Sunday, 31 July 2011

Bristol Green Capital

More than 50% of the world’s population live in cities; making cities sustainable is therefore an imperative in building a sustainable society. Cities are complex in terms of both infrastructure and the range of social interactions that makes the city operate. It is possible to make cities work like living organisms; capturing renewal energy, fully recycling waste and providing a vibrant, clean and enjoyable place to live. They can also appear like cancerous growth growing into mega metropolises from which the natural world is excluded.

I have just spent a very pleasant weekend in Bristol at the Bristol Harbour Festival, a celebration of culture and leisure. Throughout the city there were outdoor events ranging from concerts and circus performances to street buskers and market stalls. The theme was fun, enjoyment and entertainment; the sun shone and everybody seemed to have a good time. The hustle and bustle of people in close proximity brings joy and fulfilment but if resources are insufficient this can switch to conflict and strive. It is vital that we make our cities sustainable to reap the pleasures of communal living on show at the festival.

The City Council’s intention is to become a green city was evidenced by numerous recycling containers and policemen on bicycles. Bristol came top of the Forum for the Future’s index of UK Sustainable Cities in 2008 but has since slipped to 4th behind Newcastle, Leicester and Brighton. This competition between city leaders, to be the greenest city, should engage a virtuous cycle as each city tries hard to outdo the other.

Green aspirations are not the same as delivering green solutions. Our hotel was a prime example of how to use excess energy to little good effect; we slept very badly until we opened the window, turned off the air conditioning and let the night air waft through the room. The recycling in evidence was collecting and sorting piles of trash with little evidence of true recycling. Bristol is doing well on the relative scale presented in the Sustainable Cities Index but if there was an absolute scale from 1 to 10 ― with 1 being unsustainable and 10 being fully sustainable― Bristol would score a 1.1.

To make our cities free from fossil-fuel dependency and resources delivered through long supply chains will be a tough challenge. Bristol should be praised for taking the first step but it must be seen as a small first step on a long journey.

The Sustainable Cities Index tracks progress on sustainability in Britain’s 20 largest cities, ranking them across three broad baskets: environmental performance; quality of life; and future-proofing – how well they are addressing issues such as climate change, recycling and biodiversity.

Monday, 25 July 2011

De-risking the corporation

It is appropriate to write about risks to the world economy and the problems of the Euro zone in a blog about sustainability, not only because these are important issues but because there are close parallels between the Euro crisis and the challenge of sustainability. European politicians are taking decisions that will take them through the next three months or the next year. There is little time for the deep thinking required when the focus is on the immediate containment of the crisis. Business leaders are subject to the same pressure to deliver this quarter’s, or this year’s results. Deep thinking over the longer term has to wait until the company is doing well and short-term profitability is secured.

The operations of many businesses are unsustainable, dependent on long supply chains and relying on fossil fuels, directly and indirectly through the electricity supply. The action of many executives is to focus on the medium-term, hedging fuel costs and seeking insurance for supply chain disruption. The real solution is to think longer term, remove fossil fuel from operations and shorten supply chains to bring them under closer control. This is not primarily a CSR activity, or action designed in response to climate change – although such reasons can be cited to burnish the reputation of the corporation – these are strategic choices to de-risk operations and lay the foundations for long-term profitability.

Monday, 18 July 2011

Into Africa

David Cameron arrived into Africa today on the 93rd birthday of Nelson Mandela, that giant amongst world leaders.

The message being preached by David Cameron is that trade is the way for Africa to fix its problems. He brings with him a 25-strong delegation that includes business leaders and the trade minister lord Green. Perhaps David Cameron is right; perhaps trade is the solution to the deeply entrenched difficulties that the continent faces. However, there is a higher-level policy under which Africa will find its salvation, ‘sustainability.’ Trade can play its part, of course, but only within the context of sustainability. I enjoyed greatly my time working in Africa and wrote in the book Green Outcomes in the Real World:

‘In discussion with a colleague, the topic of Africa arose. We had both spent time on the continent and shared a high regard for the people of Africa and would like to support measures that addressed some of the problems. I attempted to steer the dialogue towards my ideas about sustainability as the way to support improvement in people’s lives. I quickly ran into a problem. My colleague was an advocate of neo-liberalism and working on deep-rooted assumptions about the benefits of globalization. His concept of equity was based on the idea that everyone should have the opportunity to live a lifestyle that matched his own, on the implicit assumption that every society should be helped to follow the development path of the West, and that free trade, open markets and free flows of capital were the way to achieve this.’

In the next paragraph, I went on to write, in the context of sustainability:

‘The world needs other concepts to replace the old concept of globalization but, until we accept that economic globalization is no longer the appropriate basis for human development, it is hard to build new structures of thought. We are forever trying to add refinements to an edifice that is starting to show cracks, when the action required is to underpin our thinking with new foundations.’

Africa is at a crucial stage in its development, with a number of countries, particularly China, looking at this resource-rich continent with a glint in their eye. Today, David Cameron should be careful to ensure that the needs of Africa are uppermost in his mind in respect for the legacy of Nelson Mandela who remains an icon of unselfish principled leadership.

Sunday, 10 July 2011

Energy prices set to soar

The UK government is championing policy that means – according to the Sunday Times – that household energy bills are ‘set to double’. This makes a good headline, but relies on the assumption that household consumption remains steady as the price of energy doubles. The intention of course is to cut consumption; more expensive energy makes people careful with what they use. As the cost of energy rises, we should be looking for solutions that hold household bills in check through greater efficiency and frugal behaviour recognising that energy is a valuable and limited resource.

All professionals involved with buildings, infrastructure and industrial processes need a compelling reason to be frugal with energy. Future energy bills will be affordable, not through holding prices down but through using less energy. The logic is inescapable but politics is not a rational process. When the energy market pushes prices higher, it is accepted as beyond the politician’s control. When politicians set policy that will drive energy prices higher, politicians get the blame.

The announcement of an overhaul of energy policy expected this week comes hard on the heels of energy price rises. The rational reaction is to support tough policy because the recent increase in the cost of energy is an indicator of massive price hikes to come as energy supplies are stretched. Of course we need to move quickly to reduce consumption; that means policy to support investment; first, in energy efficiency (the biggest win), second, in generating low-carbon energy. The policy has to be to push energy prices higher; it is disingenuous for observers to argue otherwise.

Opposing tough energy policy is like lemmings opposing calls to slow down as the mass migration flocks towards the cliff edge. We are enjoying cheap energy; it makes no sense to keep it cheap and ignore the fact that the balance of supply and demand will drop off a cliff unless we take action soon.

The government should give people credit for having more intelligence than a pack of lemmings and ignore reports in the press to hold back on high energy prices. The rational silent majority expect higher energy prices; there will be complaints but people know this is the future. Let us have clarity; high energy prices are just around the corner; all decisions must be based on this unambiguous foundation to policy.

Monday, 4 July 2011

Saving Civilization

‘If we dare not – or cannot – change society we will become victim of our own success.’

Victim of Success: Civilization at Risk ISBN 9780955736919

The Space Shuttle Atlantis will be displayed at the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida, but first it will take off on Friday 8th July for one last mission. If the Economist is right in its recent editorial, this will be ‘the end of the Space Age.’

The history of manned space flight began in 1961 when Yuri Gagarin completed an orbit of the Earth in the Vostok spacecraft and reached a pinnacle in 1969 when Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon. The vision was that this was to be the start of humankind’s expansion to other worlds and other solar systems. The aim of the Space Shuttle programme was to make space travel routine, reliable, safe and cheap, with one shuttle flight a week at a cost of less than $2,000 dollars per Kg. In the end, the Shuttle flew once every three months at a cost of over $50,000 per kilogram and two out of six shuttles crashed killing the entire crew.

I hope Atlantis comes safely home to take up its place as a museum exhibit but I hope also that this does not signal the end of human aspirations to expand beyond the confines of Earth and establish colonies on other planets.

The attraction of continuing to explore space has lessened, but the imperative to do so has increased dramatically. Robot missions have explored the planets in our solar system and found inhospitable worlds where we could only eke out an existence in sealed domes. We now understand that our beautiful world is unique and although in the long future we may find another planet in orbit around a different star it will not have the abundant natural provisions of planet Earth. The prospect of building a new life far away has lost its appeal but the imperative to find another planet is strong because of our Lemming-like dash to exploit the Earth’s resources without regard to the state of the world for future generations.

It is time for real change.