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2 March 2018

Hot takes on The Beast from the East

So, much of the UK is gripped by a long cold snap with blasts of some pretty horrendous weather. While the Press whips itself into a frenzy over the country's supposed inability to cope, I can still walk to the corner shop every morning and get a couple of litres of milk to feed the mob (although the Guardian didn't make it this morning – quelle horreur!).

Here's my hot takes on the Beast from the East:

  • Sudden extreme weather is very difficult to prepare for. The reason the UK isn't equipped with all the paraphernalia for deep snow is that we haven't had any for 8 years, so it makes no sense to maintain all the snow chains etc 'just in case'. A couple of years ago I visited the usually damp Portland, Oregon in the middle of a crazy heatwave and they were struggling to cope too. Unpredictability will make climate adaptation a real challenge.
  • Many people expect no disruption during extreme events. From the guys trying to get up the steep hill outside my house when a couple of inches of snow has just fallen and failing (pic), to those stuck on motorways, I can't help thinking the phrase 'essential travel only' gets interpreted very loosely. Hats off, though, to all the brave souls who are keeping the country running, from the gritters to the carers who really do have to battle through the elements.
  • The old 'I can see snow, therefore climate science is bunk' zombie myth has risen again (two letters in our local paper today). Trying to persuade people that, as in 2010, the cold spell is being caused by anomalous warming in the Arctic is a hard sell as it is so counterintuitive – maybe not the best time to rebut such nonsense.
  • One thing that we should be flag waving about is that at a time the country's gas reserves are running low, the fact that 25% of electricity is coming from wind power is a very good thing indeed.


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30 July 2015

Sustainability in Portland, Oregon (Part III)

IMG_8473So I had my meeting with sustainability officials at the City Council of Portland, which is unlike any local Government I've come across before. It has only 6 elected officials – the Mayor, four commissioners and an auditor – for a city of half a million people. Apparently this means things can happen quickly – IF you have the attention of one of the first five.

My meeting wasn't on the record, so I must emphasise the following things I gleaned are my impressions rather than the express opinions of the Council officials (and I take full responsibility for any errors):

  • While the City now has an exemplary sustainability reputation, it wasn't always this way. It was sued by the federal Government in the 1970s over air quality standards.
  • The City has integrated sustainability into its city plan, but that plan doesn't mention sustainability – it is just embedded in there;
  • Renewable energy is not a big thing in Portland as Federal incentives are weak and electricity is dirt cheap (8c a unit). This explains the one weakness I've noticed in Portland compared to, say, Newcastle where I live, a lack of domestic solar;
  • Summer temperatures are definitely rising (it hit 36°C yesterday and may be warmer today) which has led to retrofitting of domestic air conditioning which is a big challenge;
  • The first move in the cycle network was to install cycle parking around the city. As local businesses saw more business coming their way from cyclists, they became open to the idea of more cycle infrastructure. There's now a waiting list from businesses for cycle parking;
  • The cycle greenways that form the wider network were very low cost – signs, speed bumps and the occasional cycle crossing. The idea is to divert drivers and create safety in numbers for cyclists by funnelling them along those routes;
  • The sustainable drainage swales I saw, are not just a trial – there's 1,000 of them across the city. In addition, every new development is responsible for dealing with 100% of stormwater on site. As a result, many buildings have green roofs and/or gardens to retain excess water;
  • While the hippy/alternative culture creates expectations, it can also cause resistance to, for example, a shift to more dense housing to avoid unlimited sprawl;
  • A key tactic is to compare the cost of 'sustainability infrastructure' with that of car infrastructure. For example a new major bridge is about to open for trams, light trains, cycles and pedestrians. If cars had been factored in, it would have tripled the costs.

I'd like to send a big thank you to everybody who helped with this visit – I've learnt a lot!


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28 July 2015

Sustainability in Portland, OR (Part II)


I've now been in Portland Oregon a week - long enough for my body clock to adjust (almost) to the local time zone. And in those seven days, I've picked up on plenty more sustainability related stuff which I thought I would share (my initial thoughts are here).

First up, the integrated transit system - bus, local train and streetcars. While I find it frustrating that the bus services follow the N-S, E-W grid iron street layout rather than radially from the centre (which means you can't get a direct ride into town if you live in the NE like us) the service is otherwise pretty amazing. A flat fare covers all rides for 2 hours or you pay double for all day. An app gives real time information on arrivals at any stop – people tend to magically appear just as the bus hoves into view – it also acts as an electronic ticket. And just in case you think that you couldn't get much more integrated than that, buses have a nifty double bike rack on the front. These are well used, as is the service in general – 45% of commuters use the service according to the posters.

Second, the car drivers here are so polite, I gather it's become a national joke. Time after time, I've stopped at the corner of a block to check back for straggling family members and then turned back to the road to find a driver waiting patiently for me to cross, even on reasonably busy roads. I'm not quite brave enough to try walking around blindfold, but I think my survival chances would be reasonable.

portland swales

Despite the current drought, leavened by a couple of downpours in the last couple of days, Portland is famous for its heavy rain. We couldn't help notice these nifty soakaways installed around one of the local colleges – it appeared to be a trial.

Finally, there seems to be a great culture here. Posters urge people to get involved in planting trees, even though the city is relatively verdant as you can see from the main picture. Lots of front yards have veg growing in them and a satirical book on the city in our house suggests "If you don't keep chickens in your back yard, people will suspect you are a Republican."

On Sunday, it happened to be the 'Sunday Parkway' for our neighbourhood – a car free circuit was in place to allow active transport – watching 8 year olds wobble safely up the middle of the road was a sight to behold. Stalls ranging from 'boycott Shell' to the local church were dotted along the route and some streets just off the circuit had decided to throw a party.

Oh, and it's not just the beer that is local – most of the wine we've quaffed has been produced in the Willamette Valley.

Apart from that last one, I'll be asking the Council about all these things on Tuesday.


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26 November 2012

If it keeps on rainin'...

If it keeps on rainin', levee's gonna break...

So sang Memphis Minnie and Kansas Joe McCoy back in 1929 about the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, but you may be more familiar with Led Zeppelin's epic 1971 interpretation with its grinding apocalyptic groove. The words and the nagging sense of impending disaster strike a chord as I write this while trundling across England  by train - almost every low lying field is a lake and rivers have burst their banks. I'm on my way to Taunton for a client meeting, but I fear that Somerset may be completely submerged - the train is stopping at Bristol.

Mark my words, the ducks will inherit the earth.

The floods will inevitably, and rightly, lead to calls for more flood defences, compensation and for them to "do something". And it is clear that, if this is the climatic path we are now locked into, we have got to act. How vulnerable are our homes, offices, warehouses, factories and farms? What damage can unpredictable weather cause to our operations, logistics and communications? What will it cost individuals, organisations and the economy?

Sustainability is not just about trying to do less damage, but about adapting to the new realities - whether it's resilience to extreme weather or the erosion of the resource base we depend upon. Those are big threats, but of course they are business opportunities too. That might sound cynical, but if enough entrepreneurial business identify and exploit these openings, it will help us all in the long term.

Cryin' won't help you, prayin' won't do you no good,

When the levee breaks, mama, you got to move.


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12 March 2012

Have you got a Plan B?

Phew! I'm back on line. Last Wednesday morning Sod's Law kicked in big time - the one day of the month I need uninterrupted internet access for the two Green Academy webinars, it won't respond. Dead.

I spent an hour panicking calmly working my way through pages of geekorrhea before giving up and using my fall back system - my 3G laptop dongle. Apart from one glitch, it worked fine, although I found out afterwards that it ran perilously close to my monthly limit.

Virgin Media were great - they immediately tested my system remotely, found my ancient modem had transmitted its last, and put another one in the post for me immediately. I plugged it in, rang a number to authenticate it and bingo, here I am!

This all got me thinking about business resilience. The 50 year lag between a molecule of carbon dioxide leaving a power station chimney or a car exhaust means that no matter what we do to cut carbon now, there is a truckload of global warming already locked into the system - unless of course a geoengineering technology comes good and finds a way of stopping.

The problem with planning adaption to climate change is unpredictability. Thomas Friedman coined the apposite phrase 'global weirding' to describe what we get locally when the world warms as a whole. In the UK we got savage winters at the end of 2009 and 2010 as weather patterns got locked in a configuration which sucked arctic air down over the country for months. Local authorities who had assumed that harsh winters were a thing of the past soon ran out of road grit. In 2011, the same thing happened but the configuration was a mirror image so we got mild air from the south - the grit piles went unused. The physical difference between the two was minimal, yet the results couldn't have been more different.

I would recommend that any organisation has a Plan B for operations under different scenarios to cover data security, electronic communications, extreme weather, physical logistics and energy security. But those scenarios must be cognisant of the unpredictability of what a global trend will turn out like locally.

Be prepared!

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16 August 2010

Are you ready for climate change?

Russia is burning (and choking), Pakistan is drowning - major humanitarian disasters which are likely to be in part due to climate change as Pakistan is effectively getting the rain that the Russian plains should have had. A similar thing happened in the UK this winter - we got Arctic weather stuck over us for weeks, while the Arctic had abnormally high temperatures. While the usual caveat must be rolled out - we can't attribute any one event to climate change - the frequency of such events is increasing as the science would suggest.

Climate change mitigation (cutting carbon emissions) is a medium term measure, but it must be backed up by adaptation measures for the short (and medium) term impacts which are already in the system. Adaptation is normally considered at the regional/national scale, but what about individual organisations? Are you prepared for climate change? Would you be resilient to extreme heat or cold? Are your data servers in your basement and vulnerable to flooding? Are your raw materials grown in a climate sensitive area? After all, Russia has announced restrictions on grain exports.

Of course we can flip this around to the positive. Have you a design, a product or a service to help make organisations, regions or whole countries resilient to climate change? Can you spot a gap in the market? Will climate change produce gaps in global markets for, say, food stuffs? This may sound mercenary, but a robust response to climate change will involve the markets as much as it does disaster relief organisations.

So whether climate change is an opportunity or a threat to your business, you should be factoring it into your business planning.

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23 July 2010

A reflection on learning...

I love running training workshops and the two Secrets of Successful Green Business Workshops I've run for Business Link in the last two days were corkers. We got about 30 people mainly from office based businesses in the Newcastle session and 25 on Teesside from a much wider range of businesses (from independent consultants through a prison to major chemical companies), and it was good to see a smattering of familiar faces at both. They were half day sessions and I structured them around The Three Secrets of Green Business - understanding the business case, what does green mean, and how to integrate it into your business. Frankly I prefer running whole day sessions - I only add about 20% more content and spend much longer on exercises - but there was still enough time for plenty of interaction.

And interaction I got! In Newcastle we had a lengthy debate about the pros and cons of telecommuting. I was challenged on the lack of social opportunities, but I maintain that the increased time you get with family and neighbours from not commuting is at least as rewarding as socialising with colleagues - or it should be anyway. On Teesside we had a discussion about the pros and cons of incremental innovation and disruptive innovation - we got a little sidetracked into innovation on the printing press/internet level rather than radical alignment of products, processes and supply chains to sustainability (à la TQM) which was the point.

The big learning area for me was the half hour slot that Gareth Williams of Business In The Community (BITC) did on climate change adaptation. This is definitely the Cinderella of environmental issues, but it is crucially important. Even if we slashed carbon emissions today, there is enough warming locked into the system that we do need to prepare for the impacts. Gareth covered risks and business opportunities. Now, while I have worked with clients to identify potential markets in helping others reduce their risks, I hadn't fully grasped how many purchasers are now taking resilience to any form of business interruption seriously in their buying decisions. So if you have your servers in a basement in a flood prone area you might be at a business disadvantage to a rival who has taken the necessary steps to protect their business. Every day's school day in this game - that's why I love it so much.

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19 April 2010

Eyjafjallajoekull and all that

There are two types of natural disaster - the ones that we can cause like landslides from deforestation, sea level rises from climate change, or deadly smogs from air pollution, and the big geological disasters like volcanos and earthquakes that we have no control over. The former we have to mitigate their likelihood and adapt to their impacts, the latter we can only adapt to.

The newspapers here in the UK are dominated by the unpronounceable Eyjafjallajoekull volcano and its plume of ash which has grounded flights across northern Europe - much more coverage than the devastating earthquakes in Haiti, Chile and China, it should be noted. A detail that has passed many by is that while we do have a network of nine Volcanic Ash Advisory Centres around the world, we seem completely unprepared for how to deal with closed skies. Fruit and veg is rotting in airports rather than being freighted to Europe, manufacturers with Just In Time supply chains are tearing their hair out, and about a million Brits are stranded abroad.

Nature is famously resilient to short term shocks. Trees will survive explosions which demolish houses, by bending instead of resisting. We have the technology to build earthquake proof houses, yet continue to build rigid homes on earthquake zones around the world (often demolishing more resilient traditional constructions in the the name of progress). The only resilience we have seen in the face of the volcano has been a surge in video conferencing.

There is a story (possibly apocryphal) that the internet was designed to be resilient to nuclear strikes in the US, by automatically routing data through surviving paths. I think we need to design all our systems along similar lines rather than relying on a single route or a single style of housing working everywhere. And we need to get our adaptation to climate change started very soon.

Resilience. It's the future.

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16 October 2009

Business Opportunities in Climate Change Adaptation

I was running a CSR workshop with a major international engineering firm yesterday. Given the traditional engineers' reactive (and sometimes reactionary) approach to such 'soft issues' (I'm an engineer - I can say this!), their proactive, progressive attitude was a breath of fresh air. Interestingly enough, as well as the business opportunities we identified in climate change mitigation (cutting emissions), we discovered they were well placed to exploit opportunities in climate change adaptation - adapting to the inevitable changes that are already in the system.

Adaptation is going to become more and more important. If someone has cooling or refrigeration plant, it is going to have to work harder and become more expensive unless you can develop innovative new solutions. Resilience to rising sea levels, floods and extreme weather events will require new engineering solutions (or relocation). Heathcare services will have to adapt to new patterns in the spread of diseases. All these changes are business opportunities for someone.

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30 July 2007

Now the rain has gone...

While I must repeat the mantra of "no one weather event can be directly attributed to climate change", the recent floods across England have shifted the emphasis from climate change mitigation (reducing the likelihood of rising temperatures) to its less glamorous cousin, adaptation (reducing the impact of those raised temperatures).

The first thing we have to do is stop siting new developments in places susceptible to flooding. The Housing Minister's statement on the Today programme last week that "it is unrealistic not to build on flood plains" must have raised howls of incredulity from the soggy households of the West Midlands and Yorkshire, and her logic is baffling under any circumstances. Flood plain. The clue is in the name.

The next thing that has to be done is to slow down and reverse the concreting of our country so rainwater does not run off so quickly. There are plenty of proven technical solutions from permeable hardstanding to full blown Sustainable Urban Drainage Systems. Unfortunately the latter take up a large amount of space and cannot be easily shoehorned into existing towns and cities.

Lastly we have to provide physical protection to key infrastructure under threat from flooding. The problem with barriers is they have a tendency to shift the problem elsewhere and this must be taken into consideration.

There is evidence that climate change impacts lag carbon emissions by about 50 years, so even if we went zero carbon right now, we're stuck with changing weather patterns for the foreseeable future. It looks as if we will be hearing a lot more about adaptation in the months and years to come.

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