly not being sat on.

The word that came to mind as we boarded the bus back to our hotel was authenticity. These guys say what they mean and mean what they say. It's for real.


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