Saturday, 17 November 2012

Dumping cash into a silo!

Back onto the nuclear tip with this blog!

Sellarfield is centre stage for this diatribe, as it exemplifies the problems that persist for nuclear energy, in the perceptual, economic and technical context.

My comments are based upon the report from the National Audit Office and an article in the guardian on the subject, which provides some great graphics to support the underlying data.

In essence, Sellarfield is a complex site dealing with a range of complex waste, from spent nuclear fuel to decommissioning and weapons waste. This has an advantage of allowing the UK to develop marketable high tech solutions to radioactive problems, however most of these projects are running over budget and behind schedule!

The NAO report flags these failings and places a significant amount of emphasis on the spiralling costs. This will have the unfortunate consequence of undermining the credibility of Sellarfield as a World leader in these technologies and will also taint public confidence, both in the site and and the wider industry.

It does beg the question as to how much costs might run out of control for the whole decommissioning process? The Government appears not to be overly concerned as the overall cost will not have a significant impact on the unit cost of nuclear generation, and anyway, it looks as though the taxpayer will bear much of the cost for legacy plant!!

Nonetheless, there has to be some concern, because the numbers we are talking about are still quite large, large enough even, to stifle enthusiasm amongst investors and operators. alike

Another concern that I have are around the decommissioning process itself, as Sellarfield is being prosecuted for not following the rules on proper disposal of low level radioactive waste. This should be met with disbelief, when you consider how long this has been going on and the processes and expertise that are in place!

Once the wider scheme of decommissioning starts to roll out, it is probable that costs will again start to spiral and work schedules stretch, as has been the case with Sellarfirld. My worry with this, is not so much who will bear this additional cost, but what will happen with the management of the process and handling of the waste. Experience dictates that it is always in these areas where time constraints and cost overruns, lead to poor practice and corner cutting. Not something you would wish to see when dealing radioactive waste (albeit very low level).

Link to Guardian article:

Link to NAO site:

Saturday, 10 November 2012

Sandy, legacy, planning and adaptation.

After a respectable period its a good time to revisit the aftermath of Sandy and raise a few important questions about living on the front line of coastal plains and tidal waterways. When the storm does come and the defences are rendered ineffective, the inevitable happens to the land and infrastructure that supports us.

The storm passes quickly enough and the waters subside in time, but the damage that remains is often persistent, unseen and potentially more lethal than the event itself. A storm surge carries huge power, it picks up what it wants and leaves it where it likes, it has no respect for man nor permit! It can strip back the land, move good from shelves and swamps tanks and drainage systems.

A lot of what we use in our everyday lives, the engine and fuel oils released, the cleansing and disinfection fluids, paints solvents and infection bearing sludges. These are toxic in the wrong environment and when many substances are mixed up and distributed in a diffuse way, they can be difficult to detect and quantify in terms of risk. This is precisely what has happened with Sandy, the water has ingressed the old and ailing infrastructure of New York. Sandy stripped out toxins, leaving them in dense heterogeneous sediments to leach back out in what amounts to a game that has become a cross between hide and seek and Russian roulette!

In time these sediments will give up their chemicals slowly leaching back into streams and rivers and percolating down into the groundwater, where it can enter water supplies. This will impact upon
people and ecosystems and the clean up could prove prohibitively expensive, due to the range and distribution of toxins.

There is no point in being smug that it wasn't you this time around either, all low lying populace areas are becoming increasingly vulnerable. Climate change is accelerating and extreme weather events will increase in frequency raising the risk of a growing legacy of toxic sediments being built up in many locations. This will become a growing cost of climate change, as already discussed, clear up will be very expensive and retro-fit to provide greater protection will be costly too!

As I see it now, however we mitigate (and we will have to), we will have to adopt a lot of new ways to adapt to our changing and increasingly extreme climate. I believe that this require a lot of planning on a large scale and much better integration between aspects of land use in terms of how and where urban populations exist and how they are supported by a hinterland.

More local resilience will be needed, with major infrastructure designed to offer support at a more strategic level (i.e. more decentralised generation, but connected to a simplified grid that offers options on storage). This is an option for renewal but there is no easy solution for what is already in place, it is likely that many location will quickly change from pleasant seaside real estate to deserted liability!

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Evidence of emerging waste trends.

In my last blog, I spoke about how I perceive some changes taking place in the waste industry, as we struggle to move waste up the hierarchy and close loops within the existing regulatory framework.

I'm happy to be able to produce some timely evidence to support those views, gleaned from this weeks news headlines from around the waste sector.

John Lewis, a company that embraces CSR, is looking to close the loop on waste it produces, by maintaining tighter control downstream of production. They also want to keep as much of the secondary raw material produced in the UK as possible, which is a form of extended producer responsibility. This will of course need to be supported by producing quality materials and having the reprocessing capacity available to do this, but is certainly a step in the right direction.

As I pointed out, moving towards a circular economy, will create green jobs and low carbon growth, especially within the 3rd sector of charities and social enterprise. The value of this market is estimated to rise to around £600M by 2020 (taken from the recent Creating Social Value report). This has been driven in part by the provisions of the Public Services (social value)Act 2012, which I'm sure will be ceased upon by the 3rd sector to open up the public procurement system.

The Government in Ireland has recognised the importance of End of Waste criteria this week, warning its waste recycling industry that it is ill prepared to meet the criteria that are likely to be set to determine the point at which, waste can legally be defined as having been recycled. This is an important driver towards the segregated collection, handling and subsequent treatment of waste. It will be an important factor in infrastructure investment, which again, will create opportunities for new players into what is an established market.

It appears that the more forward thinking companies are taking this on board and we are starting to move down these paths. How the rest of the industry reacts and how this impacts upon our ability to meet targets remains to be seen. More as it happens!

Friday, 19 October 2012

Future values for waste.

In this latest blog, I want to explore ways in which we can value waste. This is important because currently we regulate using the term 'waste' very much as the legal entity, and yet, we want to move to a resource oriented low carbon economy. Resource efficient behaviours are harder to embed when speaking about waste, however we need to stick with it for now as this is also how we manage all the associated risks and impacts.

It is not something that can be quickly or easily resolved, however if we can appreciate all the values that exist within our waste streams, then it will be somewhat easier to make the links to a green/low carbon economy and resource efficiency.

I have identified below some potential value chains to explore:
  • Resource efficient saving and associated reduction in emissions and impacts from designing out waste and designing in re-use/recyclability. Triple bottom line sustainability.
  • Improved potential for closed loop use of materials/resources through high quality collection and handling techniques.
  • Improved resource security for Rare Earth metals and other essential materials.
  • Potential for 3rd sector involvement through breakdown and segregation of waste streams and fragmentation of large contracts to localise collection and treatment. This will create more jobs through improved collection rates and end quality, as well as improved scope for community buy-in.
  • High quality recyclate for UK re processors or export that will command best price and maintain confidence in supply chain.
  • Options for recovery of materials through treatment and use to substitute virgin materials, thus improving amenity and protecting against price increases for raw materials.
Some of these points are easily recognisable as already being the norm within the waste industry, however some are not so prevalent. This is due to our history of investment, industry scale and regulatory framework, also a heavy reliance on large scale engineering solutions to treatment and disposal problems. The points above (roughly) follow the order of the Waste Hierarchy, as this makes understanding the potential values easier and directs our thinking on future solutions.

Recent changes and upheaval in the planning system however, have led to a bit of an impasse with an unwillingness to invest, created by the uncertainty and the recession. The regulatory framework (revised Waste Framework Directive and Industrial Emissions Directive) have sustainability at their core and thus, provide some stability from which to build in terms of new and refurbished infrastructure.

The Waste Hierarchy being designed to signpost the most sustainable options for waste and resource management delivers on the triple bottom line, hence working to it, should deliver economically sound options. The only question to really be answered is how the issue between longer term investment (which should be more sustainable), plays out against other shorter term market mechanisms (such as RHI and ROC's)?

The waste industry, both physically and economically, will shortly find itself at a crossroads. The advent of disruptive technologies and markets methods will, sooner or later, focus on the waste industry. I believe that the current model supported by long term contracts and large scale plant will find itself outflanked by smaller, more nimble and flexible logistics companies, who will break down the collection of currently mixed waste streams, into discreet and segregated streams that will get treated and recovered at specialised facilities.

This will be driven not only by market disruption, but also by regulation and the fact that as values for materials (of good quality) improve, the bulking and value realisation will move downstream towards the re processors. This will be a realisation of Producer Responsibility (in part) and also of CSR driving a wider producer responsibility. The days of large MBT/MRF type plant, handling a huge range of wastes are likely to be numbered as waste streams and value fall away and they become confined to municipal waste streams. It is likely that municipal waste will be treated in the same way for a longer period, as behaviour change in this domain will take longer, although it is still likely that retail will take much of its waste back in-house over time.

It will however, herald great opportunities better distribute the value of waste and for more of it to benefit the community in which it arises, through the setting up of social enterprises to deal with collection, re-use and stage one sorting (clean up) and bulking. This would require more modest facilities with lower capital and running costs, however this would need to realise higher values as economies of scale would be lost.

This might overcome many of the conflicts associated with large waste handling and treatment facilities, as the greater number of smaller facilities would be dealt with as local planning issues and would be much lower key in terms of impacts.

Use of green buildings, green transport and the creation of green/low carbon jobs locally would see a much greater acceptance of facilities. Hopefully there would be something for everyone in return for something that we all contribute to (i.e. community compost for gardens and refurbished bikes)!

Saturday, 29 September 2012

The nuclear energy paradox.

Recently there has been a lot column space dedicated to the place of nuclear energy as a low carbon alternative capable of displacing fossil generation and thus reducing carbon emissions. The suggestion that more nuclear energy is a solution to climate change problems has triggered quite a lot of debate and raised many issues with the anti-nuclear lobby. Many suggest that the money would be better spent on renewable energy sources and deliver a quicker and (over time ) cheaper response. I wanted to look at some of these arguments and justifications to see how they stack up.

Amongst the issues to look at are:
  • Safety and overall risk.
  • Cost and comparison with renewables.
  • Proliferation.
  • Perception and political acceptance.
These are the headlines, there are numerous issues within each section and linkages between them that I will try to cover with reference to evidence and case studies. Because of the nature of the beast, events resulting in containment failure and subsequent contamination are very emotive and because of human nature we cant eradicate them.

Some recent reports relating to the Fukushima incident seem to suggest that the death toll has been and will remain quite low (although what is an acceptable mortality rate must be open to debate), however some new reports are emerging that suggest the findings are premature and that the impacts could be more significant. The latest report the World Nuclear Organisation can be found here:

A study, published in the journal Energy and Environmental Science, uses a three-dimensional model of the atmosphere to look at how radioactive materials spread after last year's massive earthquake and tsunami damaged the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

This study quantifies worldwide health effects of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident on 11 March 2011. Effects are quantified with a 3-D global atmospheric model driven by emission estimates and evaluated against daily worldwide Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organisation (CTBTO) measurements and observed deposition rates. Inhalation exposure, ground-level external exposure, and atmospheric external exposure pathways of radioactive iodine-131, caesium-137, and caesium-134 released from Fukushima are accounted for using a linear no-threshold (LNT) model of human exposure. Exposure due to ingestion of contaminated food and water is estimated by extrapolation. We estimate an additional 130 (15–1100) cancer-related mortality's and 180 (24–1800) cancer-related morbidity's incorporating uncertainties associated with the exposure–dose and dose–response models used in the study. We also discuss the LNT model's uncertainty at low doses. Sensitivities to emission rates, gas to particulate I-131 partitioning, and the mandatory evacuation radius around the plant are also explored, and may increase upper bound mortality's and morbidity's in the ranges above to 1300 and 2500, respectively. Radiation exposure to workers at the plant is projected to result in 2 to 12 morbidity's. An additional [similar]600 moralities have been reported due to non-radiological causes such as mandatory evacuations. Lastly, a hypothetical accident at the Diablo Canyon Power Plant in California, USA with identical emissions to Fukushima was studied to analyse the influence of location and seasonality on the impact of a nuclear accident. This hypothetical accident may cause [similar]25% more moralities than Fukushima despite California having one fourth the local population density due to differing meteorological conditions.

By comparison a lot more is known about the consequences of the incident at Chernobyl and the findings of this WHO report provides some interesting insight:
Ch WHO Report into deaths and casualties:
5 September 2005 | Geneva -A total of up to 4000 people could eventually die of radiation exposure from the Chernobyl nuclear power plant (NPP) accident nearly 20 years ago, an international team of more than 100 scientists has concluded.
As of mid-2005, however, fewer than 50 deaths had been directly attributed to radiation from the disaster, almost all being highly exposed rescue workers, many who died within months of the accident but others who died as late as 2004.

A great deal of work has been done in both instances, the science and effort is commendable, but this does not detract from the fact that containment failures at nuclear reactors lead to a significant number of mortality's over time, along with a number of other health and environment related problems. It would be fair to assume that as we learn from such disasters, over time our preparedness and systems should improve (in the case of such incidents to an almost imperceptible level), however recent events suggest that this may well not be the case and that there is cause for some concern.

Following the Fukushima Diachi incident there was a requirement to complete stress tests on all existing and proposed reactors. The resultant reports provided some startling evidence about the frailties of many of the initial risk assessments and back up systems put in place. This is going to be both costly in terms of upgrading existing facilities, but also means that the risks of failure may be severely underestimated for many plant. This is clearly exemplified in the examples given below, as is the fact that this both a commercially and politically sensitive area.

In the US recently, following completion of the stress tests, it came to light that risks in relation to flood damage from collapsed or breached dams, had been clearly underestimated. Employees working for the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission tried to raise concerns, but there was inaction, despite the risks having been known about for some time. In the end this information was made public by invoking whistle blower status in order to publish the information (see story below).

A recent study has also highlighted the fact that 23 nuclear sites, including some under construction are vulnerable to tsunami conditions! China and Japan would appear to have the greatest, however Japan is running down its nuclear capacity, in favour of renewable energy, whilst China is building 27 new reactors. Of these, a high proportion are described as being in geologically dangerous positions, it defies belief that UK is considering doing deals with China over nuclear capacity!
More on this story below:

On the issue of costs, one of the main arguments supporting nuclear generation is that it is cheaper than many current fossil fuel technologies and also many renewable options too. The link below is to a recent DECC commissioned report for a generation cost model:

The table below gives levelised costs for a selection of generation technologies as at 2010.

UK energy costs for different generation technologies in pounds per megawatt hour (2010)
TechnologyCost range (£/MWh)[citation needed]
Coal with CO2 capture100–155
Natural gas turbine, no CO2 capture55–110
Natural gas turbines with CO2 capture60–130
New nuclear80–105
Offshore wind150–210
Onshore wind80–110
Solar farms125–180
Tidal power155–390
Divide the above figures by 10 to obtain the price in pence per kilowatt-hour.
More recent UK estimates are the Mott MacDonald study released by DECC in June 2010 [14] and the Arup study for DECC published in 2011.[15]

From the table, it can be seen that some renewable technologies are already competitive with the more traditional generation technologies, however they could become even more efficient with the right policies and infrastructure in place.

At the moment most governments in developed countries are looking to extend and integrate their distribution grids, in order to ensure security of supply and to enable sale/transfer when there is spare production. This makes sense in the context of strategic supply, however there is a developing case for decentralised generation and greater degree of storage capacity. Current policies tend to support (through large subsidies) fossil or nuclear generation with large plant connected to the grid, which in turn tends to shape investment in grid infrastructure. This can however, become expensive to maintain and is not a very efficient means of distribution in all circumstances, particularly for dispersed communities.

If the same levels of subsidy were offered to renewable generation, then the shape of the grid infrastructure would probably change to better accommodate renewable technologies and decentralise generation with local grids. All of this would serve to make renewable generation cheaper!

As with any costing exercise, you have to draw up an envelope for the costing process, which may or may not take into account certain externalised cost (i.e. carbon trading), however depending upon where you draw those lines, may confer a cost advantage in respect of certain fuels and generation technologies.

For nuclear generation, most of the figures are quoted for 'new nuclear', which may well beg the comparison with old nuclear (whatever that might be?), but it is generally a convenience that allows assumptions about disposal costs to be made. This could be considered a little disingenuous as a huge amount of active waste from operation and decommissioning has yet to be disposed of. Also in the case of disasters such as Chernobyl and Fukushima, the generating company cannot be held liable for the full cost of reparations and clean up, as this cost is beyond their capability.  Because of this insurance will only cover a certain amount, beyond that the cost falls to the taxpayer! More on UK costs can be found in this FT article:

Although  there is a current spate of nuclear generation in development, global Uranium deposits are being depleted and have an uneven geo-political distribution. This means that security of supply is not guaranteed and that ultimately it will need to be replaced or substituted. The link below is to a US document on deposits for further information on the subject:
From this it is quite striking that two of the main nuclear economies (US and China) have very limited supplies of their own ore. The most useful quality ore deposits are found in Canada and Australia, both countries have strong lobbyists against developing uranium ore mines (although economically there will certainly be some exploitation).

Thorium has been suggested as an alternative fuel source, it is more abundant and has some operational advantages in terms of conversion efficiency. It is not without disadvantage however, there are still a number of technical issues to be resolved and the isotope requires treatment with Uranium or plutonium in order to achieve criticality. This will mean that there will be a longer lead in time and it is likely to cost more. There would also be a need for different technologies to be deployed for treatment.

A nuclear renaissance would also bring with it the risk of weapons and waste (in the sense that it could be accessed) proliferation. There are numerous types of reactor and several configurations within each generation (i.e. R & D power generation etc.). Although the act of building more reactors for power generation does not pose a significant direct risk of proliferation, the fact that more material that can be used for enrichment will be produced, means that there will be an increased risk.

The following points summarise the problem and potential solutions that can be applied.
Commonly identified problems

No technological fix can overcome a country’s resolve to proliferate
Enrichment and reprocessing present the highest risks
Commercial reactors have much lower risk, but can contribute to proliferation
A combination of institutional and technology solutions will be required
Suggested means to address identified problems
Provide an institutional framework to avoid new enrichment/reprocessing capabilities (the“Attractive Deal')

Develop more proliferation resistant reprocessing technologies to be used by countries that recycle fuel
Further improve the proliferation resistance of reactors, especially those that are deployed to new nuclear countries

In essence it is careful monitoring of the fuel supplied and used, allied to what comes out, that will determine the overall risk of proliferation. New more efficient reactors can also help, but it must also be borne in mind that specific reactors designed for enrichment exist around the globe and are those that require the most careful monitoring.

Given the costs and risks that are associated with nuclear energy, are we any closer to resolving the paradox that exists? Current public and political  policy/strategy may give some clues as to whether or not a consensus is forming.

The diagram below maps the current global status of nuclear power generation.

The status of nuclear power globally:
Operating reactors, building new reactors
Operating reactors, planning new build
No reactors, building new reactors
No reactors, planning new build
Operating reactors, stable
Operating reactors, considering phase-out
Civil nuclear power is illegal
No reactors
IAEA 2012.

In summary, it would appear that the paradox is not yet resolved, however there are some patterns emerging.

The oil producing states seem to favour nuclear as a replacement for fossil fuels, although this is tempered by investment also in renewables.

The BRIC's also seem to be favouring some development of nuclear generation, this appears to be as a means of maintaining competitive energy supplies as their economies and outputs grow. Most are embarking on nuclear generation for the first time which means that they do not have first hand experience problems associated with generation, ageing plant and waste disposal.

The communist (and former communist) countries have wide adoption of nuclear power generation and are experienced in operation and building of plant. They have however, experienced the worst examples of the downside of nuclear energy with the meltdown at Chernobyl. Because these states have very limited public participation in planning processes, policy determination and human rights to protest, it is not surprising that it is here where the paradox is most stark and also, the area of most concern going forward.

Many developed nations are starting to reign back on development of nuclear power generation, Japan not surprisingly, is moving away from nuclear as is Germany. France and the US are both finding that costs associated with upgrading (following stress tests) and maintaining older plant to run for longer are becoming increasingly prohibitive. Europe, the US and Japan seem to be leaning more towards renewables, perhaps this will help to provide a clearer, more balanced evidence base upon which to answer the paradox.

Monday, 10 September 2012

Quantitative Easing, ideologically pleasing?!!!

Chancellor George Osborne was roundly booed when he attended the Paralympics recently, and not without good reason! After all he has presided over calamitous economic policies based on austerity that have not brought about growth, as promised. He is also seen as the villain of piece in demolishing totally the credibility of the greenest government ever, by trying to ride roughshod over planning regulations and cutting subsidies for renewable energy, whilst supporting fossil fuels.

The tendrils of the Treasury extend into every facet of government business, not just in departmental spending budgets, but also policy areas. But what of core economic policy, who is this affecting and how, what lurks in the big red box?

I want to have a bit of a rant about the ideological impacts, as well as the economic ones,  of Quantitative Easing in all of its various guises and ask how this economic instrument might deliver a bigger ideological impact than it does an economic one.

Quantitative Easing (QE) was sold to us as a means to deliver money into the economy in order to stimulate lending, thus helping those looking to buy a new home or for those wanting to expand their business. The reality however, appears to be quite different, for the following reasons:

In the US where multiple phase QE was also in use, we had case studies available, which when considered, you may wonder why we went ahead with further rounds of QE.

The Fed's Quantitative Easing Part 2 has destroyed $4.6 trillion in household wealth, all to boost the stock portfolios of the top 10%.

The Federal Reserve's stated goals in launching QE2 were to trigger a "wealth effect" and boost inflation. The net result of their program is a massive destruction of household wealth. The basic idea is that goosing "risk assets," i.e. stocks, then consumers will feel wealthier and thus motivated to open their wallets and spend, spend, spend. This spending won't be based on any increase in income (household income fell in 2009 despite the massive run-up in stocks) but on the illusion of greater wealth created by a temporarily rising stock market.

Read more:

The rich, that’s according to a Bank of England study, out today, on the distributional effects of quantitative easing.
This from the research:
By pushing up a range of asset prices, asset purchases have boosted the value of households’ financial wealth held outside pension funds, but holdings are heavily skewed with the top 5 per cent of households holding 40 per cent of these assets.
The Bank's strategy has been criticised by groups representing savers and pensioners because of its impact on interest rates, annuity rates and gilt yields, which have all fallen since QE began.

In terms of the number of rounds of QE that are issued, it would appear that there is a diminishing utility associated with further rounds of QE, but also an increase in the inherent level of risk.

In effect the top 1% have the most to gain (this is the political, financial and industrial elite) and the 99% are left with the scraps and an enhanced economic risk.

Those risks are hard to pin down, but as in the report to the BoE (above), a part of this lies in the fact that QE may not deliver any long term benefits in employment, guilt yields or house prices (general asset values). You cannot just go printing money without the risk of impacts and probably the most dangerous of those for most of us, is the risk of an unpredictable and explosive dose of inflation!

So, coming back to the question of fiscal policy or ideology, it would appear that this is slight of hand, providing opportunity for wealth creation/harvesting by the few through asset enhancement.  Meanwhile the vast majority might say that they have detected little or no benefit but are however, now saddled with the devaluation of the domestic economy and the risk of an inflation bubble.

Some might say that there is a greater degree of certainty over the ideological outcome  (in terms of where the wealth ends up, its difficult to call it a distribution), than there are over the economic outcomes!

Thursday, 30 August 2012

Part 3 - CSR who owns it and what should it achieve?

On to part 3 blogging about CSR, I have tried to examine who has ownership and why, if this is effective or indeed a tool yet to realise its full potential. I have made some comparisons in the context of different capitalist models (Liberal v State), to see what differences emerge.

On this last leg I want to cover more ground on what CSR means to people, the state and corporations and what it might achieve depending upon where ownership lies. It is also worth exploring an extended version (or future direction) for CSR and where this might take us.

Under the current liberal model it is predominantly the larger corporations that practice CSR, using it as means to promote green credentials outwardly and exercising control over their supply chain inwardly. The whole process can be quite complex and therefore, quite hard to monitor and evaluate. There can be little doubt that some large corporations are taking their obligations seriously and making improvements to their efforts on sustainability. This kicks on down the supply chain, which can multiply the positive  i,pacts, however this system is not without its problems.

Firstly, whilst reporting can be put in one place the systems for monitoring are many and varied, ranging from statutory controls (permits for example) through voluntary accreditation schemes (i.e. sustainable forestry) and also internal management systems (again with varying levels of accreditation).

Statutory compliance is generally good (which says something about effective regulation) and is usually the most active part of any internal management system. It is also true however, that large corporations will use the existence of their own internal systems to lobby against further tightening of regulation and to seek to get dispensation with regulators. This may seem reasonable on the face of it, however there is compelling evidence that many internal management systems are not as robust as they are thought to be and accidents and non-compliance can be similar to sites that don't have such systems. Is this compatible with the objectives of CSR then, or would it be more ethical to continue to be inspected at greater frequency, to help build even greater resilience into internal systems?

Voluntary schemes suffer even greater vulnerabilities and cover various aspects of a number of supply chains. Large corporations are willing to join voluntary schemes (such as sustainably sourced timer, CDM and Fair Trade), however these supply chains span the globe. It has proven very difficult to monitor the performance of these schemes and often the operators of the scheme do not have the capacity to monitor or fully implement. NGO's have investigated some supply chains and found them to be lacking in terms of regulation and auditing leading to, for instance. corruption and fraud within the system (hardwood logging), or unsustainable projects being certified (as has happened with CDM).

Whilst failures of this nature cannot be placed directly at the door of the large corporations, the ethical question around ownership of CSR remains. There is a basic paradox between corporations signed up to CSR making promises (or setting targets) and costs to shareholders of delivering these as obligations within a liberalised market. Many reported 'successes' are genuine triple bottom line gains, however these gains may often be offset by displacement or growth to other product ranges, which may not be measured and reported.

By way of a case study to demonstrate the paradox, take the energy industry. It is becoming more evident that investment in renewable energy technologies is both sustainable and sound, however the scale of the industry creates an impasse in moving towards more sustainable options. The UK estimates that investment of £200bn will be required over the next decade to upgrade energy infrastructure, however this is based on the presumption of a continued heavy reliance upon the National Grid and gas generation. This is not the most sustainable option and therefore, flies in the face of CSR objectives, as a more decentralised supply base with less reliance on the grid and gas would be a much more sustainable option and would encourage greater (and more diverse) renewable generation closer to point of demand, which in turn should significantly reduce transmission losses and create more jobs. This situation is echoed in the US and other countries.

Without the investment we face power cuts and outages, however it seems that investors are only willing to support investment in large energy companies and the grid model. Could this be because tax payers money is still being used to support fossil fuel and nuclear energy companies, something that is surely unacceptable under CSR?

So what about CSR within a state capitalist model? The level of direct intervention is key here! If a government is operating a company on behalf of the state (and therefore the general population) the obligations of that company should reflect very closely the mandate of that government in respect to all issues of sustainability. Nevertheless, this could still be carried out merely as a box ticking exercise, or more positively, the company could be a flagship where policy can actually be formulated, researched and tested. This might be relatively easy on a state owned railway (as they are very efficient in terms of CO2) and are a relatively safe means of transport, however this might become more difficult if you are operating a nationalised oil company!

If policy is correct, then it should be easier within this model to raise investment for the most sustainable option (Chinese solar expansion is a good example), dependent upon the level of private money that might be sought (as most large infrastructure models work this way) and their willingness to participate (a problem UK and France have encountered with nuclear generation ambitions).

This all brings us back very nicely to the central question(s) about CSR and about who should operate it and how. Could CSR actually be a tool for transition to a more socialist model (as predicted by Marx) at one extreme, or will it just be a badge for large corporations to polish that will have little meaning or impact to the man and woman on the street?

For so long as we operate within a liberalised market, it is a given that the shareholder will be king! It is imperative therefore, that CSR becomes a priority with the board and of the shareholders. I believe that this is starting to happen, with a number of ethical investment options emerging and a number of blue chip companies trading on green credentials. It is important to recognise however, that the whole edifice only stands, so long as the foundations are solid, something which is not completely proven as yet. Failures will undermine confidence and devalue CSR, therefore it is important to ensure robust monitoring and regulation to uphold these values.

Central to making CSR a driver for change and investment within the liberal capital context, is the education of shareholders and investors alike, to recognise true sustainability and to have faith in the science and research that underpins it. I think there is a long way to go here yet as  shareholders and CEO's alike, have to be able to differentiate between short term variations  (in markets, economies etc.) and the longer term objectives required by CSR. This has been witnessed recently with the economic downturn and the growth at all costs mentality seen in governments let alone individual companies! If it were sustainable before and added to the triple bottom line, then the same holds true now!

Within the state capitalism model CSR has the potential to be more joined up with national policy and as a result may have more credibility with people. If large state owned companies are seen to be driving the CSR agenda forward, this will impact across the whole supply chain and can be a major component in delivering policy and meeting obligations. In a reverse of the liberal model state owned companies can be used themselves as examples of good practice and can educate at the same time.

It will also offer people a direct means by which people can measure the degree of success of  implementation of green policies through the performance reporting of state industries and allow them to align their thinking with sustainability issues.

As we move forward there is a greater degree than ever before of economic uncertainty, there is also the spectre of looming resource shortages and the impacts of climate change to factor in. Actively seeking to make CSR work can tell us more about how our largest companies perform in these respects, I see it at the very least as a means to communicate with large corporations about their efforts to reduce impacts.  The more people that understand and use CSR as a means to judge ethical performance and link it to buying habits and choices the more effective it will become.

In conclusion I would say that CSR ownership needs to be with all of us and that it can only be effective where there is a wide understanding of the objectives, such that we can ask the right questions. The underpinning mechanisms are very complex, especially for the liberal model, making proper audit and regulation difficult, however this is essential to credibility.

The liberal and state models operate in different ways, however the state model may offer a little more in terms of connectivity with the end user and feedback through to political agenda setting.

It may of course all become quickly irrelevant, if as predicted, the current model succumbs to the pressures of population growth, resource depletion and climate change!

Hope you enjoyed the diatribe, please feel free to add any comments and look out for new topics!

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Liberal v state capitalism and how CSR performs.

Continuing on a theme from the last post, I'm trying to explore where CSR sits within the two competing models of capitalism. The first blog looked at the main differences and laid out some of the areas to explore. This blog intends to look at the pros and cons of the two models, to help identify where CSR sits and to see if its impacts or purpose may differ.

In order to tie these together, I have copied  a chart below showing major state and private operations around the World and the share of Nat v state listed companies.

Ref: Economist.

Tabulated below are some thoughts on pros and cons for liberal and state capital enterprises, it is not exhaustive, but is there to provoke thought and provide a basis for some analysis about the perception and function of CSR within these regimes.

Some examples are given to illustrate points, however it must be taken into account that in reality there are a number states that operate varying degrees of state capitalism and some operate constraints to the extend that a market isn't fully liberalised, so there is a total spectrum of possibilities.

Topic area
Liberal capitalism
State capitalism
Business type.
Performs well with start up and innovation, more freedom to find investment. Suited to consumer goods hi tech etc.
More suited to large infrastructure projects, can align investment to seed national priority industries (I.e. utilities, transport etc.). Service industries may also be suited, including elements of finance and banking (especially as you tend toward a more socialist model.
Decision making more streamlined, especially for smaller companies, policy more focused and less external influence/interference. Larger enterprises can become bureaucratic and may face other difficulties where there might be a mismatch with state policy (rail v air).
Generally larger enterprises, more bureaucracy and probability of external influence. This can hinder development and productivity, but could also provide a more direct route for state support.
General economic impact
Exists to provide a return to shareholders, job and wealth creation, pays taxes to state.
For as many shades of capitalism as there are, it is quite possible that private companies may receive state aid and conversely avoid full tax obligations in the states in which they are based.
Quite often receive large state aid as a consequence of strategic positioning, however there is often scope to use consultants/specialist to enhance areas of performance.
Usually large employers that can provide benefits of employment stability as well as a return to the state when operating efficiently within a market.
General social benefits
Blue chip companies always bring kudos with them and the possibilities of spin off business and partnerships. The flip side of this however, is that they can relocate (maybe for lower corporation tax or workforce skills). Larger enterprises often bring growth or stability to the areas they occupy and will willingly volunteer to fund or participate in community projects, however their allegiance is still to their shareholders and often there are conflicts with communities over planning issues for instance.
State enterprises by contrast can be seen as being a bit moribund and may occupy more run down areas, however this image is changing.
New state projects are now seen as flagship enterprises and are used to demonstrate high standards in environment and social practice (although it would be easy to say that this can be engineered through planning to some extent).
Nonetheless this is seen as a positive and can also allow for a more diverse (or self contained) enterprise) through, for instance the provision of training academies and health care services.
Knowledge transfer/success rate
Large corporations often have to compromise in terms of selling knowledge in order to gain access to markets or to gain access to large government contracts. This enables a state to play catch up at a fast pace as well as much reduced development costs.
Private companies are also vulnerable to buy out by state enterprises, enabling them to access technology and skills that can be quickly replicated and used.
State enterprise has not always been able to benefit from venture capital in the same way as private enterprise, leading to a poor conversion rate from innovation into realty.
State links with universities is generally strong, although in the US corporate sponsorship is advanced within their system. The weak link has always been access to analysis and well targeted venture capital.
Different methods have been used to overcome this from tweaking how states fund universities (as in the UK) to building complete cities designed to showcase and encourage research and innovation as in China.
I hope that this represents a fair reflection of the status of the two models and their strengths and weaknesses. I would like to take the information so far and analyse this in the context of CSR, leading to some conclusions and, quite likely, some more questions!
For the next blog.

Friday, 17 August 2012

Who should own CSR and how does capitalism serve this?

I suspect that this topic will roll over into a series of posts, as there are a number of topic areas to discuss and related issues that are important in their own right.

I want to explore whether or not the current economic model has reached the end of shelf life and if it is or should still be relevant to humanist and social justice objectives.  Where should ownership of CSR lie and who are the best arbiters?

So first up, it is perhaps good to look at current alternatives, to try to establish if they can deliver better democratic accountability (and hence, social responsibility) from capitalist activity. To this end I want to examine how liberal capitalism performs against state capitalism as a reasonable first step for comparison.

I would readily accept that there is no absolute in this, more a number of shades of grey that relate to the starting point for any given economy (are moving from totalitarian control or looking to re nationalise?). China and Russia would seem to be the most obvious examples, however other Asian countries and Brazil could also lay claim to operating a competitive state capitalism. There are a number of pros and cons to discuss, however for me the bottom line is not shareholder return alone, its more about well being and contribution that is made to sustainable living.

Marx defined capitalism as a step in our history where, capitalism once progressive will stagnate and fail due to increasing inequality and the contradictions that this produces (is this being evidenced now?). Thus it may be reasonable to ask if operators of state capitalism are cutting out that phase of economic evolution and following a progressive agenda, as opposed to the view that they are moving towards a more conventional capitalist model.

Well there's an opening gambit, I will look at pros and cons next and hope you find it of interest and continue to follow (please feel free to comment too!).

Monday, 6 August 2012

People power as a destructive force.

People power is often seen as a positive use of our freedom of choice to demonstrate solidarity and underpin the cause of social justice. In this instance I refer to the power of a vast global population to change the balance of resource and climate to the point where we risk (or reach species extinction.

Serious stuff, but I hear muttering that it wont happen just yet, why should I bother right now? Well perhaps our grisly destiny is peering at out at us from behind the curtains of our collective denial, perhaps it is really only just around the corner!

Thresholds (and supportive capacity), the maths of exponential growth mean that even our best models are always likely to be a reactive scenario rather than a projection. It will place us in jeopardy to only think in straight lines.

Enter a computational research scientist by the name of Stephen Emmott who has created a sublime piece of theatre, based upon the science of overpopulation and backed by his huge capacity for handling research in computational science. He takes the audience through the facts and figures in a precise and informal way, describing himself as a rational pessimist, based upon the probability that we cannot cope with the level of change required to be optimistic in any rational way. The play is called 10 Billion and the run is sold out, but I hope more people do get to see it.

A more comprehensive critique can be found here:
I would recommend a read.

As if to prove the point about rational pessimism, I would like to share an example of irrational optimism, that is, that by using fewer plastic bags we shall in some way do so much good. Life cycle figures for various bags are fairly inconclusive, you would have to use a hemp bag a good number of times for it outperform  a plastic carrier. Most people re-use their plastic carriers for various things, thus rendering them more sustainable than some other options.

On the issue of plastic waste fouling the land and oceans, yes it is a problem, but is just one of production and use or our behaviours, handling and duty of care that are more important?

I'm sure you will find this article informative and amusing on the subject:

So, to conclude this chapter, I would ask that everyone should think (deeply if you like) about the true benefits of many campaigns (given that it is possible to carry on only a limited number) in relation to their over distraction from more important issues, you know the ones, the sort politicians are really scared to tackle! That;s where people power truly belongs.

Saturday, 28 July 2012

The Ice Man cometh?

It seems that just as fast as researchers and modellers update and upgrade their predictions for climate change models, something happens that sends you back to the drawing board to start all over!

This last week has seen just such an example, where evidence from NASA satellites has uncovered an unusual phenomenon of ice melt in Greenland. Rather than go through and regurgitate all of this, I have linked to some articles from the Guardian that explain well the facts and potential issues, including the graphic ice melt flooding.

I think that this also  links well with news this week, that scientists and meteorologists are closer to identifying some causative effects from global warming to more localised extreme weather events.

Monday, 23 July 2012

Political and economic black hole.

We are trapped on an island sized space vessel, manned only by 4 mutant cloning accidents employed by a well known (lack of) security firm!
We are hurtling at enormous speed towards a black hole of Spanish banking proportions and almost certain oblivion!!!

Our auto pilot was set, not by a navigator with experience of our galaxy, but instead by an amateur economist who found a redundant (a word we will all become familiar with) sat nav, hastily left by previous incumbents. It had originally been set for a steady course towards a more progressive tax system, however it had been programmed with too many comfort stops for debt enlargement.

The new settings however, were set for the Democratic Republic of Utopia, which everyone knows is a non existent test setting!!! It only goes to show the total lack of knowledge, of anything, that the operator has.

Why are we on this doomed trip, well it wasn't of our choice, the travel operators merged and we all found ourselves here, trapped of our own unwitting and uncomplaining volition. No one feels that this is going to end well the intergalactic AA service has been cruelly reduced and call out times are now in decades!!! We would complain now, but there is only a box for written complaints, not much use in deep space!

What about the politicians and the bankers? Oh well, as it turns out, they are on a Branson luxury liner all headed to a tax haven in the Virgin Nebular, brilliant, they didn't think to tell us!!!

Short story based on a more pragmatic blog in the Guardian:

Friday, 20 July 2012

recyclate market volatility, infrastructure and regulation.

Its been a busy week here in the UK for recycling, with the new regulations being laid (before a recessed Parliament) and a bit of a slump in the paper market. Of course all of these things are interconnected and looking at these complex relationships, raises some interesting questions.

China is the major global market for recycled paper and takes around 70% of UK exports, hence any downturn in China will have significant impacts for UK operations. The recent slow down in the global economy and Chinese output has already seen prices fall back for recycled paper and card. Chinese port authorities are now making more checks on incoming materials, which highlights an interesting paradox in the UK waste and recycling industry.

There has been an ongoing debate over the supply of quality recyclate for many years (i.e. should we just go for bulk rather than quality or strive for the highest grade). In the past bulk was satisfactory because it was cheaper to treat/sort to a lowish quality and the price, although not high, was relatively stable. If the market did dip, paper and card would be diverted to EfW or landfill.

With the advent of the revised Waste Framework Directive, this became much more difficult, as waste has to be treated as high up the Waste Hierarchy as possible, meaning that it is not really acceptable to send recyclate to EfW or Landfill. The rWFD also requires that at least 50% of the major recyclate categories are collected separately (to maintain quality) and End of Waste standards are being developed for many materials to provide certainty of the point at which something ceases to be waste.

Reprocessors have already challenged the UK transposition of the directive, which allows for co-mingled collection and separation at an MRF or MBT plant. Issues over quality have persisted, including export of unsuitable and unsorted materials, leading to expensive repatriation of waste. In the light of this challenge Defra amended the regulations and the EU issued guidance on meeting this section of the directive.

In effect the EU guidance will permit co-collection, where it is not practical to collect separately, it does however, reiterate the need for the quality to be the same as if it were collected separately, It should also be borne in mind that End of Waste criteria are being set for the major recyclate streams, which will have to be met and which, are likely to be quite stringent (in accordance with maximising value through quality and the overall life cycle of the materials).

Given our historic preference for quantity over quality, there is more than just a behavioural and perceptual barrier to overcome, there is an urgent need for investment in capacity if we are to continue sorting recyclate that will meet the stringent standards that will be required (and enforced also through importing states and reprocessors). It will also probably be seen that a greater price differential will emerge between the best quality and those of a lower standard. It is unlikely however, that we will see that investment if there continues to be a flat market and uncertainty over meeting quality standards.

For my money, I still think it is better to invest in separate collection and simplify the treatment and storage, however because many services are tied into long term contracts, some of which will be PFI's for MBT plant, that could be difficult. I would also bet on the JR still being heard, as the amended regulation may not be specific enough on how the quality standards will implemented and monitored, watch this space as they say.

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Well being and wealth.

It is all too easy in this day and age to take well being and wealth as being one and the same, however this is demonstrably not the case!

An index of well being needs to include measures of health, environment and social justice as well as wealth creation. These facets of sustainable  (and hopefully more contented) ways of living should not be mutually exclusive, in fact they should be quite inclusive.

There are numerous indexes and a plethora of criteria by which a numeric or quantifiable determination can be arrived, however the basic principles remain the same for each. A recent Happy Planet Index  (HPI), placed Costa Rica at the top of the list, which may surprise many of you. The HPI is based on three main headings: experienced well being, life expectancy and ecological footprint. The index scores highest where (using global data) long life expectancy is achieved with higher experienced well being for the most efficient use of resource.

Other indexes, based more upon a sustainability approach, use Life Cycle Assessment to derive benchmarks for comparison, whilst others use more direct surveying techniques. Either way we can draw some general conclusions from information that has already been published.

Firstly, it is not always the wealthiest and most developed economies that score the highest. This may well be as a result of quality vs quantity of GDP, as witnessed by a study conducted on quality of life in the Chinese provinces.

Secondly, it appears evident that countries with progressive taxation models (this includes many Nordic states) perform better in terms of contentment and show fewer social stresses (i.e. crime). A study by the Association for Psychological Science found that flattening the tax system risked flattening social well being. This has been said to be because it squeezes the middle class and polarises the population between the haves and have nots. This is avoided through more progressive taxation as it creates a wider middle class, reducing disparity in earnings and affording greater access to good s and services.

Lastly, it seems apparent that vibrant and efficient democracies also perform better, probably because it affords a better sense of belonging, control over important issues and protects human rights.

See link to HPI tables (Wiki):

Other indexes will produce different results and may be skewed slightly by the criteria used, however this may be with good reason to reflect slightly different aspects according to stage of development, objectives or administration.

From the scores, it is all too obvious that our current model is not delivering and that we are living beyond our means, in ecological terms, however there are good models and  improvements to be gleaned from the scores, hopefully we can all learn from these.

Saturday, 14 July 2012

Global resource perspectives.

Debate has been taking place this week at Oxford, much brain power has been applied to the problems of resource scarcity and how we can be more efficient in an attempt to sustainably support a growing population and growing economies.

All of this has been taking place in the face of a creaking economic system and geographically uneven distribution of raw materials. Resource security is fast becoming a much more critical consideration for large manufacturers and pressure is mounting on geo-political stability.

Pressures exist over rare earth metals, water and land, with land grabs in Africa and E. Europe making the headlines. In some ways however,  this exemplifies the problems that exist within the current model, it might even be seen as clutching at straws.

Democracy is playing second fiddle to corporate colonialism in a number of countries, the consequences of this are difficult to predict, especially where the current political status quo is challenged, as has been the case with the Arab Spring.

Alternative models have been suggested, this week saw quite a strong case put forward for an end to the current capitalist system and a move to some form of global governance, it will be quite a strange exercise removing all those lines from the map of the globe!

The serious point though, is that this might be the only way to support an ever growing population and even out the distribution of resources without enduring constant conflict, something that has always taken place but which, is only likely to get worse.


Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Transparency for better democracy.

I'm going to start with a bit of common sense, well more like a statement of the obvious!
You can't have an informed debate without the information! Sound unbiased evidence should be the foundation of debate. policy formulation and the cornerstone of a stable democratic society. It is not always as easy however, to find and maintain credible data, as has been the case with some climate change research.

Recently there have been some encouraging signs in respect of CSR reporting and some governments are starting to require better reporting (CO2 in the UK for instance), however there is still a long way to go and verification and auditing procedures need to be properly monitored and enforced. to a common standard

But without this we are vulnerable to corruption and the hijacking of democracy by secretive lobby groups who thrive in the grey area's created, where good information and sound data are thin on the ground.

It's good to see that this issue is getting a better and more organised profile, it will help shareholders to ask better questions of their board and enable NGO's and pro-democracy groups to focus on organisations with the poorest record.

A report has just been published that measures the transparency of the top corporations , I hope that you find this interesting and that it makes your life just that little more democratic.

Monday, 9 July 2012

Adaptation, sustainability and cost.

With floods in the UK, Southern Russia and elsewhere, heatwaves in the USA and drought in several other countries, its probably fair to say that extremes of weather seem to be getting more common!

Firstly, our thoughts are with those who have been affected, either through loss of life or other impacts.

This exemplifies why adaptation and resilience are so important and also why they are diverse topics ranging from public health through civil engineering to emergency management. If, as data seem to suggest, these are a consequence of anthropogenic CO2, then climate change dictates that these events are probably going to become more frequent and more extreme.

This being the case, adaptation is going to become an issue across a broad range of range of daily activities, I have highlighted a couple of issues below, where the sustainable solution needs to be considered:
  • Take the example of a heatwave, it is becoming much more common for people to have air conditioning in the home, more so in places where this hasn't been the norm. This uses considerable power, so you may wish to consider if the provision of community centres (large buildings/complexes or malls for instance), as asecond home for these periods, in the absence of a largely renewable energy supply. Office buildings should also seek to either generate their own energy for heating/cooling or again develop new complexes that use low carbon design and technology.
  • You might also wish to consider the resilience issue, the case at present being that many of our services and utilities are located in vulnerable areas (low lying, socially deprived), mostly because of proximity to water (i.e. power stations) or due to land prices. The cost of retroactive resilience measures is not insignificant, but may become unavoidable.
What all this is leading up to, is at which point is it most effective to intervene? Because different states deploy their resources via many different models of administration, it is only possible to deal with this as a generality.

I would suggest that planning is everything here, it is the critical point in the process for development and assessment of facts and data. A transparent and evidence based planning system should ensure that sustainability is a key element of any development. The system has to have rules, respect and sanction strong enough to go against the market, as this will be a key element of adaptation and adopting a longer term approach. This in turn will drive change in the market and provide a degree of certainty for investment, thus planning can be a driver for disruptive innovation.

Friday, 6 July 2012

Failing nuclear.

Here in the UK our government still appears to favour nuclear to fill the looming gap in energy production, however I would hope that they are reading this report:,30

Here you have it from the horses mouth!

Just reading through the key results summary highlights the litany of problems facing the ailing industry. It is difficult to see how, with spiralling costs and reticence over investment (as well as increased safety requirements from stress testing), anything will happen in time for our looming energy crisis, if at all. That will push us even further into a corner on gas and inevitably costs will increase for that.

The IEA has forecast a rapid increase in renewable energy production over the next 5 years, lets hope a significant chunk of that is here in the UK!

Saturday, 30 June 2012

Defending future efficiency.

There has been a recent spate of new terminology that has sprung up around product design and sustainability, but how new is it really and what does it define?

I've picked two terms to delve into 'futurescapes and disruptive innovation' as being established theories or concepts, but which have recently found a wider audience and application within existing markets. So what are they, what could theyachieve and how might they deliver?

Futurescaps appears to represent quite a wide collaboration of writers, thinkers and designers who are trying to map out the future of products or landscapes, for example, in order to evaluate them in a future context. This could include more sustaianable product design, gaining recognition for adaptation in terms of planning and investment perceptions or how products and services can evolve to improve and change our future prospects for the better.

Disruptive innovation would seem to be a parallel concept that focuses on the value chain of a product or service and being able to evolve it in a way that creates new values or markets that will eventually cause displacementg of the old market or value chain.

Taken together these concepts could prove a major driver for change towards increased future proofing (or flexibility towards adaptation) and greater sustainability (mainly through improved resource efficiency). It could be a lot about reducing consumerism without reducing living standards, this will create winners and losers, as markets could evolve where growth is not implicit.

I do think however, that there are some challenges and questions yet to be answered and that they are quite significant. These concepts are not merely about marketing new technologies, they are about embracing change both in the perception of techno;ogy and how it helps us and also behaviours around purchasing and use.

The same is true for services, where it is highly likely that there will be off sets and compromises between biodiversity and recreation for example. This perhaps could be an area where an aging population can be a part of the solution as much as the problem.

The concerns are that as with all things, there will be leaders, who will stand to gain the most from alternative market models and value systems. The question remains as to whether or not they will have the critical mass to overcome the system inertia (this despite the pressures that are building) in time for it to be relevant. Some of this could be discounted also as an extension conventional corporate strategy to gain a market advantage in the shorter to medium term.

Another problem is with valuation itself, here you are having to enter the current system and metrics, in order to to evaluate, for example, ecosystem services that can then be forecast or projected to a new future with enhanced value. There are many circumstances whereby doing this might make a product or service more vulnerable, this might be particularly true in terms of protecting landscapes and biodiversity. certainly this could be a contradiction within the futurescapes concept, where some thinkers would like to abstain from current market valuation processes in favour of an index of wellbeing say.

If we can move to system that values resource and wellbeing properly (i.e. the measurement and costing of off-shore impacts and social justice), then I for one, would be in favour of hearing quite a lot more about these concepts.

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Who Funds You? Promoting open, transparent think tanks

I'm sure that many us often look at the title of a think tank and don't see past the fancy wrapper. That's quite forgivable, after all they are doing honest research and faithfully reporting their findings, aren't they?

Unfortunately this is not always quite the case, in fact some think tanks are nothing more than thinly veiled lobby groups, especially where environment is concerned.

So I would ask everyone to at least ask a few questions about reports and policy suggestions from think tanks, before glibly accepting them. The link below is to a site that has started to rate the transparency of think tanks, I hope the results are interesting:

Who Funds You? Promoting open, transparent think tanks

Strikes me that the further right you move, the less is the transparency. This could be because of the greater opportunity to influence government, or it could perhaps be, that the more centre left organisations have a wider funding base, reflecting a rainbow of views. This would mitigate more to broader policy formulation than a narrow funding base that is more likely to tend towards lobbying.

Either way this is a very important aspect of our democracy, so we should all do more to be aware of who is trying to influence who and those who are the most likely to produce unbiased information.

Friday, 22 June 2012


Well, a text has been published, promptly to be shredded publicly by the NGO's, criticised by just about everyone and described as 286 pages of fluff by George Monbiot. Not a very auspicious lead for our commitment on climate then!

And yet it seems that the general consensus around the World is that we are in trouble and getting in deeper and faster, so why no hard and fast agreed targets, I would have settled for five bullets points in place of all those pages, just so long as everyone shook hands on them!

I could suggest some good bullet points that were floating around the debate:
  • An agreement to phase out (rapidly) all fossil fuel subsidies and introduce binding transparency on energy costs and subsidies (especially for nuclear).
  • A global route map for transition to low carbon economies.
  • A target for various methods of sequestration, forest protection and reforestation.
  • A commitment to move away from GDP to a broader set of measures for well being, to better reflect the 3 pillars of sustainability as equals.
  • Set targets to transform taxation and tariffs to reflect sustainable consumption and production (i.e. move away from labour tax to energy/water taxes and leverage for off-shore impacts, as this builds in an element of fair trade).
These are just my pick of the bunch, but at least it would be a start. I can't help but think that the document for this summit should have been replaced by a visit to the art, as this describes our problem and it would have been much more thought provoking:

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Rebound and revolution

We are constantly reminded how bad we are, should decide to drive rather than use public transport or should we errantly leave on a light! We all try, which gives us a warm glow, but sometimes fail and with that comes guilt, but should we really feel guilty?

In essence saving energy is a good thing and a behaviour to be encouraged, it is the right thing to do. But behind this lie a couple of inconvenient truths that need to be explored, in order to have a better understanding of what really needs to be done.

Firstly take rebound, the effect whereby you save energy and raw materials by turning down your heating and filling your recycling box! You have a sense of self worth and you have saved money on your bills as a result, so you decide to reward yourself with a weekend away, in Rome! You might wish to consider how many can you would need to recycle in order to offset that flight?

One passenger Rome return is about 250Kg CO2, that's the equivalent of turning all your lights off as you leave a room for 2 years!!

The more revolutionary view is that none of this really matters now, because we have passed the point where end of pipe consumer behaviours will make a dent in the numbers. In order to avoid serious (more than 2 degree) temperature rises, we now need to act at the point of production, only industrial scale sequestration will reign in the impacts of our energy production and consumption.

In fact, growing consumption of power and fuel in developing nations cannot be offset by changing consumer habits in the developed nations, a kind of global rebound. The only way to do this would be to capture and bury as much CO2 as is necessary to remain below the 2 degree threshold. That may still, at present be technically and economically feasible, however it would need to be manged and regulated on a global scale.

I don;t think it will be possible to reduce consumption sufficiently at the same time as maximising all available forms of renewable energy, to the point where we had a balance of energy production that would meet environmental thresholds. Some stark choices loom!

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Development, but in name only.

I read an article (link below) about the growth of new towns and cities across India, it led me to many thoughts about our failures to recognise the need for environmental and social to be considered equally to those of growth and economics. I have plucked a few of these out, as I consider that they should also be paramount in our thinking around development and its impacts.
Firstly there is the issue of confidence in public servants to deliver an impartial and honest service. The very many hard working and highly trained people working in architecture, planning and so forth can so easily be undermined by a few corrupt officials, resulting in the free for all that appears to be emerging in India.

Secondly, this tale emphasises the need for and importance of good planning and integration of major infrastructure and resource. I think it serves to underline the inherent dangers of weakening of meddling with planning systems and allowing private investment a free rein. I think India would do well to look to Europe rather than America for a model to deliver development, and we should be looking at India to remind ourselves why we have a robust planning and regulatory regime.

Lastly, on a more humanistic note, I cant help but think that the wealth that is so evident in these new citadels, is not being transferred into social cohesion and a sense of well being, in fact quite the opposite! All the things that we try to protect and value are lost in these economically efficient developments, a salutary lesson about the triple bottom line and why living more sustainable is important to well being.

Friday, 1 June 2012

Round up of a busy week.

Where would you start?

The regime in Syria has reached a new low in the depravity stakes, it says a lot about Russia (and its leaders), that they continue to provide support.

Jobless figures are up in the US, recession looms and solutions look pretty thin on the ground. In the UK manufacturing has dipped and we are into a real double dip, with good jobs being lost, which will impact negatively on tax returns and spending. The ideological attack on public services and the capital expenditure it was delivering doesn't look so wise now!

Meanwhile, Greece is bleeding to death, the ECB has cut off the oxygen and deposits drain away by the day. The Euro zone wanted Greece in and bailed them out to preserve their own reputations, now that Greece has said it wants to stay but with a different mandate it seems Germany in particular are happy to see them leave.

What then will they do about Spain? Banking system implosion imminent!!!
I can see all the dominoes lining up!

Meanwhile the NOAA reports that CO2 levels at the Arctic monitoring stations have reached and exceeded 400 ppm. Not a critical threshold in itself, but a warning that we continue down a path towards a very uncertain future.

And in Bangladesh, Arsenic continues to be a serious problem in drinking water supplies.

Just as well we have a Jubilee to celebrate then, I'm sure that will take our minds off of all of this for a day or two!!!

Monday, 28 May 2012

True fossils!

A dinosaur feeding dinosaurs!!!
Short termism at its very best, max the return before we all fry, how clever!
RBS is state owned, since it last proved it was truly a dinosaur by trying to become extinct.
It is now kept in stasis by our taxes and mediocre management, surely we cannot support continued lending, just maintain business as usual (especially when that model will ensure the current breed goes extinct)!
As tax payers we should demand a better portfolio and some more enlightened management.