Powering the future: 5 innovations of interest

A version of this article first appeared in a Special Report on ‘Powering the Future’, published in The Times, 1 May, 2013.


Lava lamp InstaA near-perfect poster child for sustainable energy, algae is both a biodegradable living organism and literally green. Cultivation is possible on lands unsuited to traditional agriculture and with minimal demand on freshwater resources.

Research and development funding for farming (algaculture) has flowed into institutions around the world, including the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and the EnAlgae project, a strategic initiative supported by the INTERREG IVB North West Europe programme.
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Race against time for future cities

A version of this article first appeared in a Special Report on ‘Future Cities’, published in The Times, 26 March, 2013.

Make it on BroadwayAccording to data from the UN, in 2008, the proportion of the world’s population living in urban areas passed the 50% mark, heading for 70% by 2050. By 2030, the total for city dwellers globally is estimated to hit around five billion. These inhabitants already consume 75% of the planet’s natural resources and contribute to urban activities responsible for 80% of all greenhouse gas emissions. All this happens on a mere 2% of global land mass.

The numbers are daunting.
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Energy: How low can we go?

A version of this article first appeared on the Sustainability Talk & News website, published 28 February, 2013.

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Smart-city strategies are rethinking the rôle of buildings in terms of their ability to generate, share and store energy, rather than just consume. In addition, energy efficiency and carbon offsetting are shrinking footprints ever further. As a result, the ultimate built-environment question of the carbon era seems to be:

‘How low can we go?’

In February this year, construction voices followed the lead shown by the UK Green Building Council in calling on government to provide clarity on plans for changes to building regulations and to confirm its support for zero carbon. In commercial markets, delay is the enemy of investment and without a strong policy steer, there is a fear innovation could stall, as business confidence falters.

Ever since government ambitions were announced back in 2006, the zero-carbon target has proved the subject of much debate. Many supporters argue that as the pin-up for the overall campaign to decarbonise the built environment, a ‘zero hero’ project exemplar inspires achievement across the board, fuelling demand for excellence and boosting belief in delivery. Energy efficiency meanwhile seemed the Cinderella of the low-carbon story, until, with austerity biting and pragmatism on the rise, a nascent retrofit revolution began to weave its magic wand, bringing belated transformation of existing stock.

Helping construction to cross the low-carbon finishing line has been the impact-minimising rôle of carbon offsetting. Once every effort feasible has been made to reduce consumption and emissions, then it appears perfectly reasonable to offset the unavoidable remainder. The key word in that sentence, though, is ‘feasible’: Who or what decides what is feasible?

Typically, cost is the determining factor and so the extent of what is ‘feasible’ is not a technical matter, rather a business decision. Profit margins are dependent on where the line is drawn between the feasible and the commercially uneconomical, or undesirable. Lack of transparency in this grey area is arguably the cause of much of the concern about abuses of offsetting as a means of managing impacts responsibly.

The carbon scale does not however start, or even end with zero. Never mind impact-neutral solutions, a number of structural building materials billed as carbon-negative have been available on the UK market now for some time: These range from hemp-based blocks, to prefab straw-bale panels.

At project level, the built-environment sector has also witnessed a flurry of below-zero ‘firsts’ in recent months alone: Australia has seen completion of its first carbon-negative commercial building, in Melbourne, for example; whilst in South Shields, England, the tenants have moved into Britain’s first carbon-negative street. It is fair to say, that the rôle of (successful) high-profile projects in driving forward the agenda for a low-carbon built environment has almost as much to do with media coverage, as it does design excellence, or build quality – aspiration is, in part, a function of awareness.

Taken out of context, however, carbon targets can lead to cases of unintended consequences, or even be used to justify false accounting for building impacts. In effect, marketable ‘zero-carbon’ status has sometimes been pursued at the expense of broader sustainability goals and metrics, as Ant Wilson, Director, Building Engineering, Aecom, explains: “You could almost say it is dishonest of designers to pass the buck back in time to earlier materials and construction phases of development, loading buildings with embodied energy in order to minimise performance-in-use figures and get carbon ‘off the books’, so to speak, in the operational phases.

“The new, true focus should be on energy reduction, not just zero carbon. In reality, lower-carbon buildings sometimes use more energy, not less. Overall resource efficiency is the key to sustainability in the built environment.”

In built-environment parlance, the terms energy and carbon are often erroneously used as if interchangeable. They are not: Energy is a resource or an asset; carbon is an impact or a liability.

In the race to zero and below, low-carbon ends do not justify high-energy means.

Mindful of this maxim, the true sustainability question seems not to be ‘How low can we go?’, but rather, ‘How can we best go low?’.

Author: Jim McClelland

Greening the footprint of Big Data

A version of this article first appeared in a Special Report on ‘Low-Carbon Business’, published in The Times, 3 September, 2012.

What do New York, Oregon, Colorado and North Carolina have in common with Norway, Finland, Iceland and New Zealand? The answer is that all are home to ‘green’ data centres. The physical carbon footprint of virtual lives lived online and in the cloud is real and growing. In response, albeit belatedly, energy use and emissions reduction have now become the focus of significant commercial investment and intense public scrutiny.

The list of brands involved reads like a roll-call of major corporates, including: Amazon, Apple, Facebook, FedEx, Google, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Microsoft and Yahoo. Performance is mixed, to say the least: For ‘Renewables & Advocacy’ in the report ‘How Clean is Your Cloud’, Greenpeace recently scored Google an ‘A’, Apple a ‘D’ (subsequently raised to a ‘C’) and Amazon an ‘F’.

Neither technology nor design are insurmountable obstacles to deeper-green solutions, as completed facilities prove: First Verne Global, then Green Mountain, have developed zero-carbon new-build data centres, in Iceland and Norway respectively, taking advantage of cheap renewable energy, plus low ambient temperatures for ‘free’ cooling.

However, ‘Let not the perfect be the enemy of the good’ as they say – ‘better’ is still better than nothing. Just as population growth relies on retrofit of current housing stock to meet demand, so growth in the digital universe also calls for investment in existing operational facilities, services and software for better measurement and management of data to optimise performance. Upgrading old centres, as well as old ways, is vital to scaling and speeding progress.

The future for sustainable low-carbon business is plain to see: Data can only get bigger; so, energy must get smarter.

To view the Special report in full online, please click here.

Author: Jim McClelland

Are we ready to shop for a low-carbon future?

A version of this article first appeared in a Special Report on ‘Low-Carbon Business’, published in The Times, 3 September, 2012.

When political leadership on sustainability matters appears absent, uncertain, inconsistent, or insufficient, who sets the low-carbon agenda? Is it climate-conscious consumers, or planet-smart business, or both? Are we entering a new branded age of push-pull dynamic, where supply and demand drive the market, together?

Servicing brand requirements, thought-leaders in marketing and advertising sectors already see this combined low-carbon driver-mix starting to trend. BBH London is an agency that has recently committed to developing a new sustainability-related client offering, headed up by Strategic Director Kirsty Saddler, who outlines the reasons and timing for the launch:

“Rapid increase of available information and so transparency this century, in large part thanks to digital, has lead people to question the role of business much more heavily and the impact of their decisions as consumers. It has also prompted businesses to be more accountable. Simultaneously there is increasing understanding and awareness of limits to world resources.

“Now is a time when both people and business have a motivation, opportunity and need to create change. Government can create the conditions for that change through regulation, but positive lasting change will happen when people and business play a willing part too.”

In the wider global marketplace, there is already strong evidence of demand for lower-carbon goods and services, putting pressure on company performance. Recent research for the Carbon Trust has shown carbon-reduction and associated transparency concerns scored significantly higher amongst consumers in emerging economies such as China and Brazil, than the US and UK. The message to companies with (export) aspirations in these areas is clear: Low-carbon is the number one business model for future growth.

The temptation is to assume that engagement patterns are pretty much the same everywhere, for consumers and companies alike and that, effectively, all is relative. However, this is not the case.

In Australia, whilst the waters of public perception have very much been muddied by party politics, interestingly, the business community does not share the same view – as Co-Founder and Partner at Sydney-based sustainability strategists and communicators Republic of Everyone, Ben Peacock observes:

“Much of the conversation has been defined by introduction of the carbon tax. What started as a quality attempt at leadership has become a political hot potato, with the opposition blaming its introduction for raising prices on everything from beer to school lunches. This has led to confusion and suspicion from consumers. In short, carbon has become politicised.

“But it’s not all bad news. While the conversation that has become messy for politicians and consumers, it is much clearer in the business community. We’re seeing quality leadership from banking and the built environment in particular, measuring, reducing, managing and offsetting their impact as part of sustainability and CSR programmes.”

In the UK, whilst purchasing has come under pressure and suppliers under scrutiny from an increasingly aware and active consumer community, as well as from commercial buyers, the two customer groups have different demands, as Group Marketing Director at leading hard-landscaping supplier Marshalls, Chris Harrop, explains:

“Whereas our trade customers might more typically be concerned with managing risk – as associated with such high-profile supply-chain issues as child labour – the consumer really is looking for benefit: This benefit comes with knowing and feeling that through their decision-making they have done ‘good’ as a purchaser.

“Consumers have become far more discerning, exercising their right to choose the ‘best’ deal, balancing cost and benefit. They are looking at ethical, environmental, sustainability credentials much more closely than ever before. We have seen more and more using our online Carbon Calculator to estimate footprints of products and projects, with this proving a trend across the board, all geo-demographic groups. Put simply, carbon is not an elitist issue – everyone has a footprint, everyone has spending power; given the right information, everyone can make a choice.”

This ‘feelgood’ benefit, as consumer-pull-through force for reducing emissions, does not easily find correlation in cost and efficiency models on the business-push side of the counter. A successful, established market movement offers a useful analogy to help understand how the two might one day become one: Fairtrade.

With Fairtrade, reputational risk provides the company flip-side of the coin to consumer-wellbeing benefit. Historically, however, Fairtrade has worn a human face – seen as directly connected to livelihoods of people – whereas the story of carbon has been wrapped up in impersonal complexities of climate-change science and macroeconomics. The picture, though, is changing.

The more the world comes to appreciate the human cost of climate change, the more carbon becomes a people and a personal issue; the more high-carbon lifestyles and consumerism appear ‘unfair’ to others. Is it possible to conceive of low-carbon business as the Fairtrade of the future? If so, the sustainable revolution may well be brought about by putting a face, not a price, on carbon.

To view the Special report in full online, please click here.

Author: Jim McClelland

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