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!

Peddle Power Still the Front Runner

It feels as though we’re just about to witness the birth of the electric car movement.  Suddenly there are a growing number of options and offers, for buying or leasing these super quiet, nippy little city hoppers.  It’s now possible to obtain your own corporate Peugeot iOn on HP for around £150/month, with no tax (www.neva-consultants.com) so you can be forgiven for wondering why we aren’t all flocking to get one.

Like many SMEs, Conscious Communications works from managed offices.  We benefit from the support and infrastructure of the team which provides everything from our telephone answering service to our car parking.  There is, however, one minor draw back that we’ve now discovered.  We have no electric car charging point and, with limited car parking, no immediate prospect of one being installed.  So, for us, the options are limited to charging our electric car at one of the few charging points in town, or driving the car home each night to charge it for the following day.

For now, while we wait for a response from the owners of the business park, we comfort ourselves with the latest news that a network of ‘rapid charging points’ is to be installed in motorway service stations across the country (http://bit.ly/QC0by2), allowing owners to recharge in just 15 minutes – less time than the take-away cappuccino queue. If this goes ahead, by the time we eventually find a way to make an electric car practical and feasible for our company, we’ll be able to use it for longer distances, travelling to and from client meetings up and down the country.  This would certainly change the outlook for and fortune of people currently living within hearing distance of our motorways – silent motorways, quite a concept!

But, before we get carried away with this thought, there’s a set-back.  We read last week about a new study undertaken by the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (http://on.wsj.com/Rfiyt4), which seems to show that electric cars may cause more pollution than petrol or diesel-powered cars.  The research looks at the complete life-cycle: how the cars are produced, the use and the end of life dismantling, and concludes that “the global warming potential for electric vehicle production is about twice that of conventional vehicles”.

So, for now, we revert to our traditional Cambridge peddle power and hold out for the arrival of a new generation of solar powered electric cars. 

Global Shrinkage

On the day we learned that scientists are predicting that marine fish could be up to 25 per cent smaller by 2050 because of the impact of global warming, I listened to Malcolm Keay from the Oxford Institute of Energy Studies presenting at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge. 

He presented statements from eminent people and institutions on the importance of energy efficiency in fighting global warming – the EU Commission, the IEA, and Chris Huhne were examples, then presented scientific evidence demonstrating how wrong they are.  To hear that outcomes of efficiencies can be counter-intuitive and can work against sustainability is alarming – the efficiencies of international shipping, for examples, have doubled since 1990 but, with that, emissions have doubled too.

According to research (Sorrell), energy demand and efficiencies increase with GDP growth, and may even cause it.  Keay examined the circumstances in which efficiency may lower demand and these seem few.  He posed the question ‘when might energy efficiency reduce emissions?’ and concluded that ‘when it reduces demand for energy AND the energy saved is carbon intensive AND is not offset by more carbon intensive demand elsewhere AND efficiency policies do not conflict with other policies.

His conclusion to the dilemma: energy efficiency is about energy – the problem is carbon.  To enable energy efficiency to result in sustainability, there is a need to reduce demand, emissions and costs.  He believes this will require an integrated approach, carbon taxes for example, as the process is not automatic.

Keay’s presentation was the opener to a long morning of technical presentations much of which is above a non-physicist’s head.  I left the University wondering what the impact will be on plant life, mammals and, of course, humans if warmer oceans, carrying less oxygen will shrink our fish by a quarter of their current size.

Blowing hot and cold on warming

It is extraordinary to me that there are still such a number of climate change skeptics.  The frightening thing is that so many remain in influential positions – are they really of the view that climate change doesn’t exist or does it just suit their own agendas to say such.  The Berkely Earth Surface Temperature (BEST) project appeared to show, indisputably, that the Earth’s land surface has warmed by 1.5c in the past 250 years. 

The study, by Professor Richard Muller and his team at the University of California, found that human emissions of greenhouse gases are almost entirely to blame for the rise in temperatures.  Muller, previously a climate change skeptic himself, claimed to be surprised by the findings but has conceded that there now is enough evidence to make him change his mind.  He also said that the analysis suggests we can expect a further 1.5 degree warming in the next 50 years.

The study included the analysis of a staggering 14.4m land temperature observations from 44,455 sites across the world, dating back to 1753.  On top of this, the data was analysed automatically to ensure that it was free from human error or influence.

So, why do many skeptics remain who are unable to fully accept these results?  Prof Judith Curry, a climatologist at the Georgia Institute of Technology and a consulting member of the BEST team, told the Guardian that the method used to attribute the warming to human emissions was “way over-simplistic and not at all convincing in my opinion”.  Really?  Can the picture painted by 14.4m land temperature readings be that woolly?

John Coleman, founder of the Weather Channel in USA, is reported just this week to have called global warming a ‘hoax’, and a report in Forbes claims that it is ‘criminal’.  It goes on to say that looking back through history to the Ice Age, it would be worrying if the earth wasn’t getting warmer.

Luckily, I believe that the majority of people are now convinced, so I am happy to ignore the propaganda spread by some.  The real challenge now though is reaching agreement across the political, diplomatic and cultural spectrum, as to what can and should be done.  We seem to have been debating this for far too many years already and, while we continue to debate and prevaricate, the problem continues to go unrestrained. 

The latest turn of events, or about-turn of events, is George Osborne’s ‘dash for gas’, criticised by the Climate Change Committee for jeopardising the country’s carbon reduction commitments by questioning the development of zero-carbon electricity generation over new gas power stations.  It appears that fulfillment of his proposal may breach laws relating to Britain’s carbon reduction commitments, but the fact that this debate is taking place, at this stage, is disheartening to say the least.  Sadly, if the decision makers keep changing, as they inevitably will through the electoral cycle, vital decisions about the future of our world will continue to be delayed.

London 2012 race to sustainability finish-line

In 2005, the framework for the first sustainable Olympic and Paralympic Games, Towards a One Planet Olympics, was put together by WWF, London 2012 and BioRegional:  http://l2012.cm/MgJUP9.   It formed part of London’s bid to host the Games and set out to create a legacy for sport, the environment and people, while respecting the planet’s ecological limits. 

So, how has it performed?  We’re still waiting for the full post-Games report to be delivered after the Paralympics but a pre-Games report, published just before the start of the Games, makes interesting reading.

The framework was, of course, a massively ambitious project, but then the whole Games were.  So far, there appear to have been some real successes, including the lowering of the Games’ embodied carbon footprint.  Half of the total carbon emissions of the Games was due to construction of the venues and a lot of thought went into the use of low impact materials, design of lightweight structures and how to get maximum use from temporary buildings.  The figures for carbon reduction show, among other things, that the stadium is delivering 38% less embodied carbon than the original design promised, so a big tick in the box here.

A huge disappointment however, is the project’s failure to deliver its target of 20% of energy from onsite renewable sources – you might be forgiven for thinking this should be easier to achieve than the carbon targets.  Central to the plan was an onsite wind turbine and a combined heat and power (CHP) energy centre running on renewable fuel.  But, the wind turbine was never built, reportedly because of changes in health and safety legislation – with four years’ warning and wind turbines popping up across the country, you would imagine the government could have foreseen and overcome this obstacle.    

A great British success story in renewable energy and CHP development is the British Sugar Wissington factory, which generates enough energy for 100,000 homes and fuels the country’s biggest single tomato glasshouse, Cornerways Nursery http://bit.ly/OYY6XM.   I can’t help thinking that if LOCOG had called on the experience and commitment of British Sugar, or any other of the growing number of corporations now generating their own renewable energy, the energy centre would have been up and running well ahead of the Games. 

Waste was another focus for Towards a One Planet Olympics and targets for reuse and recycling have been achieved but, so far, five additional legacy targets, which set out to extend zero waste policies across East London and increase the market for recycled products, have not.  We wait to see what the final sustainability report for the Games shows and whether any progress has been made in recent weeks.

The Water Industry Challenge

It was an eye-opener to hear at a water industry event, run by Cambridge Cleantech, that water costs just £1 a tonne to the customer.  This begs the question: ‘why the need to invest in new technologies?’

The answer, of course, is that the water networks around our region were built in Victorian times and therefore pose no end of problems – leaking, burst pipes, and so on.  The need for smart water meters is apparent and the benefits clear, but unfortunately it seems British water companies are struggling to implement them across their networks.  We were told that for Cambridge Water, only 75% of all water charged is metered and 83% of meters are encoded (legacy meters) and need to be replaced with smarter meters.

At Cambridge Cleantech’s event we were introduced to innovative technology companies, such as Syrinix and Sentec, involved with bringing new products to market to help water companies.  But, with no investment forthcoming, they are taking their products elsewhere – Sentec, for example, has taken its sensor technology to North America where it is being readily implemented.  In comparison to the UKs 20 water companies, USA has 30,000 water companies, including many municipals.  We can see where the attraction lies for new technology across the pond.

According to recent UK reports, there will be a 40% shortfall in water by 2013, which highlights further the increasing demand for smart water technology.  In Cambridge alone, there are 50,000 people employed in high tech jobs – having sweated over their research and development, it is only natural for them to want to see their product brought to market.  So, with no investment available, who can blame them for taking their products further afield, to Australia, Middle East and North America?

UK Trade & Investment told the Cambridge Cleantech event delegates that it wants to see synergy between ICT and the water industry.  Ultimately, technology developers and water companies have the same goals of adopting new technologies and network optimisation methods in pursuit of efficiency savings but, for collaboration to work, we need our water companies to take a long-term view and invest now to save later.  

Man working with nature

It was a pleasure and an honour to be invited to visit Nicholas Watts’ Vine House Farm in Deeping Fen, north of Peterborough, a couple of weeks ago as part of a British Sugar group. 

What an extraordinary example of a farm at its best and of how far farming has come in recent years.  The farm is a business, of course, and produces a mixture of arable crops including sugar beet, potatoes, millet and sunflowers.  But, working with nature, Nicholas and his team have transformed the farm over the past 20 years to include nesting territories for over 53 species of birds. 

He rises at 4am each day to spend time on the farm observing and noting bird and wildlife activity before starting his day’s work.  His dedication is unstinting and the time and analysis he puts into this side of his work sets a high bar for us all.  It can be illustrated by this note I found in the farm’s newsletter: “Corn Buntings are farmland bird that have disappeared from many parts of the UK.  The Fens are one of their few remaining strong holds.  Last year I noticed a small increase in Corn Buntings but I didn’t say anything to anyone in case it was a blip in my recording but this year I have recorded another increase which is very pleasing.  The only thing I can put it down to is that there have been no vining peas grown in the village for the past 4 years….”

The vision for Vine House Farm came to Nicholas in 1992 when recordings of bird activity on the farm showed a dramatic decline over the previous ten years.  The setaside scheme (http://bit.ly/OEm1P9)    was introduced and Nicholas took this opportunity to reverse the trend and started growing crops for the birds to harvest for themselves on his setaside land.  This grew into another revenue stream all of its own and the farm started its own bird seed product line.

I know that this is just one example of inspiring biodiversity work taking place on farms across the country and, it is clear to me that we need many more people like Nicholas Watts working across other industries, using the foresight and innovation he demonstrates to halt the decline and starts to repair the damage we have done to our environment.

A Panacea for Rio+20

History has taught us time and again that it is the actions of brave, visionary individuals that achieve real change and point the direction for future reform.  Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Florence Nightingale, the names are all so familiar and the common denominator is passion for a cause, for health, liberty, equality.   It is not surprising to me then that attempts by thousands of policy makers, business leaders and environmentalists from across the globe to come together and agree ambitious but badly needed measures to protect our planet have been reportedly so underwhelming.

In the Rio+20 aftermath, the president of the World Business Council for Sustainable Business has said that our best chance of saving the world lies with the corporate sector.  He talked about building ‘coalitions of the willing’ – hear, hear!  Coalitions of the willing, lead by passionate, visionary individuals, is exactly what history has taught us will make a difference.  Supported by the finance of big business, even in hard economic times, is surely our best chance of success.

I haven’t met Peter Bakker but I find his reported words refreshing and maybe he has the right level of passion and drive to start pushing through change, time will tell.  Of Rio+20 he said: “I will write a positive and tough message to my members saying now it is time to kick into action. We need to create coalitions of the people who want to be good, who have plans to progress and make it attractive for other people to follow. The 20% of really bad guys we need to regulate out of existence.”

At the weekend I heard Dr Martin Clark of Allia give a presentation on social enterprise at Emanuel College in Cambridge.  His explanation of the difference between charity, social enterprise and commercial business, with many shades in between, was fascinating and inspiring, as is his organisation’s belief that every business can achieve a greater social impact. 

I can’t help thinking that a combination of the insight and commitment of people like Dr Clark and Mr Bakker could be the panacea we need.

Investing in recycling

It seems our fascination with DIY food continues to gain momentum with the ‘allotment gardener’ winning Chelsea Flower Show, Matthew Biggs hosting Grow You Own sessions at Gardeners’ World Live this weekend, and the Incredible Edible movement taking parts of the country by storm.  With all this home grown goodness the worms in compost heaps across the country must be having a field-day as kitchens empty their decaying goodness for recycling as nature intended.

This is all wonderful on a micro-scale and we should feel proud that our weekly bins are now fortnightly and often even then half empty.

But what of the organic waste we can’t put onto our gardens and that which is produced on an industrial scale by businesses and public sector organisations?  Here a whole new growth sector has emerged to manage and dispose of this debris which is hauled away in its hundreds of tonnes each year.  A visit to an organic recycling business recently showed me how far we have come but also have far we still have to go. 

The business, a traditional family-run farm, has seized the opportunity to diversify and offers composting facilities for biodegradable waste.  Using its current facilities the business can process up to 60,000 tonnes of solid agricultural, horticultural and vegetable waste, paper, cardboard and green waste each year – fantastic.  But there is a much larger market still to be serviced, so the business has secured planning permission for a multi-million pound development on its land, to include anaerobic digestion and a biomass boiler, offering far greater recycling capabilities, which our environment desperately needs. 

But there-in lies the rub, the family cannot fund the development without external investment (unsurprisingly), yet because of the market’s unpredictable nature, demand forecasts cannot be easily quantified and, therefore, investment is not forthcoming.  So, the land and the plans lie waiting, while the waste they could be recycling is going who knows where? 

I believe the reports I read of banks investing in agriculture in East Anglia and know from work I’ve done with Clydesdale, for example, that this is the case.  But it seems the large investments, in long-term projects, are still stalling and somehow we need to unblock the chain to enable entrepreneurial, forward thinking, ethical businesses, like Organic Recycling Ltd, to flourish for everyone’s benefit.

Taking a long-term view

Initially it seemed a strange and uncomfortable partnership to me – business and religion. A while back I spent several years living in mid-West America and witnessed the workings of the different churches which, to a very British mind, seemed overtly commercial.

Many people in Indiana still tithe up to 10% of their monthly earning to their church; the buildings are often enormous and house cinemas, cafes and even gymnasiums in their basements; and business is routinely conducted after the Sunday morning service over coffee and cakes. I even had the misfortune to be invited to a service where the church’s annual report and accounts were presented on PowerPoint to the congregation. A truly alien experience and one that drove us swiftly out of that church never to return.

So, I approach any partnership between business and the church with an amount of scepticism and trepidation. However, the Ely Cathedral Business Group exhibition and networking event last week was, I believe, a huge success for those involved. I do wonder what visitors to the Cathedral during the week of the unmanned exhibition thought and whether our displays spoilt their experience but, that aside, the Cathedral was an extraordinarily wonderful setting for the event.

Most of all, for Conscious Communications, with our ethos firmly rooted in ethical business practices, it was exciting to hear Tom Green, Chairman of ECBG and CEO of Spearhead International, talking of the “strong correlation between the health of the business sector and the wellbeing of the communities in which those businesses operate”. He said there is “one word to describe good business, sustainability. Good business must be sustainable. The word is applied rightly to our environment and to the social fabric of our community.”

So much of what was said during the week of ECBG and by Tom Green and Charlie Mayfield at the Celebration of Business Reception mirrors what Conscious Communications has set out to achieve and while we are convinced of the relevance of our proposition, it is reassuring to hear their words and to know that we are at the forefront of an exciting new business movement that looks to the long-term and is not focussed on short-term commercial gain alone.

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