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by Mike Cane, Matt Morris and George Bostock
As I was thinking about writing this blog over the holiday break, I could not avoid remembering last year’s mass climate protests and in particular, Greta Thunberg’s extraordinary speech to UN leaders last September. Over just the last week we have watched the reports of extreme forest fires in Australia caused by unusually warm sea conditions, Norway reporting its hottest ever temperature in January and Moscow importing artificial snow for New Year celebrations. In the UK, the Met Office published an analysis of our weather over the last century that shows the last decade had the highest winter and summer temperatures ever recorded.
I am sure the implications of climate change will impact every family and business significantly in the ’20s but it’s such an incredibly big and multifaceted subject it’s hard to comprehend; so I wondered what the day to day impact might be on an average family.
Reducing the CO2 emissions from our energy consumption will be one of the main targets for the ‘20s. For most of us, it is spread between domestic uses, food, transport and the energy needed to manufacture and supply the consumer products we buy, use and throw away.
As an individual consumer it’s very difficult to find out how big an environmental impact we make, what to do first and where the biggest opportunities for savings lie. This information is available, but it’s fragmented and difficult to interpret. There are many competing rationales for change that are all too often in tension with one another. Should consumers be rejecting plastic food packaging that extends shelf life? Should local councils be looking to bury rather than incinerate low-grade plastics with no recycling value at end-of-life? These choices only get more complex when groups, governments and ultimately consumers (albeit indirectly) try to consider all the UN’s 17 sustainability development goals globally.
Assuming we can work through this complexity, any major change in society faces resistance, it’s simply human instinct to be wary. The Ross-Kubler model describes the emotional responses to major changes in our lives, the initial shock and denial we experience before curiosity, enthusiasm and commitment to a new solution kick in. So reliable, understandable information on the implications of our choices is the key to get us all to commit to change the way we live.
Reducing energy use in our homes will be a major challenge. In the UK our electricity supply from renewables exceeded that from fossil fuels for the first time in the third quarter of 2019, but gas and oil remain the largest domestic energy sources. It is clear in the next decade we will become more focused on insulation, exploiting local renewable energy sources and smart energy management. The technology we have today can create carbon neutral homes, but at a cost that is not always worthwhile on a personal level with today’s economics, principally because energy is relatively cheap. So, we will need a switch from the short-term economic logic to seeking benefits over longer time horizons, perhaps those measured in human generations.
As is common in the UK, most household’s transport needs are dominated by car usage. At CDP the number of electric vehicles in our car park is rising because these can be fuelled from renewable electricity, if available. However, the embodied energy in electric vehicles is higher than you might expect, and their longevity is yet to become the important issue it should be to maximise their effectiveness. Manufacturers make their profit when they sell a new car, but if they were responsible for the total energy used in manufacture, operation and recycling they might follow a different design strategy and business model. A move from selling products to providing integrated services is an approach that could facilitate a more logical strategy for emissions reduction across many sectors.
In any case we are destined to travel less in the next decade, by necessity living closer to our work and relying more on low power technologies to communicate. One of my colleagues recently wrote a blog on how we are doing this at CDP; A practical approach to multinational innovation.
Finally, in the ‘20s we need to leave behind our unconstrained consumption of food and new things. The embodied energy, and natural resources in the products we buy is the hidden part of the iceberg. For example, the energy needed to manufacture a smart phone is many times the energy it will ever use during its life. This change means products that are designed to be upgraded and avoid technology obsolescence will become more highly valued. I think functional simplicity, reliability and effectiveness will become increasingly important, we will ask ourselves what we really need, and choose products that just meet that with elegance and style.
However, it’s an obvious statement that the biggest barrier to more sustainable energy use and reducing CO2 emissions will be the cost of doing so. Ironically, consuming less will cost more because of the investment needed in new infrastructure and business structures, so we are likely as a society to resist this change. While the wealthiest will be able to afford this challenge, the poorest will experience the highest impact and this will have a severe political impact on western democracies. Groups will say it’s not fair that I should change before others do. You can see this happening now at local, national and international levels already. Perhaps that is why Greta has had such a cultural impact at the UN in this debate, because children have the least invested in our institutions and the status quo, but the most to lose from the likely effects of global warming.
At CDP we have brought together a team of experts to help our clients navigate the challenges of creating sustainable strategies, new products and services in the next decade. If you would like to discuss the opportunities for innovation in this area, please call Matt Morris or George Bostock.
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