Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Christmas Crap

There are good things about Christmas, like family, fun and friendship. There are also things we could do without, like gluttonously full stomach and festive hangover. Another category of unwelcome stuff is Christmas crap; this includes presents broken within a day, piles of unnecessary wrapping and items of no discernible use ‒ except to raise a smile for the moment after opening. 

This is not the way it would be for a sustainable Christmas. We have transformed a religious festival into a display of conspicuous consumption, like the house down the road festooned with lights flashing ‘Merry Christmas’ above an illuminated model of Santa and his reindeers. More show, more power, more stuff, more crap. My Christmas crap includes a pair of socks that play the tune ‘Jingle Bells’. They raised a snigger, but I am no better or no worse a person because I own such a pair of socks. If the tune was less Christmassy then I could wear them for more than one day per year, and therefore be marginally more useful, but musical socks are intrinsically useless and an ideal example of Christmas rubbish.

For a sustainable Christmas, we could attempt to ban Christmas crap, but one person’s rubbish could be another person’s proud possession. A better idea would be rules that insisted retailers sell only two categories of item. First, there are quality long-life products which people actually find useful and serve a real purpose. Second, everything else is made to be fully biodegradable; it does not matter how frivolous or ridiculous these are, they can be burnt for power, or composted, as soon as the novelty wears off.

I suggest we all gather together our Christmas rubbish and take it into the shops. No need to discover where it was bought, as the idea is to cause disruption and inflict cost across retail. Let’s take our unwanted Christmas stuff and put it back where it came from, piled up by the tills to give the shops the problem of what do with so much junk.

Monday, 17 December 2012

Abu Dhabi and the End of Oil

Sheik Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nayhan, Abu Dhabi’s ruler officially opens one of the world’s largest container ports.
The scale and quality of the construction is awe inspiring and the opening did it justice. The time and date for this auspicious event was at 12 am on the 12th day of the 12th month. 12/12/12 will go down in history as the beginning of the end of the era of oil.

The Sheik’s intention is that this is one part of a plan to prepare for a future beyond the era of oil; extending the economy into new areas and building an infrastructure that will endure after all the oil has been pumped. It is a grand ambition and it is certainly a structure that will dominate the coast for centuries. Industrial archaeologists will write papers on this grand folly of the age of oil, built when the region was awash with cash and $9 billion was a small price pay to have a port to rival any in the world.

The intention is that Port Khalifa (named after the Sheik) will become a major staging post for freight from the Far East to western markets. If the current trend for long supply chains continues, Port Khalifa could become a major hub for world trade; but there is a flaw in this plan. The end of the era of oil will also bring to an end cheap transportation. As sustainability planning takes over, the one-way supply route will become obsolete. Business will no longer operate by manufacturing in China, shipping to Europe, selling, (using for a while) and then junking. New manufacturing will be around the cradle-to-cradle model of truly sustainable manufacturing and supply. It is the design and brands that will be global but physical goods will be much more localised

I hope that Abu Dhabi will find its place in the world beyond the era of oil, but the Sheik’s advisors need to think a little deeper to deliver his vision of navigating a safe path into the future.

Port Khalifa has been opened in style and will stand alongside the pyramids as a memorial to a once rich civilization but it is unlikely to have a future as port in the new world order.

Photos courtesy of the Abu Dhabi Ports Company media centre

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Signs of Real Action over Climate Change

The Doha Climate Talks have proved to be as useless and toothless as was expected. I will leave other commentators to analyse what was, and was not, achieved; I would prefer to look for signs of real action. Two business stories grabbed my attention as possible indicators of real progress. The first is about AIG’s attempt to sell its aircraft-leasing division to a consortium of Chinese bidders. The second story is about Richard Branson’s efforts to offload his ownership in Virgin Atlantic after talks this weekend. These could indicate that change is finally on the way in aviation, the bĂȘte noir of environmentalists hoping to see progress with climate change.
In the book Fly and be Damned I present aviation as the Litmus test of when world leaders finally grasp the nettle and take action to limit the damage of excess carbon dioxide emissions.  The required action is simple for the politicians, and will transform the industry for the better and a much improved passenger experience — but the current industry will suffer. Aircraft leasing companies will be hit particularly hard, as the book value of aircraft is slashed for all but the newest most efficient aircraft immediately it becomes clear that action is likely.

Richard Branson and the management of IAG are shrewd business people (and may have read my book). They can see that to sell now before their peers reach the same conclusion is a sensible business decision. For those who are looking to buy these stakes, they can look forward to fame in cases studied in business schools showing how you can get caught through failing to read correctly the winds of change. In hindsight, it will seem so obvious but it will not be the first time investors have been stung by buying in just before the collapse.

I wish Richard Branson and Bob Benmosche, CEO and AIG the best of luck; they deserve to profit from making the first move towards a sustainable aviation industry. For the prospective investors, ‘buyer beware’.

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Increase Fuel Duty

It was reported on Radio 4 this morning that some commuters have taken to sleeping in their cars to avoid the cost of fuel for the drive home. This is cited as evidence to back pressure on the government not to increase fuel duty in tomorrow’s autumn statement by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne. This is mishandling evidence to reach the wrong conclusion.

The problem is that we burn too much fuel; and long commuter journeys are part of the problem. When the price of fuel increases, as it inevitably will, people will reassess where they work and where they live, but this cannot be an instant decision. A few nights sleeping in the car might be the nudge people need to make change in their lives, to live nearer to work and closer to access to public transport.

Reducing the length of commuter journeys is not something to resist, but to welcome. Time wasted in the car, is time that could be spent in productive work, with the family, or used to sleep a little longer before getting up. Employers and employees have a shared interest in cutting commuting, through more working from home, locating offices in attractive provincial towns, and people trading sprawling suburbs for life within a community.

If we wait until the price of oil rises, the extra we pay will be transferred into the treasuries of the OPEC countries supplying the oil. If the UK government increases fuel duty, this is income that can be spent to improve our capability to need the car less, such as better public transport. I hope that pressure to hold back the planned fuel duty increase is resisted as a one small sensible step towards a better future.