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On Thursday DEFRA announced that funding would be withdrawn from the Sustainable Development Commission (SDC) from next financial year.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In the current financial climate it is not surprising that, along with many other quangos, funding for the SDC has been withdrawn.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.