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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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28 January 2011

Green White Elephants

I read in our local paper yesterday that a neighbouring council had just unveiled plans for a Green Business Incubator using £2.4million of European funding (and goodness knows how much match funding). I immediately put my head in my hands and started whimpering. Why my negative reaction, you may ask? Surely I support green business?

Of course I do, but these green business parks are usually vanity projects, driven by the desire to be seen to do something tangible to promote green business. When I'm feeling really cynical I suggest that the sponsor of the idea is too busy dreaming of the 'handshake in front of the billboard' photo in the press to ask the really hard questions.

My evidence? About 8 years ago my then team were commissioned to investigate green business parks of various types to determine what did and didn't work. A colleague trawled the web for examples across the world and sent out dozens of e-mails with a survey attached. We got worse than a poor result - a sizeable proportion of the e-mails simply bounced. Not a good sign. When he chased the others for replies he found that the parks had either died a death or had evolved into bog standard business parks (and they didn't really want to talk about the green thing...). We came to the conclusion that what didn't work was the whole concept - an inconvenient truth as our conclusions were dismissed by the sponsors of the work*.

Ever since, I have challenged anyone proposing such a park to name one successful working example**. No-one has ever managed to do so.

The broader point are that green businesses are simply businesses like any other. We don't need special business parks, or any other cotton wool. In most instances it doesn't matter if the company next door is a web company or a pizza delivery service. There are some cases where businesses may chose to co-locate, but it is rarely critical to their success.

Green business needs are the same as other businesses - demand, a suitably skilled workforce, a robust supply chain - and the bigger green businesses can help create some of those conditions. If the public sector wants to help, the best levers are to increase demand through green procurement, to level the playing field through the removal of perverse incentives and to accelerate the development of technology though targeted R&D support.

But at the end of the day, a green business is still a business - and doesn't need white elephants.

Notes:

* The sponsor seems to have attracted two potential tenants in the intervening 8 years but construction of those plants still hasn't started as of late 2010. The original estimate for the cost of the project was £25m of public money, but I have read that the overall project is about £135m. According to press reports the project still needs £2.2m of public money for access improvements.

** There are some great examples of business parks that have gone green by engaging their existing tenants, but that's a completely different, and much cheaper, proposal. "Evolution, not revolution" is the key principle for success.

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