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6 October 2014

If this is war, we must use all the weapons at our disposal


Every Monday for the last couple of weeks, I've been mulling on one of my proposed Rules of the Pragmatic Environmentalist. This week, it is Rule 4: "Technology and markets mechanisms are powerful tools: we must use them to our advantage."

One of my favourite sustainability reads has been The God Species by Mark Lynas- mainly because it is so joyfully contrarian, kicking tired old green tropes and making a daring proposition (I paraphrase):

If we are wreaking biblical levels of destruction on the planet, we'd better use our 'god-like' technologies to stop the damage before it is too late.

Like Lynas, one of my great frustrations with the activist end of the environmental movement is their near-religious belief that the most powerful weapons in our armoury - capitalism, GM technology, market-based solutions, nuclear energy to name a few - are evil. Every time something is proposed it gets knocked down as, at best, not good enough, at worst, the works of the devil. Biodiesel = bad. Carbon offsetting = immoral. Feed-In Tariffs = enrich the rich etc, etc.

Fortunately none of the people peddling these dictates actually has to propose something that works. If you do get a solution, it's something vaguely along the lines of reorganising society into modern villages, going back to the land, growing nuts and whittling sticks.

Now I love a bit of whittling, but let's get real - if we want change and we want change fast, then we've got to harness the powerful tools that we have at our disposal, not shy away from them. Let's get our hands dirty!


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29 September 2010

It's the economy, stupid

Back in the early 1980s, I persuaded my parents to part with the princely sum of £399.00 for a BBC Micro Model B. My initial reaction was to feel a bit let down - all that white-heat-of-technology talk around home computers and the best thing this one could do was putting you in charge of a crudely realised kingdom with a river, fields and mountains (at least until Elite came out, but that's another matter...). At today's prices, that £399.00 could buy you four, yes, four, iPhone 4 handsets, each with about a million times more processing capability and a cornucopia of sci-fi type technology (video, maps, access to vast stores of information) that the 11 year old me would never have dreamed of.

So what has this got to do with green business? Well it demonstrates a number of basic economic principles - new technology starts off expensive until a mixture of economy of scale and innovation makes it accessible to all. But reading some accounts, you would think that renewables, to take an example, were exempt from this rule. "They're too expensive" we keep hearing. Only because they are the exception, rather than the rule. Already, with demand increasing and manufacturing shifting to China and India, prices of solar panels and wind turbines are starting to drop.

By the way, I'm not saying that offshoring manufacturing is a good or bad thing per se, just that once again, in the economic world we live in, that's what happens and we shouldn't be surprised if it does.

Demand also derives technology improvements and recently we have seen breakthroughs in dye-based solar PV technology which could deliver lower costs, higher efficiency and lower carbon footprint. Likewise, electric vehicles are currently expensive, but that's because the extraordinarily lean supply chains that supply conventional vehicle manufacturers have not been built for electric vehicles yet. One manufacturer told me that an extra 1000 vehicles a year would cut his bill of material costs by 40%. 45% of the cost of an electric vehicle is the battery, so, given the innovations in mobile phone battery technology, we will eventually see massive improvements there.

The flip side of this is true too. I once sat through a presentation on a new biodiesel plant for the North East of England. I asked whether it would take waste oils as well as rape seed oil, but the presenter said that to make the economics of the plant would only stack up if they produced pharma-grade glycerol as a by-product so they needed to be very tight on the quality of raw materials. His company later went bust, allegedly because putting that amount of high grade glycerol on the market depressed the price. More supply, same demand = lower prices. Welcome to the real world.

I also have little patience for those who complain that environmental legislation or corporate social responsibility will cost business or the economy money. Hold on, what's a cost? It's an income for someone else in the economy - it's not lost. Environmental legislation protects the world we live in and creates new markets. What's not to like?

Whether or not you like the economy we live in, we live in it and that's a fact. If you run, or want to run, a green business, you'll quickly find you're not exempt.

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9 November 2007

Can biofuels be sustainable?

ENDS is reporting that the Department for Transport has set up a watchdog, the Renewable Fuels Agency, to help ensure that biofuels used in the UK come from sustainable sources. This is timely with the Renewable Transport Fuels Obligation (RTFO) coming into force in April 2009, which will require 5% of all vehicle fuels sold in the UK to be biofuels.

Biodiesel seemed to go from eco-saviour to eco-demon in record time. Originally held up as a carbon neutral solution to transport emissions, the pressure that growing the crops will have on food prices or pristine habitats. Uber green George Monbiot is particularly critical of the industry and his comments are worth reading.

Paul Mobbs, in his rigorous analysis of the global energy situation, calculates there simply isn't enough land area in the UK to convert to 100% biodiesel. However, Peter Kendall, president of the UK's National Farmers' Union (NFU), says that there is enough agricultural land to deliver the 5% biofuel target without reducing food production. So maybe the new agency could ensure that the 5% target can be met in an environmentally sustainable way.

Of course, as everyone agrees, making biodiesel out of old cooking oil is AOK. I've never seen an analysis of how much fuel could be produced from this source, but if you can get it, take it!

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