Tuesday, 28 December 2010

An environmental mascot for Britain

The annual Earthwatch Debate was held at the Royal Geographic Society this year and comprised four presenters each pitching their idea for an environmental mascot for Britain, with the notion that audience members would vote via text for their favourite at the end.

Some presenters were more inspiring than others and I voted for the only female presenter, Dr Samantha Burgess, who is the Senior Research Manager for Oceans at EarthWatch and whom I learnt a lot from about cold coral. I did not know this as I had always thought of coral as being in warm, tropical waters, but in fact, deep sea coral reefs are more expansive than tropical: in UK waters we have over 1300 species of cold coral reefs, each of an age of 200-8000 years. They are spawning grounds for much marine life, a sink of carbon and carbonate (important in this era of anthropogenic global warming) and a source of novel compounds for the pharmaceutical industry. These reefs can tell us a lot about temperature, salinity, acidity and marine nutrients throughout history, but are unfortunately under threat with ocean acidification (increased with rising atmospheric carbon dioxide), oil and gas exploration, overfishing and bottom trawling, seabed mining and cable laying. Cold coral is a species well worthy of a vote to be environmental mascot for Britain, I thought.

In actual fact, it was the humble bumble who won. Dr George McGavin, BBC Lost Lands Presenter and Honorary Research Associate for the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, successfully persuaded the audience of around 400 that the Bumblebee captures the inimitable spirit of Britain whilst representing its invaluable natural heritage. Unfortunately I turned up late so missed his presentation; the lowdown I got from my friend was that 'he's from the TV'.

I knew little more about the second presenter, whose presentation I also missed, other than that he has the best moustache I have ever seen. If you would like to see this incredible feat of human facial hair growth, check out Dr Johannes Vogel, Keeper of Botany at London's Natural History Museum, who represented the bluebell and who is doing his bit for biodiversity on a daily basis by providing a habitat of optimum conditions for many species on his face.

Professor Stephen Hopper, Director of the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew gave a pretty convincing and fairly comical pitch of the oak tree stating that it is 'Britiain's biological backbone', an 'excellent emblem of grandeur' and 'Eurasian in origin, but global in reach'. He made a good point that the Oak Tree provides a home for the Bumblebee, bluebell and song thrush (as well as for 800 insect species and 500 fungi) and he joked that it's also a great habitat for Winnie The Pooh and for us- The Royal Oak. If that's not enough, Sir Francis Drake defeated the Spanish Armada in an oak ship, oak barrells are used in whiskey production, oak timber maintains the structure of the Salisbury Cathedral and acorns provide food for jays and wood pigeons (and Californian native Americans). Apparently the mighty 'Oak Tree' also has the most hits on Google out of all the potential mascots.

A criticism from Prof Hopper of Tony Juniper's song thrush was 'well just type thrush into Google and...'! Juniper, environmental writer, campaigner and adviser, countered Prof Hopper's argument with 'yes but the things that people went out in their oak boats to look for were more important, like the SONG THRUSH for example!' The song thrush is not garish or colourful but is subtle; it is practical, stylish and smart and- how British is that?! The 'throstle' has been mentioned in Wordsworth, Shakespeare and Chaucer and it sings more than any other bird. An entertaining presentation that didn't quite make the cut, but Juniper has a new book out called Harmony, written with HRH the Prince of Wales and Ian Skelly.

2010 is the International Year of Biodiversity and the Earthwatch Debate was an excellent chance to learn about and reflect upon the species that reside right here in the UK and remain important to our environment and culture.


Sustainability, eco, the green movement and environmentalism; social environmental, corporate sustainability; humanity stewardship, earth citizenship; low carbon, no carbon, carbon neutral, carbon responsible, carbon retired. You don't have to have the most perfect and up to date lingo in order to take action and make a difference so stop worrying about what it's called and get on with it before I get carbon VIOENT!

Thursday, 23 December 2010

Can The UK ever be Sustainable?

On Wednesday 1st December 2010 I attended the 15th lecture of the 21st Century Challenges series at the Royal Geographical Society in South Kensington entitled ‘Can the UK Ever Be Sustainable?’ After an introductory speech from Rita Gardner, Director of RGS, who stated that geography lies at the heart of all these challenges, Jo Confino, The Guardian Executive Editor and Chairman of Guardian Sustainable Business chaired the discussion.

The panellists were three and represented business, political and individual responses to the sustainability issue, respectively: Rt Hon Hilary Benn MP, Shadow Leader of House of Commons and former Secretary of State for DEFRA; Sir Stuart Rose, Executive Chairman of Marks and Spencer; Andy Hobsbawm Founding Director of Do The Green Thing.

Sir Stuart Rose

First up was Sir Stuart Rose, who told us about what Marks and Spencer is doing at Plan A. I have blogged about this quite recently so will not go into the full detail. It was all fairly fresh in my mind, but I felt sorry for those trying to listen to this for the first time as he spoke very fast and it appeared as though he had done this speech a million times before, although he also spoke quickly during the discussion so perhaps his mind works at a very high speed in general!
He started off by saying that what we need is positive action from business as 63/100 of the world’s largest organisations are corporations, not countries. Getting to grips with this goes far beyond ‘CSR’ and Stuart believes that this decade will represent a paradigm shift in moving towards sustainability in business. The Patagonia (ethical fashion and outdoor wear) founder said ‘every time we do the right thing, we make money’ and Al Gore also said that sustainability can be profitable. This is part of a new wave of business thought. Stuart feels that they have only done about 10% of what they intend to do at M and S and in order to do this, “the one thing we’re going to have to do is we’re going to have to collaborate”.

Hilary Benn MP

Next up was Hilary Benn, who had a slower-paced, but more creative style to his presentation, illustrating his points with examples and acting out the stories with flailing limbs. Apologies for the subsequent disjointed description of his presentation but that was what it was like! He spoke of many of the sustainability challenges that we face today. He started by saying that we have shown an astonishing capacity to use the earth’s resources and if our ancestors were to walk into this high-tech and modern lecture theatre now, they would be amazed at what these resources can make. He used the cautionary tale of Easter Island as an example of how we can get the balance wrong- they used all of the trees on the island for logs to roll very large face statues onto the coast and then had to leave the island shortly after that due to the lack of trees for living requirements.

Apparently, 1 billion of us on the planet are over weight, whilst 1 billion of us are going to bed hungry and malnourished. This is just one of the fundamental injustices in the world. He also quoted Mark Twain to illustrate the shortage of land for food growth, who said ‘my advice is to buy land because they’ve stopped making it’.

Martin Luther King did not begin his speech ‘I had a nightmare...’; with all of these issues, Hilary has found that scaring people does not work, for example the first anti-HIV adverts in the 80s had great blocks of concrete slamming down saying ‘ignorance kills’, but did not actually give practical advice on how to protect oneself.

So what do we need to get out of this hole that we have dug for ourselves? The economics of climate change means that it is more expensive to do nothing than to do something. We already have the means and the minds to get out of this mess and all we need is sheer determination.
Jo Confino asked what exactly labour did to act against anthropogenic climate change as he felt that they didn’t do much at all, but Hilary came back saying that actually the Climate Change Act of 2008 was due to pretty profound leadership.

Andy Hobsbawm

Andy took a different approach altogether to offer potential solutions to the sustainability problem. He showed several videos of ‘Green Thing’, the green coloured, multi-limbed monster and mascot for his non-profit organisation, illustrating, in a fun and sometimes controversial way, why it is beneficial to live sustainably. He claims that creativity is a critical ingredient in the future of sustainability and ‘Do The Green Thing’ aims to turn green living from something one ‘ought to do’ to something one ‘wants to do’.

Ironically the creative industries of marketing and advertising are mostly trying to make us buy things, but they can also be used to promote and sharpen important issues, helping to engage people by giving them something they can relate to, which comes back to Hilary’s point of not making the issue a scary one.

It can often feel like the choice is between a (non-sustainable) rich, high-tech, modern life that is fast-paced where everyone is busy and therefore important and successful vs. The (sustainable) life of less, a life of without, where everything slows down and we all have to live in caves. Creativity can be used advantageously to tell the other side of this story- to help people connect with the climate change issue and make them want to act, realising that it is a positive thing and they will not have to give up everything they are used to. Just one example of this is the anti-nuclear symbol used in the 1970s, which became ubiquitous over badges, sunglasses, t-shirts and bumper stickers and helped spread knowledge about the issue.


The discussion that ensued afterwards was interesting and sometimes heated. Hilary thanked Stuart for being the only retailer to lead on the plastic bag issue, whilst Stuart asked ‘well why didn’t the government put a levy on plastic bags? We could’ve transformed the problem over night!’ Andy spoke of there being a ‘dance’ between individuals and businesses waiting for the government to make regulations, the government looking to business to take action and to people for signs that they will support this with their voting. Stuart agreed that politicians need public encouragement too (who would vote for a party proposing petrol prices be increased four-fold?) and that we have a shared responsibility, but we do need to break this ‘dance’. Hilary concurred that we need to change and we need three main things: example, encouragement and incentive. Andy felt that it will take an extreme external event to shock people into change.

Overall it was a lively and thought-provoking evening, the presentations of which can now be watched on the RGS website.

Sunday, 19 December 2010

We are addicted to oil...

...In a similar way to:

1. Work- moving onto the next better paid job is seen as the difference between feeling empowered or powerless.
2. Consumption- more food, clothes, travel, material objects is seen as the difference between emptiness and feeling satisfied.
3. Relationships- moving onto the next partner or marriage is seen as the difference between isolation and connection.

Addictive patterns have twin drivers- out of consciousness, the fix is viewed as outside but the problem lies within.

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Planning to not exist

This may well be obvious to veteran charity workers and environmentalists, but this is something that I have picked up recently from various people, including the Head of Fundraising for Article 25 and a Communications Officer from the Sustainable Development Commission (SDC).

This is particularly relevant for the SDC whose funding ceased during the summer of 2010 and who are consequently taking steps to hand over auditing and monitoring of sustainability issues within all 21 government departments to the departments themselves and some external parties.

What I have learnt is, that in general terms, the overall and eventual aim of such organisations is to terminate their existence, i.e. to have done enough positive work in that sector that the issue is solved or there are sufficient management systems in place and their service is no longer needed. It seems an odd thing to work towards but it is important in planning for their future.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

No Impact Man

Earlier this week I watched the film No Impact Man. Set in New York, it tells the real-life story of a journalist who decides that living on Manhattan Island shouldn’t stop him having as low an impact as possible on the environment and so he sets out on a year-long mission to live that life. It is not just him though as he also ropes in his shopaholic, reality-TV- and caffeine-addict wife and their baby daughter.

Without wanting to give too much away, I enjoyed the fact that it didn’t purposefully paint a pretty picture and aim to show that living a greener life is all smiles and roses, but rather it showed the beautifully raw emotion of the family unit as they go on this journey together, from the wife’s caffeine withdrawal mood-swings to feeling pretty disappointed without any electricity in the evenings. They tried out a wormery to faster compost their food waste, which worked until they got flies breeding in it that infested the flat; they tried no fridge, but had to rely on neighbours for their ice to keep milk fresh. They learnt a lot about compromise and sharing as a community, but also showed that a greener life, although not glamorous at first, can be more enjoyable with more time spent together in the present. They didn’t go the whole hog (still cooking on gas, which I was disappointed they didn’t mention), but they went pretty far and the ups and downs they face as a family make for lovely viewing.

No Impact Man himself is pretty good at explaining his own conclusions to their story and the stories continue on his blog. I recommend the film even if you’re not a greeny- it is a good watch.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Women In Carbon: Apart from beaches and tequila is it worth going to Cancun?


On Thursday 11th November 2010 I attended a Women In Carbon event held at Linklaters in Moorgate, addressing the expectations for the COP16 talks in Cancun, comprising 3 speakers followed by an audience-participative discussion.

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is an international environmental treaty that was produced at the UN Conference on Environmental Development (UNCED) in Rio De Janeiro 1992 and became effective in 1994. It was signed by 194 parties and provides a general framework for intergovernmental efforts aimed at tackling the climate change issue. The basic aim is to stabilise the greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that will prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system. The talks in Cancun represent the 16th COP (Conference of the Parties) to call for further commitment and compromise and are currently ongoing (29th November- 10th December 2010). Business Green and The Guardian Environment provide good updates online.

In general there are low levels of expectancy for the outcome of the talks in Cancun, but a feeling that it does represent an important step in moving towards a global deal and this event was set up to discuss the generalist hopes and fears. The first speaker was Harriet Thompson, the Head of Negotiation at the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), the second was Rhian Kelly, Director of Climate Change for the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) and the third was Anna Lehmann, Market and Bioenergy Analyst at Toepfer. Anna was hired to set up the carbon trading desk at Toepfer, which is mainly involved in trading agricultural commodities like fertilizers, so where there is huge scope to minimise environmental impact.

Review of Copenhagen

The last COP was in Copenhagen in 2009 and Anna briefly reviewed it- expectations were raised very high as we needed an agreement what with the Kyoto agreement coming to an end. Many heads of state showed up, which raised the profile. They fell hard due to the lack of numerical commitments to emissions reductions as well as procedural and logistical mismanagement (5000 were allowed in the building, but 15,000 turned up so some people who needed to be in there were not able to enter). Since Copenhagen 2009 there have been feelings of hurt and a lack of trust surrounding carbon emissions targets internationally as we were left feeling that the real negotiations never really started. Rhian stated that we did achieve some things at Copenhagen and created momentum, but the media were responsible for the depression. Particularly after a few claims that the climate change science was dubious, there has been a need to reinstate the case for climate change.

Expectations for Cancun

Despite this, from the government’s perspective, Harriet stated that of course it is worth going to Cancun. The UK Government wants to be the greenest government and limit the increase in global temperature to 2 degrees. We need to represent the UK well, marketing ourselves and the steps we have taken towards targets to our counterparts.

This time there is no expectation of a global deal, but building on the progress of the last COP (in Copenhagen 2009) is the aim. Cancun will be an important stage post before Cape Town COP 2011 and there is hope for some tangible answers, for example a clear future for offset mechanisms.

At Cancun there is scope to make climate change mitigation legally, not just politically, binding, or at least take steps towards that. There have been pledges, especially from developing countries- the Mexicans have made excellent efforts in regaining trust, Brazil has committed to cutting emissions from deforestation. Some countries are recognising that it is important to take action and not wait for a global deal, to try and find a common ground and build up levels of trust again. There are a set of sub-decisions on the plate though, including those associated with adaption, technology transfer, capacity building, launch of readiness phase for REDD, the establishment of further financial architecture (general mechanisms and the Green Fund).

A member of the audience stated that in China, there is a difficulty as a lot of progress is made through personal relationships and trust (‘which province are you from?), however, China has the potential to embarrass America as have signed up to many emissions reduction schemes. China wants to protect its sovereignty and do things itself; their highest level of commitment is a 5 year plan. There has however been good news from California recently demonstrating that state-level action may be what is needed in the US.

What Rhian would like to see is:
-clear, transparent, carbon emissions reduction targets from major economies.
- An agreement over who pays and how.
-Plans for how to include all sectors (for example aviation and shipping too).
-Plans for how to inspire innovation.

Private sector fora

Rhian opened with the statement that ‘it is difficult to shake the Copenhagen hangover and blues’ but business has a vested interest in making this work as predictions dictate that low carbon markets will be worth £15 trillion by 2015. The CBI has a climate change board of 16 CEOs from around the world (they have international offices) to provide a coherent business voice and help support business reach their targets.

As well as the UN process, it is important to remember that there are other fora, like G20 (commitment to reduce fossil fuel subsidies), unilateral and bilateral action (i.e. India and Renewable Energy Certificates) and the Major Economies Forum (also has a commitment to the 2 degree target). For some businesses, for example those in the carbon markets, Copenhagen and Cancun are particularly important and for other businesses, the COPs have been less important as international business sustainability strategies are more important.

The private sector wish list for Copenhagen still stands for Cancun but is slightly shorter now- 75% of the funding for mitigation is expected to be from the private sector so there is an urgent need to integrate the private sector into this negotiation process. Other items on the wish list are actions and timelines (predictability) and Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) reform to define growth opportunities.


Fantastic presentations by 3 women representing both the public and private sectors, to a room full of women (and one man) working in the sustainability sector were followed by a lively debate and in turn followed by nachos, tequila and mojitos.

Whilst the UN process is arguably the most prominent and has the most scope for impact on climate change mitigation deals internationally, it is important to recognise that there are other sub-international level deals being made that are equally, if not more important. The private sector needs to be integrated into these global deals. There are lower expectations for Cancun over Copenhagen and certainly no expectations for a global deal, but it is recognised as an important and necessary stepping stone to allow further progress at Cape Town 2011.

The Executive Chairman of UNFCCC, Christiana Figueres , recently said that governments had revealed a growing convergence and that a balanced set of decisions could be an achievable outcome- chief among these is how to take mitigation actions forward.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

CEN on Cancun with Gregory Barker MP

Certainly environmentalists and sustainability consultants, and hopefully increasing numbers of the general public, will be waiting with baited breath for the outcome of the COP 16 International Climate Change talks being held currently in Cancun, Mexico.

On Monday 29th November 2010, I was lucky enough to attend a discussion with Gregory Barker MP, Minister of Energy and Climate Change, just before he left for Cancun. The event was fairly small and intimate, organised by the Conservative Environmental Network and held at RICS. RICS itself was an apt location as with 100,000 members worldwide, it has the potential to make a large impact in reducing energy use in the built environment.

The discussion with Gregory, facilitated by Peter Ainsworth MP (former shadow Secretary of State for DEFRA), was fairly general and not entirely about Cancun; the audience were encouraged to participate as well.

The first question was regarding how well he and Chris Huhne MP, Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, work together, to which Greg replied ‘it works extraordinarily well’, before following up with ‘well, of course I would be expected to say that wouldn’t I?’ He explained that despite the previous public worry that the lack of a clear parliament would mean instability, incoherent policy terms and uncertainty, their work so far has proved that when it comes to energy and climate change, there is a genuine coalition of interest. One of the things they have achieved so far has been the scrapping of the third runway. Greg mentioned that Chris stands back a bit as he wasn’t intimately involved in the policy writing (for example the Green Investment Bank was a Conservative idea), but there is a definite commonality of interests on the agenda and in general there is not much between the party views in this sector.

The second question was regarding the current public mood on climate change. In a recent survey, it was found that most liked the idea of the Green Deal as it is nice to improve one’s home, whereas only 6% supported the idea as it is beneficial for the environment to improve energy efficiency. Gregory agreed that the global issue of climate change has taken a back seat for the past 12 months in part due to the economic crisis and consequent employment issues. In addition, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) which is the main provider of climate change evidence for policy, had their reputation damaged with the discovery that scientific evidence associated with the Himalayas was faulty. The science is getting more compelling by the day, but we need a new way of communicating it.

Greg compared the concern-action gap issue with medicine. If a Doctor tells you that there is a 60-90% chance that you will die if you continue with this lifestyle, it does not matter that the science is inexact; you will listen because the consequences of inaction are disastrous. Similarly, we should not wait for more and more scientific certainty- it has already been shown that it is extremely likely that we are causing this rise in carbon emissions above the natural level and that if we continue in this way the consequences are catastrophic.

Moving onto Cancun, when asked ‘are you going?’ Gregory replied ‘yes and if you read The Daily Mail you will know where I am staying!’ It is true that there has been a lot of media speculation that there will be more tequilas, flip flops and jacuzzis than concrete policy agreements in Cancun, yet Greg feels that the UK has huge scope to make a difference and in general there is great respect for HMG. There is a great need to reinject some credibility and momentum into multilateral approaches and a formal UN process should be established. What is important is an agreement on the principles of Monitoring, Reporting and Verification (MRV) to allow comparability between countries- India has actually come up with some international proposals for that (see also UK India Business Leaders Climate Group). The establishment of the Green Fund is an important step; private sector finance alone cannot do it, particularly in developing countries, thus public sector support is also needed. Greg joked that the aim this year is to get people to do what they said they were going to do last year at Copenhagen.

Agreements could all fall down for several reasons. There is a danger of a ‘climate change culture’ with the ‘usual suspect syndrome’ inducing a loss of perspective, as all attendees know each other from the previous COPs. Less economically developed countries believe in climate change but not that it is there problem, whilst others agree that it is their problem but are concerned about the short term impact of tackling it on the economy. Then there is the issue of sovereignty and economic prosperity, particularly with China who are also wary of any external committee that binds them. One school of thought with China is that they will sign a global agreement once they have secured the export markets. In relation to America, Gregory stated that ‘Obama is a disappointment’ (he did not embrace the green republican view, the republicans who were willing to stick their neck out, until it was too late) and without America on board we simply will not win.

One place where we may make progress is in forestry, with the establishment of the Forest Fund. Luckily there is a strong preference for sovereignty combination to tackle issues that require a global response, such as this.

An audience member asked whether we are taking inspiration from Germany, where there is a ground swell of public support for economic incentives that trigger the development of renewable technology. They started Feed In Tariff schemes over 10 years ago, but Greg stated that the Tories are committed to the UK FIT, which began in April 2010, on a large scale. He said it was disgraceful that we opened up the world’s largest wind farm recently, but over 80% of it was manufactured overseas and created ‘British jobs for German workers’.

Next, a member of the audience posed a fairly broad yet important question: ‘is the transition to a low carbon economy compatible with increasing quality of life and lifestyles?’ The answer from Greg was that we do not yet know as no one has done it yet, but we hope so and we are going to try.

In general, there is a lower expectation for Cancun than for Copenhagen, so the level of disappointment is likely to be lower. However, it is clear that Gregory and the other UK representatives are going to do there darndest to at least make progress towards a global deal for energy and climate change, even if they are able to enjoy a martini in their Jacuzzi afterwards.