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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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15 July 2016

Mayday? The Green Guide to the new UK Cabinet

Theresa_May_UK_Home_Office_(cropped)So, another momentous week in UK politics. We get our second ever female Prime Minister in Theresa May and a very new looking cabinet. Here's my quick guide as to who's who from the point of view of the green/Sustainability agenda.

Theresa May, Prime Minister

As with much about Mrs May, her attitude to green issues is a bit of a mystery. Her initial speeches were big on One Nation values when it came to socio-economic issues, but the environment didn't even get a token mention. This isn't encouraging, however BusinessGreen reports that a delegation of 'green Tories' including key lieutenant Amber Rudd sought and secured assurances that a May Government would pursue climate change goals. As always, leadership is key, so Mrs May will need to make her position clearer if the green economy is to thrive.

Philip Hammond, Chancellor of the Exchequer

Predecessor George Osborne was regarded as a serious brake on the green economy over his tenure. Not quite a climate sceptic himself, the 'lukewarmer'/anti-renewables/pro-fracking lobby got a sympathetic hearing from Osborne. The 2010-2015 Coalition Government saw a whole series of pitched battles between the Chancellor and Lib Dem energy and climate secretaries.

Hammond may be seen as exceedingly dull, but in his former role as Foreign Secretary, he made a number of very important speeches on climate change. One in particular caught my eye as it made a case for action from a Conservative point of view to the American Enterprise Institute - using Green Jujitsu in the lions' den. I'm always more interested in right-of-centre arguments for cutting carbon than the traditional lefty case as we need to speak to the unconverted, not preach to the choir.

Overall, we should see the economic brakes easing as Hammond gets into gear.

Amber Rudd, Home Secretary

There's little in Rudd's new brief linked to the low carbon agenda, but given her commitment to the cause, the new Home Secretary will be a key supporter in Cabinet and importantly, as we have seen, she has the PM's ear.

Andrea Leadsom, Environment Secretary Read the rest of this entry »

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21 October 2015

The People's Front of Sustainability? Splitters!

[Warning: this clip is much swearier than I remembered it - take care at work or in front of sensitive ears!]

This week, veteran Green Jonathan Porritt launched an extraordinary attack on pro-nuclear Greens, in particular Mark Lynas, Chris Goodall and George Monbiot, on the basis of UK Chancellor George Osborne's flawed deal with China to build a new nuclear plant.

Porritt's argument, which he comes close to admitting is ridiculous, is that, by breaking ranks with the green anti-nuclear dogma, these three individuals have freed Osborne from (clearly imaginary) shackles and destroyed any hope of a low carbon future in the UK. He blames them for everything from the Government's slashing of renewables subsidies to its crazy Hinkley Point deal (described as 'PFI on stilts' by one conservative commentator) and tells them to be ashamed of themselves.

I'm not particularly pro-nuclear, in fact I often call it out on its flaws, but I've come to believe that if we are to put our faith in scientific evidence on, say, climate change, then we must apply the same objectivity to other controversial topics such as shale gas or nuclear. Like Lynas, Goodall and Monbiot, this has opened me to accusations of hypocrisy when actually I'm trying my best not to be hypocritical.

I have found many times over the years that strict Green dogma is often a block to sustainability as naive idealism flounders in the real world. I have often told the story of my role in introducing a simple recycling system here in Newcastle, which was condemned as a sell out by the Greens, but increased recycling rates by 50% overnight because ordinary people liked it. When Porritt's Forum for the Future ranked Newcastle the most sustainable city in the UK, the local Green Party, instead of welcoming this success, wrote a lengthy piece on how Forum for the Future's methodology was flawed. Nothing is ever good enough. Success is failure. Let's sink below the waves polishing our halos.

So, hurrah for Lynas, Goodall and Monbiot, if only for their challenging of received green wisdom, and shame on Porritt for his self-righteous, one-eyed pomposity.


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25 September 2015

A surfeit of -isms? Eco-modernism, new environmentalism, pragmatic environmentalism

world brainThis week saw the launch of 'Eco-modernism' the brainchild of Mark Lynas and a host of other green thinkers. It pretty much fills the same space as BusinessGreen editor James Murray's New Environmentalism concept and my own, completely ignored, idea of Pragmatic Environmentalism – viz we need to reclaim the environmental movement from leftwing politics and place it square in the centre so people of left, right and middle can relate to it and not fear it is creeping communism in disguise (the old 'watermelon' trope).

Under eco-modernism/new/pragmatic environmentalism, the anti-science of parts of the green movement (GM, fracking, nuclear are all EVIL*) are challenged as hard as the anti-science of right-wing neoliberalism (climate change denial). We do what works, what science indicates, what technology and society permits, not what dogma dictates.

The seeds of my pragmatic environmentalism were sown when I was part of a political team bringing in a new recycling system here in Newcastle. We proposed moving from a source separated system to a semi-mixed collection of recyclates to make it as easy as possible for as many people as possible to participate. The local green movement went apeshit, to put it mildly, accusing us of betraying our principles and screaming that the whole thing was doomed to failure. We decided to ignore them, and rightly so, as the already good recycling rate jumped by 50% overnight.

You could argue that most of the big wins in sustainability have come from pragmatic environmentalism. Last quarter the UK produced a record 25.3% of power from renewables, up from 16.9% last year and beating down coal for the first time. Add in nuclear and low carbon sources produced just short of 50%. That's been achieved by harnessing rather than smashing capitalism, using market levers to create a virtuous cycle of volume and economies of scale (sorry, Naomi, but that's how it is). Despite the UK Government sending out all the wrong signals, this rise is likely to continue for a few years at least.

My only worry about eco-modernism was the strange bedfellows at its launch. Ex-environmental minister Owen Patterson and shamed banker Matt Ridley used the event to explain that everything was alright really. That's not the point. The threats are real and they are coming thick and fast. We have no time for either neoliberal complacency or anticapitalist utopianism – we've just got to knuckle down and get the job done.


* Note: I have reservations about all 3 technologies, but I try to base those on science rather than gut instinct. This annoys the antis more than it annoys the pros.


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16 April 2015

How the Manifestos Measure Up for Green Business

polling stationSo, the UK election rumbles on and this week we had the Party manifestos. So what do the parties offer on sustainability? Trying to be as objective as I can*, here's my quick and dirty review of the five national parties, in order of current number of seats in Parliament:

1. Conservatives

Big Headlines (ie mentions in key pledges):

  • None


  • Reaffirmation to meet international commitments on climate change.
  • Pro-fracking.
  • Investment in renewables but with an emphasis on 'cost effectiveness'. Halting 'spread of onshore wind farms'.
  • Every vehicle to be zero emissions by 2050, double cycling, investment in railways.
  • 'Blue Belt' of marine reserves.

My verdict: Token effort – and a mixed bag at that.


2. Labour

Big Headlines:

  • None.

Detail: Read the rest of this entry »

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15 December 2014

The Oil Industry: Resurgence or Death Throes?

old oil pump

Like many, I've been completely gobsmacked by the plummeting oil price - down from over $100 a barrel at the start of the year to $64 a barrel this month. Trying to unpick what has happened has led me to the following line of thinking:

  • The growth in demand is slowing dramatically, worrying all producers (IEA);
  • Production is actually falling (IEA);
  • Shale oil production in the US is threatening OPEC's stranglehold on oil markets (BusinessWeek);
  • OPEC are trying to drive out shale oil and other competitors by keeping quotas high (BusinessWeek) - presumably draining their stocks.

Given this political/economic wrestling match, it is very hard to say where oil prices will be in 2-3 years time. Given the relative flexibility of shale oil extraction compared to lumbering OPEC conventional extraction, I can't help but think, like BusinessWeek, that OPEC are going to emerge a much weaker force as a result of their tactics. It may be they are up against the wall and lashing out in desperation. So the answer to my question above is: both - resurgence for shale, long term decline for OPEC.

This uncertainty is a massive problem for investors in alternative energy - who need to know what the market will be like to invest. I can't help but think that the solution is still a carbon tax to reflect the damage done by carbon based fuels - along with the removal of fossil fuel subsidies. This would stabilise the market and give renewables a level playing field.


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16 July 2014

Reshuffling the green pack isn't enough, Mr Cameron

CameronHuskiesYesterday's reshuffle lead to big changes in the ranks of Conservative faces in the UK Government with the commentariat pouring over the nuances of every move. From an environmental view, the bad news was the loss of junior minister Greg Barker and his puppyish enthusiasm, the better news the retirement of climate sceptic Environmental Secretary Owen Paterson and the shifting of Michael Fallon to defence.

We don't know a huge amount about their replacements - Matt Hancock, Liz Truss and Amber Rudd - yet. I did find evidence of positive messages about the green economy from all three, although Hancock did sign a letter against onshore wind (while saying he was pro-renewables). My take is overall the balance has improved and there will be less drag on the two key pro-green Liberal Democrat ministers, Energy and Climate Change Secretary Ed Davey and Business Secretary Vince Cable.

But, at the end of the day none of this matters too much.

Why not?

Because, as always, it all comes down to leadership.

David Cameron set out to detoxify the Tory brand with his husky-hugging in 2006 and, on becoming Prime Minister in 2010, declared that his Government would be "the greenest ever", but after that it has been mixed messages and a decided lack of strategic direction. It's not as if there isn't a story to tell with renewable energy nudging 20% of the country's electricity production and a booming green sector. But, buffeted by the UKIP threat from the right, climate sceptic Tory backbenchers and a sometimes hostile right-wing press, Cameron has tacked this way and that on green issues, meaning that opportunities have been missed and investors have blown hot and cold.

Unfortunately with the election looming, the polls unpredictable and Cameron's strategist pushing him to "scrape the barnacles off the boat" (ie simplify the overall message), I can't see a bold new green direction from the PM.


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20 June 2012

Why Rio+20 and the G20 should be one meeting

Two big global jamborees at the same time: Rio+20 trying save the planet and the G20 in Mexico trying to save the global economy. Really they should all be meeting in the same place as to a large extent the same problem is causing both ecological destruction and the global slowdown - our addiction to fossil fuels. Countries should be listening to their own advisor, Fatih Birol, Chief Economist of the International Energy Agency who has said:

"When we look at the oil markets the news is not very bright. We think that the crude oil production has already peaked in 2006." (June 2011)

"Oil prices are a serious risk for the global economic recovery." (Feb 2011)

"Energy will become viciously more expensive and polluting if governments don’t promote renewable and nuclear power in the next two decades instead of burning coal." (World Energy Outlook, 2011)

"Oil prices remain a threat to the fragile global economic recovery. Even current prices are far too high for the current economic context. I'm concerned for Europe and I'm also very concerned that these high prices would hit the still hesitant and slow U.S. economic recovery.” (May 2012)

The IEA was set up to advise Western nations on energy policy after the oil shocks of the early 1970s. They are not some lefty green pressure group but hard nosed economic analysts. Dr Birol wouldn't make such pronouncements if he didn't believe they were true.

Yes, sceptics, might say, but alternatives to fossil fuels are too expensive. But this is short sighted - renewables technology will only get cheaper whereas fossil fuel prices, according to Dr Birol, are only going to rise. When will we jump trains to get on the one headed in the right direction?


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13 May 2010

Does blue + yellow = green business?

This week the UK has entered unfamiliar political territory with the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats forming the first coalition Government since the war. As a Lib Dem myself, I felt extremely worried at first, later moving to a state of mere wariness, but in the clear light of day now I am very pleased with the sheer number of LD policies which are heading for the statute book.

So, how does the deal stack up from a green business point of view?

Firstly, Lib Dem Chris Huhne as energy and climate change secretary is a very good thing. There are many climate change sceptics in the Tory ranks who may have tried to dilute their Leader's green tendencies - instead the balance of power has flipped the other way. Chris may appear a little grey at times, but he is hugely capable, committed and as tough as old boots.

Secondly, given the low profile that green issues had during the campaign, there is a huge list of green business-friendly policies in the Lib-Con agreement, namely:

  • The establishment of a smart grid and the roll-out of smart meters;
  • The full establishment of feed-in tariff systems in electricity – as well as the maintenance of banded ROCs;
  • Measures to promote a huge increase in energy from waste through anaerobic digestion;
  • The creation of a green investment bank;
  • The provision of home energy improvement paid for by the savings from lower energy bills;
  • Retention of energy performance certificates while scrapping HIPs;
  • Measures to encourage marine energy;
  • The establishment of an emissions performance standard that will prevent coal-fired power stations being built unless they are equipped with sufficient CCS to meet the emissions performance standard;
  • The establishment of a high-speed rail network;
  • The cancellation of the third runway at Heathrow and the refusal of additional runways at Gatwick and Stansted;
  • The replacement of the air passenger duty with a per-flight duty;
  • The provision of a floor price for carbon, as well as efforts to persuade the EU to move towards full auctioning of ETS permits;
  • Mandating a national recharging network for electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles;
  • Continuation of the present government's proposals for public sector investment in CCS technology for four coal-fired power stations
  • A specific commitment to reduce central government carbon emissions by 10% within 12 months [ie the 10:10 commitment].

This is all really good, meaty and specific stuff, which many environmentalists (eg Monbiot, FoE) are praising as better than under the previous Labour Government, who always had a tendency to undermine their green proposals with an anti-green movement in the same breath (eg Low Carbon Strategy/Heathrow Expansion). Beefed up FITs, the ETS and the Green Investment Bank should really make a difference, along with the investments in particular technologies.

So the march towards a sustainable economy and society goes on. Recession or no recession, the strength of any business is increasingly going to rely on their sustainability performance. And my question, as always, remains, do you see this as an opportunity or a threat?

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