Friday, February 13, 2015

Lucky for some!

Yes, it's Friday the 13th! Lucky for some, and lucky for you, you’ve found another episode of the sustainable futures show. You can listen to this as a podcast here:
The objective of the sustainable futures show is to send the message that green business is good business. And I'm not just talking about business, we’re talking about the public sector, we’re talking about schools, we’re talking about hospitals, we’re talking about all sorts of organisations and even about what you’re doing at home.

This week I've had a very busy week in a sustainable sort of way. I've been to some fascinating presentations, I've met some very interesting people and I hope to be able to introduce them to you in future episodes. In this episode I'm going to talk about bio renewables, about the biggest manufacturer of frozen French fries in the world, about fracking and about sustainability in schools. And I'll also mention sustainability in business schools and the sustainable cities index, and the global divestment movement. What’s that? You’ll have to wait to find out!

First of all, Insider Media hosted a biorenewable breakfast this week. The panel consisted of Joe Ross, director of the bio renewables development centre, Ernst Kloosterman, managing director industrial biotech network Norway, Mark Chesworth, managing director, Vivergo Fuels, and Harold Vandenberg, director, critical processes limited. A bio economy strategy for the UK will be published later this month. This follows the report to the House of Lords science and technology select committee, published in March last year. This document starts with the arresting statistic that 300 million tons of waste per annum are generated in the UK. This is equivalent to 200,000,000 cars or slightly more than six times as many cars as we have in the UK. A large part of any bio renewable strategy is to minimise the amount of waste which goes to landfill. On the panel we had representatives of two organisations dedicated to knowledge transfer: one from the UK, one from Norway. We had Vivergo Fuels, which takes feed wheat and produces bio ethanol and animal feed. We had Critical Processes, an organisation developing techniques to extract usable material from previously un-recyclable waste, and then scaling these processes to industrial levels. Every member of the panel had a story to tell and I want to bring these to you in more detail in a future episode. But two messages came across strongly to me. First, we need engineers. There's a shortage in the UK of engineers, particularly process engineers and chemical engineers. Secondly, we need public awareness. The potential of the bio renewable sector is very difficult to explain, but the potential in terms of saving organisations money by saving costs of landfill and the potential of creating new materials to be fed back into the circular economy is enormous. After this week’s meeting at least the 100 or so people in the audience have a much better idea of what bio renewables are all about. Watch this space and I’ll bring you more!

Next I went to hear the corporate affairs director of McCain Foods talk about his organisation’s sustainable path. McCain is the biggest supplier of frozen French fries in the world. One in every three French fries is one of theirs. This is a major global corporation and it is committed to sustainability, because sustainable business is good business. McCain is a family company and it prides itself on family values. It has adopted ISO 14001, the environmental management system standard, across the group and is in the process of upgrading to the revised version of the standard recently issued. In the UK it works with 300 potato farmers, and with many more across the world. It helps its farmers develop best practice with techniques including water reduction, carbon footprint measurement and shared equipment helping growers to reduce their capital investment. It offers a guaranteed price for a quality product. At the factory there is emphasis on managing energy, water and transport. Moving 750,000 tonnes of potatoes on vehicles with a capacity of 27 tonnes means there are just under 30,000 vehicle movements per year. And presumably that’s just the raw materials. Careful management of logistics reduces road miles, reduces fuel use and reduces the transport carbon footprint. £16 million has been invested in renewable energy. Three 120 m turbines produce 70% of the energy required by the factory. An anaerobic digester produces methane which in turn produces another 10% of the electricity requirement. McCain sends less than 1% to landfill. Potato waste goes to animal feed, cooking oil to biofuel, surplus food to a food bank, recycled soil, compost and the digester residue go back to the land, and starch goes to the paper industry. The bio renewables panel would be proud! One message. We need to train more engineers. There’s a shortage of food engineers.

On to a presentation by Liam Herringshaw of Durham University on Fossils and Fracking. The F-word, (the second one) assured a packed house. This was a dispassionate account of the geology of shale and the process of fracking to extract oil and gas. We learnt about the vast quantities of water needed for the process, the fact that about half of it seeps away we know not where and that the rest needs specialised treatment. Apparently waste water from Quadrilla’s test site in Lancashire was passed through the local sewage farm, which was unable to stop the radioactivity being flushed away into the Manchester Ship Canal. Although the government is very much in favour of fracking, the British Geological Survey has severe reservations about how much of the reserves could actually be recovered. The audience included several people with clear and strong views, but the discussion which followed was well-informed and constructive. See for more about the research on fracking and shale carried out jointly by Newcastle and Durham Universities. My own thought is that with oil hovering around $50/barrel, half what it was six months ago, it will be hard to make fracking economically viable. Quite apart from whether we can justify producing more fossil fuels. Whatever happens, we surely need more engineers!

Where are we going to get the engineers and technologists to carry us forward to a sustainable future? Only from our schools and universities. Next month I shall be speaking on sustainability in schools at the education show at the National exhibition Centre in Birmingham. I'll be talking about running schools as sustainable businesses, about engaging students with the idea of sustainability and environmental responsibility and about career opportunities in a sustainable world. I believe there are some in engineering.

This week I met Harriet Ennis who leads the environmental and sustainability initiatives at Bootham School in York. The school itself aims to be energy efficient through careful energy management and has also installed solar panels on new buildings. Bootham School is part of the eco-schools network. It will shortly receive its fourth green flag award, it has ambassador school status and will host part of the eco-schools roadshow in July. Many activities take place after school, but the ethos of environmental and social responsibility goes on all the time, coordinated by students appointed as eco-reps. Students are involved at all levels and gain experience of the difficulties of managing change. Activities range from offsetting the carbon footprint of school trips, through collecting waste, to the Dangerous Game, a computer-based attempt to solve the world’s problems with real-world consequences. For example, people who get it wrong get only a lettuce leaf and some rice for lunch. Thing I really liked was Terracycle. This is an organisation which takes low-level waste like biscuit wrappers, transforms them into useful products - great for the circular economy - and awards points which can be used to support third-world development projects. Look at In this world of scepticism and denial it is so encouraging to find an organisation taking issues seriously and encouraging students to do something about them. I expect some of them will become engineers.

And if not engineers, perhaps some of them will go to business school and become the leaders of the future. According to The Guardian this week sustainability is now a key selling point for business schools attracting students. Students used to consider sustainability in business irrelevant and would resent paying fees to learn about it. However the attitude seems to have changed, reflecting changed attitudes in boardrooms. This is good news after the mixed messages which came out of Davos. If you remember, Al Gore made a presentation on the threats from climate change, but at the same time the PwC global CEO survey excluded climate change altogether.

Also in the news, the sustainable cities index published a report. Frankfurt is now the world’s most sustainable city, with London coming second. It was interesting to see how different parts of the press presented this.”Frankfurt beats London to most sustainable city title” says The Guardian. “Only one city in the world is more sustainable than London” says The Telegraph.

And finally, what’s all this about the global divestment movement? We’ve heard how the Rockefeller Institute, certain universities, the Vatican and the Norwegian Sovereign Wealth Fund are all selling their fossil fuel investments. The Global Divestment movement exists to encourage everyone to abandon fossil fuels. There’s no doubt that we have to do this if we’re going to stop catastrophic global warming. It’s not something we can do overnight, but we need to start making plans now. Which means we need to make governments start making plans and taking action, now. Today and tomorrow mass demonstrations are planned across the world. It will be interesting to see how much support they get and whether the press picks up on it.

That ends a quite busy week. Well, for podcasting anyway - I’ve still got a lot of other things to do. Have a great weekend, a sustainable weekend, and I’ll be back with you with another episode of the Sustainable Futures Show next Friday. 

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