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23 June 2017

Science-based Targets: Hope or Hype?

carbon footprintThe latest thing in Sustainability is 'Science-based Targets'. The basic idea is to use the carbon emissions trajectory that the IPCC says is required to stick to 2°C of warming and apportion that reduction to your organisation's carbon footprint either in absolute terms, via a sector-based target, or based on your turnover. I always think it is worth questioning whether the 'latest thing' stands up to the hype or not, so here is my take.

The advantages I see of the science-based approach are:

  • You can be reasonably sure that you are committing to your 'fair share' of emissions cuts;
  • It will communicate the scale of the challenge to stakeholders and decision makers;
  • You can point to other organisations (preferably competitors) who are using science-based targets;
  • Many, but by no means all, will see 'science based' as a seal of approval for the target.

The disadvantages are: Read the rest of this entry »

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24 April 2017

Oh to be back in the Bad Ol' Days


Nostalgia is natural. I love the nostalgia section in our local newspaper, even though I'm not a native of the city. And it is always tempting to hark back to the past – very rarely do you hear anybody say "well, it's much better these days." Personally, I think it comes from evolution – in a natural eco-system the creatures that fear unfamiliar sights, sounds and smells will live longer than those who don't.

C-FL6WuWsAAsK3SBut sometimes nostalgia can reach a level of self parody. While most of us marked last Friday's coal-free day in the UK as a remarkable achievement, the Telegraph published a bizarre lament for the days of smog, smut and "the tang of sulphur" (right).

In my view, coal is fast becoming the litmus test for progressive/conservative split in politics with Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen and Tony Abbott backing coal. Prominent 'lukewarmer' Matt Ridley's inherited family fortune came from coal (and still does). Often 'clean coal' is invoked to deflect criticism, but coal is always a theme.

The far left dabble in this pool of fossilised nostalgia too, with the UK's Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn plugging clean coal to bring back mining jobs. One of my favourite bonkers conspiracy theories is that Margaret Thatcher 'invented' climate change to kill off the UK's coal industry. Yeah, right.

It is easy to sneer (as I just have), but we have to remember the power of nostalgia and the lure of 'it could be like our childhood again'. The renewables revolution may seem like a miracle to the readers of this blog, but change always threatens someone. And it is those people we need to engage with – on their terms – rather than preaching to the green choir.



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16 January 2017

Happy Monday! Or why it's too easy to be Blue

the end is nigh

Before I had kids I used to see myself as a bit of a songwriter. One of my enduring insights from that time is that is much more difficult to write a good happy song than a good sad song. For the latter, you only need to reach for a minor key, a slow tempo and some pseudo-intellectual phrases and you're away. I could never get it right with an upbeat, positive song, so I used to fall back on scathing satire to make it work.

I find the same happens with sustainability news (or any news for that matter). It is very easy to  create a headline from a negative story, much more difficult to be impactful with a positive one. So you get articles like this one from the Guardian's Robin McKie which includes the line

"The trouble is that very little has been done in the past decade to trigger changes that might wean us off [the UK's] fossil fuel addiction."

That is utter nonsense. We have seen a renewable energy boom and a collapse in the coal-fired industry. OK, so the domestic heating/insulation sector and transport are proving harder nuts to crack and the Government should be putting this much higher up the agenda, but the picture is encouraging. Of course we need people like McKie to keep the pressure on, but the context is important or people will get despondent.

You can scale this up to the global level. Carbon emissions are stalling, as is population growth, and extreme poverty is falling fast, but you'd never know it from the press. The war isn't won yet by any means, but our front lines are moving forward. Let's keep the troops motivated!


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31 March 2016

The British Steel Industry & the Carbon Leakage Conundrum

carbon footprintOne 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.


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2 September 2015

If it looks like a SUV...


We've just bitten the bullet and bought a new family car. Having three kids needing car seats/boosters limited our options massively – few 5 seaters have enough space across the back seat, so, after much head-scratching, we settled on a Ford S-Max 7 seater (above).

Despite being a much bigger beast, the S-Max has slightly lower CO2 emissions per km than our old VW Golf (138 g/km compared to 143 g/km). That salved our carbon consciences somewhat (along with the fact our annual mileage is low and much of what we do do offsets flying).

One option we didn't consider was a spacious SUV – for obvious reasons.

Hold on. For 'obvious reasons'? What are those?

Er, that SUVs destroy the planet with their gas-guzzling and their carbon-belching?

Do they? A Nissan X-Trail SUV emits 129-138 g CO2/km depending on whether you go 2WD or 4WD. The lower end of that is not far off the average for the UK and better than our S-Max.

If I'm honest, I didn't check whether the received wisdom on SUVs was correct until it was too late. If I'm really, really honest, the more powerful motive was that I didn't want to be seen to be driving an SUV no matter what.

Over the summer, I've been reading Thinking, Fast and Slow, Nobel prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman's brilliant treatise on decision making. The central premise is that we generally make decisions on intuition based on previous experience, rather than careful, objective analysis. And, it seems, the 'SUV = evil' meme was more deeply embedded in my mind than I'd ever realised.

I'll be musing more on Kahneman over the next few weeks, but, in short, every sustainability practitioner should read it.


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12 June 2015

Staying one step ahead of legislation

Baltic view

Last Friday saw the 11th meeting of the Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group – the small group of sustainability managers from large organisations I facilitate. We were back at the site of the very first meeting, the Baltic Art Gallery in Gateshead with its fabulous views over the Tyne.

The topic was legislation and, in particular, what we can learn from wrestling with current legislation to anticipate the next wave. The Group focussed on three areas of legislation – Energy/Carbon, Supply Chain and Product Design. Here's a selection of the 60+ 'take home' points arising:

  • A compliance mindset means always playing catch up;
  • Need an early warning system to identify and screen forthcoming legislation;
  • Spending time to understand the true scope and depth of the requirements is a very worthwhile investment;
  • Use legislation to stimulate innovation;
  • Always assume legislation will tighten;
  • Suppliers may say ‘no’ if they are not directly obligated;
  • You can sometimes sell compliance to customers as added-value by de-risking their compliance;
  • Energy/carbon biggest opportunity for automating data collection;
  • Purchase plant, fleet and equipment on through life costing basis;
  • Care needs to be taken with data – trends may be due to changing collection process;
  • Energy management software needs to work for the business and not the other way around – take care with choice of vendor;
  • Reinvest a % of savings to generate a snowball effect;
  • Investment appraisal needs to be able to capture energy/carbon costs.
  • Knowing what’s actually in your product is a real challenge, yet legislation makes it your responsibility;
  • Further down the supply chain the harder it is to check, yet the bigger the risk to reputation;
  • Categorise suppliers to identify risks: strategic/tactical, single/replaceable, and by geography;
  • Giving priority to sustainable suppliers means unsustainable suppliers will lose market share ie you can transform the market with purchasing decisions;
  • LCA heavily dependent on assumptions and must be used with care;
  • Watch-list of chemicals/components is growing fast;
  • Designing out problematic materials is the best solution – and can provide extra value to customers.

As always it was the discussion that got us to these conclusions which gave the most value. This discussion continued over lunch in the fabulous SIX rooftop restaurant – 'no dreary buffets' is one of the three rules of the Group!


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29 June 2011

VW feel the full force of Greenpeace's wit

Well, Greenpeace have done it again. Having successfully targeted Apple back in 2007 - forcing a rare about turn by Mr Jobs - they're now gunning for VW with this well crafted Star Wars spoof. VW are being targeted for having the worst emissions record amongst Europe's major motor manufacturers.

Where Greenpeace excel in these campaigns is the wit and craftsmanship that go into the content - note perfect to go viral in the social media age. VW have a real problem on their hands here - no matter what their plans for future vehicles are, the evidence speaks for itself. They now have three options - put on the tin hat and hope that it goes away, come out fighting or defuse the situation by acknowledging the problem and pledging to change their ways. Jobs tried the second one, but ended up taking the third.

I would strongly advise that anyone in this situation takes the "it's a fair cop" option first - turn a problem into a driver for improvement. Check out what Lexus managed after being criticised by the Advertising Standards Agency.

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18 May 2011

Cutting carbon in a globalised world

Two pieces of news caught my eye yesterday: the big news that UK Energy & Climate Change Minister Chris Huhne announced that the UK Government was committing to a 50% reduction in carbon emissions by 2027 - the toughest target set in the world - and some local news that an aluminium smelter and its coal fired power station - both about 15 miles from where I'm sitting - might close due to the Government's new carbon floor price.

There's a big problem here - the aluminium produced by the smelter (and associated carbon emissions) will still be produced somewhere in the world, just not here. The global climate doesn't care where the emissions come from, so there is a strong possibility that the Government's commitment will simply push more industry and emissions overseas. If you don't believe me, figures from Oxford University show that, despite the official Government line for many years, the UK has not been cutting its carbon emissions, but has simply leaked them to other countries while our overall carbon footprint has continued to grow.

If I was a right-wing commentator I would now start harrumphing about the idiocy of carbon emission restrictions, how they're destroying our Great British Industry and how we should drop the whole bally lot. But that's a stupid argument - first of all it ends with The Tragedy of the Commons (ie we all lose through selfishness) and, secondly, in a globalised economy it is our Western consumption levels that drive global emissions and we can't duck responsibility for that.

What we need to do instead is develop a smarter way of dealing with each country's emissions - considering emissions from our consumption as well as our production. A few years ago I explained this to both the then UK climate minister, David Miliband, and the current one, Chris Huhne. Both listened politely, did some mulling on it and acknowledged my point, but I suspect both filed it in the 'too difficult' tray.

Business is way ahead of Government here. About five years ago many, if not most, major companies only considered emissions from within their factory fence (plus those from power stations producing their electricity). Most have now faced up to the fact that their carbon footprint does include that of the suppliers - it was crazy when say Tesco, whose purchasing power is driven by £1 in every 8 we Brits spend, didn't acknowledge responsibility for supply chain emissions. Now Tesco and the other big retail sheds, along with major consumer goods manufacturers like P&G and Unilever, are actively decarbonising their supply chain wherever that supply chain may be - national boundaries are no restriction. Some are looking the other way along the supply chain too and 'choice editing' for the consumer, such as when B&Q stopped selling patio heaters. I suspect the massive buying power of such powerful companies could have more impact than any Government targets.

(For more, check out our Green Academy session on Greening the Supply Chain on 1st June)

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18 April 2011

Green Marketing: Audi vs Fiat

Saw this Audi ad yesterday and thought it was all wrong from a green marketing point of view - click on it to see it in all its glory.

This just isn't a compelling message - the car is small and the CO2 is very large. Does "13% less" really motivate the man in the street to act? How does the fact that 3 out of the 5 main 'words' in the ad are 'scientific' (CO2, 129g/km, 13%) captivate potential buyers? Very weak, in my opinion.

If we compare this with the Fiat ad that I snapped a few weeks ago (below), the difference is quite noticeable - setting aside the more dramatic early morning lighting. This campaign associates green with fun, not just 'less'. The bold typography and colours reinforce the fun and the car is centre stage. Simple, but effective.

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15 January 2010

The Big Picture (and the one bigger than that...)

I've been writing up my interview with Nick Coad, Environmental Director of National Express, for my next book The Green Executive. He gave a wonderful example of how you need to look at the big picture. National Express started on their sustainability journey by looking internally - risk reduction, eco-efficiency and their branding and reputation management. However it became clear to them that they were part of the solution rather than part of the problem. A shift to public transport use could actually increase the company's carbon emissions, but the net effect would be a substantial cut when you look at the bigger transport picture.

So they started engaging with policy makers, other businesses and customers. But they found that the UK Government was more interested in improving the efficiency of each transport mode rather than modal shift - getting people out of high carbon transport modes and into low carbon modes. National Express's paper "More is Less" was proclaimed as visionary in the trade press and shifted the debate several steps forward to look at modal shift.

There is of course an even bigger picture to this. Why do we travel? The broadest definition of the reason is I can come up with is "to experience something that is geographically distant". But technology allows us to experience some distant things (conversations, sights, sounds, data etc) without moving. So the ultimate modal shift in this sector is towards teleconferencing and telecommuting.

And before anyone says it, I know there's yet another, quite enormous picture which is why do we want/have to do these things, but that's going a little too far into the realms of philosophy on a cold Friday morning in January!

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30 September 2009

I'm on the train...

...down to Watford to run a sustainability workshop for senior NHS staff.

I love the train - even going through as bland countryside as East Yorkshire. The early morning sun is casting warm light and long shadows across the fields and villages. And of course I can get on with writing this blog, continuing with the Green Executive and catching up on my e-mail action list using the convenient wi-fi internet access. And drink coffee. Who on earth would prefer to drive or fly?

Two people on the next row are discussing the difficulties of hitting their organisation's carbon targets. I'm not deliberately earwigging (perish the thought), but I've got a Pavlovian twitch anytime someone mentions 80% by 2050 in my proximity. From what fragments I've overhead so far I could make about half a dozen suggestions...

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28 September 2009

Green Apples not just a fad

More than two years ago I blogged about Apple Computer's run in with Greenpeace and I continue to use it as a case study of the risks of being targeted by a pressure group. Well Apple have released a new site which makes the environmental impact of their products as transparent as possible.

As someone who is typing this on his sixth Mac in 20 years, I really chuffed that such a high profile company has realised that in the 21st century, hip = green and vice versa. Interesting too that my 2008 model Powerbook Pro has 60% of the carbon emissions in use as my old laptop.

This energy efficiency has wider importance too as the world becomes increasingly digitised. There is an interesting article in the latest edition of The ENDS Report on the carbon footprint of data centres. Incredibly the typical server only uses 10-20% of its capacity. A technique called 'virtualisation' is now being used to increase this to 50-70% - a massive improvement.

There are many benefits of the shift to a digital world - removing the information (photos, music, movies) from the medium (film, paper, CDs, DVDs plus associated packaging and distribution) - and it is great to see that the carbon footprint of each unit of digital activity is dropping so rapidly so we don't simply move the problem around.

Update 9/10/09
Apple have announced, like Nike and several other large players, that they are resigning from the US Chamber of Commerce in protest at the latter's stance on Obama's climate change bill. Almost literally walking the talk.

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8 July 2009

Global or Local?

There are reports today that the Copenhagen process to agree a post-Kyoto global climate change agreement will stall as China and India will not play ball.

I'm currently reading "The Solar Economy" by maverick German MP Hermann Scheer. A full book review will follow, but he argues that Kyoto style agreements are simply an excuse to delay action and end up with the lowest common denominator as a result of the inevitable compromises. Scheer argues that nations would be much better off acting alone, acting quickly and acting ambitiously. I'm beginning to understand his point...

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16 June 2009

Free: 101 Carbon-busting Tips

Now available from the resources page.

You can't say I don't spoil you...

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29 May 2009

Mitsubishi i MiEV hits the UK

This week I got to drive one of the first two Mitsubishi i MiEV plug-in electric cars in the UK. Like most electric passenger vehicles it is a sharp mover and a sharp stopper too as the regenerative braking kicks in, charging the batteries again.

According to Mitsubishi, its range is 100 miles on a full charge and its carbon emissions are about 30% of a petrol equivalent (presumably using the carbon intensity of Japanese electricity as a guide). A quick charge will take it to 80% of battery capacity in 30 minutes, but a full standard charge takes 7 hours.

This is quite a breakthrough - an electric car that you could imagine being seen (but not heard) in. The range would be a bit limiting for me - I'd like to see an extra 50 miles there as I often do a 80-100 mile round trip to clients on Teesside and I would want a bit of headroom in case of traffic problems etc. Tesla, makers of the impressive electric sports car, are working on a 300 mile saloon, which would be brilliant.

It is clear that electric cars are starting to evolve quickly and it will be very interesting to see how quickly they become a mainstream choice.

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20 April 2009

Electric cars are NOT zero emissions...

... unless you can guarantee the electricity comes from a 100% renewable source.

It frustrates me that much of the recent press coverage describes electric vehicles as zero-carbon as they are obviously not - their carbon performance should be rated as the average emissions from the mains electricity of that particular country. "Zero-emissions" is just greenwash and it should stop now before the inevitable backlash.

My second frustration is trying to get an accurate estimation of what those emissions are. Just this weekend I have seen quotes suggesting that they are roughly the same as the petrol equivalent, that they are 40% more efficient and in one case (the Tesla sports car) just 25% of a small petrol sports car. Not all of these can be right.

We need a proper method of calculating these emissions and we need it now.

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13 November 2008

Beware the old 'Bait & Switch'

I'm on the train back North having attended the Skillfair Consultants Conference in London - I go every year to learn from other boutique and solo consultants with a wide range of skills and services. One of the great grumbles at these sessions is the perception of the 'big name consultancies' as low risk compared to smaller operators, when the smaller operator will be cheaper, and, more importantly, you will always get the principal consultant working on your project.

The old trick of buttering up a client with senior staff until signing the contract and then appointing naive beginners to deliver the project is known in the trade as 'bait and switch'. I recently heard a first hand account (from the frustrated client) of a case where the client wanted to compare the carbon footprints of their numerous but similar sites. The well known firm they employed dropped a different team of juniors into each site (thus maximising fees in a short timeframe) and, lo, each team measured the footprint of their designated site in a different way rendering the comparison useless. Would a one-man-band have done the same? Very unlikely - it would be very inefficient to invent multiple methods - and they wouldn't stay in business for long if they were so incompetent to do so.

The moral of the story is that big isn't always better. Choose carefully...

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17 September 2008

Hot & Cold in Southampton

Yesterday morning I visited the Southampton District Energy Scheme. It supplies not only heat (some of which comes from a geothermal source) but also cooling and electricity (through trigeneration combined heat & power). And the headline stats are impressive:

- over 40 customers

- 12 000 tonnes CO2 per year avoided

- reduced costs for clients

But what really interested me is how the scheme has evolved over the last 21 years from humble beginnings - just the Civic Centre to begin with (with geothermal only) and then spreading out across the city centre to other large users and adding CHP units as and when necessary.

There is a raft of evidence that this 'evolution, not revolution' approach for large distributed sustainability projects is the best way forward by a country mile, but yet again and again proposals come forward that try to solve all problems at once, but only if about 20 partners sign up and a huge wodge of public money is chucked in the pot. The evolutionary approach has made the Southampton scheme robust, effective and self financing - just like the famous energy scheme developed by Woking Council. Grandiose schemes which require a colossal injection of public funds more than often don't get off the drawing board and if they do, usually collapse under their own weight.

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9 April 2008

Can carbon dioxide be a resource?

Yesterday I was on Teesside looking at the results of a remarkable project that I had a small hand in about 5 years ago. In a meeting with the management of a chemical company I asked why they didn't use some of their excess heat for horticulture. They got very excited about it and asked their engineers to look into it. The engineers pointed out they'd been proposing this for a long time... sometimes it takes an outsider to grab management's attention.

A couple of years later and Teesside now has a massive (90 000 sqm) set of glasshouses belonging to John Baarda Ltd holding about 300 000 tomato plants, which produce many millions of tomatoes every year for several major supermarkets. But the really interesting thing is they also pump carbon dioxide into the glasshouses to accelerate the growing - the atmosphere has about twice the concentration as the outside atmosphere. Talk about a greenhouse effect...

Bad puns aside, it goes to show that even the most notorious of our industrial emissions can be put to good use.

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14 March 2008

CRC Details Published

The UK government has published more information on the carbon reduction commitment (CRC) - a proposed mandatory emissions trading scheme for large organisations like supermarkets, hotels, water companies, government departments and local authorities.

The scheme is due to begin in 2010, and will apply to around 5,000 large, non-energy intensive organisations that have half-hourly electricity meters and use more than 6,000 kWhr of electricity per year. Roughly speaking if you have a bill over £500k you'll be hit.

If so you will have to buy allowances from the government to cover all of their emissions - not just electricity. They are expected to cost around £12/tCO2. For the first 3 years there will be no restriction on the number of allowances, then a new Committee on Climate Change will set caps for 5 year phases. Organisations will then have to trade between themselves.

All the more reason to start cutting those carbon emissions back now. You may be able to profit from your tardy peers.

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