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1 December 2017

The need for 'outrageous ambition' on Sustainability

I spent yesterday morning at the always-excellent North East Recycling Forum annual conference. The conference chair, the ever-ebullient Mark Shayler of APE, challenged us in the second half of the session to think up both 'standard' and 'outrageously ambitious' ideas on, in our table's case, how to apply technology to waste.

My two outrageously ambitious solutions were:

  • A small scale pelletiser/3D printer so you could, say, create your own Christmas decorations from plastic packaging, or turn yesterday's faddish kids' tat (e.g. loom bands) into today's (fidget spinners), all in your kitchen;
  • An Alexa-style smart bin which would not only advise you on what can be recycled and/or how, but could count what materials you put in so you can 'earn as you recycle' rather than 'pay as you throw' - incentivising good behaviour rather than penalising bad.

I was really quite pleased with those, but the more I thought about them, the less outrageously ambitious they seemed. Yes, costs would preclude the latter for a long time, but it could be implemented in a neighbourhood recycling centre?

But the bigger thing is, well, thinking big. When Interface announced their Mission Zero Sustainability target (zero impact on the environment by 2020) in 1996, it seemed bat-s**t-crazy, but now they're almost there, and zero waste, zero carbon or 100% renewable electricity targets are being adopted by business left, right and centre. Yesterday's ambition is today's meh.

The old cliché is that Sustainability should be like the moon programme – 'no-one ever got to the moon by aiming half way', but that's slightly misleading representation of that programme; the reality is more interesting. It was Apollo 11 that made it to the moon, the previous 10 missions ranged from tragic failure on the launchpad (Apollo 1, where the three astronauts perished) through to flying the lunar module down to 15km above the moon's surface (Apollo 10) before turning back. So while a lunar landing was the ultimate goal, there were plenty of intermediate steps to master on the way.

In the same way, we need to set those stretch targets but appreciate there's quite a journey to get there. But that headline outrageously ambitious goal drives you on. As someone else said at NERF yesterday, "if you're not pushing at the boundaries of what's possible, what's the point?"


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7 September 2016

Can Big Data & AI deliver Sustainability?

The latest edition of Ask Gareth considers how the hot topics of Big Data and Artificial Intelligence can interact with the Sustainability Agenda. Is the hype justified? Watch and see!

Ask Gareth depends on a steady stream of killer sustainability/CSR questions, so please tell me what's bugging you about sustainability (click here) and I'll do my best to help.

You can see all previous editions here.


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14 November 2014

Should we be exploring space when life on earth is unsustainable?


Like much of the population on Wednesday, I was gripped by the Rosetta mission to the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Never mind that it's parked worse than my car on a Saturday morning trip to B&Q with a hangover, as an engineer, I cannot help but marvel at the sheer ambition of propelling a probe the size of a fridge 300 million miles through space (as the astrocrow flies), slingshotting it around planets and landing on a lump of rock less than 3 miles across.

But, as an old colleague pointed out, is this really a good use of resources and ingenuity when we face the challenges of climate change, resource depletion and global poverty?

That's a toughie.

But here's the way I look at it:

  • There is no 'or' here - we can do both. There is plenty of money to tackle global problems, what we need is political will and co-operation. If it was an either-or choice, then obviously we should prioritise sustainability, but it isn't.
  • Space exploration has already told us a lot about our planet and we rely on satellites and their technology whether monitoring the ozone layer, measuring the energy imbalance that is driving climate change, or warning of drought conditions.
  • OK, the Rosetta mission isn't about the earth. But the challenge is driving forward important technological advances in everything from solar panels to data analysis via environmental sensors.

So, I'm happy to spend billions pushing forward this kind of exploration, as long as we spend commensurate billions back here on earth sorting out our own backyard.


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6 October 2014

If this is war, we must use all the weapons at our disposal


Every Monday for the last couple of weeks, I've been mulling on one of my proposed Rules of the Pragmatic Environmentalist. This week, it is Rule 4: "Technology and markets mechanisms are powerful tools: we must use them to our advantage."

One of my favourite sustainability reads has been The God Species by Mark Lynas- mainly because it is so joyfully contrarian, kicking tired old green tropes and making a daring proposition (I paraphrase):

If we are wreaking biblical levels of destruction on the planet, we'd better use our 'god-like' technologies to stop the damage before it is too late.

Like Lynas, one of my great frustrations with the activist end of the environmental movement is their near-religious belief that the most powerful weapons in our armoury - capitalism, GM technology, market-based solutions, nuclear energy to name a few - are evil. Every time something is proposed it gets knocked down as, at best, not good enough, at worst, the works of the devil. Biodiesel = bad. Carbon offsetting = immoral. Feed-In Tariffs = enrich the rich etc, etc.

Fortunately none of the people peddling these dictates actually has to propose something that works. If you do get a solution, it's something vaguely along the lines of reorganising society into modern villages, going back to the land, growing nuts and whittling sticks.

Now I love a bit of whittling, but let's get real - if we want change and we want change fast, then we've got to harness the powerful tools that we have at our disposal, not shy away from them. Let's get our hands dirty!


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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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9 November 2012

Don't Knock Green Technology - It Might Just Save Us Yet

If there's one thing the anti-green lobby and the deep greens agree on, it's that green technology will not make a significant difference to carbon emissions. They both add together performance of current technology and project it into the future to show it will never meet carbon reduction targets.

Of course what they're both forgetting - conveniently - is that immature technology progresses in leaps and bounds as rising demand drives further innovation (the famous s-curves). Here's just a selection of articles from the latest edition of Green Futures:

  • Passive tracking system for solar panels increases efficiency by 10%;
  • Artificial photosynthesis technology improves solar panel efficiency by a factor of 5 (that's five times more electricity out for the same amount of sunlight);
  • Robot PV panel fitters slashes cost of installation;
  • Stirling engine development opens way to extract electricity from power station chimneys;
  • New bladeless wind turbine is more than twice as efficient as a bladed turbine at about two thirds the price.

These announcements alone, if they come to the market at scale, could revolutionise the way we generate energy. Given the way renewables are taking chunks out of the fossil fuel share of the market already and that investment in renewable technology is at an all time high despite the economic stagnation, this revolution could happen sooner rather than later.

So I would advise against getting dragged along with the lazy, politically motivated techno-pessimists - many of whom either want to risk frying the planet for free market ideals, or sit on a pedestal in a hair shirt and blame others for 'not listening.' 'Technology may be our only hope - and is now showing signs of delivering - so lets keep driving investment and demand forward.

The future is bright, let's engineer it!


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1 June 2009

"Nice idea, but it will never work"

There is a lovely story (probably apocryphal*) of a student taking a design proposal to the head of Cambridge University Engineering Department. The Prof looked at the plans and said

"Nice idea, Whittle, but it will never work."

The student was of course Sir Frank Whittle and the design was for the jet engine.

Whether or not exchange really happened, there is a whole cadre of such eminent thinkers, either retired or in the twilight of their careers, who regularly try to throw similar sticks into the spokes of green/low carbon technology. Letters regularly appear in the press from these chaps, typically saying:

"Before everyone rushes to embrace wind power/the hydrogen economy/electric vehicles/biomass (delete as appropriate), a few simple sums show that to replace all electricity/gasoline vehicles/domestic heating systems would require [something impossible/very expensive]. This headlong rush to do [X] is foolhardy if not downright dangerous".

Those simple sums usually assume that the technology involved is intended to replace its conventional equivalent entirely, without any change to usage patterns, without any evolution in the technology concerned and at current prices. They ignore the immutable laws of technological development - as technologies mature their costs plummet, efficiencies improve, synergies emerge and user behaviour changes to suit. But you have to start at the beginning of that cycle, you can't just parachute into the maturity phase.

The annoying thing for me is that these would-be Cassandras know this better than anyone. I don't know if they're just stuck in their ways, need to feel important and relevant, or whether they just resent the world passing them by. But given all their knowledge and experience, the world would be a better place if they would open their minds and become part of the solution, not part of the problem.

* The Cambridge angle to the story doesn't seem to match up with Whittle's biog, but he did apparently meet such resistance in the RAF.

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