Friday, January 29, 2016

What Goes Around…

Published as a podcast at on Friday 29th January 2015

Yes it's Friday and this is the Sustainable Futures Report. Hello, I'm Anthony Day with a new episode for Friday 29th January.

Energy’s in the headlines again, both the oil price and the UK energy policy. It’s not been the best week for Amber Rudd, Secretary of State for Energy. The World Economic Forum met in Davos last week. Apparently 62 people now own as much of the world’s wealth as is owned by the poorer 50% of the world’s population. I wonder if all 62 were there. I know I wasn’t. Stop laughing at the back. Among many other things, they discussed the circular economy, which is my main theme for today. But first, the website for the Sustainable Best Practice Exchange is now live at

On Tuesday of this week Energy Minister Amber Rudd defended the government’s energy policies following a letter from business leaders calling for clear leadership and long-term stable policies, and a hard-hitting report from the Institute of Mechanical Engineers. She re-iterated an energy policy based on nuclear, offshore wind and shale gas although support for offshore wind would be contingent on further cost reductions, but not on the need to decarbonise. On-shore wind, generally the quickest and cheapest to install, is off the agenda, mainly because voters don’t like it. They probably won’t like sitting in the dark, either. Fortunately it has been so incredibly warm this autumn and winter that electricity demand has stayed low and so there’s been no risk of power cuts. Apart of course from areas where power was knocked out by the floods, but that’s a different story.

On Wednesday EDF said it still hadn’t raised enough finance - despite massive support from China announced by George Osborne back in October - to be able to start work on the Hinckley C Nuclear power station. They have already said that it will not be in production until some time after 2023, and presumably the longer the start is delayed the later it will be completed. Apart from finance, similar plants have been delayed by technical difficulties. At Flamanville in Normandy EDF's plant is six years late and three times over budget. Manufacturing flaws have been detected in the castings and tests are expected to continue until the end of this year before the French nuclear safety agency will be able to decide on whether construction can continue. There are similar problems with a plant under construction in Finland, and the uncertainty has delayed the start of a major plant in India.

As I noted on 20th November, the Royal Academy of Engineering reported to the Prime Minister’s Committee on Science and Technology saying that fracking was unlikely to yield any shale gas before 2030, and even then not very much. All this points very firmly to an energy gap, which will surely be made worse by the closure of Longannet and Eggborough power stations in the first quarter of this year.

An energy gap, or at least an electricity gap, was highlighted this week by the Institute of Mechanical Engineers. In a report entitled Engineering the UK Electricity Gap they state that QUOTE the UK Government’s policy to close all coal-fired power stations by 2025, combined with the retirement of the majority of the UK’s ageing nuclear fleet and growing electricity demand will leave the UK facing a 40-55% electricity supply gap.
The report says plans to plug the gap by building Combined Cycle Gas Turbine (CCGT) plants are unrealistic, as the UK would need to build about 30 of these new plants in less than 10 years. The UK has built just four CCGTs in the last 10 years, closed one and eight other power stations.  In addition, in 2005 twenty nuclear sites were listed for decommissioning, leaving a significant gap to be filled. According to the report, the country has neither the resources nor enough people with the right skills to build this many power stations in time. It is already too late for any other nuclear reactors to be planned and built by the coal ‘shut-off’ target of 2025, other than Hinkley Point C. 

Dr Jenifer Baxter, Head of Energy and Environment at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, and Lead Author of the report said: “The UK is facing an electricity supply crisis. As the UK population rises and with the greater use of electricity in transport and heating it looks almost certain that electricity demand is going to rise.Electricity imports will put the UK’s electricity supply at the mercy of the markets, weather and politics of other countries, making electricity less secure and less affordable…. Under current policy, it is almost impossible for UK electricity demand to be met by 2025.” 

Carbon Brief is a UK-based website covering the latest developments in climate science, climate policy and energy policy at  They have assembled a wide range of expert opinions on the report and criticise it for being simplistic and they dispute the conclusions. They question the IMechE’s assumptions about future electricity demand and they regret that the press has latched on to alarmist headlines which they believe cannot be supported. Nevertheless, they conclude, QUOTE “The UK’s electricity system is changing rapidly, the energy industry is being asked to invest to continue that transformation and yet there is little transparency over the details of government policy.” Similar points were made by the letter from the CBI to The Times.

The oil price this week has bounced up and down and global stock markets have bounced around in response. My man in the market says it will fall to $20 because no-one is buying. There were others on the BBC saying it would go even lower, even down to $5. Who knows? One thing is clear. Those who decided to sell out of oil for reasons of conscience have avoided significant losses. How much of your pension fund is in oil?

I’m Anthony Day and you’re listening to the Sustainable Futures Report. Let me just take a moment to tell you about the Sustainable Best Practice Exchange. It takes place in Harrogate on the 14th April and brings together experts on energy, supply chain, skills and economic development. Better still, it brings together people like you to share your experience and best practice in facilitated round-table discussions. Details at the website which is now open: You can register there, but if you mail me at I’ll sort you out a discount.

At this time of year consultants PwC produce their annual CEO survey. The press made much of the fact that businessmen didn’t put climate change at the top of the list. Over-regulation was listed as the biggest threat to business, by 79% of CEOs. Climate change was mentioned by only 50%. Big improvement on last year, though, when PwC didn’t ask about climate change at all. And a WEF survey of 750 economists last week picked a climate-induced catastrophe as the greatest threat to the world economy for 2016.

The theme at the World Economic Forum in Davos this year was “Mastering the Fourth Industrial Revolution”. First came steam and machines, next came electricity and mass production, the third revolution was based on electronics and automation. They call the Fourth Industrial Revolution the age of cyber-physical systems and the circular economy is a key part of it. There’s a very good article about all this on LinkedIn. It’s by Oliver Hurrey of 2degrees and it’s called The Night the Circular Economy Joined the Revolution.

For the benefit of new listeners, what is the circular economy? My episode of this podcast published in March 2014 was an account of a circular economy conference at Bradford University staged by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. It has been by far the most popular of any episode, and it’s still available. The text version, packed with hyperlinks, is at

Our traditional economy is based on take, make and discard. That’s the linear economy. We take raw materials by mining them or growing them, we manufacture them into products which we use and when we have finished we throw most of them into landfill. This has served us well for a couple of centuries, but as global population grows towards 9 billion people by 2050 there is unsustainable pressure on both raw materials and landfill sites. When we throw things away it is not just the materials that we are discarding, we are also destroying the value created from the energy and human labour used  in the manufacturing process. 

According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation the present linear economy - take, make, discard - embodies a number of risks. The first is economic losses. For example, in Europe, material recycling and waste-based energy recovery capture only 5 percent of the original raw material value. The average car is parked 92 percent of the time, 31 percent of food is wasted along the value chain, and the average office is used only 35–50 percent of the time, even during working hours. There are price risks. The price of oil and other commodities has collapsed in recent months which may be good news for manufacturers, though not for primary producers. The fact that prices can spike with little warning makes it extremely difficult to plan. Continuous demand for natural resources leads to climate change, loss of biodiversity and natural capital, land degradation, and ocean pollution. Then there’s security of supply. Many developed countries need to import non-renewable resources. The European Union imports six times as much materials and natural resources as it exports, and at the same time it generated 2.5 billion tonnes of waste in 2013. According to the Environmentalist magazine, 1.6 billion tonnes of this were not reused or recycled. The EU has introduced targets for 2030. 65% of municipal waste to be recycled by then, up from 43%. 75% of packaging waste to be recycled and landfill to be reduced by 10%. 

So is the circular economy just another name for recycling? No, it’s far, far more than that. Yes, reduce, re-use, recycle is still an important maxim, with particular emphasis on reduce. By reducing what we buy and what we waste we reduce the demand for primary materials, for manufacturing effort and ultimately for landfill. By re-using or re-purposing we delay our demand for replacement, and likewise for materials, manufacturing and landfill. The circular economy goes further. It starts at the design stage. It starts by considering how a product can be repaired, refurbished, and disassembled so that ultimately its raw materials can be re-used. The aim is to send zero to landfill. But the principal aim is to maximise the life of a product as a product, because once it reaches the recycling stage most of the energy and labour involved in the manufacturing process is lost. If it’s designed for repair and refurbishment it can operate at peak performance for a much longer period. The cost of ownership is reduced. 

We may see changes in the way products are traded. For example, in the UK we used to rent our televisions. For a monthly payment we had a TV and if it went wrong it was immediately replaced or repaired as part of the deal. It was a service. Falling product prices and the wide availability of consumer credit put an end to that. Many people are effectively renting their cars. It’s common to get a finance deal which covers ownership, maintenance and breakdown recovery. It’s a service. So far the motor industry is not taking back cars, refurbishing them and leasing them to new owners, but there’s no reason why that should not happen. 

This week Steve Howard, Head of Sustainability at furniture company IKEA, said we had reached “peak stuff”, the stage where we had more stuff than we knew what to do with. The growth in self-storage units where we keep things we haven’t got room for but might need, bears out his point. “We will be increasingly building a circular Ikea where you can repair and recycle products,” he said.

Reduce, Re-use, Recycle is now being superseded by Resolve, an acronym for REgenerate, Share, Optimise, Loop, Virtualise, Exchange. 

Regenerate is about using renewable energy and materials, and restoring ecosystems. 
Share is about sharing assets like cars in car clubs, sharing appliances (remember borroclub in an earlier episode?), about designing products for durability and for easy upgrading.
Optimise: improving efficiency, minimising waste and leveraging automation and big data.
Loop. The circle in the circular economy. Re-using, remanufacturing, recycling.
Virtualise: Books in the cloud instead of on paper. Shopping on line instead of on the high street.
Exchange: New materials, new technologies, new ways of doing things.

Find out more about this at  

We’ve all heard the clichés like, “You can never cross the same river twice,” or “If you keep doing what you’ve always done don't be surprised if you get the same results as you’ve always had.” The truth is that world is changing and faster than ever before. If you’re struggling to make a go of the swings it’s time to look at the roundabouts. Actually you need to look at the alternatives before business as usual starts to fall off. You don’t want to be rushed into decisions. You do need to examine the universal truths. You do need to question some fundamental beliefs. Nothing goes on for ever. Remember Yellow pages? A book left on the doorstep because it was too big for the letterbox? On the doorstep of every house in the land! If you can get one at all now, it’s about the size of a slim paperback. And wasn’t an independent Scotland going to be founded on oil revenues?

Plus ça change, as I’ve said before. Plus ça change, plus c’est la mȇme chose. The more it changes, the more it stays the same. What goes around comes around. Only probably not this time.

Come to the Sustainable Best Practice Exchange. Listen to experts. Talk to your peers. Find out how they see the future.

I’m Anthony Day
This has been The Sustainable Futures Report.
There will be another one next week.
In the meantime, feel free to share with friends, to tweet about about it and comment on Facebook. You could even let me know what you’d like me to look at next time.

Bye for now!

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Working together - an interview with Simone Hindmarch-Bye

Listen to the full podcast, published on Friday 22nd January, at

This week’s episode of the Sustainable Futures Report is mainly about Employee Engagement. I’m very pleased to have Simone Hindmarch-Bye, Director of Commercial Ltd, as my interview guest. She introduces her company where they not only motivate their staff to be focussed on sustainability, they get their clients and their suppliers on board as well. They’ve been running their CSR days for nearly 10 years and you’ll find more about them on YouTube. Unfortunately the interview itself is only available on the podcast:  link above.

I'm Anthony Day and welcome to another episode of the Sustainable Futures Report. I’ll tell you about the Sustainable Best Practice Exchange later (14th April - don’t forget) but in the meantime if you need a chairman, emcee, panellist or keynote speaker for your conference, webinar or awards ceremony, call me now. I’m on 07803 616877 or 

First, a few comments about items in the news; the oil price, air quality and the Winning of the Carbon War. 

The oil price is now below $30/barrel, the lowest for 12 years, and people are beginning to ask whether it can go even lower, maybe even as far as $10. They are also asking how good this is for the global economy. On the one hand cheap oil cuts the overheads of business and makes it easier for consumers to run their cars and in some cases to heat their homes. On the other hand it makes it extremely difficult for oil companies to turn a profit and certainly restricts their capacity to invest in exploration or to renew plant. Oil shares have been seen as high quality, blue chip investments for decades. Many pension funds rely on them as a key component of their portfolios. If the value of oil shares falls, the wealth of pensioners declines. Unexpected consequences, as we discussed last week. Last week RBS advised investors to sell everything except bonds and government stock, not solely because of the falling oil price, but they certainly mentioned it in their briefing note.

Why is oil so cheap? 

Partly because demand, principally from China, is declining as global economic activity slows down, but mainly because Saudi Arabia continues to produce more than the market needs. It wants to drive the price down so that it can maintain market share by making US fracking uneconomic. It has certainly gone a long way towards that, and is seriously affecting the viability of oil from Canadian tar sands and from the North Sea. It's also making it more and more difficult for renewable energy to compete with fossil fuels, although the gap is significantly narrowing. Another problem is that the low price is cutting Saudi’s revenues and depleting their reserves to the extent that they may have to consider introducing income tax - or even sending the princes out to work. As long as they can manipulate markets so that the US continues to depend on the Middle East for oil the US will maintain a military presence there, which is in Saudi Arabia’s interests. It is also in the interests of the UK, which relies on the Middle East for both oil and gas. 
There are tankers moored around the world, full of surplus oil. There are trains of tanker-trucks, also full of oil, parked in sidings. The owners are waiting for supplies to falter, driving prices back up. How likely is this? Well, last week an agreement was reached with Iran over nuclear developments and sanctions have been lifted. Iran  can now freely export its oil again, adding another million and later two million barrels to world supplies; four million barrels in total. Adding this to Saudi’s daily production of 10 million barrels can surely only keep prices low.

There has been much speculation about the consequences of the low oil price, but it’s as though COP21, last month’s international climate change conference, never happened. The delegates left the conference announcing their commitment to keeping global warming down to 1.5℃ by cutting carbon emissions. Commentators said that this was the beginning of the end for the oil industry, but conversations and interviews about the oil price seem to be based on business as usual. The Guardian reports that several streets in London have already exceeded their total annual limit for emissions of nitrous oxide, a pollutant created by motor vehicles, but has anything been said about restricting the use of petrol and diesel? Last July the Chancellor actually reduced the tax on cars with higher emissions. Plus ça change, plus c’est la meme chose. The more it changes, the more it stays the same. But is anything changing at all?

The Winning of the Carbon War

... is the book by Jeremy Leggett that I have been mentioning for the last 12 months. The final chapter is now available as a free download from his website at, or you can buy the hard copy version, in which case part of the price goes to his Solaraid charity to provide solar powered lanterns to remote parts of Africa.

The final part of this book is a detailed account of COP21, the Paris climate change conference which took place last December. Jeremy was there throughout, listening, reporting and presenting to meetings and events in Paris. He ends his book on a highly optimistic note. I think this is based more on his expectation of the actions that will be taken by commercial organisations than on the promises of politicians. What I read about the process and subsequent comments has made me pessimistic, but Jeremy was there. Whatever the outcome of the conference, we are united in believing that action is urgently required to mitigate climate change and secure this planet for future generations. Let's keep the global corporations up to the mark and, as Simone Hindmarch-Bye says, let's vote with our pounds and boycott those that fall behind.

The Sustainable Best Practice Exchange 

...takes place on 14th April in Harrogate. Registration opens next week and I’ll update the website at to give you the link. I’m the conference chair, but if you have a conference which needs chairing in the meantime, please do get in touch.

I look forward to seeing you in Harrogate on 14th April, but of course there will be a new episode of the Sustainable Futures Report every Friday between now and then.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Let There Be Water

To hear this as a podcast go to iTunes or

Yes, it’s Friday 15th January 2016 and this is Anthony Day with the latest Sustainable Futures Report. You can also hear me later today on Voice America in an interview with Chris Cooper. The link is at and it will be live at 4pm….

But first, this week I’m looking at a new book by Seth M. Siegel about how Israel has made the best of very limited water resources and is now sharing expertise - and water - with countries all over the world.  More unexpected consequences of the York floods and why controlling carbon emissions may not be the answer to climate change but geo-engineering perhaps is.  Apologies from Jeremy Leggett. And HS2. Is it really sustainable transport?

River levels in York are now below 3 metres. Well above normal but still well below the 5.2 metre peak on Boxing Day. Apart from a period of 36 hours, the river bank in front of my house has been under water since 9th November. It’s just beginning to clear. Several unexpected - and potentially serious - consequences that I didn’t mention last week. First, although the 999 emergency service was always available the 101 non-emergency service went down when the telephone exchange was flooded. Secondly, BBC Radio York kept broadcasting news, information and alternative non-emergency numbers, but they themselves were taken off air when the exchange went down and the team had to travel the 40-odd miles to broadcast from the studios of BBC Radio Hull.  I wonder if the council or the Environment Agency should get a siren, like they had in the war. Some of the law courts were flooded and hearings have been transferred to Leeds until further notice.

Although there are shops and restaurants in the city which will be closed for the next few months, most of York is trading as normal. Please don’t stay away.

After COP21, the Climate Change conference in Paris, everyone came away agreeing that carbon emissions were to be reduced, although nobody actually specified how this would be achieved. This week 11 academics wrote an open letter saying that 

“the actions agreed are far too weak to get anywhere close to [the] target. Furthermore, the pledges countries have made to cut their carbon emissions are not sufficiently binding to ensure they are met, while the Paris Agreement will not force them to “ratchet” them up as often as they need to.” 

They go on, 

“The hollow cheering of success at the end of the Paris Agreement proved yet again that people will hear what they want to hear and disregard the rest. What they disregarded were the deadly flaws lying just beneath its veneer of success.” 

Strong stuff!

The alternative solution which they reluctantly propose is geo-engineering. This means taking direct action to influence the climate. There are several ways of doing this. Ships could patrol the oceans spraying seawater up into the clouds to make them thicker and make them reflect more sunlight back into space. Other ships could sprinkle iron particles across the seas to stimulate the growth of plankton which would absorb CO2. We could release sulphates into the stratosphere, which would cause global dimming and reduce the amount of heat reaching the earth. We could put mirrors into orbit, mirrors into deserts or paint everybody’s roof white. Or just grow more trees. The fact that they propose these radical measures indicates how serious they believe the situation to be. The problem is that nobody can be absolutely sure how these ideas will work. Some of them, like planting trees, will take many years to have any effect. Which countries will be in control of these systems, and won’t they want to favour their own territories even at the expense of other nations? And if everything goes wrong, we’ve only got the one planet. 

Jeremy Leggett sends his apologies because the final chapter of his book, The Winning of the Carbon War, was not ready on 5th January as promised. He’s still writing up his account of COP21. He has circulated an extract, which shows him much more optimistic than the geo-engineers. The book is a free download from I’ve been following it chapter by chapter each month since January 2015. You should read it.

Let there be water

Sao Paolo in Brazil is one of the largest cities in the world, with a population of some 20 million. After two years of drought there is a water shortage. Supplies are turned off for a time most days. In some parts of the city the pipes run dry every day and for extended periods. Thousands of people are drilling private wells with the risk of polluting the aquifers beneath the city. Some citizens are buying in bottled water. Some are breaking into the mains and stealing water. Some are just leaving. With failing rains and a poorly managed infrastructure the situation is getting worse. Although it’s midsummer in Sao Paolo at the moment and thunderstorms are forecast for this afternoon. Let’s hope they’re heavy. It’s suggested that the drought is linked to deforestation in the Amazon. Water is transpired into the atmosphere through the leaves of the trees. This water forms aerial rivers of concentrated water vapour which flow towards the coast. The vapour condenses out over the land and brings rain. Fewer trees, less rain. The problem is that Brazilian agricultural policies encourage deforestation. Many hectares have been cleared, many more have been damaged and the process continues.

Things are not quite so bad across the world in California, although that state is approaching its fifth year of drought and declared a state of emergency at the start of 2015. Agriculture is the principal user of California’s water and the principal casualty of the drought. For example, 10% of the state’s almond trees have died. Serious, when you consider that 80% of the world’s almonds are California-grown. “Brown is the new green” is the motto as residents let their lawns die and some even fill in their swimming pools.

In the UK, particularly in the North, people have had enough of rain which has been falling for weeks . They’ve had enough of floods which will continue to impact homes and businesses for many months to come. Hard to picture a drought, but even here in the UK, particularly in the South, floods can rapidly turn to drought, hosepipe bans and a shortage of clean, drinkable water.

“Let there be water”, a new book by Seth M Siegel, has lessons for all these situations. The book is an account of how Israel, a country which is largely desert, has developed and managed its water resources. The book starts with history, looks at demand for water, examines sources of supply and explains how Israel’s expertise helps other countries.

Once the Israeli state had been established the first priority was the construction of the National Water Carrier. This is a 130 kilometre pipeline, completed in 1964, taking water from the Sea of Galilee in the relatively rainy North to the farms in the deserts of the South. As in many countries, agriculture is the principal user of water. The more efficient agriculture could become, the more water could be available for homes and industry. “Don’t waste even a drop” is a mantra embedded in the Israeli character. Don’t waste a drop at home, in public and or anywhere that water is used. 

Traditionally fields are watered either by flooding or by sprinkling. Flood irrigation needs a network of pumps, channels and sluices and typically 50% of the water is lost to evaporation or sinks into the ground before can be absorbed by the roots. Plants need both air and water at their roots, so flood irrigation means they are either waterlogged and stressed or parched and stressed. Sprinkler irrigation needs less infrastructure but it’s not an ideal solution. It’s difficult to deliver consistent amounts of water across a whole field and up to 35% is again lost to evaporation before it hits the ground.

Israeli scientists came up with drip irrigation: small, measured drops of water continually delivered direct to each plant. Not only did this deliver water savings of 50% - 60%, it improved yields over all other methods of irrigation. Further yield improvements were achieved by developing plants which would tolerate arid conditions through selective breeding.

Managing demand is one side of the equation: managing supply is the other. Israel is unique in the world in re-using around 95% of the nation’s sewage. The initial project was to concentrate the  sewage from seven cities into a central treatment plant. Water from the plant then flows through natural sand dunes, sinking over a period of 6 to 12 months into a natural aquifer some 100 metres below the surface. This filtering process delivers cleaned water which is transported via a 50-mile pipeline to the farms for irrigation. The supply of treated water from the sewage plant is more reliable than rainfall.

The third source of water, after the National Water Carrier and sewage treatment, is desalination, the removal of salt from water to make it drinkable. Desalination is widely used in the Middle East but is recognised as very expensive because of the energy inputs required. In Israel desalination is used for converting both sea water and brackish water, which is river water or underground water that contains unacceptable levels of salt. Israeli engineers first developed new energy-efficient techniques for desalination and then the reverse osmosis process which produces higher-quality water than other techniques and at lower cost. Before the Israeli state was established, when Britain controlled Palestine it discouraged immigration because it believed that water resources could support no more than two million inhabitants. By carefully managing the supply and demand for water Israel now supports not the 2 million people that the British thought was the maximum, but over 8 million.

The book covers all these stages in great detail, analysing the challenges, the personalities and the politics. It describes how Israeli water management techniques have been used all over the world, with desalination plants built by them in India, China and California, and governments advised in over 100 countries. It warns how countries that squander their water, some of which expelled Israeli advisors after revolutionary regime change, now face economic collapse. Remember, we’re all in very long supply chains. It may be out of sight, it may be out of mind, but you’ll certainly feel the effects if someone along your supply chain runs out of water.

“Let there be Water, Israel’s solution to a water-starved world” is a book worth reading for its perspective on water as a key element of a sustainable world. It’s not currently sold in the UK, but not difficult to find on line. 

This is Anthony Day with your weekly Sustainable Futures Report. Let’s talk transport.

In December I attended the Sustainable Futures Forum presented by Birmingham City University with Birmingham City Council. Craig Wakeman, HS2 Programme Manager, spoke on sustainable transport. He told us that HS2, the planned high-speed rail link from London to Birmingham, would cut the time for the 120-mile journey to just 49 minutes. A lot of people have criticised the time-saving and suggested that it was unnecessary and that people could simply start earlier. In response I have heard supporters of HS2 say that the fundamental justification for the new line is to increase capacity, and if a new line is to be built the marginal cost of making it high-speed is small. Craig Wakeman did not make this point, he just emphasised the improved journey time. 

He told us that HS2 would be the biggest civil engineering project in Europe and the biggest archaeological dig. It would lead to a transformation of skills and employment across the region. 34,000 engineers will be needed. To meet this demand it will be necessary to develop skills and re-skill the existing workforce. Apart from engineers and archaeologists the project will need landscape architects, project managers, programme managers, accountants, lawyers and a whole range of other skilled workers. There will be a National College of High-speed Rail with campuses in Birmingham and in Doncaster with the potential to develop a world-class and global reputation. The implications for the supply chain are immense. Just outside Birmingham are the headquarters of JCB, one of the world’s largest manufacturers of earthmoving equipment. Their key suppliers are located within a 50 mile radius. When Craig explained that the cost of the tracks, systems, stations and trains would amount to some £39 billion the implications for Birmingham and the West Midlands were clear. No surprise at the many smiling delegates at the conference.

I was left with a number of questions. First, how can this be sustainable? The largest civil engineering project in Europe is likely to have the largest carbon footprint, rivalling even Heathrow and Drax Power Station. How is all of this to be offset? And the £39 billion will have to be paid back over time from train fares. Do we need to do all that travel? Will we be able to afford fares that will be high enough to pay off the costs as well as all the running costs? Critics have claimed that the line will benefit London rather than the regions. Certainly, if it takes only 49 minutes to get to Birmingham from London it will bring Birmingham into the London commuter belt, no doubt with upward pressure on Birmingham property. As I have said before, I would prefer to see the East-West rail links from Hull through York, Leeds and Manchester to Liverpool upgraded before we look at a north-south high-speed link. Sustainable transport? What do you think?

Before I go I want to tell you about the Sustainable Best Practice Exchange. It takes place in Harrogate on 14th April, so please put that in your diary. We have four themes: energy, supply chain, skills and economic development. We have four panels of experts to talk about the challenges and opportunities in these fields. We will start the day with a ministerial keynote. I'm not quite sure which minister, although negotiations have been going on since July and are now at an advanced stage. We will also have a series of roundtable discussions. These will be facilitated by either one of the panel members or by another expert. This is your chance to share your challenges, knowledge and experience with your peers round the table. Full details will appear on the conference website which will be launched next week. I'll let you have the link then.

And that's it for another week. This is Anthony Day thanking you once again for listening to the Sustainable Futures Report. There will be another Sustainable Futures Report next week. Until then, have a good week, and bye for now.

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Northern Floods - a Case Study

The Sustainable Futures Report podcast published on Friday 8th January 2016.

This week I take stock of the recent floods and look at them as a case study in sustainability. I can speak with some first hand experience because I live in York. Although we have a riverside house we were always at least 2m above the water. York made all the headlines over Christmas, but people in Cumbria had already been flooded three times in December, buildings had been washed away in Manchester and there were floods in Scotland and Wales. As I write this, further floods are expected in Scotland. Elsewhere floods have devastated parts of South America, tornadoes have destroyed houses in the US and Texas has been coping with snow. 

View from my window
Unseasonal and violent weather looks very like the consequences of climate change, but the purpose of this episode is to look at how people have been affected, to highlight the unforeseen consequences and to understand where plans failed or where plans didn’t even exist. To understand what we should do now. I will comment on the political reaction, but this is not a political message except to say that we are all affected by the consequences of political decisions. We must take them into account when we plan, and if we think it’s appropriate we should campaign to change them. That’s just one part of the supply chain. There’s a link to my Green Supply Chain Workshop video on the website here .

On 15th January - next Friday - I’m appearing on the Voice America Business Elevation Show. There’s a link for more details here.

Parts of York flood every year. Most properties are defended and the damage is usually small and has little effect on most of the city. On Christmas Eve the Independent newspaper published a front page photo of a cyclist in ankle-deep water on the edge of the River Ouse with a caption claiming that York city centre was flooded. I sent them this letter:

“Nice picture of York on today's front page but you should know that the Ouse floods like this every year. Very few properties affected and certainly none in the city centre. You've misreported this previously!

Cumbria is where the problem is, but perhaps that's too far north for you Southerners. “

And they published it on Boxing Day. Ironically, within 24 hours the centre of York had suffered its worst flooding for 30 years.

What happened was this. Just below the city centre the River Foss joins the River Ouse. The Ouse is by far the bigger river, so when it is in flood it not only prevents the Foss from draining into the Ouse, but it backs up and causes the Foss to break its banks. This is what happened up until 30 years ago when they built the Foss Barrier. The barrier is lowered in times of flood and eight pumps keep the level of the Foss down by pumping its water around the barrier and into the Ouse. Worked perfectly in 2000, for example, when water levels rose higher than they did last week. However, on Boxing Day the pumps, with a rated output of 30 cubic metres/second, that’s 30 tonnes of water per second, were unable to keep up. The pumps are electric and the water rose to a level which threatened the control room. If it had got any higher and the pumps had stopped, with the barrier closed the Foss would have kept on rising and flooding more and more of York. While there was still power, the decision was taken to prevent this by opening the barrier. Of course this meant that the Ouse rushed in and some 600 properties were rapidly flooded. 

It appears that this was a Black Swan - an event that nobody had foreseen but perfectly logical in hindsight. Although there had been warnings for some years that it was time to upgrade the pumps. Nevertheless, because opening the barrier was considered so improbable there does not seem to have been a contingency plan. The consequences were far more widespread than anybody expected. Many residents were not evacuated until the middle of the night and had to be taken out by boat. For many of them it was too late to move their cars before they were submerged. For those whose houses and businesses were flooded the consequences are immense. 40% of businesses never recover from a flood. In flooded homes the downstairs furniture, carpets and appliances are destroyed. It can take six months to a year to dry the house out and it may be necessary to remove and replace contaminated plaster on the walls. Some people are insured, but with insurance assessors rushed off their feet they certainly won’t get immediate  payouts. If they have maxed out their credit cards for Christmas they could have serious cash flow problems. Some people are not insured at all. And other people looted the abandoned properties. I’m quite ashamed to say I live in a place where that would happen.

The barrier was repaired very quickly with extra pumps and generators airlifted in by Chinook helicopter. By Wednesday the Foss was pumped almost dry, ready to contain the next flood surge, but by then the damage had been done. The government has appointed a Floods Envoy and has promised £40m to Yorkshire, although repairs in York will take £10m alone.

In York the telephone exchange is on the bank of the River Foss. The floods knocked it out. For 36 hours there were no landlines, no internet and limited mobile reception. In turn this meant that many ATMs in the city stopped working and businesses could not accept card payments because their terminals wouldn’t work either. In any case business was very slow in York in the week after Christmas. The crowds of sale shoppers largely stayed away. With no internet I thought I might have to travel to Leeds to upload last week’s episode although it came back on in time. Getting to the station would have been a problem. Many roads were flooded so the only way from one side of town to the other was via the bypass - a 5 or 6 mile drive instead of a half-mile walk.

Let me add a personal story. The weekend before Christmas our daughter and family came to stay. Somehow - nobody saw - our 7-year-old granddaughter managed to fall over in the lounge and break her arm in two places. This was Sunday night. We drove her to A&E. She was seen immediately, X-rayed and had an operation under general anaesthetic to set the bones. She was kept in overnight and returned in the morning with plaster from shoulder to palm. The NHS is truly wonderful. Now think what could have happened a week later. 
  • No phones to call an ambulance.
  • Roads blocked so we would have spent time trying to find a route before heading out to the bypass and back in to the other side of the city - probably an hour’s journey rather than 10 minutes.
  • At the hospital, if the power was down there would have been an emergency generator, but would that provide enough power for X-rays?
  • If a specialist was needed but was not on site there would have been no phones to call him in. The chain of consequences from the flood is long.

Just down the road from York, Tadcaster sits on the River Wharfe. This week floodwater partially demolished the 300-year-old bridge which joins the two halves of the town, fracturing a gas main. Houses were evacuated while gas engineers sorted that out. The bridge cannot be used, even by pedestrians. There is a muddy footpath that crosses the river on an abandoned railway viaduct, but that’s all. Vehicles have to go out to the A64 and come back to get from one side of the town to the other, but it’s not as simple as it might sound. The A64 is the main Leeds-York dual carriageway and there is a junction on the Leeds side of the town and another on the York side. The problem is that one of these is a one-way junction. This means that drivers on the Leeds side of town who want to go to the York side need to join the A64 but have to pass the town and pass the junction where York-bound traffic from Tadcaster joins the road because there is no exit there. They carry on to the next roundabout and then come back again to the slip road which takes them into the town. Diversions of 16 miles or 20km have been reported. There were plans to close the A64 for extensive resurfacing from 4th January, but I understand that the Highways Agency have agreed to put this on hold. What’s the cost of standing down the labour, the plant and the materials which must have been all ready to carry out a project scheduled to last several weeks? Another unforeseen consequence. And the bridge is expected to cost £3m to repair and to take a year.

These are my local examples. I’m sure other people have had it equally bad or worse in other parts of the UK - and in the world.

The point of recounting all this is to look at lessons to be learned, for any business, organisation or individual. Some of these events could be defined as something which Nassim Nicholas Taleb would call a Black Swan: something so improbable that no-one would see it coming, but which often looks perfectly reasonable with hindsight. For more on black swans see his book The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, available from your favourite bookshop. 

But some events are unforeseen because no-one has sat down and not only considered their immediate risks but also looked at the consequences of those risks. People in York might have known that they were safe from flooding whatever the weather, but failed to realise that the telephone exchange was right on the edge of the river and could go down and cause them problems. It’s all part of the supply chain. Of course the Foss Barrier has successfully protected the city for 30 years, in floods even higher than these. Clearly nobody believed that the exchange was at risk. Homes and businesses were nevertheless affected by the loss of telephone lines and internet. If consumers cannot access ATMs and merchants cannot use card terminals then business stops. It’s a supply chain issue - do you remember my green supply chain workshop? There’s a link to the video at The message is that you may or may not be the weakest link in the supply chain, but if there is a weak link it can be very damaging to your business for no fault of yours. You need to protect yourself if you can. Have you carried out a strategic risk analysis recently? Remember, not all risks are overnight disasters like floods. Some are more subtle and take much longer to take effect. Changes in technology, demographics, weather patterns, fashions can all damage your business. The danger is that these changes can be slow and subtle and that you will wait for things to get back to normal before you realise that this is the new normal. By then it could be too late.

As I said earlier, 40% of flooded businesses never recover and flooded homes take 6 months to a year to be made habitable, quite apart from the financial hardship that everyone will suffer. We can only sympathise, and if the opportunity arises, offer help to these people. There are several hardship appeals across the country. Meanwhile, how sure are you that your business is secure? You may not be in a flood plain. Your challenges might come from a completely different dimension. You owe it to yourself - and your colleagues and staff - to give some thought to your own security. You could start with a green supply chain workshop, tailored to your organisation. Or just with a chat. I’m on 07803 616877 or email at

I’m Anthony Day and this latest edition of the Sustainable Futures Report draws to a close. Just time to remind you that the Sustainable Best Practice Exchange - Powering the Northern Powerhouse - takes place in Harrogate on 14th April, so put it in your diary. We have invited a minister and hope to get either Amber Rudd from DECC or James Wharton, minister for the Northern Powerhouse. I’ll keep you informed. The conference website opens shortly and if you’re a member of a professional association you’re entitled to a discount. If your professional association or institute has not yet signed up for this benefit tell them to give me a call - 07803 616877 or

The next Sustainable Futures Report will be out next Friday. I’m probably going to talk about water.

This is Anthony Day. 
This is the end of another Sustainable Futures Report. Have a great week!