Is red tape restricting the green house building agenda?

Domestic and non-domestic buildings are responsible for around 37 per cent of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions.   Taking domestic building in isolation, there are 26 million homes in UK and over 40 per cent of our CO2 emissions come from these buildings – the comparative figure for emissions globally is around a third.  These figures don’t even take into account current energy and water usage and means that there’s a massive amount of retrofitting to be done if we’re to meet our climate change goals.

The government’s flagship Green Deal was officially launched just nine months ago and last week the All Party Parliamentary Group for Excellence in the Built Environment published its report ‘Re-energising the green agenda’, in which it concludes that the Green Deal already needs reviewing.  Apparently not many people know what it does or why it exists – this comes as no surprise to the Conscious Communications’ team which has heard the same from clients and at the green and cleantech events we attend.

A view reaffirmed by Dr Aled Jones, director of Anglia Ruskin University’s Global Sustainability Institute, today at the Retrofit East conference where he hold delegates that an “urgent reform” of the Green Deal policy is needed.  He believes that the only way to cut domestic carbon emissions by the required 29 per cent is by legislation and compulsory energy and efficiency standards.

Apparently only 700 people have so far taken out Green Deal loans, and just 12 installations have been completed to date.  99 per cent of people who have had a Green Deal assessment done on their home have not gone on to progress their project. 

The All Party Parliamentary Group’s report says: “…we feel it is time to take another look at the detail, make it work for social housing, galvanise the schemes locally across the country and make financial incentives permanent. The concern is that in the current form the Green Deal and Energy Companies Obligation will deliver fewer carbon emissions reductions than the policies they replaced.”

So, in conclusion, the Green Deal has taken us backwards. 

The report goes on to make several recommendations including making retrofit more financially attractive; making the Green Construction Board an industry focal point for delivery and action; and establishing an Existing Homes Hub to engage with industry on sustainability issues.

From a new build perspective, the UK has targeted itself with achieving a carbon neutral status for all new homes by 2016.  This appears to be an easier target for us to achieve, and the Code for Sustainable Homes is now being widely implemented.

Yet the Conscious Communications team understands that one of the key players in the green new build sector, Skanska – three times award winner at this year’s BCI Awards, whose president and CEO is co-chair of the Green Construction Board, has just pulled out of the UK residential market, largely due to the complexities of the planning process.  As an innovator in the market that has been setting the bar for other construction companies, we see this as a shocking indictment of our system, bogged down with red tape, and a calamity for the UK.  Surely there should be measures in place to help companies like Skanska to speed through planning, build progressive housing and help us reach our environmental targets.  Who will lead the way for new green homes in the UK now?

According to the Carbon Disclosure Project’s annual FTSE 350 Climate Change Report 2013, construction companies scoring highest in a ranking of corporate carbon footprints include Morgan Sindall, Balfour Beatty, Carillion, Interserve, Costain, Kier. 

In our region, where the property ‘bubble’ continues to bulge, it is good to see so many of these companies have a presence.  Indeed, the Conscious Communications team was proud to have been part of Kier Eastern’s new office opening in Cambridge recently – we hope that they have more success with the planning process than Skanska did, and that they continue to strive in helping the UK reach its carbon neutral targets.

Agricultural research crucial to relieve environmental strain

The region around our base in Cambridge is known as Silicon Fen due to the area’s cluster of high-tech businesses, which focus on electronics, software and biotechnology.

However our beautiful rural location also means that a lot of pioneering research work is undertaken in the field of agriculture (excuse the pun).

Our locality is teeming with movers and shakers from the agricultural research world, from BBRO in Norwich, the UK sugar beet industry’s scientific research and technology transfer hub, to the globally-recognised expertise coming from Sutton Bridge Crop Storage Research, an R&D facility owned by AHDB and operated by its Potato Council division. There are extensive crop trials happening at ADAS Boxworth along the A14, and of course around the site of Cereals – the leading event for the UK arable industry, which is taking place in the next couple of weeks at Boothby Graffoe in Lincolnshire. One of our clients has this month been working with Wicken Fen, the National Trust’s first Nature Reserve, acquired back in 1899. Today it remains one of the most important wetlands in Europe.

We have been lucky enough to see some of this impressive research and development in action, and this has undoubtedly helped our colleague Nicola to recently pass her foundation BASIS exam in agronomy.  Her course was an excellent introduction to the integrated crop protection and crop nutrition of the UK’s combinable and root crops – including crop walking in snow, sunshine and rain, a good indication to the variety of strange weather we’ve experienced so far this season.

Responsible use of pesticides was an important component of the course, which saw Nicola study alongside some of the younger faces of the farming industry who will help to shape the future of UK agriculture.

Sustainability should be at the heart of every farmer’s business. At first glance recent headlines seem to show that isn’t the case, for example the European Food Safety Organisation’s findings looking at the decline in the number of bees due to neonicotinoid pesticides, or the joint State of Nature report, compiled by 25 wildlife organisations, which assessed the population and distribution trends of  3,148 species. But if we delve deeper, to see what steps the industry is talking to safeguard against the harm done by past generations and older farming solutions, for example polluted watercourses due to high levels of slug pellet use, we can see that the UK’s agricultural research and development isn’t going to waste.

In the words of Sir David Attenborough: “This ground-breaking report is a stark warning – but it is also a sign of hope.  We have in this country a network of passionate conservation groups supported by millions of people who love wildlife. The experts have come together to highlight the amazing nature we have around us and to ensure that it remains here for generations to come.”

Educating human capital for the preservation of natural capital

Awareness of the value of natural capital is increasingly important in the commercial world, where efficiencies and effective use of resources are under scrutiny. 

The concept of ‘natural capital’ has a long history but it is only in recent years that it has carried a real weight of importance.  As early as 1937 Roosevelt referenced an article which talked about ‘balancing the budget of our resources’, a very clear reference to what we know as natural capital today.

In its true sense, natural capital refers to the natural assets we utilise for economic production.  There are three main categories of this: natural resource stocks, land and ecosystems, all of which are essential, not only to the long-term sustainability of economic development but also, of course, to the sustainability of all forms of life as we know them, including ourselves.

It is encouraging to know that so many groups and organisations now exist to examine the issues relating to the depletion of natural resources and the preservation of natural capital.  The Natural Capital Initiative (NCI) is one such forum, involving scientists, policy-makers and industry in discussing how to support the development of science, policy and practice, in-line with an ‘ecosystem approach’ to decision making, where natural good and services are valued.  The NCI has established a schedule of events and publications which aim to communicate its findings but how does all of this worthwhile discussion really translate into action?

Defra’s own Natural Capital Committee evolved from the Natural Environment White Paper, ‘The Natural Choice: Securing the Value of Nature’, published in June 2011.  It is designed to ‘ensure that government has a better informed understanding of the value of Natural Capital, and will help it to prioritise actions to support and improve the UK’s natural assets’.   With the government’s Sustainable Development Indicators (SDIs) already in place, we’re not sure what else the Committee will contribute that isn’t already known on a macro scale?  We hope it will be more than just further discussion and debate. 

One good thing, however, to come from the Committee is the establishment of Local Nature Partnerships (LNPs), of which there are now 48 across the country.  Our understanding is that these will focus on three priorities: sustainable land use and management; green economic growth; quality of life and local health and wellbeing.  We are pleased to see that Greater Cambridgeshire is listed among the 48 and are looking to see how our team might contribute to its efforts in the coming months.

For our own business and all others in the service sector, the key to success is our people and, although technically classified as human capital, not natural capital, there is clearly much cross-over. The role of human capital in economic development, productivity growth and innovation must not be underestimated either, nor must the role of human capital in the future preservation of our natural capital.  Education is, therefore, surely at the very heart of the issue and the development of a national education system that builds knowledge and life skills in young people, which are relevant to the future of our global digital economy, is essential – here-in lies another topic close to our hearts with the work we are involved in with the Stephen Perse Foundation

Fanning the sparks of the sustainability revolution

The Growing British Business report says that ‘growth pioneers’ will be responsible for the UK’s recovery.   Learning from history, we know that this is true and we don’t really need a survey of 500 UK decision makers to confirm it.  Indeed, it is this pioneering leadership which we believe is the only way to a truly sustainable future for our planet, let alone for business. 

As a race, humans will do as little as necessary to satisfy external demands and mostly will only do this once self-serving motivations are fulfilled.  Every day, we hear that the only way for businesses to realistically adopt positive change towards a more sustainable future, is for change to be practical and for it to deliver to the bottom line.  This is, of course, true.  So, knowing that really self-less leaders will be the notable exceptions that headline in history, we are reliant on exceptionally successful business leaders, who can afford to take the high road, to dedicate their time and energy to leading the way forward.

The Growing British Business report shows some interesting regional groupings with Cambridge earning a top ranking for fostering many of growth pioneers in its ‘hi-tech hub’.  Dr David Cleevely of Analysys fame, Charles Cotton, Chair of Cambridge Phenomenon Ltd and Neul Ltd, and Hermann Hauser UK Computer Personality of the Year in 1984, are a few of Cambridge’s great names, and companies like Ubisense, Abcam, Amadeus, Redgate Software, RealVNC, Autonomy, Jagex have leaders snapping at their heels.

Growing British Business claims that Cambridge has reached the heady rankings of a ‘super city’, primed to spearhead the UK’s economic recovery and, earlier this year, The Guardian reported that Cambridge’s hi-tech cluster now sports 1,400 companies, supporting 40,000 jobs.  Indeed David Cleevely recently told Prince Andrew that the city has the potential to develop a new clutch of $10bn companies taking it to the ‘next level of global greatness’. 

So, maybe Cambridge, with its hot-bed of pioneering leaders, is where the real sustainability revolution is set to start.  We’re glad we’re here to fan the sparks!

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