UN-Substantiated Claims

This blog first appeared on the website of think tank and strategy consultancy SustainAbility

I made a resolution recently, one that I had to break within a matter of days.

Quick digression: in my former life on the Mobil Oil graduate programme, we used to enjoy a game called Buzzword Bingo (there are some rather more colourful names for it).  I’m sure it’s familiar across the corporate world – a quick Google search for “buzzword+bingo” returns more than 90,000 hits.  For the uninitiated, each player starts with a grid consisting of words and phrases that sound thoughtful but tend to be vacuous – things like “synergy”, “low-hanging fruit”, or “hit the ground running”.  Each time a particular word or phrase is used, players will strike it off their grid until all have been eliminated – HOUSE! – following which the maverick will stride confidently out of the room and into the dole queue.  

Back to my resolution.  Having attended and participated in countless sustainability-related conferences over the last 5 years, it struck me that too many words and phrases are parroted without a second thought for their true meaning, much less their plausibility.  So I resolved that the next time I’m attending a conference and I hear someone assert with confidence “the world will have 9 billion people by 2050”, I’d shout HOUSE! and then head for the fire escape.

Foolish of me, in retrospect.  Within days, at the World 50 sustainability forum in London, I heard both Patrick Dixon and Nick Stern trot out the “9 billion people” assumption-masquerading-as-fact, yet I couldn’t bring myself to walk out on either of them.  They’re both utterly brilliant and it was a real privilege to listen to them outline their views of the human development challenges facing us over the next forty years.  I’d have been cutting off my nose to spite my face.

But it did concern me that two great minds would have us accept this projection as pretty much inevitable.  Why has it become such a resilient piece of conventional wisdom, unchallenged and unchallengeable?  Is it because it comes from the United Nations?  I decided to check the assumptions that underpin the UN’s population projection.  From the website of the UN’s Department of Economic and Social Affairs, I found this revealing statement: 

 To project the population until 2050, the United Nations Population Division uses assumptions regarding future trends in fertility, mortality and international migration.

Three trends – fertility, mortality, migration – play out over the next four decades to deliver 9 billion people by 2050.  But what are the other implicit assumptions that underlie this projection?  For instance, that oil supply will continue to expand to meet rising demand?  

I’ve yet to see any business plan that starts with the assumption: the sun rises in the morning and sets in the evening.  That would be silly – that’s just the way the world is.  And for the last 150 years since E. L. Drake struck oil in Titusville, Pennsylvania, oil supplies have risen more or less continuously (barring the odd political intervention) to meet growing demand.  That’s just the way the world is.  Along the way, agriculture has mechanised, delivering humanity a huge endowment of arable land for food production rather than husbanding of draft animals.  In parallel, this has liberated millions from back-breaking manual labour – we can leave all that to our personal “ghost slaves”, or barrels of oil – enabling rapid urbanisation and the associated social complexity that characterises modern civilisation.  And, of course, a human population that has grown more than six-fold from just over one billion in 1850 to almost seven billion today.  

The global population will be 9 billion by 2050, and oil supplies will continue to grow to satisfy rising demand.

HOUSE!

Our Moon Shot

This blog first appeared on the website of think tank and consultancy SustainAbility

On Monday 5th October, I was introduced to a new and slightly disorientating experience: I attended the UK Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham.  It was disorientating for three reasons.  First, there were generous swathes of BLUE – a colour I usually associate with unpleasant football stadia – all over the place.  Second, the majority of delegates were speaking a dialect of my mother tongue that might be described as Hugh-Grantglish.  Third, as I scanned the agenda – the Conservative Party Conference agenda! – I picked out several plenary sessions and fringe events that suggested “sustainable development”.  A whole day dedicated to Green Growth.  In the UK, on the surface at least, it seems blue is the new green.

One such sustainability-related seminar that I managed to attend was titled “Keeping The Lights On: Energy in the 2010s”.  As a series of panellists fixated on our various energy supply options, I found myself wondering why we were sitting in this conference room – drenched in sunlight via a huge pyramidal glass ceiling – with all of the lights on.  Ah, but they were all energy efficient light bulbs!  During the Q&A session, I suggested that one of the better ways to safeguard the UK’s ability to keep the lights on might be knowing when to switch them off.  Or alternatively, to put the “conserve” back into Conservative, rather than Labour-ing under the fallacy that we can close the energy gap by increasing supply.  

Switching the lights off

Minister of State for Energy & Climate Change Charles Hendry presented a view of what the next decade holds in store as the UK faces the prospect of retiring several GW of nuclear and coal-fired electricity generating capacity.  His answer?  A mix of new nukes (with no government subsidy), coal/CCS and offshore wind (the UK holds 40% of Europe’s offshore wind resource, yet currently sits an embarrassing 25th out of 27 Member States in terms of percentage of energy derived from renewable sources, ahead of mighty Malta and Luxembourg).  And given the long lead times involved – particularly for nukes and coal/CCS, neither of which will make significant contributions before 2018 – we will also need to further increase our dependency on imported natural gas.  It’s not the most inspiring picture, but it’s certainly pragmatic.

If you believe, they put a man on the Moon…

But who needs pragmatism from our political leaders?  Whatever happened to vision and ambition?  During the closing plenary at the Carbon Show in London the next day, I argued that it wasn’t always like this – certainly not on 26th May 1961

I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.  No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important in the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish. 

When John F Kennedy spoke those words, he didn’t present a pragmatic proposal for how his vision might be accomplished by leveraging the power of competitive deregulated markets.  In fact, at the time you’d have been very hard-pressed to argue it was a realistic ambition.  But it was certainly inspirational, it captured the imagination of a country, and it led to arguably the greatest human achievement ever.  Why have we grown content to settle for realism, when all evidence indicates that something absolutely extraordinary needs to happen?  

Imagine a contemporary politician taking JFK’s place for that 1961 speech: “I believe that, in the long-term, this nation should probably put a man on another celestial body.  But as politicians we need to be careful not to pick winners – perhaps it’s the Moon, or maybe Mars is the right destination – the truth is we don’t know.  In any case, there’s plenty to be done in the short-term: we need to gain altitude cost-effectively, and that means we’ve got to harvest the low-hanging fruit by climbing Mount Everest.  We’re confident we can do it because some Kiwi and a Nepalese bloke managed it a few years back.”  Doesn’t it just make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck?!

A Giant Leap For Mankind?

JFK chose a different way to shape history.  He followed up his 1961 call to action with these words at Rice University in September the following year: 

We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win…

According to the IPCC’s 4th Assessment Report, to stand an evens chance of staying below the critical 2°C theshold, we’ll need to engineer a zero carbon energy system by 2050, with all the interim steps this implies.  It won’t be easy and it won’t be cheap, but it’s what the science tells us is necessary if we’re to avoid the worst effects of climate change.  Are we ready to accept this challenge clear in the knowledge that it will be hard, or will we continue to postpone?  Make no mistake: decarbonising the global economy in 40 years is our Moon Shot.  Conservation >> Efficiency >> Decarbonisation, all on a scale for which history has no precedent.  

Before Apollo 11 and Niel Armstrong’s giant leap for mankind came Apollos 1 thru 10 – as mankind’s baby steps grew into confident strides – all of them laser focused on achieving the ultimate ambition.  So it is with our Moon Shot: we won’t manage this in one “giant leap”, no doubt we’ll trip along the way, but we will learn with every step we dare to take towards our zero carbon economy by 2050.  

The Blue Planet

In considering whether this daunting challenge is one we should be willing to embrace, we might pause to recall the words of astronaut Thomas Stafford – from the Apollo 10 mission that preceded Armstrong’s lunar landing by two months – as he recalled looking down on his home: 

The white twisted clouds and the endless shades of blue in the ocean make the hum of the spacecraft systems, the radio chatter, even your own breathing disappear.  There is no cold or wind or smell to tell you that you are connected to Earth.  You have an almost dispassionate platform – remote, Olympian and yet so moving that you can hardly believe how emotionally attached you are to those rough patterns shifting steadily below.

Put like that, our dear old planet sounds worth looking after, doesn’t it?  Perhaps it’s fitting that blue is the new green – we all live on a Pale Blue Dot, after all.

Ready, Steady, COP!

This blog first appeared on the website of think tank and strategy consultancy SustainAbility

I have just shaken off the biggest hangover of my entire life.  It lasted for about 9 months, triggered by spending 3.5 days living a feral existence, sleeping rough outside a Gentleman’s convenience, with no change of clothes, no shower and – as the BBC’s World Service broadcast to my mother’s chagrin – not even a toothbrush.  As the end drew near, I even caught myself foraging in bins behind the kitchen for an out-of-date pre-packaged salad (bliss!).  Juxtapose this tragic image with the likes of Sarkozy, Merkel, Zapatero and Rudd swishing past me in a melée of advisors and journalists, and you could be forgiven for assuming that my hangover was chemically-induced.  Alas, no.  It was an apparently normal reaction to the debacle that was COP 15.  

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way.

Charles Dickens, “A Tale of Two Cities”

They tried to make me go to rehab…

At Chatham House last week, I found myself in the company of numerous COP veterans girding their loins, preparing to once again contemplate the UNFCCC process.  Everyone I spoke to had also experienced the post-COP tremors, and decided – consciously or sub-consciously – in favour of maintaining their grip on sanity by taking a break from the circus.  As with everything else in life, a football analogy is never far away.  The vast majority of match-going supporters reach the end of every season thoroughly exhausted, looking forward to a well-earned rest to lick the wounds inflicted by another disappointing season.  Yet magically, as July turns to August, that familiar but inexplicable sense of optimism triumphs over common sense, and we simply can’t wait to get back on that emotional roller-coaster!

So it is with the UNFCCC, now heading for its 16th Conference of the Parties to be held in Cancun towards the end of this year.  We listened with renewed intensity as an impressive array of speakers and panellists from the worlds of politics, business, academia, and civil society outlined their hopes, fears, and realistic expectations for COP 16 and beyond.  And here’s the rub: if Copenhagen did nothing else, it injected a healthy dose of realism into those who yearned for a global, comprehensive, legally binding climate treaty for the post-2012 era.  Plenty of clichés were trotted out – Rome wasn’t built in a day, we lost the battle not the war, focus on the doable – but I was left with a sense that this was more than empty rhetoric: there was a tangible appetite among the Chatham House delegates to roll up sleeves and get stuck into what remains an unprecedented political, economic, social, and environmental challenge.

Sweet Sixteen?

Admittedly, the broader context for COP 16 is not good: the euphoria of Obamania has well and truly subsided and the US remains unable to enact any meaningful climate legislation – what can we expect from BRICS in response?  European governments are slashing public expenditure to a degree unseen for generations – the UK’s Department of Energy & Climate Change is under budgetary pressure despite not having been in existence when the government’s spending baseline was set.  Citizens everywhere are understandably more concerned about covering rents and mortgages than paying more for someone else to reduce their carbon footprint.

On the other side, Climategate paradoxically helped strengthen the scientific case for human-induced climate change: complacency in the field of climate science has rightly given way to the highest standards of rigour and discipline, and the outlook remains bleak.  A hard core of climate dissenters persist, but their numbers are vanishingly small.  “Natural” disasters this summer in RussiaPakistan and China – within days of one another – dominated the world’s media.  As ever, it is difficult to attribute a single extreme weather event to climate change, but the rising frequency and severity are persuasive indicators that we are on an alarming trajectory.  It is still possible to keep the rise in average temperatures below the 2°C threshold, but only just.

China continues to invest in renewable energy at a breathtaking pace.  We all know the legend of the “coal-fired power station every week”, but are we equally aware that China builds as much wind capacity each year as the entire UK?  Indications that China is already contemplating domestic CO2 cap-and-trade legislation should be an object of shame for the US, Canada, Australia, and a source of optimism for those convinced that a price on carbon is the best way to mobilise the clean energy revolution.

Success is a journey, not a destination

Realistically, then, what can be achieved in Cancun?  With last week’s Climate Change 2010 conference operating under Chatham House’s eponymous “rule”, I’m not able to attribute quotes directly to sources, but what I can do is distil what I heard into a few key deliverables against which we might judge COP 16 as a success, or failure.  

  1. Overarching need is to re-establish trust among Parties through transparency on financing, and transparency on actions/progress
  2. Agree a long-term global goal under the UNFCCC – building on the Copenhagen Accord’s 2°C threshold – and a establish a process to review progress
  3. Formalise mitigation pledges submitted in the aftermath of COP 15 and give clear direction on measures needed to realise them
  4. Put in place mechanism for measurement, reporting, and verification (MRV) of mitigation actions
  5. Agree a framework for adaptation and establish a new global finance fund to ensure oversight of financial flows
  6. Create infrastructure needed to deliver funds to the point of action on adaptation and mitigation, and establish a global registry
  7. Establish a robust framework for reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation (REDD)

Ultimately, Cancun will be judged a success according to progress in each of the above areas, and not on the delivery or otherwise of a single, comprehensive, legally-binding global treaty (or perhaps worse: the “promise” of such a treaty at South Africa’s COP 17 next year, thereby raising expectations and pressure to pre-COP 15 levels).  As for carbon markets collapsing if we don’t get a treaty in place for 1st Jan 2013, this is patent nonsense.  The EU’s emissions trading scheme (EU-ETS) is the key to carbon market continuity – it will continue in a strengthened form regardless what happens under the auspices of the UNFCCC.  

Me, I’m going to take a year off from COP attendance.  I can’t face the UN accreditation process, draconian entry procedures and secondary pass system, the fact that most non-governmental observers will be kept well away from the action, presumably to save government delegates from the awful sight of rough sleepers in the conference centre.  And anyway, we’ve got Aston Villa that week, and I think this could yet be our season.  

When Modal Shift Goes Bad

This blog first appeared on the website of think tank and strategy consultancy SustainAbility

London, Tuesday 7th September

08:20 – I arrive at my local bus stop on Haverstock Hill in north London, and wonder why there are some twenty people waiting there instead of the usual three or four.

08:27 – We watch as the 168 bus approaches over the brow of the hill and, without hesitating, continues past us at great speed.  Annoyed, I realise the bus is totally packed, the lower deck full of standing commuters.

08:32 – Of course, today is the day of the London Underground strike!  Over a 24 hour period, roughly 3 million tube journeys will be forced above ground.

08:38 – The next bus arrives – there are SPARE SEATS!  We fight our way on board, every man, woman and child for themselves.

09:08 – My usual 20 minute ride has already taken 30, and we are not yet half way.  Frustrated by glacial progress, I alight just north of Euston station, and decide to walk.  (Note to self: given the rate Greenland is slipping into the Arctic Ocean, need to stop using “glacial” as an adjective meaning “extremely slow”.)

09:10 – Roads jammed solid with stationary cars, buses, taxis, trucks all burning petroleum, belching poisonous fumes.  The acrid air tastes like Leipzig, circa 1988.  Thousands of cyclists struggle manfully along narrow “cycle lanes”, thin strips of tarmac demarcated from the motorised traffic by a flaking stripe of white paint.

09:11 – Hopelessly inappropriate for urban commuting, Range Rovers and other “sports utility vehicles” appear unable – or unwilling? – to stay out of the cycle lanes, causing cyclists to mount pavements in order to progress.

09:12 – I notice that not only are the roads chocca, so are the pavements!  And not only with occasional cyclists – others like me are bailing out of their immobilised motor vehicles and taking matters into their own hands (or rather, feet).  Hurrying along, scarcely avoiding several head-on collisions with grumpy Londoners, I am suddenly transported from pre-unification East Germany to modern-day Beijing.

09:15 – I spot a Modec electric delivery truck.  Stationary, silent, consuming no energy, emitting nothing but the exhalations of the driver (hey, that’s CO2, don’t you know!).  It does nothing whatsoever to relieve the congestion, but if only all these stationary vehicles were electric, I might be able to breathe!

09:19 – One minute short of an hour, my quest is complete as I arrive at SustainAbility’s office in central London.

09:20 – I pause briefly to wonder: is this what it’s like, every day of the year, to live in Atlanta, GA?  I rarely use the tube – opting instead for buses and bicycles – but God am I grateful to the 28 million people who do.

Adaptation = Survival

This blog first appeared on the website of think tank and strategy consultancy SustainAbility

Riding home recently on a “Boris Bike“ – so named after London’s inimitable mayor, Boris Johnson, credited with conceiving the new bicycle sharing scheme – I witnessed a phenomenal collision between two riders that resulted in one of them flying several feet through the air at head height.  Spectacular! Moments earlier, I had felt a prescient discomfort as I rode behind the perpetrator of the accident that was about to happen.  Just as I am ultra-wary when I see motorists maneuvering half a ton of steel while speaking on a mobile phone wedged between shoulder and crooked neck, as I approached this chap in his late 30s – wobbling around on his Boris Bike like a 3 year old – I decided to give him a very wide berth as I overtook.  He was apparently enjoying himself as his front wheel invited him to randomly explore the full width of the road ahead.  On hearing the surprisingly loud collision behind me, I turned in time to see a Lycra-clad helmet-wearing cyclist launch from his mangled racer in a graceful arc towards the road surface.  Ouch!

Apart from feeling immense sympathy for the poor victim, my thoughts turned to what can happen to us when our environment suddenly changes.  If this seems an unlikely mental leap, I should explain that I’m currently engrossed in a fabulous book called Deep Survival by Laurence Gonzalez that explores, among other things, how human beings respond to unexpectedly changing circumstances.  Gonzalez recounts the tale of MP William Huskisson, run over and killed by George Stephenson’s famous Rocket steam locomotive on its maiden journey along the Liverpool & Manchester Railway in 1830.  Until that moment, it is conceivable that Huskisson’s only experience of locomotion had been the humble – and relatively slow – horse and cart.  Perhaps he was so taken aback by the dawning railway age that his survival instincts failed to prepare him for this sudden change in his environment.

In the case of my cycling anecdote, the appearance of thousands of Boris Bikes on London’s roads in the last few weeks has introduced a rather exciting random element to navigating the city streets: numerous spirited folk who probably haven’t been in the saddle for their entire adult lives.  I’m expecting a string of early casualties, both cycling novices and other road users coming into contact with them.  Paris went through a similar experience when it implemented its own bike share scheme three years ago.

In the future, adapting to our changing environment will be – as it has always been – critical to our survival.  This of course means adaptation to the impacts of climate change, resource depletion, water scarcity, migration, etc.  But it also means adapting to the technologies and systems we develop in an effort to mitigate those impacts.

Take electric vehicles.  It’s now almost universally accepted that their high energy efficiency and compatibility with the full range of sustainable carbon-free energy sources make EVs an essential piece of the sustainability puzzle.  But already one of the unique selling points of electric vehicles – that they’re incredibly quiet and therefore reduce noise pollution – has been portrayed as a grave danger for pedestrians, in particular the blind and partially sighted.  In response, Nissan is fitting a synthesiser to its forthcoming LEAF EV, to warn bystanders of its impending arrival.

I have to question whether implementing technology fixes atop technology fixes might be distracting us from the larger challenges facing us: we need to redesign our urban landscapes so that low-impact mobility modes that already exist (walking, cycling, and mass-transit) are preferred by the majority because they’re safer, cheaper, nicer, and more convenient than higher-impact alternatives.  At the same time, we will inevitably need to behave differently in order to thrive within our changed environment.  And along the way, we need to be prepared for a few bumps in the road. 

BP: Tainting by Numbers

This blog first appeared on the website of think tank and strategy consultancy SustainAbility

At the time of writing, it appears BP’s desperate attempts to contain the Deepwater Horizon spill are drawing to a close.  Although the oil seepage would appear to have been halted for good, it seems wholly inappropriate to label this a success.  As Exxon found with their Valdez spill (which was ‘only’ one-fifth the size of this episode), the full scale of the tragedy won’t be known for many years to come – and it may yet culminate in what would have seemed ludicrous at the start of this year: the disappearance of the BP brand.  

So many thousands of column-inches have been dedicated to the disaster over the last few months, what more can be written about the estimated 5 million barrels of oil that escaped into the Gulf of Mexico?  Well, I thought it might be interesting to visualise this headline number – 5 million barrels – in terms that are meaningful to the majority of folk left cold by the oil industry vernacular.  When numbers get serious, as Paul Simon sang, we see their shape everywhere.  But sometimes we need a little help to appreciate their scale and significance.  For instance, companies are fond of presenting their energy efficiency gains and greenhouse gas reductions as “like taking 175,000 cars off the road”, or “equivalent to closing a coal-fired power station”.  

With that in mind, here’s my take on 5 million barrels of oil.  I invite readers to continue adding to this list – it might even be a cathartic experience: 

5 million barrels of oil…

  • Amounts to 210 million gallons – or 800 million litres – of liquid black gold
  • Which is enough to fill 320 Olympic-sized swimming pools
    • or half fill the old Giants Stadium (which is more than the Red Bulls ‘soccer’ team ever managed)

5 million barrels of oil…

  • Would produce in a typical US refinery around 100 million gallons – or 350 million litres – of motor gasoline
  • Which is enough to drive a Ford Focus roughly 4.3 billion miles – or 7 billion km
    • or more than 9,000 return trips to the moon (assuming the roads were nice and clear)

5 million barrels of oil…

  • Would have fetched around $735 million at the July 2008 record high oil price of $147/bbl
  • Which is equivalent to ~18 hours worth of BP’s 2008 revenues
    • or the entire annual GDP of The Gambia

5 million barrels of oil…

  • Contain roughly 8 TWh of energy
  • Which is equivalent to 2 × 500 MW coal-fired power plants running non-stop at full capacity for a year
    • or the energy consumed annually by 320,000 average UK households

The Five Stages of Climate Change Denial

This blog first appeared on the website of think tank and strategy consultancy SustainAbility

On July 29th I attended yet another “Global Summit on Sustainability”, this time jointly hosted by the UK-based World Council for Corporate Governance (WCFCG) and the Indian Institute of Directors (IOD) at the National Liberal Club in London.  Our very own co-founder John Elkington adroitly side-stepped the kind of technology failure that would torpedo a lesser public speaker by discarding his prepared speech and instead delivering a riveting keynote off-the-cuff.  It culminated in the warning that inter-generational equity is becoming an increasingly significant sustainability driver, with a potentially explosive sense of outrage rising among young people, directed toward the baby boomer generation judged to have acted so irresponsibly with their legacy.

John was followed by Lord Anthony Giddens, Emeritus Professor at the LSE and author of the excellent book The Politics of Climate Change.  Whereas John had emphasized the systemic nature of the challenges we face – The Sustainability Survey which we conducted with GlobeScan in 2009 highlighted twelve separate (but related) threats deemed by global sustainability experts to be “urgent” – Giddens zeroed in on what he called the defining issues of the 21st century: climate change and energy security.

Climate change is different from the other urgent threats (like water shortages, poverty, biodiversity loss, food security, economic instability, etc.) in that it is a cumulative phenomenon that cannot easily be reversed.  The Earth’s climate system may change – indeed, may have already changed – irrevocably, while we are mostly too busy to notice.  Furthermore, climate change is historically unique because, as Giddens stated, no other civilisation in world history has been remotely this close to “changing the very nature of nature”.

According to Giddens, June 2010 was the 304th consecutive month in which the global surface temperature exceeded the 20th century average, as evidenced in The Met Office graphs.  Still, incredibly, we hear loud dissenting voices.  But the nature of the dissent is definitely changing, and here I offer what we might call the 5 stages of climate change denial – please feel free to challenge or build upon these.  I do believe it’s essential to identify where people stand in the debate, in order to know on which level to engage.  Also, watch carefully as those with powerful vested interests – hell-bent on obfuscation and delayed action – flit effortlessly from one stage of denial to another (often apparently without realising the internal inconsistency in their arguments):

1) Climate change isn’t happening

This point of view has all but completely disappeared in the face of an overwhelming body of scientific evidence to the contrary.  These are the “flat Earthers” of the climate change debate, and it can be difficult to know whether to feel anger or extreme sympathy towards them.

2) Climate change is happening, but it’s part of the Earth’s natural cycles

Harder for the layman to refute when presented with the largely obvious fact that our home planet has cycled through several ice ages over the millenia, but a huge body of scientific evidence points to a human signature in the types of changes we are currently experiencing.

3) Climate change is happening, it may well be due to human activity, but it’s generally beneficial

“So what if sub-Saharan Africa fries and Bangladesh goes under?  The frozen wastes of Siberia will become the new bread-basket of the world!”  It’s incredible to think that otherwise reasonable people are advocating a planetary-scale experiment – with human civilisation at the centre – in which we would knowingly create conditions that have not existed since hundreds of thousands of years before homo sapiens first walked the Earth.  (Modern humans are understood to have appeared around 150,000-200,000 years ago, while atmospheric GHG concentrations are now higher than at any time in the last 800,000 years.)

4) Climate change is happening, it’s probably due to human activity, but it’s not going to be as bad as the computer models suggest

This is a relatively new one, and it’s quite sophisticated because it is really difficult to refute.  The basic argument is that computer-based projections of the climate sensitivity to growing GHG concentrations have been over-stated, and that we can continue to dig stuff out of the ground and set it on fire with impunity.  This point of view was expressed by Pat Michaels in last week’s Financial Times.

5) Climate change is happening, it is caused by human activity, it’s a really bad thing, but there’s very little we can do about it and there are lots of other bad things we should attack first

Bjoern Lomborg has virtually trade-marked this position.  It’s very clever because it casts those who would advocate for monumental efforts to embrace a truly sustainable model of human development as well-meaning but ultimately misguided.  However, it falls over because unless we do successfully tackle climate change, the future of human civilisation as we know it hangs in the balance, and an unimaginably difficult existence awaits billions.

Lessons from the World Cup

This blog first appeared on the website of think tank and strategy consultancy SustainAbility

It’s remarkable how often we hear business leaders voicing ideological opposition to regulation, asserting that the solutions to our many eye-watering sustainability challenges can only be delivered through the power of the market.  The picture that is being painted is one in which regulation and markets are mutually exclusive.  It’s one or the other – either you believe in markets, or you believe in regulation.  In this picture, human beings are most commonly described as consumers – a term which suggests a passivity of existence, no more than a collection of wants (and, sometimes, needs) to be serviced by business.

And it’s a picture that doesn’t make sense.

During the knock-out stages of the 2010 World Cup, I found my thoughts wandering to this false dichotomy of regulation versus the market.  As I often find, football offers analogies that help to bring life’s quandaries into sharp relief.

For instance, can we imagine football existing without regulatory oversight?  The “product” is presented to us on a competitive landscape – a level playing field, if you will.  It is “consumed” by hundreds of millions of armchair viewers (I will come to the match-going public shortly).  It is “regulated” at the macro level by the world’s governing body, FIFA, which provides a detailed set of rules that is adopted globally.  These regulations are stewarded at the micro level by the referee and his assistants.

Is it conceivable – let alone desirable – that the competitors be left alone to self-regulate?  After all, they’re the ones that know the product best: they know what it takes to deliver results, whether that means scoring goals or preventing the competition from scoring.  The regulators are sometimes seen as detached, even aloof.  They seem to exist in a world of their own.  Very rarely are they former players; do they even understand the game?  Wouldn’t it be better if they just got out of the way and left the competitors to just get on with it?

In a word, no.

Admittedly, referees and governing bodies make mistakes, occasionally farcical ones.  (FIFA, in particular, is notoriously bureaucratic and resistant to transparency.)  But only rarely do they wilfully cheat.  By and large, they have the best interests of fair competition at heart.  Commentators and pundits often remark that the best referees are the ones you don’t notice.  They allow the game to flow, without fussy interventions and delusions of grandeur.  However, though the best regulators may go unseen, they are always present, ensuring adherence to the rules, stepping in where necessary to punish transgressions.

The competitors, on the other hand, have proven time and again to be unable to self-regulate.  Among their number are many who would bend the rules – even blatantly cheat – to gain a competitive advantage.  Did the German goalkeeper really not see that the ball had crossed the line before he returned the ball to open play with comedic urgency?  Could the Dutch midfielder’s attempt at open-heart surgery on his Spanish counterpart have been an accident?  Was the Uruguayan striker the innocent victim of a lightning quick ball-to-hand incident in the last minute of extra-time?  Check out the photo and decide for yourself.

So we turn to the tens of thousands of paying spectators.  In the main, they are not mere consumers.  Rather, they are active participants, influencing the events unfolding before them, constantly scrutinising the behaviour of competitors and regulators alike.  They are civil society, and they are voters.  That they part with money for the privilege of attendance does not detract from the important role they assume in keeping the whole spectacle honest (though, occasionally, they also cross the boundary that separates acceptable from admonishable behaviour).  Most importantly, they express outrage when injustices are rewarded.  And, in response, regulators consider rule changes to avoid future injustices and their corrosive impact on the integrity of the game: goal line technology, retrospective disciplinary action against those who feign injury, the award of a penalty goal when an outfield player punches the ball from beneath the crossbar, etc.

What football makes clear is that without this uneasy coexistence of players, referees, and spectators – of businesses, regulators, and an active civil society – there is, in fact, no product, no consumption, no market.

Reason to be Cheerful?

This blog first appeared on the website of think tank and strategy consultancy SustainAbility

Like many colleagues in the sustainability field, I continue to struggle with the notion that economic growth – and the ever-increasing consumption it implies – necessarily drives improvements in quality of life and delivers poverty alleviation.  This is not to say that GDP is an irrelevance, only that it is increasingly recognised as an impoverished metric for assessing human progress, given that it measures only quantity and is silent on the distribution of economic benefits, not to mention costs.  However, particularly when discussing development issues in high growth emerging economies like China and India, I’ve experienced the discomfort of challenging this basic premise from the moral low-ground of a privileged life in northern Europe.

So, at the ACCA (Association of Chartered Certified Accountants) Friday Forum last week on Ecological Footprinting, I was interested to hear Tony Greenham of the New Economics Foundation (NEF) – the organisation whose Impossible Hamster comically demonstrates the fallacy of growth without limits – asserting that for every $100 of GDP, roughly 60¢ reaches the poorest 10 percent of the population.  In other words, the pursuit of GDP growth as a development tool effectively says: “We’re going to make the poor wealthier by making the already wealthy obscenely wealthy”!

Oliver Greenfield of WWF-UK’s Sustainable Business unit spoke eloquently of the One Planet Living concept that invites us to think in terms which are far more meaningful than tonnes of CO2, gallons of water, or other abstractions that leave non-technical citizens cold.  It’s a powerful idea that we should all strive to live a “one planet existence”, especially when I reflect that here in the UK, for instance, we currently lead a three planet lifestyle, which means that if our consumption patterns were adopted worldwide, we would require three Earth’s to sustain us.  In the US, it’s five planets.

And linking this back to quality of life, there is simply no correlation between the environmental impact of our lives and our cheerfulness.  NEF’s Happy Planet Index – a composite indicator that attempts to quantify human well-being and environmental impact – places Costa Rica at number one in the world, with the UK languishing 74th out of the 143 nations assessed, and the US floundering in 114th place, which is pretty desperate for a country ranked number one by far according to GDP alone.

Paul Cooper of environmental consultancy Best Foot Forward presented a compelling case for placing a cost – and properly accounting for that cost – on society’s ecological footprint.  We are already starting to internalise the cost of CO2 emissions in economic decisions, with policy instruments like carbon taxation and emissions trading schemes taking root in many parts of the world.  Only by expanding this effort to encompass the totality of humanity’s natural resource consumption can we begin to address what common sense tells us we must: infinite growth cannot be sustained in a finite world.

My reason to be cheerful?  The collective challenge ahead – nothing less than transforming business and the way societies produce and consume – is intellectually and practically far more exciting than the modus operandi, which is to worship at the altar of the Impossible Hamster.

Electric Vehicles: Keeping it Real

This blog first appeared on the website of think tank and strategy consultancy SustainAbility

Last Tuesday I met with a group of MEPs from The Greens / European Free Alliance (EFA) at the European Parliament in Brussels to discuss the electrification of the transport sector. Following on from my recent guest blog on the Better Place website, I take their interest – and the thrust of the conversation – as another indicator that electric vehicles are moving into the mainstream. The MEPs present – including Claude Turmes and Satu Hassi, both of whom are clearly very knowledgeable on the topic – evidently have concerns that special interest groups are using the bright prospects of electric vehicles to avoid addressing the larger challenges associated with transport sustainability.

Let me restate my position on this: if we clicked our fingers today and electrified the entire automotive fleet of the world – approaching one billion vehicles – we would still be faced with a horribly unsustainable transport sector. We would still have inefficient use of vehicles, too many unnecessary journeys in vehicles that are unnecessarily large, a desperately under-utilised asset base, ugly urban landscapes designed for motorists rather than citizens, chronic under-investment in public transport, growing congestion and associated loss of economic productivity, not to mention a commensurate rise in stress levels. Cars are sold to us on the promise mobility, but in city centres they increasingly deliver immobility.

I could continue, but the larger point should be clear. Electric vehicles are inherently highly energy efficient and compatible with a carbon-free sustainable renewable energy system. But they don’t in themselves solve the broader transport challenges mentioned above. However, by acknowledging the fact that electrification of transport can dramatically improve the energy efficiency and carbon footprint of this uniquely problematic sector – not to mention help tackle urban air and noise pollution – we are not arguing against addressing all of those other important sustainability issues. Similarly, the fact that the nuclear industry vocally advocates the electrification of mobility does not mean that opponents of nuclear power must also oppose the widespread roll-out of electric vehicles.

Electric vehicles – not only cars but also bicycles, vans, and mass-transit modes of mobility – are vital if we are to achieve the objective of the Copenhagen Accord and stay below 2°C of global warming. This will require complete decarbonisation of the energy system by 2050, which means no more fossil fuels burned in mobile applications.

We need to elevate the debate above the creation of false dichotomies, the drawing of ideological boundaries around transport electrification that suggest “pro-EV” equates to “anti-investment in public transport”, to take one example. Unless we manage to maintain an intellectually honest dialogue, we risk throwing the baby out with the bath water.