I gave two keynote speeches this week: one at The Value of Sustainability organised by Newcastle University Business School and TADEA, the other at the Energy & Environment North East 2012 conference. Events like these are great for producing debate and stimulating thinking, so I thought I'd share.
For the former event I was on familiar ground on corporate sustainability, concluding the following:
- “Go Green Save Money is for Amateurs” - it is now a matter of competitive advantage;
- Sustainability is going mainstream - into products, processes and cultures;
- Litmus test is: what are you going to stop doing?
- Stretch yourself and think different;
- Ultimately about leadership rather than management.
During one the other sessions, I challenged the idea of 'sustainability champions' - asking what do you expect these guys to do and how do you expect them to do it? No-one had a clear answer, which reinforced my belief that the "champions" approach is usually taken up because other people do it, rather than having a clear role in mind.
At the EENE 2012 conference, I was covering the political slot after a local MP had pulled out. This gave me a chance to pontificate freely on "The World According to Gareth" and, in particular:
- We appear to be in the oil/fossil fuel endgame - not a matter of "low carbon or growth" as the Treasury may think so much as "low carbon or stagnation";
- The democratisation of energy production with renewables means we are entering the brave new world of Energy 2.0 - much in the way Web 2.0 revolutionised the internet;
- Energy 2.0 presents us with a range of challenges which translate into business opportunities;
- Green sector businesses are not charities: they must deal with uncertainties and must not become subsidy junkies;
- Top politicians (ie Prime Ministers) need to show more leadership (I had some fun with the fact that the only UK PM to make a big green speech was Margaret Thatcher).
Given that I was talking to an audience from the environmental sector, the most controversial phrase I put in the speech was "subsidy junkies." I strongly believe that thinking that you are due public subsidy because you are 'doing good' leads to what I might euphemistically describe as less than robust business planning. Subsidies should only be used to ease the way over the initial barriers to mature markets, rather than being used as a life support system.
No one threw anything, no one walked out. Only one person challenged me on this in a later talk, arguing that subsidies represented the internalisation of external costs from "brown" energy. He was in turn asked from the floor whether this shouldn't be done by altering the tax system, rather than by direct handout. He thought no, I would say emphatically yes.
My favourite case study of the year so far was presented just before my slot. To get ready for the Olympics, the canoe slalom at the Tees Barrage needed to be upgraded with pumps so the flow could be kept artificially high if the river flow dropped. The civil engineers, Patrick Parsons, turned this problem into an opportunity. By installing four two-way archimedes screws, the barrage could generate energy when the river's flow exceeded what was required, then switch and pump water back upstream when that flow fell below the minimum to give it a boost. Overall the system would export a net of 100,000 kWh of clean hydro energy a year and extend the operating hours of the course, facilitating the Olympics and improving its long-term financial performance. Superb.