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20 November 2017

Michael Gove, Eco-warrior

The environmental movement let out a groan of exasperation when Michael Gove took over the reins as UK Environment Minister earlier this year. A long list of anti-greens or time-servers had filled the post since 2010 and the only environmental thing we knew above Gove was that, in his divisive stint as Education Secretary, he had apparently considered taking climate change off the national curriculum. So when he stepped up to the podium at the Conservative Party Conference, expectations were rock bottom. But then he said: Read the rest of this entry »

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13 October 2017

Sustainability Bites 13/10/17

Here's this week's edition of Sustainability Bites where I really struggle to find anything to criticise in the UK Government's Clean Growth Strategy, so I turn to Donald Trump who never fails to disappoint.
 

 

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6 October 2017

Sustainability Bites 6/10/17

Here's this week's edition of Sustainability Bites, covering the Sustainability elements of the Conservative Party Conference (more than you'd think), the latest green energy record and some of the exciting things that I've been doing this week. Comments in the comments!

 

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29 September 2017

Sustainability Bites: Labour Conference, UK Green Summer, Demise of GSB


Here's my hot takes on the week's big Sustainability news - join us each Friday (unless I'm away) at 10am on Facebook. Comments in the comments, please!

 

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22 September 2017

Sustainability Bites: #ClimateOptimist, Cause for Optimism and Theresa May

Here's this week's edition of Sustainability Bites. I covered the Climate Optimist campaign (again), the Nature Geosciences paper on progress towards Paris Agreement commitments and Theresa May's speech to the UN. Comments in the comments please!

 

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1 September 2017

Sustainability is becoming 'The New Normal'

rusty car

Last week I chuckled at a typical silly season column in the i newspaper about Ford offering a scrappage scheme for older models of their cars. The author, Esther Walker, was justifying holding on to her old Fiesta on the (evidence-free) grounds that keeping it is greener than replacing it with a new model. She also quoted her other environmental efforts in her 'defence':

And – worse – I consider myself to be on the vanguard of modern environmental responsibility! You can hardly move in our kitchen for different recycling bins, colour-coded and stacked neatly. We break down our boxes tidily and use compost bags in our food waste caddy so’s not to traumatise the bin men with our grotesque food leftovers.

Sorry, to break it to Ms Walker, but this is not 'the vanguard of environmental responsibility'. With 43% of the UK's household waste recycled or composted (bearing in mind at least a third of household waste cannot easily be recycled at present), this is simply normal behaviour, replicated in kitchens across the country and across all demographics. My Dad recycles and he's no eco-warrior, it's just what people do now.

I remembered this week when I visited the factory of a potential client. What really impressed me was the way this pretty normal, well established engineering company had identified an important link in the low carbon economy to which they could apply their technology. They had built working demonstration models and were seeking investment to develop a fully commercialised version. They didn't see themselves as Elon Musk-style green evangelists, they were just identifying future market developments and working out how to exploit them. Normal entrepreneurial business behaviour, in other words.

Sustainability won't come from mindfulness, hugging trees or green evangelists. It will come when normal people, normal organisations and normal Governments see a sustainable economy as our normal way of life. And it appears to be happening.

 

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23 January 2017

A Green Industrial Strategy for the UK? Ish.

Theresa_May_UK_Home_Office_(cropped)UK Prime Minister Theresa May has a reputation as something of an inscrutable sphinx and we only get glimpses of what makes her tick. When she stepped up to the hot seat, there was none of the husky-hugging of her predecessor and she abolished the Department of Energy and Climate Change to the dismay and anger of the green commentariat. However, I was less worried about that as DECC had been folded into the new department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy where arguably it could be better integrated into business as usual rather than being treated as a special case – and BEIS Minister Greg Clark is a champion of carbon reduction.

So today, we get an insight on progress as the Government publishes the 10 pillars of its Industrial Strategy. And one of the pillars is rather encouraging:

Delivering affordable energy & clean growth: We will keep energy costs down, build the energy structure we need for new technologies, and secure the economic benefits of our move towards a low carbon economy.

Added to this is various public statements by the PM and BEIS ministers over the last 48 hours singling out electric vehicles, battery technology, 'smart energy' and nuclear as areas they would like to boost. I'm very pleased with this as I've long called for Government intervention to accelerate the smart grid as a way of unlocking more, and greener, growth, than the usual road building.

So far, so good, but what's not there?

The big omission is the circular economy which as usual has to play second fiddle to low carbon energy. For as long as I've been in the sustainability trade, this has been the case – 'waste' is simply not seen as sexy enough. I think it is time for a rebrand, focussing on technologies such as bioprocessing, smart disassembly, automatic sorting technologies and using big data methods to facilitate reverse logistics. More white coats and coding, a bit less in the way of tipper trucks, in other words. A circular economy would also boost the robustness of a post-Brexit UK economy – a key way of selling it to the green-sceptic amongst May's backbenchers.

The other problem is that the industrial strategy launch has been overshadowed by news of another – a misfiring Trident missile last year which hit the headlines yesterday. Events, my dear boy, events...

 

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5 October 2016

Slim Sustainability Pickings from UK Political Leaders

Theresa_May_UK_Home_Office_(cropped)Every year I sift through the leaders' speeches at the UK political party conferences so you don't have to. My theory is that, no matter what is discussed in the rest of the conference, the content of the leader's speech shows just how much of a priority is put upon green policies. Last year, I concluded the content was disappointing, this year makes that look like a low carbon bonanza. All the conferences were dominated by one word – Brexit – and most of the party leaderships where in something of a state of flux, but still, this was poor stuff. Here goes: Read the rest of this entry »

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14 September 2016

Embedding Sustainability is a Banker

Tax calculator and penFascinating article in this week's Economist, traditionally no friend of sustainability, about investing in low carbon firms. They quote research by BlackRock who found that companies in the top quintile for cutting their carbon intensity outperformed the MSCI World Index by 4% since 2012, while those in the bottom quintile trailed the Index by 5%.

On the downside, the author quotes other research which shows 'green mutual funds' trailed others  between 1991 and 2014. The blame for this is put on volatile fossil fuel markets and Government policies. My own (rather modest) green investments seem to have flat-lined over the last couple of years, deflating my enthusiasm slightly.

The article also mentions that the cost of LEDs has plummeted by 90% since 2010, showing how quickly green technologies are still maturing. It will be very interesting to see how this and similar price drops through economies of scale and innovation across the green tech sector will impact in the medium term.

The conclusion from all this is that while the green sector itself is still immature and thus risky, embedding sustainability into a conventional company will almost certainly reap dividends.

 

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16 May 2016

Will the Oil Industry collapse?

Oseberg_ship_head_postI'm reading 'Collapse' by Jared Diamond at the minute – the tale of how many civilisations just suddenly disappeared off the map. While the most famous of these was the Easter Islanders, the story of the Greenland Vikings is the one which is most baffling. Surrounded by seas brimful of fish, they persevered with trying to grow enough hay in short summers on fragile meadows to maintain their cattle in barns over the long and increasingly severe winters, until their luck ran out and they simply starved to death, their last meals consisting of garden birds and their pet dogs in a vain attempt to make it through.

I got a real resonance between the blind obstinance of the Vikings and the recent warning from Chatham House Prof Paul Stevens that the International Oil Companies (IOCs) face a stark choice:  a managed decline or sudden death. While his paper stretches my grasp of economics to the limit, Prof Stevens' argument is that the IOCs are clinging to the business models that saw them thrive in the past, but the assumptions that underpin those models are looking incredibly shaky.

The fish in this case are the renewable energies. At the turn of the millennium, BP and Shell invested in renewables and then gradually let them go again, losing lots of talent in the process. Today we get news that Shell is investing in green energy once more, although the amounts are modest.

The Vikings would have survived in Greenland if they had adapted their lifestyle to fishing for their dinner, but they refused. Will the oil companies adapt to the new reality? Or will they cling to what they know, dooming themselves?

 

Photo: Copyright: Museum of Cultural History, University of Oslo, Norway

 

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11 May 2016

Reasons to be cheerful (pt 396)

old oil pump

Here's a selection of headlines from the last few days:

We're getting to the stage where headlines like these hardly make a ripple. The revelation last month that the UK produced a full 25% of its electricity from renewable sources last year, with an additional 20% or so coming from low carbon nuclear, hardly raised an eyebrow. When I got started in Sustainability in 1998, the former figure was at a mere 2% with 90% of that being Scottish hydropower.

I believe there's only one way the world is moving now and it's towards a low carbon economy. We've got a long way to go, and some rocks to navigate, but we've almost certainly pointed the ship in the right direction. Full steam ahead!

 

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21 March 2016

Imagine...

sunrise

We are clearly living in an energy revolution – coal companies collapsing, oil prices trundling along the bottom as production outstrips demand and a surge in renewable energy.

But just imagine what that revolution would be like if:

  • Fossil fuels didn't receive four times the subsidy of renewables;
  • If the fossil fuel industry wasn't intrinsically linked to the future of many powerful politicians and Governments around the world;
  • If the money propping up fossil fuels was diverted into clean energy research;
  • If every City in the world resolved to adopt best practice from the front runner of every aspect of low carbon;
  • If much of the world's press wasn't so reluctant to embrace the change.

Just imagine the speed we could pick up if the brakes were taken off!

But maybe I'm just a dreamer...

 

 

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2 March 2016

Peak stuff? Peak Carbon? It's happening, folks...

shipping containers

A headline in yesterday's Guardian stopped me in my tracks:

UK consumes far less than a decade ago – 'peak stuff' or something else?
From crops to energy and metals, average material consumption fell from 15 tonnes in 2001 to just over 10 tonnes in 2013

That's quite an incredible achievement, if the stats are credible (a criticism of how the consumption was counted from Prof Tim Jackson has since been removed from the article as the Prof seems to have got his facts wrong). But actually, I can believe it – the whole digital economy has boomed – ebooks, MP3s, Netflix, digital photos, online news etc, etc. Cars are getting more efficient, we shop online and my local corner shop owner complains he hardly sells any newspapers anymore (he only gets one or two copies of several titles). And yesterday, it was reported that an English plastic bag manufacturer had gone bust after the introduction of the plastic bag tax (a warning there will be losers as well as winners).

Add this to all the evidence that the clean energy revolution is also laying waste to vast tracts of the fossil fuel industry, despite low oil prices. Carbon emissions stalled in 2014. Clean Energy Canada reported yesterday that last year more money was invested globally in new renewable power than in new power from fossil fuels.

We are clearly moving into new territory – places of which many of us could only dream of a decade ago. Let us drive that wagon train onward to the promised land!

 

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27 January 2016

The end of the oil age?

old oil pump

The current economic hysteria sweeping the globe has been triggered by the sudden slump in oil prices in the last 18 months.

But hold on a minute. In an oil based economy, surely these low prices should be driving massive economic growth, rather than a climate of fear? What is going on?

The answer is demand is low – and staying low, no matter what the oil price is. And investment in renewable energy continues to break records regardless of cheap fossil fuels.

Looking at the figures, it is too early to say the low carbon economy is taking over – yet. However I'm starting to wonder whether approaching a turning point where it's starting to squeeze the brakes on the oil-fired juggernaut. Think of all those businesses which are investing in massive renewable energy installations, the drive for energy efficiency and the rise of the digital economy – we don't need all those plastic CDs and DVDs anymore, thanks to iTunes, Spotify, Netflix etc. At some point it will happen.

The one thing we must avoid is talking ourselves into a recession because oil demand is stubbornly low. There are other forms of energy and new ways of using it – or not using it. The rules are being rewritten.

 

 

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12 October 2015

Reasons to be cheerful (about green issues)

I had an old college chum over for dinner last week and we did a lot of reminiscing about our student days and the years of optimism post-graduation in the mid-90s - Brit Pop and all that. I made the comment that the period between the fall of The Wall in 1989 and the Iraq War in 2003 was a period of hope where everything seemed to be going in the right direction. Democracy was spreading and peace-processes were popping up in long term conflicts from Northern Ireland to the Middle East. Then I had to correct myself - except for Rwanda, of course. And the former Yugoslavia... and Sri Lanka. before long we realised that the 90s weren't that great after all – we were looking at the past through rose tinted spectacles.

I've made it a rule that I fact check my assumptions, so over the weekend I did some Googling and found that we were wrong about the 90s - despite the ghoulish terror tactics of ISIS/Daesh, the world has been safer in the 21st Century than it has been for decades (see the graph below from the Centre for Systematic Peace). The Rwandan conflict in particular was a huge spike in misery, yet I had shunted it to the back of my head.

annualdeathspv3sWhen we are dealing with a threat such as climate change, it is easy to get misty-eyed about the past and negative about the present. If you check the data, rather than the headlines, we are making steady progress. World carbon emissions have stalled, oil demand has plummeted (one of the factors in the falling price), and many nations are surging past significant renewable energy milestones. Even here in the UK, with Government support that could charitably be described as lukewarm, last quarter over 48% of our electricity came from renewables or nuclear, with coal falling to its lowest contribution ever.

Let's not get despondent by the negativity. Like a rugby prop forward we have to keep throwing ourselves a couple of yards forward into enemy territory, crashing into the opposition, then presenting the ball cleanly back for the next player to do the same, grinding our way towards the goal line. The gaps to dart through to score will open eventually – and often more quickly than we expect.

[Maybe I should apologise to all my English readers for a rugby analogy at this sensitive time, but those of us from the Celtic nations will appreciate it!]

Chin up!

 

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5 December 2014

Message to George: "Green = Growth"

George_osborne_hiI sat through Wednesday's Autumn Statement from UK Chancellor George Osborne with increasing disappointment. Normally such a set piece speech will have at the very least a token mention of the green economy, but we got nothing. Nada. Rien. Chochote.

Even worse, we got exactly the kind of subsidies for fossil fuel extraction that his boss David Cameron said we needed rid of back in September. As Cameron put it:

In short we need a framework built on green growth not green tape.

There are four issues the Chancellor should have considered:

  1. Leadership: the mixed messages coming from the top of Government will do nothing to encourage investment in the low carbon economy. A clear steer is needed.
  2. Innovation: the fossil fuel industry is mature and has little scope for driving technological development. Boosting Government investment in, say, the smart grid and/or energy storage could trigger a cascade in innovations for future energy and transport systems.
  3. Costs: despite all the hype about oil prices plummeting in the last month or so, they are still higher than they ever were pre-2007. Renewable energy has huge amount of scope to get cheaper, the price of fossil fuels will inexorably rise in the medium term.
  4. Politics: given the level of public support for renewables, leadership on the green economy would have appealed to centrist swing voters.

And he if doesn't believe me, he can always ask his boss.

 

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10 October 2014

Will we get political leadership on sustainability in 2015?

political leaders2
The UK political conference season has come to an end, the last before the General Election scheduled for May 2015. So, with manifestos starting to take shape, and given that leadership on green issues is the difference between leaps forward and incremental improvements in sustainability, how much leadership did the main party leaders show? Here's my summary (with the usual disclosure that I'm a member of the Liberal Democrats, but I'll try to be objective!):

First up was Ed Miliband, Labour leader. His speech was wildly derided for flogging to death the already knackered 'I met a normal person recently who thinks just like me' trope and for forgetting to mention the yawning economic deficit. But he did remember to cover green issues (he forgot them in 2012), and it was good, clear stuff, making green jobs one of his 6 goals for the next parliament if he takes the keys to No 10 next year:

So our third national goal is for Britain to be truly a world leader in Green technology by 2025, creating one million new jobs as we do.

Under this government, Britain is behind Germany, Japan, the United States and even India and China for low-carbon, green technologies and services. So many of our brilliant businesses are desperate to play their part in creating their jobs of the future but they just can’t do it unless government does its bit. With our plan, we will.

Making a clear commitment to take the carbon out of our electricity by 2030. A Green Investment Bank with real powers to borrow and attract investment. And as Caroline Flint announced yesterday, devolving power to our communities so that we can insulate 5 million homes. The environment may not be fashionable as a political issue any more. But I believe it is incredibly important to our economy today. And it is the most important thing I can do in politics for the future of my kids and their generation.

The second leader to speak was Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, back from the UN where he gave the first speech on climate change by a British PM since Margaret Thatcher in 1990. He said some very interesting things then, but I said the litmus test would be how much of a priority he gave it when addressing the party faithful. He flunked it. To say green issues got a token mention is stretching the meaning of 'token', with Cameron merely mentioning 'Britain leading the battle against climate change' in passing. His green/blue 'green growth, not green tape' message at the UN could have, and should have, been a compelling pitch to bring round the anti-green forces in his party, but given he has just lost a couple of his MPs to the maverick, climate change-denying UKIP, one can only assume that he decided not to rock the boat.

Lastly, Nick Clegg, Liberal Democrat Leader and Deputy Prime Minister took to the podium. His party may be languishing in the polls and his personal ratings at rock bottom, but with another tight election in prospect, it is very possible that he will find himself in negotiation to form another coalition Government next year. Clegg made several references to environmental issues throughout his speech, but two passages were important, the first being to claim credit for progress under the current Government:

And just as we are refusing to saddle our children with mountains of debt, we are determined to hand them on a clean planet too. Both parties in this Government promised we would stick to our green commitments, but it has taken constant pressure from the Liberal Democrats – not least Ed Davey – to hold the Tories to their word. And I can tell you now that a sustainable environment will remain at the heart of our vision for Britain’s future – it’s not green crap to us.

That last line was a potshot at what Cameron is alleged to have said about green taxes on electricity production. Clegg later returned to the theme to set out five green laws:

...if you want to spread opportunity you can’t just stop at today. You have to think about tomorrow too. And for that same reason, our next manifesto will contain something I can guarantee you none of the others will: A commitment to five green laws. Laws that will commit British governments to reducing carbon from our electricity sector…Create new, legal targets for clean air and water…Give everyone access to green space… Massively boost energy efficiency and renewable energy… Prioritise the shift to green cars…Bring an end to dirty coal… Because Liberal Democrats understand that opportunity for everyone means thinking not just of this generation, but of future generations too.

So, in summary, Miliband and Clegg not only made clear commitments on sustainability, but sketched in some of the important detail behind that - as much as you can be expected to in a wide-ranging speech. Cameron flattered to deceive - if he means what he said at the UN, then we have something of a political consensus, but any personal commitment won't count unless steps up and shows leadership - to the public, to industry and to his party faithful.

 

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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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6 June 2014

Sustainability as Core Business Strategy

go greenThe whole corporate sustainability thing emerged from the idea of 'doing the right thing' or 'social responsibility' - but a recent trend is to harness sustainability as the core business strategy to drive sales.

Examples:

  • GE: CEO Jeff Immelt has hitched the venerable company's future to the 'ecomagination' programme of sustainable technologies;
  • Camira Fabrics: the company sees its sustainability stories as the unique selling point of its products;
  • BT: sees its products and services cutting carbon through digitisation;
  • Interface: famously, the carpet tile manufacturer talks of little else but sustainability.

This attitude requires a massive mindshift within the business - what was seen as a 'silo' activity not only has to spread out across the business, but into the whole value chain. It's not just about solving your own sustainability issues, but solving those of your customers too.

The one thing you have to watch for is that you still do both - you can't let yourself off dealing with your own negative impacts just because you are creating such positive impacts for others.

 

 

 

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25 October 2013

Green: The New Normal

grass feet small

If I told you about a country where, last quarter, more than a third of all electricity was generated from low carbon sources, which one do you think I'd be talking about?

Well I'm sat in it, and so are many of you: dear old Blighty.

Household recycling rates are nudging the 45-50% mark, depending on where you are in the country.

All this from what was 'the dirty man of Europe'? The one where renewable sources barely registered on energy statistics just a couple of years ago? The one with the throw-away culture?

As Fat Boy Slim would say, we've come a long way, baby.

What's interesting is that nobody has really noticed. Green is becoming the new normal. So much so that some organic food/drink producers now don't label their product as such in case consumers assume it's a niche product at a premium price. They just want it to be seen as a great product in a normal way.

And that's a good thing.

Some green ideologues may cry foul, saying that that this isn't deep green enough, but asking people to live in tie-dyed yurts, meditating on ley lines and knitting yoghurt, will get you nowhere.

Normal, everyday, mundane even - that's the ultimate green goal.

 

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