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25 August 2017

Some Sustainability ideas just weren't meant to happen...

IMG_2743One of my (many) pet hates in Sustainability is people and organisations trying desperately to make a trendy concept work when all the evidence points to failure.

Back in my last job, the 'in thing' was the eco-park – colocating recycling businesses around a materials recovery facility to provide a local zero waste solution. Sounds great in theory, but when my team was delegated the task of reviewing existing and planned eco-parks around the world as part of a feasibility study, we found that all of them had failed with the exception of one in Singapore where they have a centralised planning system and the businesses were given no choice as to their location. We presented our findings, but they were politely ignored, and the project trundled on regardless, soaking up more public money, until the sponsors couldn't secure the huge public investment required to make it happen.

I've long been sceptical about Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) as not reducing emissions seems like an odd way to reduce emissions – along with my nagging gut feeling that the second law of thermodynamics suggests that it will never work. I was very amused by with this piece by Tom Baxter of Aberdeen University pointing out that CCS will save as much carbon being emitted to the atmosphere as would not overfilling our kettles – hardly an impressive return for all the infrastructure required. Many green commentators have lambasted the UK Government for not investing a promised £1bn in CCS, but maybe they should be asking why the Government has got cold feet.

Public bike hire schemes are another I remain unconvinced about. Don't get me wrong, I like the concept of having readily available bikes, but the one in my own city, Newcastle, failed and there are reports around the world of either failures, low take up, theft and/or requirements for heavy subsidy. I can't help thinking that the main driver for each city to set up a scheme is keeping up with the Jones'.

The big question in all these concepts is are they really worth it? In the eco-park example, businesses will co-locate organically if there is economic reason to do so, in CCS, the cost/benefit ratio is surely crippling, and I can't help thinking the 6/7-figure subsidies/sponsorship required to maintain a bike hire scheme could be better invested in other cycle infrastructure to allow cyclists to move around our cities faster and more safely. Maybe we should be quicker to ditch ideas which don't seem to work, and invest our time, money and effort in those which do.

 

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21 July 2014

Will you be a carboniferous fossil in a low carbon economy?

old oil pump

Kodak is often held up as the archetypal extinction of the digital age. The photographic film giant invented but rejected the product - the digital compact camera - that lead to its own downfall. Now compact digital camera sales are falling fast as the smartphone fills that niche as the bedrock of a mobile digital lifestyle. Technological and socioeconomic evolution can be fast and brutal.

Now one of the key debates in sustainability is the 'carbon bubble' - the overvaluing of fossil fuel assets by markets which are not anticipating a transition to a low carbon economy. Joan Walley MP, chair of the UK Government's Committee on Climate Change, said back in March:

"The government and Bank of England must not be complacent about the risks of carbon exposure in the world economy. Financial stability could be threatened if shares in fossil fuel companies turn out to be overvalued because the bulk of their oil, coal and gas reserves cannot be burnt without further destabilising the climate."

Shell wrote to shareholders in May claiming that none of its proven resources would be stranded, putting its faith in Carbon Capture & Storage (CCS) to allow it to burn fossil fuels in a low carbon economy. Given that CCS technology is still somewhat immature - and not evolving half as fast as, say, renewables - that's confidence.

It has to be remembered too, that assets come in lots of different forms, not just financial shares. If you have high carbon buildings, IT infrastructure, vehicles and/or manufacturing facilities, what will they be worth in a low carbon economy? I have had (good-natured) arguments with several large asset-intensive players who are assuming that the economy in 10 years time will pretty much look like the economy now and who refused to even consider the low carbon/circular economy scenario as a possibility.

Kodak thought that things wouldn't change the way they did. It didn't end well.

A sensible company would do a risk assessment on alternative scenarios at the very least rather than putting the blinkers on. Much better than sweating over euphemisms to explain plummeting asset values in an annual report in 5-10 years time.

 

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