Wednesday, 22 May 2013

International Day for Biological Diversity

‘We have not finished exploring the beauty of our planet’s biological diversity, nor have we fully gauged its role in humanity’s well-being and survival – yet we have begun to destroy it.’
Ms Irina Bokova, Director-General of UNESCO

As we go through today I wonder how many people are aware that it is International Day for Biological Diversity. With all the other pressing problems we face it is easy to forget that biodiversity loss is one the biggest issues of our time and we ignore it at our peril.

‘So far, our growing concern has focused on the level of CO2 in the atmosphere, and the associated changes in climate that directly affect us, such as reduced crop yields and rising sea levels. There are far more serious issues that are not given the attention they deserve. These range from slowly rising levels of background radiation from our nuclear activities, and the gradual poisoning of the oceans, to the loss of biodiversity and destruction of natural habitats’ (McManners 2009: Page 60).
We have become ever more capable of pushing nature aside to build our magnificent concrete jungle and expand the capacity of our industrialised agriculture hoping that nature will always be there for us.

‘We can be sure, using advanced measurement and imaging technology that we can record accurately the world we now have. There are growing archives of satellite imagery, photographs, film and video. Our descendents should be able to view the Earth as it used to be, with a vast reservoir of biodiversity in the rainforests and oceans. Whether we will have any live examples of nature to accompany the archives depends on what we do now’ (McManners 2009: Page 203).

The question is whether we allow the steamroller of human progress to crush all before it or invite nature back into our lives to enjoy its bounty and marvel in its diversity. For my part, I would like to work with nature, use its services and ensure we keep the biodiversity that we will need for a safe and vibrant future.

McManners, P.J. 2009. Victim of Success: Civilization at Risk, Susta Press, UK.

Thursday, 16 May 2013

Share Transaction Tax NOW

I carried out an analysis of sustainability some years back which dug deep into the behaviour of corporate executives and the investment community who hold shares in listed companies.  Through a series of connected deductions I made the case for a share transaction tax.

This proposal came to my attention again today as I attended the Governance for Sustainability Conference in Oxford today. This is an excellent event convened by the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment (SSEE) bringing together a range of experts from academia, business and NGOs. There was a particular set of problems came together in the discussion but a solution was elusive.

The observations were:
1. Environmental, social and corporate governance data (known as ESG) are being collected, collated and published ‒ but it is not being acted upon.
2. An investment expert one of the big banks explained why the most effective investment strategy was to invest and hold an investment for a time period beyond 10 years.
3. The head of sustainability for a FTSE 100 corporation explained that the investment analysts trading their shares do not ask questions that look further ahead than 18 months.
4. ESG data has little impact over the short-term (18 months) but can have huge impact over the ten years and beyond.

My deductions are:
1. For ESG data to be acted upon, investors have to take an investment view that extends out beyond ten years.
2. Persuading investors to take the long view is good investing in any case.
3. We need to reconfigure equity markets to steer investors towards taking a long view.

The solution that follows from linking the deductions from the observations is to introduce a share transfer tax (STT) at a level to drive change in investor behaviour. When there is a significant overhead to transfer ownership the logical behaviour change is to switch ownership less often.

The time has come to dust off this proposal and implement it (Adapt and Thrive: The Sustainable Revolution Pages: 178-179). Those who make money in the city of London through churning portfolios or high frequency traders will oppose such a move but the resistance should  be faced down so that sustainability measured by ESG can have real lasting impact.

Saturday, 4 May 2013

Solar Impulse Flies into the future

Solar powered sustainable aviation seems like an impossible dream compared with the gas guzzling jets of today’s aviation industry, but Solar Impulse allows us to glimpse into the future. This solar powered plane is flying across America. The first leg from San Francisco to Phoenix was completed successfully earlier today.

 The dream of low-carbon sustainable aviation could become reality sooner than policy makers expect, and much sooner than the industry would want. Boeing and Airbus will want to sell a lot conventional planes before society demands change, but the timing of the transition is society’s call. There are aviation innovators and pioneers showing the way towards sustainable aviation.

Solar Impulse weighs as much as a small car and carries one person – the pilot - at 70km/h (43 mph). In itself, this is little more than a curiosity but its value is the proof of the concept that solar power is a relevant and credible power source for air vehicles. As we observe the progress of Solar Impulse across the USA, there are entrepreneurs thinking about how to exploit the possibilities.

Flying high above cloud level, the sun is strong and consistent. Schedules would have to exploit daylight of course, taking off in the morning flying through the middle of the day, landing late afternoon. There would also have to be additional sources of power to take-off and climb to altitude but cruising above the clouds under solar power is entirely feasible. You could not of course fit a conventional plane with solar cells on the wings and electric engines because the design parameters are completely different, but give the aero engineer the freedom and we will be amazed what is possible.

The rich and time-poor will still want fly in fast aircraft that are an evolution from today’s models. But they will pay heavily for the privilege ‒ as the tax-free status of aviation fuel is removed. The industry’s plan to continue to operate, much as now, using biofuel will be exposed as disingenuous bluster (see pages 107-110 of Fly and be Damned). In this transformed industry, those of us who are less affluent will have to trade time for money. A new generation of air vehicle will become commercially viable that are, half air ship, half plane. These large, slow (relative to jets) air vehicles will be covered in state-of-the-art solar cells to provide cruise power; and, being spacious, provide a relaxed and comfortable journey experience.

I am confident that there is a golden age of aviation waiting to be launched (with Solar Impulse the first tiny step) but my vision remains grounded because of resistance from the industry (thinking about their shareholders) and politicians (worried at the backlash from a public that has become used to cheap flights). All of us can, and should, join together to insist on change. Aviation could be so much better, for passengers, for the new aviation entrepreneurs and for the environment. The industry may be reluctant but it will be able to make the transformation; the lever is fuel taxation; the people to pull the lever are the politicians. Politicians will act when we insist on change.  The power is with us all. Now is the time to join the growing body of people who want to see aviation transformed…