One of the more notorious comments from UK Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne came during his speech at the 2011 Conservative Party conference:
"We're not going to save the planet by putting our country out of business."
Now, I'm no fan of Mr Osborne, but this actually has a grain of truth about it – if we simply offshore our emissions to countries with lower environmental controls, then any 'win' we get cutting emissions in this country is purely illusionary. This conundrum is known in the trade as 'carbon leakage'.
Carbon leakage is in the news in the UK with the perilous state of the steel industry – many are blaming its woes on green taxes pushing up costs. While that may be a factor, the main problem is China's state sponsored industries dumping too much steel on the market, possibly at below the cost of production.
Many of the 'solutions' being bandied about, such as cutting green taxes or UK state subsidy, will simply add fuel to the fire by increasing global production and driving prices further down. Carbon emissions will rise as well.
The best, maybe only, way to solve this problem is for China to stop subsidising over-production of steel. That would cut carbon emissions and allow other countries to compete on a level playing field. Otherwise we are on a race to the bottom.
Over the Easter weekend we made one of our regular pilgrimages to Washington Wildfowl & Wetland Trust. Added to the exciting wild birds (we saw lesser redpoll, avocet and jack snipe), and the 'captive' bird collection, there was a Lego special with nine enormous models of birds including the iconic Nene or Hawaiian Goose (see pic).
The Nene is a wonderful conservation success story – and a powerful reason why we shouldn't be squeamish about zoos. The population was down to 30 in the 1960s, but is now at 2500 in the wild, with another 1000 or so at locations like Washington.
Bouncing back from such a critically low level is an inspiration to all of us working in the sustainability. OK, it's just one bird species, but it shows that we can make a difference if we really try. Issues like climate change may require considerably more effort to tackle, but a 'can do' attitude is the only way we're going to get close.
If you've ever wondered how our Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group operates, here are a few pics from the last meeting at BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art. The topic of the meeting was Sustainability Strategy and you can see some of the generic learning points here.
Note the graphical template we use to structure the discussion, populating it with Post-its and the 'take home points' flipchart where we record generic lessons. No Powerpoint. This creates a fertile environment for sharing and learning about real, gritty sustainability at the coal face – not the glossy PR-honed version you get from bog standard conferences.
I've got sustainability strategy coming out of my ears at this minute. A Green Academy webinar, a Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group meeting and a live client project and we're only half way through the month!
The biggest challenge is getting the level of detail right. Some people will want to give it a quick overview, like a snorkeller swimming over a reef. Other specialists will want to dive deep into the whys and wherefores, the assumptions and caveats and who is responsible for what.
Our approach is to look at the document like a stepped beach – you start in the shallows, and as you progress through the pages, the complexity increases by another step until you are deep in the detail. This means the reader can make the decision of how far they want to go. My diving analogy breaks down for the back cover which should include a call to action to remind the reader what the strategy means to them.
I'm a big proponent of the Big Hairy Audacious Goal in Sustainability – I've always held Interface's Mission Zero (disclosure: a Terra Infirma client) as the epitome of ambition. There's no way Interface would have delivered the sustainability achievements they have if they hadn't set that vision of success. But it takes real guts to go for broke like that – what if you fall short?
A idea that came up at last week's Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group was 'a threshold of realism'. In other words, if you set a zero waste target and you get to 99.9%, have you failed? Only a pedant would say 'No.', a reasonable person would say 'Wow! That's amazing!"
The real reason to set an 0%/100% target is not to meet it exactly (you've got the laws of physics against you if nothing else), but to inspire the organisation to think big and deliver the scale of change which will get you into that ball park. So have the guts to set ambitious goals, strive to meet them, but don't beat yourself up if you fall fractionally short.
Last Friday we held the fourteenth meeting of the Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group at the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead. The topic was sustainability strategy and I'll post a summary later in the week, but as usual a couple of important tangential issues arose.
And the one that sticks in my mind was the need for a tough 'critical friend' to keep sustainability practitioners on their toes. Often senior sustainability directors are given a remarkable amount of autonomy, other senior managers rarely have sufficient technical knowledge challenge them, and they have to rely on their own ethics and drive to keep them honest and going in the right direction.
"Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?" as the Roman poet Juvenal put it (and yes, I had to google that...).
The Mastermind members concurred that, no matter how virtuous we think we are, we should always have somebody to hold us to account. We need scrutiny and challenge to avoid complacency and drift.
An experienced and tough non-executive director is ideal. An external mentor is another alternative. But we need somebody.
...and here I am stuck in the middle with, er, me!
I have been musing this week that I often come up against two quite different, but in some ways similar entrenched mindsets: the right-wing view that sustainability/climate change is all lefty guff, the left-wing view that any attempt by big business to address sustainability is simply top-cover for greed.
To the right, I say the scientific evidence is clear (if only they'd give scientists more credence than stuff they've read on the internet), to the left, I say, there's nothing virtuous about standing on moral high ground declaring your own virtue. Both are recipes for inaction when action is clearly what we need.
But, having said that, cynicism has a very important role to play – it keeps us straight. Despite my worldview being firmly in the middle ground, and what I call pragmatic environmentalism, I deliberately seek out views from left and right (on sustainability or otherwise) to challenge my own beliefs.
It's worth trying – provided you can find the voices of reason from left and right (or deep green/anti-environmentalism if you prefer) rather than the confirmation bias of the respective echo chambers. It may challenge your own views and it gives you a perspective on the worldview of people you may be struggling to bring on board.
Years ago I was at a regional sustainability workshop and the facilitators made the mistake of giving each table a blank flipchart to list our priorities.* One lady in our group from a conservation group promptly slammed a fat file of newspaper clippings and internet print-outs on the table and commenced a lengthy rant against wind turbines, oblivious and impervious to all attempts to change the subject.
More recently we've had the big debate about climate change vs local air quality – I'm one of those who went diesel in the drive to cut carbon emissions, but at the expense of other pollutants. Of course the anti-climate change brigade have jumped on this as an example of 'green idiocy'.
And I'm sure we've all come across minds which are fixed in the concrete of "sustainability = reduced profits" despite all evidence to the contrary.
In all three cases, progress gets stuck on the spike of a false 'OR'. We can have renewable energy AND protect the countryside, we can tackle climate change AND local air quality, we can be sustainable AND turn a healthy profit. But those ORs must swap to ANDs or we'll be stuck on the start line.
The Smart-grid has always been more talked about than done, but now the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) has announced that the UK could save up to £8bn a year by using electricity smarter, bringing it up the news agenda.
The main benefit of a Smart Grid is that it can match supply and demand in an intelligent way – so, to take a if everybody gets up at half-time during a cup final and switches on the kettle then your fridge will hold off on firing up its compressor until the spike has gone. Likewise, you may benefit from cheaper electricity to charge your electric car overnight – and maybe sell some of that stored energy back to the grid at peak times. It would truly unlock what I call Energy 2.0 – when energy consumers become producers as well.
I've long argued that if the Government wants to make a Keynesian investment in infrastructure, then instead of the grandiose transport projects (which feature mature technologies), investment in a Smart Grid would stimulate a cascade of innovation given the technology is new and it would unlock further opportunities in renewable energy. But we seem bogged down in protocols when we need a revolution.
That's quite an incredible achievement, if the stats are credible (a criticism of how the consumption was counted from Prof Tim Jackson has since been removed from the article as the Prof seems to have got his facts wrong). But actually, I can believe it – the whole digital economy has boomed – ebooks, MP3s, Netflix, digital photos, online news etc, etc. Cars are getting more efficient, we shop online and my local corner shop owner complains he hardly sells any newspapers anymore (he only gets one or two copies of several titles). And yesterday, it was reported that an English plastic bag manufacturer had gone bust after the introduction of the plastic bag tax (a warning there will be losers as well as winners).
Add this to all the evidence that the clean energy revolution is also laying waste to vast tracts of the fossil fuel industry, despite low oil prices. Carbon emissions stalled in 2014. Clean Energy Canada reported yesterday that last year more money was invested globally in new renewable power than in new power from fossil fuels.
We are clearly moving into new territory – places of which many of us could only dream of a decade ago. Let us drive that wagon train onward to the promised land!