Monday, November 17, 2014

With Legal Force!

With legal force! That’s the phrase of the week.

This week, China and the United States have come to an agreement on climate change - Chancellor George Osborne has said he will set up a sovereign wealth fund for all the riches which will be generated from fracking in the north-east - and at the NextGen 14 conference in Derby I had the pleasure of hearing Rohit Talwar give us his take on some pretty amazing futures.

This week President Obama visited China and issued a joint statement with the Chinese Premier stating that the two countries would work together on a climate accord. 
There's been some scepticism in the press but I've read the press release from the White House and to my eyes at least this looks like something different. The most important bit is where it says that the two Presidents will work together to adopt a protocol with legal force at the United Nations Climate Conference in Paris in 2015. With legal force. If they truly achieve that it will be groundbreaking. Every conference since Kyoto in 1997 has come out with advisory protocols, apart from those which came out with no conclusions at all. Obama and Xi Jinping talk about climate change as one of the greatest threats facing humanity. They talk about specific reduction targets. They talk about paying specific attention to vehicles, smart grids, carbon capture, energy efficiency, greenhouse gas data management, forests and industrial boilers. They even talk about promoting trade in green goods. 
We have to hope that this is not mere rhetoric. With both the US Senate and the House now in the hands of the Republicans there has to be some question over what President Obama can actually deliver. What is clear though, is that if the Americans do not go through with this they will be out of line with the global community and out of line with China, now the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases. You may remember from an earlier episode that Professor Piers Forster, one of the lead authors of the IPCC report, believes that China and Europe will push the United States into supporting the consensus for a binding decision. 

Of course some people are very sceptical about China and we constantly hear the question, “Why should we do anything if the Chinese are opening a new coal power station every two weeks?” The truth is that the Chinese government has realised that this cannot go on, but a radical change can never happen overnight. China has already introduced regulations to control the quality of coal which it imports. It restricts the sulphur content so although it will continue to burn coal, it will be slightly cleaner coal and the smog should be reduced to some extent. China has said that all coal-fired power stations within the Beijing area must close by 2020 because of the chronic smog conditions. China is rapidly becoming a world leader in renewables technology. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that some, if not all, of the Chinese government ministers have engineering degrees. And we shouldn't forget that one reason why China has become the world biggest emitter of greenhouse gases is that many of us in the west have outsourced our manufacturing to China. Their factories are pouring out pollution to manufacture goods for our western consumers. We pat ourselves on the back for reducing our emissions, but a lot of this is achieved by outsourcing our manufacturing. China’s plan is to bring its greenhouse gas emissions to a peak in 2030 at the latest, by that stage to create 20% of its primary energy from non-fossil fuels and to continue to phase fossil fuels out.

Chancellor George Osborne seems obsessed with another type of fossil fuel

 – the oil and gas recovered through fracking. We've already seen tax breaks for the drilling companies and promised bonuses to the local authorities that permit fracking to take place. Now he's talking about setting up a sovereign wealth fund based on the riches which will be developed in the north-east of England from these fossil fuels. Fracking is attractive because it will release resources within our own country. It can't be interfered with by the Russians or by Somali pirates and theoretically it will be available whether or not the wind is blowing or the sun is shining. There is, however, increasingly vocal opposition to the idea of fracking from many people who don't like the idea of drilling beneath their homes. There are also concerns about the vast amounts of water required, about what will happen to the waste water and whether there is a risk of pollution to groundwater and drinking water supplies. 
We can't say too often that the oil and gas recovered from fracking are fossil fuels and continued use of fossil fuels can only make it more and more difficult, even impossible, for us to achieve our national carbon reduction targets. The British Geological Survey has expressed doubts about the size of the recoverable reserves and until exploratory drilling is carried out they cannot be verified. This week the UK Energy Research Centre was equally sceptical of the Chancellor’s claims. Even exploratory drilling is targeted by the protest groups. 

Why not put the subsidies into renewables? 

It’s secure because nobody can interfere with our wind, waves or solar power. And while renewables are not a constant source of power there are methods of storing energy and as part of the mix, renewables can keep our power generation carbon footprint down. We need a carefully thought-out energy policy. We need to base it on the best expert advice. We need to recognise that we are talking about 30 to 50 year timescales and despite all the political pressures, we must have a constant and consistent policy that stands firm for decades at a time. As I noted in an earlier episode, if we don't have a proper energy policy then the chances of us sitting in the dark in the winter become more and more real.

This week I attended the NextGen 14 conference in Derby 

- and I had the pleasure of listening to Rohit Talwar, the futurist and strategic advisor. Find him at Fast is certainly the word. He gave as a whole array of facts and ideas packed into a 30 minute presentation. I certainly won't attempt to repeat them all; just a few of the examples. The fundamental message is that the world is changing and is changing radically. And this has fundamental implications for how we make our future a sustainable future. Apparently if you are under 50 you may well live to 100 and your children will probably live to 120. I'm sure this will have implications for population statistics and it's something I will investigate for future episode. If organisations are to be future proof, they need to plan on three horizons. Very short, 1 to 2 months, the medium-term 1 to 3 years, and the long-term: anything from 4 to 10 years plus. I'm with you there Rohit! I run a workshop called “Planning to survive – sustained success in challenging times.” It's about making broad predictions about the future and then assessing whether your present business model will be viable in that scenario. If it will, which is highly unlikely, then you need do nothing. If it won’t, which is more likely, you need to take action now so your organisation morphs gently into something which is always relevant in a changing world.

Innovators are by-passing the system. 

Think of BitCoin, which is a currency controlled by no governments and no central banks. Think of Uber, the app which has upset taxi drivers from London to Berlin and delighted passengers. Think of 3D printing which has moved some manufacturing from distant factories to the point of use. But also think of HS2, the high-speed rail line based on the assumption that Britain’s industrial landscape will still be the same as today’s, when it opens in 2035. Oh, and apparently we’re not far off from uploading a human brain into a computer. Does that mean I could be around forever? (All those in favour!) Of course he said much, much more than all this. Have a look at fast and hear him speak if you get the chance. He closed with 

“Step into your fears. Standing back achieves nothing.” 

This article is also available as the Sustainable Futures Podcast.

I’m Anthony Day, and if you’ve enjoyed this, please write a comment. And if you don’t like it, please let me know why - Use that address too if there’s a particular topic you’d like me to cover. Next week I’m attending a conference to be addressed by Sir Stuart Rose, the CEO who brought Plan A to Marks & Spencer. I’m also presenting my Sustainable Futures Keynote to postgrads at the University of Huddersfield. After that I’ll set about the next episode of the Sustainable Futures blog.