It’s hot out there and getting hotter

Summer hasn’t even begun and already we’ve had horrendous fires in West Australia and South Australia, with hundreds of thousands of hectares of bush and farmland destroyed. Not to mention the lives of people, domestic and farm animals, and wildlife.

According to the Geneva-based World Meteorological Organisation (WMO), 2015 is set to be the hottest year ever and 2011-2015 the hottest five year period on record. We’re in a strong (one of the three strongest since 1950) and strengthening El Nino event, so we can expect more extreme weather patterns to the detriment of agriculture, water, health and the economy.

WMO Secretary-General Michel Jarroud advises that ‘this naturally occurring El Nino event and human-induced climate change may interact and modify each other in ways which we have never before experienced.’

South East Asia is likely to experience further drought, which has already made it impossible to control the raging fires in tens of thousands of hectares of Indonesian forests as land is cleared to produce palm oil, devastating flora and fauna, maybe to the point of no return. Toxic smog has reached 2,000 on the Pollutant Standard Index in the worst-hit areas (above 300 is hazardous) and causing schools and other events to be cancelled and flights grounded in neighbouring Singapore and Malaysia.

The central and eastern Pacific Islands are likely to experience increased rainfall, with a risk of extreme rainfall events, and the southwest Pacific Islands and south Asia reduced rainfall. India has already had 14% less rain than average, dampening its economy.

All very depressing. But opportunities also lurk, for individuals and business. CO2CRC, a leading Australia-based research organisation in the field of CO2 capture and geological sequestration, believes will produce renewable energy at the same cost as fossil fuel energy by 2030. There’s one opportunity: build a new business model or platform such as green energy.

Less ambitiously, you can build sustainability into your organisation’s core activities and supply chains in such a way that it becomes the source of new income and growth. Or you can innovate doing what you currently do but more sustainably and efficiently. At the very least, you can go for small, quick wins through continuous improvement: doing things better, more quickly, more easily, more economically, more safely or more reliably.

Individual careers and entire businesses can be built on a platform of sustainability. We can invent new products and processes that take us from destroying, dumping or downcycling to upcycling. Corporate strategy can move from ‘barely green’ compliance to ‘light green’ efficiency, ‘medium green’ strategic proactivity to meet the environmental demands of multiple stakeholders, or to ‘dark green’ commitment to actively seeking ways to respect and preserve the earth and its natural resources.

The phoenix can rise from the ashes when we concentrate our efforts on the right things.

Sources: WMO Press Release No 12
Indonesia’s fires labelled a ‘crime against humanity’ as 500,000 suffer
Australian power generation technology report

Diamonds from the sky

Carbon nanofibres. Extremely tiny; submicroscopic, in fact. Extremely strong. Very valuable. But what would you do with them? We’ll come to that in a minute.

Carbon nanofibres can be made using the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the greenhouse gas primarily responsible for climate change and global warming. Wow, imagine pulling huge chunks, for want of a better term, of this nasty greenhouse gas out of the sky and transforming it into strong and highly useful material. The mind boggles.

‘We calculate that with a physical area less than 10 percent the size of the
Sahara Desert, our process could remove enough CO2
to decrease atmospheric levels to those of the
pre-industrial revolution
within 10 years.’
Stuart Licht, PhD, leader of the George Washington University research team

But wait — there’s more. Carbon nanofibres are really cheap to make — hundreds of times less than the value of the carbon nanofibres produced, a ratio to be more than proud of. The process, developed at George Washington University, uses only a few volts of solar-generated electricity mixed with lots of carbon dioxide. (You can read more about the process here.)

And this is not the future. Scientists can do it now. But back to our earlier question: What do you do with these carbon nanofibres? Well, if you’re into building airplanes, cars or submarines, it keeps them light but strong. Or if consumer products is more your thing, they’re really handy in high-end sports equipment like racing cycles. Or maybe your organisation is in the sustainability industry itself, in which case, you might be interested in using carbon nanofibres in wind turbine blades.

Technology has advanced more in the past 30 years than in the past 2,000, and great leaps forward can bring unexpected and unimagined benefits. We just need to keep thinking and keep innovating.

Four skills you need to make a difference

I’ve been updating the risk management chapter and there’s so much information, I can’t fit it all in! But this information is too good to not  put somewhere, so here it is!

Annette Mikes, Matthew Hall and Yuval Millo wrote an article called How experts gain influence in the July-August 2013 Harvard Business Review that I filed to use to update the risk management chapter. But as I said, alas, no room. The article explains how functional experts like health and safety managers, risk managers, sustainability managers, training managers and other functional specialists can gain the time and attention they need from senior managers. Based on their research they identified four competencies to build:

  1. Trailblazing: Don’t just sit there–go out and find ways to add value with your expertise. Talk to people across the organisation, at all levels, and find out what’s going on in your specialism and how you can help. Look for opportunities to make a difference to the organisation strategically or operationally.
  2. Toolmaking: Develop tools, dashboard indicators, report templates and so on to help you spread the word about the benefits of paying attention to your area and to show how the organisation is progressing in it. Make them attractive, easily understandable and easily scanned.
  3. Teamwork: When networking across the organisation to keep your specialist area front of mind, listen and learn–What are people interested in? What bothers them? What do they want and need from you? Incorporate their ideas into your activities and plans. Get their feedback on your tools and reports so you can make them more user-friendly and understandable.
  4. Translation: Help people understand the complexities of your specialism. Fancy words and statistics leave people cold. Translate them to everyday language. Tell stories to make your points clear.

When you’re passionate about your area of expertise, when you really believe the contribution it makes to building a better organisation, and when you have the energy and drive to blaze trails, make tools, work with others and translate your know-how into their words and worlds, you can make a difference. And that’s what it’s all about.

Using an apple to illustrate the sustainability challenge

My friend Matthew Coxhill has a dramatic exercise he adapted from Resources of California Foundation for Agriculture in the Classroom. It uses an apple to show just how much of the Earth’s surface is available to grow food to feed the world’s (growing) population.

Try it yourself. (Then eat the apple.)

  1. Take a knife and an apple. The apple represents the earth.
  2. Slice the apple into quarters; put aside three of the quarters, as they represent water on the Earth’s surface. (And please be careful as you cut up the apple–I don’t want any cut fingers out there!)
  3. Cut the remaining quarter of the apple in half; put aside one of the halves as uninhabited deserts and the Arctic and Antarctic areas. 
  4. Cut the remaining piece into quarters; put aside three of these pieces for land that is too rocky, wet, hot or poor for crop production.
  5. Peel the remaining part of the apple (1/32nd of the whole apple). The peel represents the thin layer of soil that is available for producing all of the world’s food crops.

This shows just how fragile our relationship with the earth is. Even soil isn’t an infinite resource; it’s a resource we need to nurture and protect so that the planet we live on can continue to grow the food we need.

Discussion questions

How can your workplace help protect the natural resources in your area? What initiatives are you aware of to protect your area’s natural resources?

London’s green Olympics

The London Olympics may not have met all of its sustainability goals, but as The Environmental News Network and the London Olympics website point out, they were certainly eco-friendly.

  • Olympic Park was constructed on derelict industrial sites containing hazardous waste and soil contamination. Cleaning up over a million cubic meters of soil before constructing the Park means that the land will be usable for real estate; and the demolished buildings were sorted and recycled or reused on site as fill.
  • Nine per cent of the power for the games was from renewable sources (short of the 20% target but better than the UK’s overall 3% renewable energy use).
  • Buildings used leading edge insulation and draft resistance and could identify unnecessary energy use through energy-efficient technology such as real-time venue energy management systems that sent notifications when energy use went beyond a trigger point.
  • The Olympic Park made good use of green spaces with walking trails and devoted large sections to natural habitat.

Discussion questions

You might want to check out the sustainability section for the London Olympics for some helpful ideas.

Sustainability in the developing world step-by-step

Many resources are becoming ever more scarce. Organisations will need to contend with increasing prices, public pressure and regulation, and consider the payback of resource use as well as their returns on assets and capital.

My first blog on sustainability in the developing world looked at taking a long-term approach to sustainability. (Needless to say, these approaches also work in the developing world.)

Approach 2: Step-by-step
Organisations can also become more sustainable by making small process changes that often target conserving a limited resource. Eventually, the accumulated cost savings can fund more expensive, advanced technologies to make production even more efficient.

When it began operations in 1985, India’s Shree Cement invested in a diesel-generating plant to protect its operations against disruptions to the electricity supply and went on to tweak its production processes to reduce the amount of electricity it needed. Shree then turned to using its kilns less to save energy.

Most of Shree’s savings came from innovating better ways of working to cut expenses and emissions. As the small-change savings added up, the company could invest in more sophisticated technologies (Approach 1). One such investment enabled recycling the hot exhaust from kilns to power a separate electrical plant that generated electricity much more efficiently than the local energy producer, and selling its excess electricity on the open market.

Shree now produces a ton of cement with 9% less energy than the average Indian cement manufacturer and 15% less than the global average. From 2005 to 2009, its revenues grew five times faster than the global cement industry’s revenues and Shree is now one of the top five cement manufacturers in India.

Stay tuned for my third and final  blog on sustainability in the developing world which will look at a third approach: devising new business models that incorporate customers or suppliers.

Question for discussion

What small process changes might you be able to make in your organisation in order to conserve a limited resource or boost sustainability?

Sustainability in the developing world by taking the long-term view

In my next few posts i’ll be looking at 3 approaches to incorporating sustainability in business. It may sound counter-intuitive, since we often think of rapidly developing economies as putting growth before the environment; but that isn’t always the case. In fact, sustainable production can be less expensive than conventional production, making it an attractive proposition anywhere. These approaches, reviewed in more detail in the March Harvard Business Review by Knut Haanaes and coauthors, are remarkably successful, both environmentally and financially.

Approach 1: The long-term view
When you take the long-term view to sustainability, you invest in more-expensive methods of sustainable operation up front. The thinking is that dramatically lowered costs and higher output eventually result.

Sekem, Egypt’s first organic farm, successfully used this approach. Founded in 1977 when organic products were a luxury and the market was tiny, used biodynamic agricultural methods to reclaim arable land from the Sahara, absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and used 20 to 40% less water for its organic cotton crops. These techniques lowered farming costs, improved average yields by almost 30%, and produced a superior raw cotton product in that it was more elastic than its non-organic counterparts.

Sekem’s leap of faith resulted in a financially and environmentally sustainable business model; from 2006 to the disruptions of the Arab Spring in 2011, Sekem grew 14% annually and is now one of Egypt’s largest organic food producers.

Questions for discussion

What Australian companies have adopted a similar sustainable business model to Sekem? How important do you think it is to consider environmental sustainability in business?