Sunday, 19 December 2010

Surviving the Climate

Heathrow has been closed all day to give the ground crew time to clear all the snow and ice from the taxi ways and aircraft parking areas hoping to resume normal operations tomorrow.

This is unusually cold weather for Britain. Unlike other countries of northern Europe, we are not geared up to cope. The maritime climate of our islands usually protects us from extreme cold (and from extreme heat). As the climate becomes less predictable with more extreme events Britain should fare better than most countries.

This cold weather reminds us how reliant we have become on the complex infrastructure of society. To stay warm, the central heating must keep running which means the gas must keep flowing. Gone are the days when the UK had enough gas under the North Sea to have energy security under our control. We now rely on pipelines that cross Europe from Russia and on LPG tankers from the Middle-East.

There was a time when we would have gathered and stored enough wood to keep the fires burning until the spring. Survival was under our control. The food stored locally would tide us over until the next crop. Now the markets are global and we rely on global capacity for our survival. Whilst oil is plentiful and food is produced in abundance, prices are driven down. As oil demand exceeds supply and a series of droughts hit simultaneously on world agriculture we will wish we had not become so reliant on long and complex supply chains.

We can use this insight into a scenario of the future to improve energy and food security or wait until the crisis strikes...

The world is bunkering down for a festive Christmas with all the food we can eat and all the drink we can drink. As we enjoy this season we should reflect on how fortunate we are and when the New Year comes have a thought for ensuring that the future is safe in our hands.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Cancun Climate Talks RIP

The Cancun climate talks delivered what was expected: a bland communiqué to hide the lack of progress. The world still does not have a plan to constrain carbon dioxide emissions. The Times got it right:

‘...climate talks have assumed a life of their own and many of the 15,000 delegates are already inquiring about the best hotel rooms in Durban.’
The Times 11 December

Of course we hope that over the next year the talks find a solution to addressing the risks of climate change. Wishful thinking is not enough. Whilst there is belief that the talks can succeed, the issue is parked to await the outcome, delaying the search for real solutions.

The talks are flawed because the discussion is focused on targets, not solutions. It is like trying to persuade a heroin addict to promise to inject fewer fixes without curing the addiction. The truth is obscured. The truth is that the world is addicted to fossil fuel. World leaders have to wake up to the reality of dismantling an economy built on cheap fossil fuel and build a new sustainable economy powered by renewable energy.

Targets are not enough. The entire edifice of the modern globalised economy has to be looked at and revised. If this is accepted, the discussion leads to a very uncomfortable place. The economic success of recent decades is put at risk. Solutions do not come easy; but there are solutions. The search for green outcomes in the real world requires rethinking the priorities for society and changing the principles with which we manage the economy.

The climate talks should continue in South Africa, a year from now, but we should not be fooled into expecting too much. The solution is to take fossil fuel out of society and out of industry. The implications are massive; the investment required is huge; the challenge is immense.

If you are one of the 15,000 people about to book a hotel room in Durban for December 2011, be prepared to argue for deep-rooted change. If you plan to continue to argue around the periphery of the issues then you should forego the flight and stay at home.

Monday, 6 December 2010

21st Century Challenges

Can the UK ever be Sustainable?

That was the questions posed at the Royal Geographical Society under their excellent series of events titled ‘21st Century Challenges’ putting the spotlight on the big important questions of today.

Sir Stuart Rose, chairman of Marks and Spencer, said:

“In today’s climate, more so than ever, putting sustainability at the very heart of your business is not just the right thing to do ethically, it makes commercial sense too. A sustainable business means a business that can thrive in the long term - it forces us to look over the horizon, accelerate innovation and respond to the challenges that lie ahead.”

Mr Benn, former Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, said:

“Our biggest challenge as a world is to learn to live sustainably. In the years ahead, families, communities, businesses and countries that work out how to do this will be in a much stronger position. We need to help each other to do this.”

Andy Hobsbawm, founder of Green Thing, said:

“Creativity has a huge role to play in changing the way people think about the resources they have at their disposal. We aim to turn green living from something people feel they ‘ought’ to do into something they ‘want’ to do.”

These sound bites are from people with a track record of taking action and deserve to be listened to.

Meanwhile, I noticed that Colombia's president, Juan Manuel Santos, has been forced to cancel his scheduled trip to the United Nations' climate change conference this week because of devastating flooding – even though global warming itself could be causing the disaster his country faces.

"I cancelled the trip I was taking to Cancun, [Mexico] ... to attend the international conference on climate change, which is what is affecting us, but I cancelled this meeting," President Juan Manuel Santos said in a statement reported by CNN.

Colombia is considering declaring a state of emergency to devote more resources to response and rescue efforts, Santos said, noting the number of victims throughout the country could climb to 2 million.

Columbia’s president has put action before further talks – he has a point.

Monday, 29 November 2010

The Sustainable Revolution at a Tipping Point

We will look back from the future and identify 2010 as the year when the Sustainable Revolution began. The group of us who are interested in sustainability, and debate what it means, is much larger than five years ago. That is a start but hardly a revolution. There are two incidents in 2010 that will mark 2010 as special; one big and one small.

The big change is the euro crisis. Anyone who thinks the crisis has been solved is deluded. There will be change, and like a revolution it will not be easy to control. Any one of the highly indebted southern European countries could be the first to cave into market pressure and be forced to default on its sovereign debt. In such circumstances this would surely mean also leaving the euro. The change could be more controlled, and much more dramatic, such as Germany deciding to pull out of the euro project.

What has this to do with sustainability? This is the start of understanding that deep rooted sustainability is about fundamental change to society and the economy. Before the financial crisis I wrote about the globalised financial system with the words that ‘more connections bring greater resilience and reduce the chances of collapse, but if collapse does come, there will be no hiding from the consequences.’ More recently, before the euro crisis, I speculated that ‘one or more members will explore the possibility of exit to regain greater financial control.’ These thoughts are not reaction to crisis but come from a carefully considered analysis of the economics of stable sustainable societies.

The euro crisis could be the start of reconfiguring global finance to build a more resilient global economy. This is the big change and a crucial aspect of the Sustainable Revolution.

The small change is David Cameron’s instruction to the Office for National Statistics to devise a measure of quality of life. This does not seem like an important issue, but it is a stage on the journey towards a sustainable society. We must bring ecosystem integrity on to the balance sheet and devise appropriate measures for society that include health and happiness. The Sustainable Revolution will make the old measures of development based on pure economic measures, such as GDP, obsolescent.

What does the Sustainable Revolution mean for policy makers, business and the general public?

Sustainability can be seen in many different ways. For some people it is imperative that we reduce the impact we are having on the environment. Other people see the marketing possibilities or the need to protect and enhancing the reputation of business. For yet others it is all about government regulations. All of these are true but more than anything else sustainability has to be at the core of every important decision taken.

We must take off the blindfold of how society operates now, to see the world as it should be, then look for the opportunities to make the transition. The Sustainable Revolution is finally upon us.

Monday, 22 November 2010

Record Breaking Ambition

South Africa is in the news for a record team effort in stone clearance of the mudflats at Hakskeen Pan. A track 20 km long and 1 km wide has to be cleared of stones ready for an attempt on the world land speed record in 2012.

Richard Noble and his driver Andy Green already hold the world land speed record of 763mph set in the Thrust SSC in 1997. They now plan to put the record out of reach by breaking the 1,000 mph barrier. This exceeds even the official air speed record at low altitude (no longer competed for). The project is being run on a shoe-string budget of approximately equivalent to three week’s expenditure by an F1 racing team. Why put so much effort into, and take so much risk, to break a record you already hold?

This project is both ludicrous and inspiring. If we can do this we can do almost anything. Making houses energy efficient, de-carbonising the energy supply and making transportation sustainable, are easy tasks in comparison. The Bloodhound, as the ‘car’ is called, is not to be admired for its fuel efficiency or miles-per-gallon. It is to be admired as a statement of human ambition, innovation and drive. We need more of this...

Monday, 8 November 2010

Biodiversity – The Mouse in the Corner

Two weeks ago I wrote about biodiversity being the ‘Elephant in the Room’ and hoped that the Nagoya Biodiversity Summit might signal the start of ‘discussion of real-world solutions to the world’s most pressing problems.’ I hoped for too much. The world is regarding the vital issue of biodiversity loss as if it was only a mouse in the corner –easily trapped and killed at a time our choosing.

The Biodiversity summit has come and gone. A new ten year strategic plan has been agreed. This appears to be action. It is worth looking back on the previous decade to see the progress made against the targets agreed at the Convention on Biological Diversity’s COP6 in The Hague, Netherlands in 2002. The Parties responded by adopting the 2010 target of significantly slowing biodiversity loss by the end of the decade. The conference President and Netherlands State Secretary of Agriculture, Nature Management and Fisheries Geke Faber stated that it was necessary to move from policy development and dialogue to action. How have we succeeded eight years later?

On 1 November 2010 Mr Ahmaed Djoghlaf, the Executive Secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity was back at the Hague at the Conference on Agriculture, Food Security and Climate Change. His words should have sent shocks waves around the world. He reported:

During this 2010 International Year of Biodiversity, the news is not good. In May the third edition of Global Biodiversity Outlook showed that species worldwide continue to disappear at up to 1,000 times the natural background rate of extinction. The report further warns that without concerted action massive further loss of biodiversity is projected to occur before the end of the century and that ecosystems are approaching tipping points beyond which they will be irreversibly degraded, with dire consequences for human wellbeing.

The talking continues. The talk of moving to action, is just talk.

Sunday, 31 October 2010

Green Outcomes in the Real World

My book that came out this month is based on ideas that go back to 2004. I was meeting with a group of people in one of the leading business schools. I initiated a discussion about the nature of how we run society. I floated some questions around why we do what we do. I do not now remember the detail but it was around two themes: whether we need a throw-away society and how to make the transition beyond oil. I was hoping for a debate or a discussion. My hopes were short lived. The reaction was: oil is not running out and we already do recycling – let’s get onto something more important.

I remember the interchange well, not because of the detail of what was said, but because of the force with which the group expressed their opinion. The general thrust was that these issues are not of interest to us and do not belong to us. We are busy people with companies to run; leave these discussions to others.

In 2010 the debate has at least begun. The financial crisis has helped to illustrate that the system we have is not perfect. We are reluctant to look closer and see that the system is flawed. Covering over the cracks is all that has happened so far but the fault lines are still there.

My book goes far further than anyone on the faculty of a business school has dared to go. Some of the thoughts have appeared in the green thinking community but not connected into a real-world context. Take this book out of the library and find out if these issues are of interest to you and ask the question, does it matter to me?

Modern civilization is the pinnacle of human achievement. Through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries human ingenuity built the greatest civilization of all time. Our technology is advancing at such a pace that it seems there is nothing we cannot achieve. One of the secrets of our success has been the development of economic theory to provide a sound basis for organizing society and allocating resources efficiently. The particular idea that has accelerated progress and brought such wealth and material improvement in human lives over the last three decades is economic globalization, but the time has come to consider a new direction for society.

Preface to:
Green Outcomes in the Real World:
Global Forces, Local Circumstances and Sustainable Solutions

Monday, 18 October 2010

Biodiversity – The Elephant in the Room

At least the elephant is so large and well known that special effort will be made to keep this species – if only in zoos and places in the world where it is used as a working animal. For many other species there is no future. Experts warn that the planet is now in the grip of its sixth mass extinction phase - the first that is man-made.

The 193 members of the UN's Convention on Biological Diversity are gathering in Japan today aiming to tackle how to curb the world's rapid loss of animal and plant species and the habitats they live in. This is a more important debate than climate change but does not gather the level of support it deserves. I will be watching closely over the next 12 days for any sign of real progress. I am sure that there will be progress in recording which species are at risk. There will be renewed effort into trying to find and indentify species that are so far unknown to us but may be extinct before we have had the chance to catalogue them. Whether we do more than watch more closely, as the mass extinction proceeds will be the test of progress towards stopping it.

Meanwhile, an issue that filled airtime last week, reported on the BBC, is research into the colour of wind turbines. Apparently, insects are attracted more or less to different colours. White or grey is commonly used to help the turbine meld into the sky and be less intrusive for human view; but these colours have the opposite effect on insects. Insects are attracted to it; and birds are attracted to the tasty meal of a nice plump insect. A white revolving turbine blade covered in insects and a flock of hungry birds; the consequences from a bird lover’s perspective are not good.

There is a solution. The research found that insects are attracted least to the colour purple. We could therefore paint all wind turbines purple. A purple revolving turbine blade (shown in pictures to accompany a planning application) and a group of local residents; the consequences for wind turbine applications are not good. If we put this problem to a UN convention we could end up with a compromise: white and purple stripes. That would both attract the insects (and therefore the birds) as well as raising the ire of local residents.

I hope that the UN conference on global biodiversity has rather more success than such gatherings normally achieve. The world needs to be woken up from distracting arguments over the colour of wind turbines to the discussion of real-world solutions to the world’s most pressing problems.

Sunday, 10 October 2010

Unlock a new Level of Climate Action

Listening to press conferences after each of the climate talks over recent years is to listen to well crafted positive gloss of officials trying to present abject failure as progress. UNFCCC Executive Secretary, Christiana Figueres, speaking at the closing press conference on Saturday after last week’s climate talks in Tianjin, China, said:

“I told you at the press briefing at the beginning of this week that governments this week had to address together what is doable in Cancun, and what may have to be left until after Cancun. They have actually done that.”

The bickering between China and the West has left very little in the ‘doable’ category. Even so, the fact that parties have some sort of agreement over what it might be possible, to agree upon in the Cancun climate talks in December, is seen as progress. In a sense it is progress. Discussions about discussions are better than no discussions about discussions. I agree with Ms Figueres as she went on to explain the critical importance of “turning dry texts into a set of keys that unlock a new level of climate action - among rich and poor, business and consumers, governments and citizens.”

We can expect a lot more positive gloss and well crafted words in the lead up to the Cancun climate talks. I have a view on whether the world leaders will ‘unlock a new level of climate action’ but I will keep that to myself for now. Let us give them every encouragement and then hold them to account for the outcome.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Looking Forward to Sochi

Russia uses over three times more energy than the European average. As a major producer of gas and oil, it can afford such extravagance. Fortunately there are people in Russia working to shift the country to a greener future. The new national energy strategy until 2030, approved by the Russian government in November 2009, aims to reduce Russia's energy dependence by boosting faster growth in sectors consuming less energy and investing in energy saving technology.

In the nearer term, Russia aims to showcase its new capability to be green at the Sochi Winter Olympic Games 2014. Russia wants to use the winter games to be a model for sustainable development for the whole of Russia. Sochi also may act as a future concept for "Green Games".

The city of Sochi has set some tough targets to be carbon neutral and zero-waste. People involved in sustainability know that these are achievable targets but we also understand the enormous difficulty in matching action to aspirations.

The Media Village will be one of the highest profile venues. It is to be built with environmentally-friendly building materials and will incorporate energy- and resource-saving technology. After the 2014 Winter Games, the village will become one of the centres of sporting and cultural life in the surrounding holiday resort of Sochi.

In January 2010, Theodore Oben, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) representative expressed his satisfaction with the steps taken by the Organizing Committee.

As the calendar switches into another winter, I wish the Sochi team well. Over the next four years, I hope they can deliver what they promise and set a benchmark for the rest of Russia, and Europe, to follow at the Winter Olympics 2014.

Monday, 27 September 2010

Unsung Heroes

BP has finally sealed its Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico. This is a time to celebrate and salute the unsung heroes who have been working diligently for months to tackle one of the most urgent and difficult engineering challenges of our time. We all hope that the ecosystem of the gulf can recover without lasting damage.

‘Macondo Prospect’ is now the most infamous well in history. The well’s formal reference is Mississippi Canyon Block 252 (MC252). The code name allows the oil company to refer to the well in the early stages without disclosing the exact location. Whoever selected this code word must be regretting their choice. The name ‘Macondo’ is the name of the cursed town in the novel "One Hundred Years of Solitude" by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The fictitious town of Macondo is frequented by unusual and extraordinary events that involve the generations of the Buendía family, who are unable or unwilling to escape their periodic (mostly) self-inflicted misfortunes.

How avoidable and self-inflicted this disaster was, investigations will discover. The high profile characters involved in this real-life story have had mixed fortunes. The CEO of BP has lost his job. This was always likely, but speaking out, whilst the crisis was still unfolding, to plea for his life back, ensured that he would be axed. Barack Obama fared better. His strong demands for action were what the public wanted to hear. We forget that neither Tony Hayward nor the US President have solved this crisis.

The heroes were the engineers. The water is 5,000 feet deep (1,500m). This is too deep for divers to operate. The workers are the submersibles and their robotic arms. The engineers have had to devise new methods and design and build new equipment all in the space of weeks. They do not appear on the cover of Newsweek or fronting press conferences. They have worked long hours and succeeded to deliver extraordinary solutions to an unusual event. I salute the unsung heroes – the engineers.

Monday, 20 September 2010

The Economist's Trap

There is a fundamental rule used by economists that is accepted almost without question. That rule is any new process must cost less. If it costs less, then the process should be adopted; if it does not, then it should rejected. I have heard senior respected economists using the argument and to question it is regarded as heresy. People without qualifications as economist or accountants are told that they just do not get it. It is some economists who do not get it; putting the narrow parameters of their profession before more fundamental issues.

An example is the mantra that any new energy source must be cheaper than coal. This puts an impossibly high barrier against many renewable energy sources. You can argue that it is not the economists who are at fault. It is society that must decide that coal is a dirty fuel and demand that cleaner sources are found. One dramatic approach, through regulation, would be to ban coal. Another approach would be to provide subsidy to other energy sources to bring the cost down to less than coal.

As we discuss the options, the economist reminds us again that it must not cost more. Their assurances are that energy need not cost more through a range of measures. This is economics used as politically convenient fudge. If you carry out a real economic analysis you discover that the transition to clean energy will lead to higher energy prices. If the transition is made quickly (in accord with the advice of climate scientists) then energy prices need to rise quickly. This is the economic reality that needs to be reported, debated and then acted upon.

The economists who insist that energy should not cost more are setting a trap for politicians and bring their profession into disrepute.

Monday, 13 September 2010

The Accountant's Trap

Three months ago Connaught, a construction company, was in the FTSE 250 with a market capitalisation of over £600m. Now it has collapsed, its shares are worthless and the administrators are picking through the books to see what can be salvaged. Many private investors who piled in towards the end to pick up cheap shares in this once strong company have lost their money. The firm’s founder, Mark Tincknell also bought more shares earlier this year in confidence that he could turn the company around. This was a company founded by hard working people who brought in external experts and became caught in the accountant’s trap of massaging the figures instead of running the company.

Connaught was a family firm started by Bill and son Mark Tincknell in 1982 with £10,000 of their own money and operated from a shed. Their expertise was in construction and repair. They did not have business training and employed business professionals as the company grew. In 1998 it floated on the AIM with a £14m market value. Under the continued leadership of Mark Tincknell as chief executive the turnover grew to £300m with profits of £20m. Mark may have left it the experts to put together the accounts but he was driving the business he knew, repairing properties.

In 2004, Mark Tincknell stepped down and handed control to a business professional. Turnover took off and debt jumped from zero to £200m. Loading the company with debt is what the accountants and financiers like because of the tax advantages. According to the Sunday Times, these figures were further pumped by my capitalising bid costs. This means that the money that is spent preparing a tender is shown as an asset on the accounts. This is an accountant’s wheeze that can reflect reality if the bid is ongoing and there is a good chance of the company securing the contract. If the contract has gone elsewhere then this is a loss and should be shown as such in the accounts.

I make the assumption that as the company grew it could afford more expensive advisors and employ more business savvy executives. The result: a pumped up set of figures totally removed from the business reality.

It is a sobering thought that Connaught would be worth more today if the founders had kept operating from their shed rather than hand control to the accountants and business professionals.

I suggest that there are three lessons to draw from this:
1. Business leaders should focus on running a sound core business.
2. Listen to accountants but do not let them take control.
3. Complicated accounting to massage the figures and pump the share price are skilful dodges. The more expensive the advisor the more wary you need to be of the advice.

Sunday, 5 September 2010

Organic and Local

We spent Sunday afternoon with Iain Tollhurst as he guided us around his organic farm just outside Whitchurch-on-Thames on the other side of the river to us. From here we have a supply of organic fruit and vegetables delivered to our door every Thursday. The carrots are often crooked and earthy but we carried out a blind taste test within the family. There is no doubt that this food tastes better - and is better for us.

Most organic suppliers deliver in boxes because they stack well in the back of a van. Tollhurst Organics deliver in bags because – apparently – they can be carried more easily on a bicycle.

Iain Tollhurst manages his farm with incredible insight into how nature operates. There are no fertilizers or insecticides – as you might expect, but also he does not use animal manure. He does not rear animals so cannot be sure that manure from other farms would match his high standards. Instead, on a seven-year rotation, two of the years are used to grow green compost. These crops are simply used to recharge the organic content of the soil, trapping nitrogen and other nutrients.

Iain Tollhurst’s commitment to working as part of a sustainable system is impressive. He only supplies the local area avoiding food miles. He tells a story that when approached by people outside his patch he not only will not deliver but he will not sell to people that travel from outside the local area to collect. For someone who has to live on the income from his business this is putting his sustainable principles before commercial logic.

Every community should have an Iain Tollhurst to feed their local community not only for high quality food but also to conserve the biodiversity of the local countryside.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

What is Sustainability?

Nearly a decade years ago I attended a seminar convened by the South East England Development Agency (SEEDA) – an organisation soon to be wound down as the government’s spending cuts bite. The subject of the seminar was “Sustainability”. There were presentations on a range of issues around the three legs of sustainability: ‘people’, ‘planet’ and ‘profit’.

The person sitting beside me complained quietly in my ear, “What is all this talk about the environment?” He expected to hear about financial sustainability. He wanted information on balance sheets and how to secure financial stability for his company. He could not be persuaded that embracing the broader agenda of sustainability would have long-term financial benefits, reduce risks and set the circumstances to ensure long-term survivability of the business.

The term ‘sustainability’ is now much more widely known but deep understanding of what it means remains elusive. All too often ‘sustainability’ consists of a superficial assessment of environmental and social impacts to be used as a thin veneer over decisions taken overwhelming under the influence of economic factors.

Sustainability is people, planet and profit – in that order of priority.

Monday, 16 August 2010

The dangers of learning by Doing

Two American researchers, Peter Madsen and Vinit Desai examined firms, private and public, that launch rockets designed to place satellites into orbit around the Earth. They looked at all orbital launch attempts between the deployment of the first Sputnik in October 1957 and March 2004. Their research, reported in the Academy of Management Journal, showed that when a satellite fails the company learns from that failure and is more likely to succeed with future launches.

This is interesting and valuable research and we should apply the findings to the biggest problem we face today. That is pending economic and ecosystem collapse. The logic that this will be the outcome if we continue with business as usual is hard to dispute. But we seem to be determined to experience failure before we will learn. The research shows that to experience ecosystem collapse would indeed be a good opportunity to change our processes and learn to run society rather better.

This is the nature of humans to learn more from experience than lessons drawn from logical deductions. So, failed rocket launches proved a better teacher. For one satellite it is a big bill picked up by the insurance company; for our planet this is a learning experience we can ill afford.

Monday, 9 August 2010

Return to the English Riviera

The new Lifeguard lookout station on Bournemouth beach is an icon of sustainable living.

At a macro level, it is sign that British people may return to the English Riviera. It takes a lot less carbon for a Scot to take the train south, or for a southerner to drive to the end of the M3, than to fly to the beaches of Spain.

The experience will not be as exotic. The Punch and Judy show at the end of the pier is particularly British. So are the lines of beach huts, each larger enough for a few deckchairs, a selection of beach equipment and a camping stove on which to make tea. Each family can sit reading the newspaper, take an occasional swim and more often simply doze. Here it is easy to find British beer, the newspapers are today’s paper bought for the cover price and the girls speak English. On a sunny day, Bournemouth is better than Benidorm – if it is the simple pleasures you seek.

At the micro level, there is the lifeguard lookout station. It sits on the sand with solar panels providing the power for the public address system and radios. This example could be replicated across the town with every roof covered in solar panels providing the power for beer coolers, ice cream cabinets, televisions, amusement arcades and all the equipment needed for a beach holiday.

People will not flood back to Bournemouth whilst flying further south remains so cheap. The reliable sunshine of the Mediterranean is a strong draw but when flight prices rise to match the environmental impact, coming back to the English Riviera will not seem so bad.

Sustainable living may be different but need not be worse.

Monday, 2 August 2010

Indian Solar Aspirations

India is richer and more powerful than at any time since the days of the British Raj. Last week, the UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, visited India, to a county now very much in control of its own affairs. He hoped to strengthen relations and secure access for British companies to a booming economy.

The hangover from British rule includes a British style bureaucracy and English as the common language to link this vast country of multiple local languages. The British also exported the beginnings of industrialization based on fossil fuels. For a country with reliable sunshine there is no need to copy the practice in northern Europe. As India makes its own way in the world, it is also embarking upon changing the way it generates energy.

India aims to generate 1,000 megawatts (MW) of solar power by 2013, according to The Times of India. The country currently produces less than 5 MW every year. The solar mission is part of the National Action Plan on Climate Change. The mission, if approved by the Cabinet, will entail three phases with the ambitious targets. A package has been proposed to reform the power sector that could lead to annual production of 20,000 MW from solar by 2020 if the first phase of the solar mission goes well.

In the first phase, between 2010 and 2013, the government is also proposing to generate 200 MW of off-grid solar power and cover 7 million square meters with solar collectors. By the end of the final phase in 2022, the government hopes to produce 20,000 MW of grid-based solar power, 2,000 MW of off-grid solar power and cover 20 million square meters with collectors.

Solar lighting systems would also be provided to 9,000 villages by providing soft loans which would be refinanced by the Indian Renewable Energy Development Agency.

India is expected to be a powerhouse of the world economy in the 21st century. It is good to see India making such ambitious plans to navigate a path towards a more sustainable future.

Ministry of New & Renewable Energy

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

A Cut Too Far

On Thursday DEFRA announced that funding would be withdrawn from the Sustainable Development Commission (SDC) from next financial year. From the view point of an official given the task to identify savings to meet the government’s ambitious plans to cut expenditure, this is a simple decision. The SDC is a quango that is not directly responsible for front-line services; therefore it should go. If we lived in a sustainable society – as I hope will be the case within the next decade or two – the SDC would indeed become irrelevant. Now, as we struggle to understand the policy choices required of the transition to a sustainable society, the SDC is vital.

Governments have to find ways to bring sustainability experts inside the decision making process. In the United States, President Obama appointed climate expert Steven Chu to be Secretary of Energy. The UK government established the Sustainability Commission (SDC). This organisation is outside government, to be free to carry out the analysis unencumbered by existing policy or political constraints, and with the ear of government to be able to influence future policy. In the current financial climate it is not surprising that, along with many other quangos, funding for the SDC has been withdrawn. I hope that this decision will be reviewed because the logic for the SDC remains strong. I argue that the SDC can leverage greater savings elsewhere in government than its £3 million budget.

Withdrawing funding from the SDC is a cut too far. This will leave government departments reliant on external consultants. There is a growing army of consultants who have been rebadged as sustainability consultants to satisfy demand. These are green in every sense. I hope they learn quickly; there are important policy choices to make and the need for deep thinking has never been greater.

Monday, 19 July 2010

Blame it on the British

The weather here in Hong Kong is 30 degrees and humid. It feels warm and sticky, but not so much as to be unpleasant. Walking out on the streets, in many of the places where there would be a set of steps to climb, there is an escalator. A series of covered escalators and moving walkways beside Shelley Street ascends a whole hill. My immediate reaction was to question the need for such automation of personal mobility. I soon found out that using the stairs, you break into a sweat. I can see the advantages of relaxing, strolling slowly and let the escalators take the strain. Escalators can have a role in city design in the tropics, to persuade people out of cars and taxis and onto their feet.

Tropical temperatures suits humans rather well; this is where our species has its roots. Unlike at northern latitudes, where we need clothes to stay warm, at these latitudes it is only modesty and fashion that means we wear clothes at all. That is why I found it strange that the air-conditioning in my hotel room was set to 16 degrees - requiring a thick duvet on the bed. This is just as strange as finding the heating in my hotel room in Helsinki back in the winter was set to 25 degrees. If 25 degrees is the ideal indoor temperature in Helsinki, why not use the same temperature here in Hong Kong –saving energy of course. The converse is also true; if 16 degrees is the ideal indoor temperature in a luxury hotel in Hong Kong, why then not use such cool temperatures in hotel rooms in Helsinki in the winter?

The reason, I was told, for cold buildings throughout the affluent areas of Hong Kong (so cold as to be unpleasant) is because this is what the British expected in their days of colonial rule. If that is true, it is high time to throw off the daft demands of colonial masters and run Hong Kong as a sustainable city should be run. I adjusted my hotel room to 25 degrees throughout my stay and slept very well; I did not of course then need the duvet.

Monday, 12 July 2010

A Car for the 21st Century

Last year’s World Forum on Enterprise and the Environment addressed the question, ‘Is there a model for low carbon growth?’ This set the scene and started a dialogue. This year the forum took on the more specific sub theme of ‘Low Carbon Mobility: Air, Sea and Land’. A big chunk of carbon is used for mobility. Making progress in this area is vital to de-carbonizing society.

The World Forum, organised annually in Oxford by the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, could grow to have the same significance within the green business community as the World Forum in Davos has amongst world leaders and economists.

The discussions, over three days, showed the strength of delegate’s concern that we must lead change. We discussed a range of issues and a variety of responses. Many delegates shared my approach that we must be bold and move fast. This was illustrated well by the launch at the forum of the T25, a new car from Surrey based Gordon Murray Design. Gordon Murray, of F1 fame, has brought the technology of race cars to the production of a small fuel efficient car. Unlike F1 cars, it is also designed to be affordable - although the price has not yet been announced and it is not yet available for sale.

The body of the T25 is made using the composite techniques of the F1 world but without the carbon fibre to keep cost down. The driving position is in the centre and the controls are in the steering wheel - just like an F1 driver. Two passengers sit back from the driver either side with their legs extending forward beside the driver. In the conservative world of car design, this a radical move. The design is green and cool; the perfect combination to make an early impact in the market. The T25 will be followed by the T27, an all electric version. This shows what forward-looking bold thinking can create.

Monday, 5 July 2010

Solar Decathlon

The Solar Decathlon here in Europe 18 to 27 June was organized by the Spanish Ministry of Housing, in collaboration with the Universidad Politecnica de Madrid. Seventeen energy efficient houses competed. The winning house, Villa Solar, produced three times more energy than it used with the energy surplus going to the grid.

Our house here in southern England is also a mini power station, although much more modest than Villa Solar. Now, in midsummer, I am proud that we are generating more power than we use. However we live in an old-design house and making the full transition to an energy neutral house will be hard. If we commissioned a new house now, I have total confidence that the engineers and architects can respond to a brief that requires it to be energy neutral. If customers state this as their requirement, it will be so. Of course the house will cost more. Better houses (that are cheaper to run) do cost more and it is about time we got used to that idea.

Depressingly, I met an academic, who teaches building design, who thought that the government’s long-term targets were not achievable. My assurance that it is possible if you throw away the old design text books fell on deaf ears. I received a reply along the lines of “This is how we teach, how I have taught for years and I am the expert.”

Despite such intransigence, I believe that the house building industry is up to the challenge. Not the large house builders who want to complete quickly and sell on. They do not yet detect a demand strong enough. They will keep their blinkers on to defend their immediate profit margins. It is the small builders building premium houses for the wealthy end of the market that will lead the way.

Over 190,000 people visited Villa Solar during the competition. I would have liked the university lecturer I met to have been one of them. I suspect he was sat at home thinking of other tactics to prevent him from having to rewrite his lecture notes.

Monday, 28 June 2010

Shrewd Operators

This week I have been invited to join with 150 world experts at the second World Forum on Enterprise & The Environment at Oxford University. Last year’s event opened a debate about tackling the challenges of climate change. This year the theme is Low Carbon Mobility: Air, Sea & Land.

The opening discussions set the scene. Mikhail Gorbachev spoke about the pressing need for action. He explained what some of us know to be true but few accept, that ‘the era of absolute economic growth driven by cheap fossil fuel is drawing to an end.’ He urged us to reach out for the truth, not bend to pressure from special interest groups. He explained how he had sat down with President Regan to diffuse the Cold War. This principled and bold approach is what the world needs now to address the climate crisis.

Steven Chu, the US Secretary of Energy, outlined his view of how to tackle the low-carbon challenge. President Obama has made a shrewd choice to put this expert climate scientist in a role that is pivotal to changing the direction of US policy. I detected that the need to stay engaged with US opinion means Chu has had to rein in his aspirations. For example, he was not drawn on the issue of increasing fuel prices. He, too, is shrewd in the way he is plotting an achievable path into the future.

This is no time for looking at the world through rose-tinted spectacles or launching grandiose schemes that are bound to fail. The world needs shrewd operators to navigate through the challenges we face in order to make progress in the real world. World leaders need to be bold like Gorbachev and appoint experts like Chu to take us towards a more sustainable future.

Monday, 21 June 2010

Wherefore art thou E-Mini

O E-Mini, E-Mini, wherefore art thou E-Mini?

The departure of the prototype E-Mini from our driveway and out of our lives has left me feeling bereaved and sad. This is the first time that I have had affection for a car. Cars are transportation: full stop. It was only a car, I tell myself; but I have to admit to harbouring other emotions.

The E-mini has drawn attention. I have taken every opportunity to use this introduction to start a conversation about the make-up of a future sustainable society. I have found my words, more often than not, falling on deaf ears. Why then have I loved the E-Mini? Because it has engaged people who have not the slightest interest in matters environmental.

In my focus group of ‘E-Mini pioneers’ (the term used by the BMW marketing team), I was a loan voice expressing the need to decarbonise the electricity supply before electric cars will be truly green. No one shared my concern. I suspect that this is a true reflection on most people’s level of interest in the bigger picture of building a sustainable society and sustainable economy.

The E-mini is liked because it is cheap to run - at a time when fuel prices are climbing once again as the economy picks up. The E-Mini is liked because it offers the possibility of maintaining lifestyle after the oil has gone. These are real-world reactions, and the real world is where we live.

On Saturday, at the Oxford mini factory, each of us who handed back the keys of ‘our’ E-Mini expressed sadness to lose the car. I will return to an old flame. My 11-year old diesel Audi has much the same carbon footprint as the E-Mini (based on the current mix of generation capacity on the electric grid) but it has greater range and more carrying capacity.

I am sad because my excuse to engage the uninterested in discussion of the nature of a sustainable society has been taken away.

Monday, 14 June 2010

Kick BP’s Ass

BP continues to work to stem the flow of oil into the Gulf of Mexico from the well head deep under the sea where the drilling rig Deep Water Horizon had been operating before it exploded and sank.

Like many multinational corporations, BP dropped its national identity some years ago. It became simply ‘BP’ rather than the old ‘British Petroleum’. This change of name reflected the truly global nature of the company in geographic reach, ownership and governance. BP does not answer to any one government. However BP does have to work with the governments where it operates.

Where the country is small and weak, it may not wield much power against the corporate colossus. Where that country is the United States, BP has to tread carefully.

The US government does not like the polite and over optimistic tone of Tony Haward, the CEO. It matters little that the best engineers, drawn from across the industry, are doing remarkable feats under testing conditions. The public face of BP – which US commentators continually refer to as British Petroleum – needs to be someone who is seen to ‘kick ass’.

The facts that the US addiction to oil is driving exploration ever deeper off shore, and that the drilling rig was owned by a US company, are ignored. Until this terrible disaster is brought fully under control, many Americans will continue to refer to BP as British Petroleum. BP would do well to put a tough American to face the media and make it clear that this is a shared disaster. There will be more mishaps as technology is pushed to its limits to satisfy our craving for oil as the ‘easy oil’ runs out.

The regulations will be beefed up: deep offshore drilling will require double blowout preventers and other safeguards. This will not be enough. The safest solution is not one we like very much. It is to wean the world off oil...

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Knowledge is Building

Following my depressing venture two weeks ago out to engage with the general public and finding that sustainability was low down most people’s agenda, I went on holiday. It was half-term and we had planned our getaway for some time but it suited me well to wind down a little and to reflect. I took with me the task to write an exam for the business school with regard to the global business environment. It was relatively easy to write the exam. Reflecting on the financial crisis and its ramifications was more straight-forward than dealing with how to achieve a sustainable society. People understand that there is a financial crisis, and when politicians speak about the need for action, people listen. Until recently, this has not been the case for sustainability.

On my return from holiday, my first meeting was with one of the leading management consultancies. We discussed my ideas about a Sustainable Revolution and how to achieve it. Five years ago, if I were to attempt such a meeting, eyes would have glazed over. It would have been necessary to retreat or lose the attention of the audience. Things have changed. The people I met may not have agreed but they listened and asked sensible questions. These are influential people who are now engaged in the debate. They know that sustainability is a growing issue but do not yet know how to deal with it.

Knowledge is building. Perhaps we have had the case of ‘the blind leading the blind’ whilst we started to consider the issue of sustainability. Now, some of us now see clearly where we should go and we are leading people who are starting to learn the best route forward. There will still be wrong choices and we will find dead ends but the process has begun. The Sustainable Revolution is coming.

Monday, 24 May 2010

Joe Public Doesn't Care

I spent an enjoyable but fruitless day championing sustainability at an outdoor event in Berkshire. The event itself had nothing to do with either the environment or sustainability – that should have warned me. Our stand brought together a number of local sustainability groups aiming to spread the idea of sustainable communities. We hoped that amongst the crowds of people passing through the event we would grab the attention of a useful proportion. How wrong we were.

I had arrived in my electric car which then formed part of the display. The car attracted some attention but the interest was confined to the sort of questions Jeremy Clarkson would ask, such as how fast it can go, how well it corners and how far it will go on a full charge. My interest in testing the prototype BMW E-Mini is the potential such cars have to be a part of a low-carbon transport infrastructure. I tried this thought on the people who stopped and their eyes glazed over.

This was a genuine random sample of people and the results are interesting; and also disturbing. Joe Public is not going to change through free choice. Change will come because costs for carbon intensive transport increase and reduce for low-carbon alternatives - with regulation removing some choices entirely. This is how change will be delivered.

Further along the line of stands I spent some time talking with a salesman seeking to sell replacement windows. He had been in the window trade for over 30 years. He was convinced that there was no longer a place for wooden windows except for the rich who can afford to paint them every few years (his words). He sold exclusively plastic windows. Whatever happened to the idea that if money is tight you paint your own windows over a few warm summer weekends?

Further along there was a line of amusements stalls aimed at children offering prizes - all cheaply made. This was a depressing display of consumer detritus likely to end up in the bin within the day.

From this experience the conclusion I draw is that most people do not care about the concepts of sustainability. It is up to those of us who do care to lead change and push society onto a sustainable path. It can be done but we should not expect active support from the majority.

Monday, 17 May 2010

The Old and the New

I attended the Annual General Meeting and of our local scout group on Friday with the family. The organisers had arranged a quiz evening with food to ensure a good turnout. As the social event was buzzing around me I reflected on the advances of the modern age juxtaposed with the historic context.

The wood framed building had been rebuilt in recent years but much of the timber had been reclaimed and reused from an earlier building on the site. A number of the beams went back even further to buildings many centuries back now only briefly mentioned in the historic record. Tree-ring analysis dated one batch of timber to 1540. The quality carving indicated that this may have comprised the Manor House (long since demolished and now forgotten).

Timber with multiple uses over many centuries is an example of good sustainable construction. My thoughts then extended to the modern Formica-topped tables at which we were sat. These ‘monstrous hybrid’ materials are almost impossible to recycle successful and often end up in land fill after a life of 10-20 years.

After the meal all the paper plates and plastic cutlery were gathered into black bin liners and loaded into the large wheelie bin behind the village hall. This is an example of the convenience of modern catering making life easy for us all. What would a 16th century observer make of it all? They would recognise the wood beams and marvel at the gadgets like the Public Address system and data projector; but I don’t think they would be impressed with our wasteful ways.

Monday, 10 May 2010

The new occupant of Number 10

I assume that in London’s most famous address, 10 Downing Street, Gordon Brown has packed all his personal possessions into boxes and is ready to leave. He has a constitutional duty to remain until an alternative government emerges. It would be presumptuous of David Cameron to have his bags packed ready to move in, but he must feel confident that this will be his next home. His call for change is what the country needs.

Now, there is a chance for deep-rooted change - if our leaders grasp the opportunity. Difficult times demand bold action. Otherwise, there is a danger that the same tired policies will continue but with a different spin and slightly altered priorities.

Politicians, and most of the electorate, are fixated on our economic ills. The apparent priority is to get the economy back on track. Other problems, such as environmental stress caused by continued high levels of material consumption, are being sidelined. It does not have to be like this.

Rescuing the economy, and stepping rather lighter on the planet, can be on the same route if we choose our direction well. Green stimulus measures are what are needed. This is far more complex than the simple economic levers used so far to counter the crisis. There is a difficult challenge to design appropriate government policy that links with, and influences, behaviour change to move closer to a sustainable society (that includes, of course, a sound economy). It can be done; and this is what the new resident of 10 Downing Street should focus on.

Monday, 3 May 2010

A Greek Tragedy

An agreement for a financial rescue package for Greece has finally been brokered. Any further delay and Greece may have been forced to default on paying out on bonds due to mature in the near future. For a Euro-zone country to default on its national debt is unthinkable – or so we thought. This is an important stage in the development of the Euro. Is it a stable well run currency vying with the US dollar for reserve status; or is does it represent an unwieldy merger of disparate economies that is bound to unravel? These are important questions for Europe; and for the stability of global finance.

Discussions have been slow and tortuous. The internal politics of Greece has made it very difficult to agree to implement the tough austerity measures demanded by the IMF and the EU. For Germany – providing a large chunk of EU new loans – this is a bitter pill to swallow. The Germans take pride in running a prudent economic policy and ordinary Germans have had to put up with belt-tightening. To see this result in bailing out the profligate Greek economy is galling; Angela Merkel may reap a political backlash in the coming elections.

This whole sorry tale of Greece and the Euro is a Greek tragedy. It will end with Greece leaving the Euro. After this agreement the inevitable is delayed but not for as long as people might hope. As soon as it becomes clear that the Greek government does not have the domestic support to implement the full austerity package (nor the stomach to get a grip of tax evasion), and the EU looks likely to reject further requests for yet more loans, there will be a rush to dump Greek Euro debt and to withdraw funds from euro accounts in Greek banks. The final act could be messy and dramatic.

I write in my book, Green Outcomes in the Real World, coming out in the autumn:

‘There is little prospect that the euro will be dismantled any time soon, but it is likely that one or more members will explore the possibility of exit to regain greater financial control. Implementation would be a challenge for both the country and the European Central Bank, but once one country had acted as trailblazer, others might follow.’

Greece and the European Central Bank should have trail-blazed an orderly exit at a much earlier stage. Further delay is dangerous.

Monday, 26 April 2010

My generation

My generation, born in the 1950s and 60s are now in power and it is our wisdom that is guiding decision making. We have experienced three decades of economic growth, rising consumption and materially better lives. We have no direct experience to warn us that there may be problems ahead. Scientists tell us about the possibilities of climate change but the evidence is now tainted. Recent polls suggest that only 25% of the population believe that climate change is real and caused by humankind. There is relief amongst many people that they can latch onto the idea that climate change is a hoax. Whether climate change is real, or not, we will find out in the decades ahead. The inability of world society to respond to this threat is symptomatic of deeper problems. My generation are living in denial of the need to make changes to reduce the impact of society on the global ecosystem.

I have been out and about in Berkshire schools talking with sixth form pupils. This has given me huge optimism that real progress towards a sustainable society is possible as they come of age to vote and influence those in positions of power. The younger generation are open-minded and thirsting for knowledge. They are also concerned about the future and not afraid to ask searching and difficult questions.

The younger generation have a different set of observations to guide them. They see a shortage of jobs, a lack of opportunities and an older generation better at generating hot air than taking real action to protect the integrity of our planet’s ecosystem. We owe it to them to start making real progress - and start soon.

Monday, 19 April 2010

Foreign holidays as a Right

According to the Times:

‘An overseas holiday used to be thought of as a reward for a year’s hard work. Now Brussels has declared that tourism is a human right and pensioners, youths and those too poor to afford it should have their travel subsidised by the taxpayer’. The European Union commissioner for enterprise and industry, Antonio Tajani, is reported to have said, “Travelling for tourism today is a right.”

There has been a massive increase in low-cost flying based on cheap aviation fuel. If airlines had to pay a similar amount of tax, as motorists pay to drive their cars, then the mass aviation market would be forced to contract. Instead of curbing unsustainable aviation, the EU is seeking to expand tourism (presumably on cheap flights) to the poorest members of society. The aims are laudable: to encourage a sense of European identity by understanding other countries within the union; but what has happened to the idea of reducing the carbon impact of our holidays?

For now we are enjoying clear blue skies in southern England for the first time that I can remember. This has been courtesy of the ban on flights in response to the risk of volcanic ash thrown out by the volcanic eruption in Iceland. The skies are free of vapour trails and high cloud generated by aircraft. We have just has a very quiet and sunny evening meal in the garden.

We should reflect whether the time has come to charge the full environmental cost of flying. The EU would have to think again about its budget for tourism for the poor and disadvantaged. We might then observe exchanges taking place between adjacent countries to allow people to travel sustainably and engage with neighbouring societies. This would be a more useful way to give the poor a taste of alternative culture than further subsidies on flying.

Monday, 12 April 2010

Threats and Opportunities

The classic view of the external business environment, taught at business schools everywhere, is through the lens of ‘threats and opportunities’.

Responding to ‘threats’, is about looking to the future in order to survive the cut and thrust of a constantly evolving business landscape. Responding to ‘opportunities’, is about looking to the future to grow the business to exploit new markets, new technologies and new ways to do business.

I believe in looking at the world as a series of opportunities. Focussing on threats, leads to defensive strategies and risk-averse tactics. Focussing on opportunities, leads to risk taking and support for innovation. These latter behaviours are the ones that I favour.

These same deep-rooted mental approaches apply also to government and to all of us. People, who focus on the threat of climate change, are digging themselves into a defensive rut of narrow thinking that attempts to squeeze carbon out of the processes we now operate. People, who focus on the opportunities that arise, are getting on with the work of transforming society to sever society’s reliance on fossil fuels.

There is a huge difference between shuffling forward in a timid manner driven by fear and leaping forward taking the problems that arise in our stride. I would rather be running a little too fast than shuffling far too slow.

Monday, 5 April 2010

Paying in Energy

Iceland was lauded prior to 2008 on having clever entrepreneurs who could covert the nation from a remote island reliant on fishing to a major speculator in the realms of international finance. I remember the praise that was heaped on these financial wizards. The Icelanders bought a lot of UK companies and earned respect from overseas observers – although not from me. I was very wary of the alchemy that was being pursued. Conjuring up money and profits by playing the financial system does not fit my definition of sound business.

I like businesses based on innovation and genuinely novel ideas that seek to do something better or more efficiently. These companies deserve to prosper. It might be nothing more than the old and very successful business model built on community values that encourages hard graft from a loyal work force that are valued for who they are and not only the work they do.

The Iceland business model was more smoke and mirrors than hard graft. I was dealing with my parent’s affairs before the crash and was advised to put their savings into Icesave to get the best interest rate. It was advice I ignored. In hindsight, the UK government decided to back the deposits in Icesave so perhaps it was safe but it did not take much due diligence to see that this was a dodgy operation. It might have been better to let people learn the lesson that dodgy investments are to be avoided.

The UK government chose to bail out the savers and now seeks recompense from Iceland. An interesting idea has been floated by Gijs Graafland, the director of the Amsterdam-based Planck Foundation, that Iceland could pay back this debt in energy. Iceland straddles the fault line between North American and Eurasian tectonic plates and has good geothermal electric power potential. The power could be generated and passed to the UK through a new 750-mile underwater cable. That would be an innovative and useful idea.

Monday, 29 March 2010

Little Known Fact No 3 – Bottled Water

UK bottled water consumption reached 34 litres per person in 2008, up from 27 litres in 2001. Bottled water consumption is projected to reach 40 litres per person by 2015. In the US, bottled water is drunk at an average rate of 105 litres per person up from 67 litres per head in 2002. In Italy bottled water consumption has grown from 194 litres per head in 2002 to an estimated 200 litres in 2008.

The UK market has a lot of room to grow if the market follows the lead in other countries. People are responding to health advice that drinking water is good for you and are concerned that the water they drink is pure and healthy. This is big business with a large, and growing, resources bill for the bottles and their transportation.

There have been a number of studies comparing the quality of bottled water with tap water. For Helsinki, tap water comes out with an excellent report. In fact there is one company bottling and shipping Helsinki tap water to be sold in the Middle East. London tap water may not get such glowing reports but it is healthy and safe to drink.

Carefully managing water supplies is vital to human health. It might be better to ensure that all our drinking water is safe and put the bottled water business (and the associated resource consumption) out of business.

That would then lead onto tackling another associated anomaly – that we use clean water for flushing toilets. We would not flush the toilet with Evian; why flush it with tap water? Flushing loos should reuse grey water from our washing activities.

Rather than bottled water, we need protected water sheds and more complex plumbing.

Monday, 22 March 2010

The Wrong Ice Conditions

Sunday was a special day. I stood atop Suomenlinna, the Fortress Island that stands guard over the harbour of Helsinki. From there I looked out over the Baltic sea in one direction and across to the buildings of Helsinki on the other. Another high point on the island is surmounted by a church that doubles up as a light house. The regular pulses of light brought rhythm to the early dawn. Hopping across the snow in front of the church was a hare. The peaceful scene came at the end of a week when I had skied across the breadth of Finland from the Russian Border to the Swedish border.

The event was the ‘Border to Border’ ski marathon event. People from 18 countries came together to tackle the 440km route. The end point was Tornio a small town on the Swedish border. If all had gone according to plan; I would have ended by skiing across the Tornio River and right up to the lobby of the Town hotel.

It was not to be. Although this winter is the coldest for many years (dropping to minus 36 degrees C) the ice on the lakes and rivers was not as strong as it should have been. Heavy snows had come early in the winter whilst the ice was still thin. This had then provided insulation from the severe cold above preventing the formation of thick strong ice.

The ice on the Tornio River was strong enough to take skiers as evidenced by the large number of ice-hole fishermen sitting over their round holes in the ice with their short fishing rods. The problem was a river further to the east where there was water on the ice and snow on top of that. This river prevented us from going further. We were forced to end the journey a few km short of the full distance.

I still harbour the wish to finish the ‘Border to Border’ event at the doors of the hotel in Tornio, to take off my skis and walk downstairs and into the sauna to then relax. To fulfil my dream I will need to return another year when ice conditions are better.

Monday, 8 March 2010

Little Known Fact No 2 – Oil and Sheep

Did you know; that in The Falkland Islands there are 160 sheep for every islander?
Did you also know; that for every sheep there is thought to be 120,000 barrels of oil reserves?

The foreign Office official position is that the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands depends on the wishes of the islanders. The war in 1982 was not about oil; but as the world faces shortages of black gold it may be a convenient time to drill for more in the waters off these remote islands. When the prime assets are sheep, the incentive to fight over the islands is low. If there proves to be commercially viable oil fields then the game changes.

In the unsustainable world in which we live the politicians will weigh off the cost of protection of this remote outpost with the potential revenue streams – sticking, of course, to the official line that it is the wishes of the residents that are paramount.

There is another possible outcome. The world could take the huge steps required to learn to live without fossil fuel. It seems preposterous, but it is feasible. Saudi Arabia understands the dangers and this is why the kingdom is so obstructive in negotiations over climate change and the need to reduce carbon emissions. Falkland Islanders should also not count their barrels of oil before they are pumped. If the world takes the required action to stop climate change, then the commercial and political case to make the Falkland Islands a new oil producing nation may never add up.

I suspect that there will be a window of opportunity for an oil boom in the Falklands. However wool from sheep is a better long-term bet for the Falkland Islands in a sustainable world society.

Monday, 1 March 2010

Hummer RIP

"General Motors said on Wednesday that it would shut down Hummer, the brand of big sport utility vehicles that became synonymous with the term gas guzzler, after a deal to sell it to a Chinese manufacturer fell apart." —The New York Times, Feb. 25, 2010

In 2007 I wrote about massive change in society that I described as the Sustainable Revolution. My book Adapt and Thrive was published the following year. I predicted that the future of the Hummer brand would be a barometer of when the revolution was ready to take off.

“Driving an SUV will be a good barometer of where we have reached. Having one is a proud aspiration of many drivers now, but when fashion changes they will not enjoy the ridicule that will be heaped upon them. This will not be a clear-cut transition, as, even if we push the costs prohibitively high, there could be a small hard core who take pleasure in demonstrating their ability to pay. It will only be when they are shunned socially for their choice of vehicle, and the latest Hummer is no longer the thing to be seen driving, that the SUV will finally leave our city streets.”
Adapt and Thrive: The Sustainable Revolution, by Peter McManners 2008.

If I am right, then the death of the Hummer brand heralds the start of the Sustainable Revolution.

Monday, 22 February 2010

Little Known Fact No 1 – Canned Soup

Did you know; that in January 2010 57 million cans of Heinz soup were sold in the UK, a rise of 11 million cans over the same period in 2009?

If soup was used a measure of economic performance, then an increase of 20% year-on-year sales would indicate that the recession is over; but there might be more to these head-line figures than appears at first sight. My mind wanders to pictures of the soup kitchens operating in the Great Depression of the 1930s, doling out hot soup to the unemployed. Perhaps the consumption of more soup is an indication of belt tightening and moving down market in choices of easy meals. I suspect that sales of tinned caviar will not have seen a corresponding increase.

Soup has the reputation of food for the poor (or cheapest starters on the menu) because it is so cheap and easy to produce, consisting mostly of water. It seems odd that such a stream of waste metal and the associated carbon emissions in moving the cans from factory to consumer is tolerated.

People like the convenience of opening a can of soup. Fresh soup takes more effort. Ingredients need to be chopped and then cooked. Powdered soup is another option but it is always second best - to the can. Fresh ingredients have to be bought; cans sit on the shelf awaiting their moment of consumption for months or years. A fresh and easy option would be a small pack of herbs to drop into a pan with chopped seasonal vegetables, but we are not prepared to wait the time.

If we pause and think about it, the can is obsolescent technology from a past era when keeping food fresh was a challenge. The time has come to regard canned food as old technology. There may be certain specific foods that require being canned; or specific arduous conditions such as military operations where the can remains the best option. But even the military would not waste logistic capacity on canned soup.

Monday, 15 February 2010

Economics or Fashion?

Economists delight in working out the figures to support a rationale business case. If the proposal makes money (or saves money) enough to offset the expenditure then it is a sound investment. Anyone who lives in the real world – which is most of us – knows that there is more to life than rational economic decisions.

I committed to fitting solar Photovoltaic (PV) panels to my roof before the government announced the PV feed-in tariffs. I made the decision on the basis that this is what each building must have if we are to start to reduce carbon emissions. My decision was based on wanting to show leadership and ‘walk the talk’ to back up my calls for change. For me, it was not a rational economic decision, although I did have a suspicion that energy prices will climb high over the years ahead and that the expenditure might be a good hedge against such circumstances. The pay-back period, based on current energy prices, went way beyond the expected life of the system (30 years). It made no economic sense – but I wanted to fit PV despite this.

The UK government has now announced the feed-in tariff. Householders will be paid 41.3 pence per KW for retrofitted (36.1 pence for new build) starting from 1 April. The pay-back period for my system is now less than 20 years (based on current energy prices). There is now a robust business case to support a decision I took on a non-economic basis. Will that mean a flood of people following my example? No, people are not rationale in the way that economists assume for their calculations.

There is still deep-rooted opposition to PV panels on roofs despite the fact that they are a sound investment. What is needed is fashion change. When it is fashionable to have PV panels on the roof then people will invest in them to keep up with the Jones. Mine are hidden away out of sight on the side of the house and the generation meter hidden in the garage. Not much showing off to be had, but when I drive my electric car I can claim, with some justification that I am driving with zero emissions. That gives a certain warm glow inside that I am doing the right thing, but also, on this occasion, I am now behaving according to rationale economic analysis.

Monday, 8 February 2010

Fixing the Global Economy

From a superficial glance, the global economy is looking much better. World leaders have given the economy a big boost with massive stimulus packages. Shares prices have recovered and if the size of bank bonuses is an indicator then the banking system is back in good health.

A quick fix was needed to prevent economic meltdown. Now that apparent stability has returned we need to take a long hard look at the economy - and society. People are starting to question capitalism and so they should. There are fundamental problems that can only be fixed by a major overhaul.

When the economy was booming people were reluctant to look beneath the figures. Now that the gearbox of the global economy has started to make some ugly noises we need to look deep inside at the mechanics. The return to stability may be little more than the actions of a bent second-hand car salesmen who has tipped sawdust in the gearbox to dull the noise. Such a short-term fix leads to a massive bill in the future.

We need to examine the purpose of finance and bring it back to support the real economy and society. This may mean taking apart the gearbox, cleaning it, fixing it where necessary and reassembling the pieces.

Monday, 1 February 2010

Being Responsible for the Future

The stated aim of the World Economic Forum that closed in Davos yesterday was to:

“Improve the State of the World: Rethink, Redesign, Rebuild”

The discussions demonstrated some rethinking, but there little evidence of agreement over a coherent redesign, and therefore no shared vision of how to rebuild the world economy.

Not surprisingly, there was a lot of talk about banking and bankers, but the three issues that struck me from the final session were more fundamental than problems in the financial system. These are issues that reach right into the heart of the principles with which we manage the economy.

First, were reports of the call from President Nicolas Sarkozy for the need to add a moral dimension if we are to be able to save capitalism. I interpret this to mean that capitalism is not in itself a problem, but capitalism without a moral compass is. A number of speakers echoed this theme.

Second, there was a discussion over the relationship between stakeholder value and shareholder value. The business leaders at Davos seemed to accept (partly as a consequence of the financial crisis) that a narrow focus on shareholder value is not sustainable. If business neglects the needs of a range of stakeholders, and thereby loses the support of society, then the business will suffer.

Finally, a brief vignette caught my attention. The point of view represented was that the bail-out of the financial system had made the situation worse. The world economy was pictured as a car that has been prevented from driving off a cliff. However that car was now racing downhill even faster than before. This summons up a vision of the world economy charging into an even bigger car wreck as stimulus measures are withdrawn.

The results coming out of Davos are inconclusive. I offer my interpretation of the deductions that follow from the discussion. We need a moral compass; stakeholders are important and we must steer the economy onto a safer track. That means being responsible for the future, putting people before profits and in doing so retreat from a narrow focus on growth as the prime measure of progress. This is my conclusion, but it is unlikely to be the conclusion that we will read in the final reports coming out of Davos.

Monday, 25 January 2010

What to Discuss in Davos?

The World Economic Forum Annual Meeting starts later this week in Davos Switzerland. This gathering of leaders from all walks of life has helped to shape the global agenda at the start of each year since 1970. This year, there are claims that climate change is a hoax and expectations that the financial crisis of 2008 is now over. So what is there left to discuss at Davos?

There are two categories of people who may be less in evidence than previous years – bankers and climate scientists. Bankers have fared worst; their reputation as masters of the universe has been shown to be less than accurate. Unwisely, they have further tarnished their image by awarding themselves a big slice of the bumper profits made on the back of cheap money provided by governments. This is insensitive at the very least. If they want to keep the tentacles of government regulation out of banking then they should have shown more respect for public opinion and taken more responsibility for their actions. Some bankers have been forced out (with their pension pots intact) but few have fallen on their swords or expressed contrition.

Climate scientists - and the chairman of the IPCC in particular - are also in the dog house. Exaggerated claims and sloppy research have made their way into the IPCC reports. These are vital documents that world leaders need to be able to justify taking action. The evidence that climate change is a threat to society is robust, but the presentation of the evidence to persuade a sceptical public has to be transparent and accurate. There are echoes of Tony Blair’s attempt to justify the war in Iraq by over stating the evidence (as we will hear more of on Friday when he appears before the Iraq inquiry). Such deception leaves a bitter taste and is best avoided even if the intentions are honest.

These are dangerous times as leaders gather in Davos. The crisis is far from over – the flaws in the financial system have not been fixed, just papered over. Climate change is real and we are not taking action to reduce the threat. There is plenty to discuss in Davos. We need to move beyond bashing bankers and scientists (no matter how well justified) and get on with the process of building a sustainable future for society.

Monday, 18 January 2010

The UK Reopens for Business

Britain has been gripped by the coldest winter for decades. Many parts of the country have been paralysed; children’s education has been interrupted and many businesses have had to curtail operations. The thaw has brought welcome relief.

I lived in Finland 2004 to 2008 where such weather is normal and may last for months. The Finns are equipped for such weather; the society and the economy hardly miss a beat, except in the most severe storms. Here in the UK, some people argue for better contingency plans, more snow ploughs and larger stockpiles of salt.

It is ironic that this spell of cold weather comes hard on the heels of the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference. Climate change deniers have welcomed it with glee, claiming that this weather is proof that global warming is an elaborate hoax peddled by scientists wanting to keep their research funding. But weather is not the same as climate. Climate is all about long-term trends; weather is fickle and changeable. According to the UK Meteorological office, ‘the current cold weather in the UK is part of the normal regional variations’. Concurrent with cold weather in the UK, many places in the far north have seen temperatures above normal – in many places by more than 5 °C, and in parts of northern Canada, by more than 10 °C. According to the US National Snow and Ice Data Center, the cause of this warm weather in the Arctic is an ‘extreme negative phase of the Arctic Oscillation (AO)’ – a natural pattern of climate variability.

Cold weather in the UK does not disprove global warming nor lessen its dangers. There is a simple fact that cannot be ignored; if all other variables remain the same, an atmosphere with a higher concentration of carbon dioxide will absorb more of the sun’s radiation. The weather may respond in a number of ways but the overall trend towards a warmer planet can only be stopped, and reversed, by breaking the world’s reliance on the burning of fossil fuels.

As for the UK’s contingency plans for a long spell of freezing weather, what should we do? We could procure all the equipment to be able to run our country like the Finns run Finland. This is not warranted. It would be more cost-effective to close down our little island for one week each decade than to keep it running through the rare big freeze.

We should remember that the sledging has been great and the weather excellent for building snowmen and for snow sculpture. The McManners tribe constructed a Tardis in our back garden which makes it look as if Dr Who has come to call. The kids may not have learnt much at school but they have had a lot of fun. Let’s stop work and enjoy the winter fun on the few occasions we have the chance, knowing that, for the UK, it is the most cost-effective solution.

Monday, 11 January 2010

Learning a New Rhythm

I was reminded of the power of repetition in returning to the river yesterday afternoon to race against the Durham University first rowing VIII. It is over 30 years since my last race in a rowing boat but the instinct came flooding back. The old boy’s boat went well (for a short period) but as expected the younger men won.

Rowing in perfect unison is a good analogy of successful society and a successful corporation. We each play our part according to a unifying rhythm. Once we have learnt how to operate we repeat the same actions over and over again reinforcing success and getting ever more efficient.

Novice oarsmen or women take many months to get the balance, a feel for the water and the rhythm that will take them through the race. Old hands like us could slip into old habits with ease. In the past, many hours, days, weeks and months on the river have honed our instincts into a perfect machine. These habits are not forgotten but it would now be tough to learn a new rhythm.

The thirty years since my undergraduate days has seen a huge expansion in the world economy and a huge increase in the pressure we are placing on the environment. The rhythm with which we run society is focused on economic outcomes. This rhythm has become ingrained and second nature.

It will be hard to change the rhythm to a different beat but change it we must. This new rhythm is sustainability. If you are not used to it, you have to concentrate hard or get caught in a number of traps. Take heart; sustainable policy and sustainable operations have a much more natural rhythm. Once learned it will run much more smoothly and intuitively, but putting aside the rhythm of the past will take time.

Monday, 4 January 2010

Opening the Decade of Change

This is the beginning of the second decade of the 21st century when I hope and expect there will be a major shift in the way we run human affairs. Society needs new ideas and a new direction.

The Noughties (as the BBC called the last decade) has set the scene for change through demonstrating that continuation of the policies of the 20th century will not solve the world’s problems. As the new millennium dawned, it was hoped that there would be substantive progress towards the Millennium Development Goals. It was hoped that world leaders would embrace sustainability and reduce pressure on the environment. It was hoped that the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference 2009 would be the crowning achievement of the decade and solve climate change for us and future generations. It was not to be. Human society has found that, despite good intentions, the straightjacket of 20th century policies is preventing progress.

If there is one word that can describe the policy framework that brought economic success to the closing decades of the 20th century, it would be ‘globalization’. Our commitment to the concept of open markets, free flows of capital and deregulation has been dented by the financial crisis, but confidence is returning. The fact that the global economy has been rescued from immediate collapse gives breathing space to start work on medium-term solutions. We must use the opportunity well, not to reinforce the policies of the 20th century but to craft a framework fit for the 21st century.

I hope to see the concept of sustainability mature into a robust policy framework that is understood by all and implemented widely. The second decade will set the direction of the 21st century but only when we accept the need to leave the concepts of the 20th century behind.