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.