During her leadership campaign in the summer, PM Theresa May promised to shake up corporate governance. She would give workers a place on company boards and make shareholders' votes on executive pay binding – all things her party blocked during the coalition years of 2010-2015. But when the proposals were published yesterday, they had been watered down to a level of toothlessness.
This reminded me of a diagram which someone sent me recently (I understand it was produced by Bain&Co, but I don't have further details of the source). It shows that Sustainability projects have a much better failure rate than other projects, but suffer from an extremely high level of dilution – in fact very few succeed without some kind of compromise.
I would love to know the exact reasons for this. Some may be difficult to overcome such as immature technology and/or supply chains (although that can be sorted out), but I suspect much of it comes down to nervousness by decision makers, tiptoeing their way through unfamiliar territory.
My solution to the latter problem is to make sure those decision makers are involved in developing the proposals. Psychology has shown that when people are presented with a change, they exaggerate the risks and play down the benefits, but when they generate the change idea themselves, that flips to overestimating benefits and playing down risks. I have had a boardroom bump up Sustainability targets by taking this approach – the complete opposite of the pattern shown by that diagram.
I've spent the first part of this morning giving some advice to an entrepreneur who has an exciting green business idea but wanted some help with the direction to take it. As we talked, a theme emerged from my rambling – to get a novel idea up and running you have to:
1. solve a really pressing problem that your customer has, and/or
2. lower the mental leap required to adopt the new system.
These apply to all aspects of encouraging people to use more sustainable technology. For example, if you want people to use teleconferencing rather than business travel you should play on the convenience (more time with the family rather than in a dull hotel), make sure that booking/using the system is at least as easy than booking the travel, and get key people to insist on using teleconferencing for their meetings so others are forced to get familiar with it.
One of my clients, a chemist by trade, refers to barriers to change being like the 'activation energy' required to make a chemical reaction happen. Catalysts are used to reduce the activation energy and that's how we, as sustainability practitioners, should see ourselves - catalysts.
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Last week somebody responded to the edition of Ask Gareth on zero waste by saying zero waste was thermodynamically impossible. My heart soared as I love a bit of thermo, and a bit of a debate, so I thought I'd expand a little on Sustainability and thermodynamics, and explain why this comment is incorrect.
Way back in 1998 when I was a newbie researcher exploring Sustainability as a concept, I was wading through a mountain of heartfelt waffle on the subject when I stumbled on an explanation in terms of thermodynamics. It made complete sense to me and something clicked. When I explained this to my project supervisors, one of them said thermodynamics was for chemical reactions, not for the whole planet. I persisted as I like nice neat explanations for big complex situations and I won him over. To this day I tend to fall back on the laws of thermo to help me spot perpetual motion machines and other blind alleys, and remind me of the big Sustainability picture.
There are four Laws of Thermodynamics, and a gazillion definitions of each, but for our purposes we need the first and second Laws which can be expressed simply as:
First Law: energy and material can be transformed from one form to another, but cannot be created or destroyed.
Second Law: the total entropy of an isolated system always increases over time.
As entropy is a measure of disorder (read: pollution, dissipated resources), the two are often interpreted as us being stuffed in the long term – inevitably the world will grind to a halt. This is the interpretation of zero-waste-impossible guy. But the crucial bit is the 'isolated' caveat – the earth is not isolated, rather it receives huge amounts of external energy in the form of solar insolation and gravitational pulls.
Earth's natural systems have been pretty sustainable for the last billion years as they follow two important principles to comply with those two laws:
1. there is no waste, all materials and nutrients are endlessly recycled;
2. those cycles and everything else, are powered by those external energy sources, most notably via photosynthesis.
Translating these into industrial parlance and you get the circular, zero waste economy and the renewable energy industry as models for a sustainable economy.
Quite a bit of my work recently has been around taking a Sustainability Strategy and embedding it into the organisation. While gaining buy-in from employees is a big part of how I approach this (my preferred option is to get the buy-in of key people by involving them in developing the strategy, but that's another story), if we are to truly make sustainability the new business as usual then it has to be, almost by definition, the default option whenever decisions arise.
This is not a trivial challenge. Many of my clients have been in existence for 50+ years (some over 100) and they have slowly accumulated ways of doing things based on the largely linear, fossil fuel based economy which arose from the Industrial Revolution. Suddenly we are trying to change all that in just a few years.
On the positive side, fast change is very possible - sometimes destructively so, as when Kodak was decimated by the very digital photography it had invented but sidelined. There is also my favourite mantra, the 80:20 Rule, which holds that a very small number of changes will deliver the vast majority of results. If you are smart, you can identify those key changes and put your efforts into making them happen, rather than sapping your time and effort on trying to get thousands of people to switch off their phone chargers overnight.
While many 'sustainability by default' initiatives involve 'nudging' people by, say, setting printers to print duplex by default, there are some much bigger gains to be won by, for example, tweaking investment appraisals to account for full carbon costs or putting energy reduction targets into the personal objectives of every site manager. It is this kind of hardwiring of sustainability into core systems that will deliver year after year with little or no further intervention.
This morning I was running my normal route up the river valley where I live. Towards the far end of my circuit, I came up behind three dog walkers, hoods up against the drizzle, deep in conversation and taking up the whole path. First I coughed, but got no response. Then I called "Excuse me!", but not a flicker. By now I was right behind them so I said "Excuse me, please!" at normal volume. The three of them jumped out of their skins, backed away from me as if I was a bear, hands instinctively covering their throats. I apologised profusely and ran on. As I looped back down the valley, I saw them back in their own little world.
As I ran back home, I mused on how we all live in our own little worlds, oblivious to most of what is going on around us. We have to, as there is just too much information in the world to process, so we have to filter the vast majority of it out, leaving what is immediately important to us. I bet if one of the dogs had gone off their owners' radar they would have picked up on it much more quickly than a podgy flat footed jogger huffing and puffing up behind them.
I often hear sustainability practitioners list all the ways they have tried to get colleagues engaged in climate and/or other sustainability issues. They express frustration that nothing on the list has worked, but I'm not surprised as it is all formulated from a 'green' point of view and gets filtered out by those who don't already get 'green'.
The key is, of course, to find a green message that does get through the filters – not by frightening the life out of people as I did with my dog walkers, but by finding the overlap between their interests and sustainability. That means putting to one side everything you hold dear and putting yourself in your audience's shoes, or as I call it, Green Jujitsu.
No matter what your politics, it's hard to see a Donald Trump presidency being a boon for the fight against climate change in particular, and for Sustainability in general (although this less pessimistic view by Michael Liebreich is worth a read). As a big L Liberal myself, I find the whole global political shift to inward-looking petty nationalism and short-termism utterly, utterly depressing.
I ended last week under my duvet in the grip of not only despondency, but a bad dose of the dreaded manflu. Checking my e-mail on my mobile for anything urgent I needed to deal with before the weekend, an e-mail appeared from one of the crowd-investing platforms I subscribe to. They'd opened a new investment opportunity in a major solar project.
I jumped out of bed, went down to my office, checked out the offer document, and immediately made a modest investment. And, it made me feel really good. Really, really good.
Nothing beats being proactive when you feel you're up against the wall. And my investment in the future is not just a financial one, it's an emotional one too. I am buying into a low carbon future. Much better than marching with a placard.
* usual caveats: investments are risky, you could lose money, I'm not endorsing any particular investment etc.
Oh dear, who saw that coming? Actually I kind of did, not through any great political or empathetic insight I have to say, just that, as 2016 has been such a unpredictable year already, you couldn't rule anything out.
So what does Donald Trump's victory mean for the battle against climate change?
On the impact of Brexit on the low carbon economy, I was sanguine. The UK still has plenty of climate laws, particularly the little-discussed but powerful 'carbon price floor' to make progress, and, as we have have seen since, new PM Theresa May has committed the country to the Paris Agreement.
With Trump, I'm not so optimistic. While the US Government system, the Republican Party and the cold light of reality will no doubt curb some of his more clownish election pledges, on climate change he is at one with much of the Republican world – denial. Coal mines, fracking, shale oil – these are all easy ways of delivering on his promise of jobs and energy security that he made to blue-collar America. His isolationist stance suggests that international agreements will get short shrift.
Being of an optimistic bent, I think our best hope is that business talks business to the tycoon Trump. If the Walmarts of this world demand low carbon, then that's a big direct and indirect lever. If the Teslas can show how clean tech can create jobs, wealth and exports, that may hold some sway.
But at the end of the day, I can see nothing but a tough four years for our movement. Doesn't mean we should give up, though, let's keep fighting for a better future.
This brand new climate change documentary by Leonardo DiCaprio has been released just before the US goes to the polls to pick a new president (you can watch the whole thing above). While Donald Trump only makes a fleeting appearance, spouting inanities as always, I can't help but think the timing is far from coincidental.
The name 'Before The Flood' is taken from the central panel of a Hieronymus Bosch triptych, The Garden of Earthly Delights, a print of which hung over DiCaprio's 'crib' as a child (not sure I'd pick Bosch to decorate my kids' rooms but, hey...). In that central panel, the seven deadly sins start to corrupt humankind before the inevitable final panel of doom.
The movie follows DiCaprio as he travels the world talking to local activists, climate scientists and major figures such as Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and the Pope. Here are the key moments that stuck with me: Read the rest of this entry »
For years, I've been calling for a massive hike in public investment in upgrading the UK's electricity grid rather than the usual investment in traditional instructor such as roads. Roads are roads, they've pretty much hit the top of the S-curve of innovation (and simply generate more traffic), whereas upgrading the grid would not only create jobs, but it would trigger innovation and unlock new renewable energy and storage opportunities. Our current grid is designed for centralised electricity generation, not for the new Energy 2.0 distributed generation, so it is clearly a brake on the march of renewable energy. A new report by Policy Exchange has added some stats to this qualitative argument and it looks compelling.
Much of the friction in any change process comes not from the change itself, but because the existing supporting infrastructure and systems has been designed to support the status quo. In Sustainability, I often find that the best way to make the biggest impact with limited resources is to hunt down these pinch points and eliminate them with extreme prejudice. While sometimes this requires significant investment in new physical infrastructure, as with the grid, changing systems to remove barriers can often be done at negligible cost.
At one client we found that removing the bureaucracy around its teleconferencing system, which had been sat gathering dust, led to it being overloaded almost overnight. The client had to double its capacity to keep up. These kind of 'making sustainability the easier option' solutions can get momentum going very quickly indeed.
With another client, we found that the full cost of carbon to the business was not being factored into investment decisions. Tweaking the system to "reflect the true cost of each option more accurately" is a relatively easy argument to make and yet it will have massive impact into the future without further intervention.
So if you're going to start anywhere, start targeting barriers and pinch points. You'll find you can turn relatively small efforts into significant results – not to be sniffed at!
I love biomimicry – the science/art of looking to nature to solve some of our design problems – and I love cycling, so the revolutionary (ha ha!) new aero wheels from Zipp hit both buttons. Zipp have taken inspiration from the way whales maintain speed and manoeuvrability that belies their sheer size and applied it to the humble cycle wheel with quite remarkable results.
Probably the most telling line in the video is "if you look to nature, most of these complex problems have already been solved." And this is true – the humble leaf is twice as efficient at converting a photon of light into useable energy than a standard solar panel. If the various boffins trying to emulate the leaf are successful, then we get twice as much energy out of each solar panel.
At a macro-level, the circular economy is simply copying the way nutrients are endlessly cycled within nature to produce a sustainable system. Those natural cycles are driven by solar energy and don't accumulate toxins. So there you have a template for a sustainable economy.
The downside of those Zipp wheels is the cost – almost three times the price of my road bike. So if they want to send me a pair to try out...
At the weekend the family headed down to Bedford to catch up with my brother-in-law and celebrate the middle one's seventh birthday. As is usual on our (rare) long car journeys, we stopped at a National Trust place on each leg to break up the monotony and avoid the horrors of the motorway service station. On the way south, we had a planned break the wonderful Fountains Abbey/Studley Gardens, but on the way back we picked one at random from the road atlas, called Woolsthorpe Manor.
We pulled into the modest carpark, which couldn't have taken more than 40 cars and no coaches. It was only as we walked up to the ticket hut that we saw a sign telling us that this was the birthplace of Sir Isaac Newton. Not only that, but it was here, on an enforced break from plague-ridden Cambridge, that Newton sat under an apple tree in the orchard and had his eureka moment on gravity (and the tree still stands – well, slumps – to this day, behind the family in the pic).
And the most incredible thing about this incredible place is that no-one really knows about it. I mean, not only did Newton's Laws dominate science for the next 300 years, he also invented the reflecting telescope, proved beyond doubt that the planets circled the sun, co-invented calculus and a whole bunch of other important mathematical stuff (we'll draw a veil over the alchemy obsession – nobody's perfect). It's hard to imagine any one person having a bigger influence over our modern lives and yet there's no fuss.
We go on pilgrimages to religious sites, literary sites (Stratford upon Avon), historical sites and architectural sites, but the science which underpins our wealth, health and entertainment hardly gets a look in. When I was at Cambridge, the building where Walton and Cockcroft split the atom was being used as a bike shed when it should arguably be a museum.
Is this lack of respect for science the reason why thousands of armchair philosophers reckon they can disprove the central tenets of climate science which have been painstakingly developed, tested, revised and re-tested for almost 200 years? Is it why the Global Warming Policy Forum can produce a report claiming almost all science is dubious without meeting roars of laughter? Is it why otherwise intelligent politicians can casually dismiss hard evidence that doesn't fit with their worldview?
In this supposedly 'post-truth' world, I think it's about time we stood up for science, evidence and rationality.