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.