It’s about delivery

I think it was Tony Blair that proposed that Government should be about setting targets.

Initially it seemed like a good idea.  Rather than trying to micromanage everything, Government could just set a target and leave delivery up to those that know what they’re doing.  The problem is that this idea has grown into a horrible monster.

For too long, Government has realised it can give the appearance of doing something by simply setting a target. No longer does it need to think up plausible policy to meet the target, let alone do the hard work of actually delivering anything, or even funding its delivery.  And when a target becomes inconvenient, it can be quietly dropped.

For example, the target that all new homes would be zero carbon by 2016, was dropped in late 2015. Today, this has probably added around £1000 p.a to each new home buyers’ energy bills.

Governments quite like making policy announcements, (sometimes simply re-announcing previous policies) However, these policies are often inadequate to meet the target.  As the Committee on Climate Change pointed out last year, only 39% of the emissions savings needed to meet the Net Zero target, are backed up by credible plans or policies.  

Policies are also frequently contradictory, for example opening new coal mines and licensing more offshore oil wells, while claiming to be decarbonising.

Increasingly “delivery” has been delegated to local councils, while simultaneously reducing their funding and powers.   This is unjust, ineffective and deeply frustrating.

Despite many people facing real hardship because of energy prices, Government has made it very difficult for a council to give planning permission for a new wind farm, even though it’s the cheapest source of power, and widely supported.

Increasingly, councils have to compete with each other for tiny grants, often at short notice, making efficient delivery impossible.

As Lord Deben pointed out at a Climate Seminar in Cambridge the other day, as everyone now agrees on the bare minimum climate targets, we need to move on from focussing on targets, to focussing on delivery.

This is why the recently released Skidmore Review on how to deliver Net Zero could be very useful.   Former Energy Minister Chris Skidmore was appointed during Liz Truss’s brief time as PM, and he has clearly framed his report to appeal to the Right. Nevertheless it endorses everything the Climate Committee (and Labour) have been saying.

It points out strongly that Net Zero is “the growth opportunity of the 21st century”. Among other things it calls for more onshore wind, a “rooftop revolution” in solar energy, and a switch to heat-pumps. It also calls for Local Government to be empowered and funded to deliver.

Let’s just hope Central Government is listening.

First published, Cambridge Independent, 1 February 2023

Greenwash, or greenhush?

The other day I met a young climate activist, outraged that one of the funders of the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL) was involved in unsustainable activities. As CISL’s “partners” include Heathrow, I can see their point.

However, although it is absolutely right to challenge greenwash, I also think we need to be thoughtful about the ways in which we push for change. No individual and certainly no organisation is entirely “pure”.  Change takes time and CISL is in many ways an exemplar of an organisation that’s trying to do the right thing, both itself (for example the superb Entopia building) and in its help for others. 

That said, greenwash is increasingly common. Businesses realise that customers, employees and investors want to see them reducing carbon emissions.  While some are taking real action, others are disguising their inaction with a generous coating of greenwash. This can take the form of distraction, omission, or in the worst cases, outright deception.

Oil and gas firms are prolific greenwashers so, in an example of distraction greenwash, BP’s website proudly highlights their relatively minor investments in renewables, while hardly mentioning the word “oil”.  They say they aim to be Net Zero by 2050, but this is only by omitting the impact of the carbon emissions from the oil and gas that they sell to others. What puts their greenwashing in the worst category, is that they’re not just doing too little, they’re also working hard to get gas accepted as a low carbon fuel (which it isn’t, particularly once the leakage of methane is taken into account)

In 2019, Heathrow were proudly promoting their use of local renewable woodchips to heat the building, while ignoring the impact of the flights that their business depends on!

Sign celebrating use of renewable woodchips to heat Heathrow’s Terminal 2 in 2019

Companies are increasingly getting into trouble because of greenwash 

In October, in a landmark ruling, The UK Advertising Standards watchdog banned HSBC’s advertising campaign as misleading, because it focussed on tree planting and didn’t mention their financing of fossil fuel projects and links to deforestation.

Offsetting is another common form of distraction greenwash. However, at the recent COP27 climate meeting, the UN’s High Level Expert Group confirmed that companies can’t pretend to be on a path to Net Zero by buying cheap carbon offsets without reducing their underlying carbon emissions.

It’s right for customers and regulators to challenge greenwash, but it’s also generating a new phenomena of “Greenhushing” where companies have sound Net Zero plans, but don’t talk about them. This can be either because they don’t want to be accused of greenwash, or because they don’t want trouble if they miss their targets.

This all makes it quite difficult for consumers to know where to spend. However good advice is firstly to consider whether you need to buy at all. And if you do need to buy, but are confused about which option is genuinely more sustainable, “go smaller, local, and independent.”

First published, Cambridge Independent January 2023

Bonfire of our Rights

Liz Truss’s dangerously ideological new government is wasting no time in dismantling the UK as we knew it

We are seeing a dangerous attack on the system of rights, rules and regulations that constrain the worst excesses of rapacious capitalism.

Rightly there was outrage at Kwasi Kwarteng’s “fiscal event” on 23 September, with its massive, unprecedented transfer of wealth from ordinary people to the richest 1% (despite a subsequent U turn on the top rate of tax) .

This un-costed, un-funded proposed giveaway was criticised even by multimillionaires and set the pound plummeting in value, increasing the cost of everything we import, from vegetables to fuel. Even the previously announced, much-needed, cap on energy prices will be paid for by future taxpayers, rather than by a proper windfall tax on energy companies.  

However, in parallel with this blatant wealth transfer, we are seeing an equally dangerous attack on the system of rights, rules and regulations that constrain the worst excesses of rapacious capitalism.

As part of the “fiscal event” it was announced that planning rules will be relaxed, particularly in the (unlimited number) of so called “Investment Zones”, freeing developers to build whatever and wherever they like. Is this what the Conservative’s core voters really want?

Farmers, land owners and conservationists were outraged when it was announced last week that the Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS) had been put on hold.  This has been in the pipeline since Brexit and would have replaced the EU’s agricultural subsidy scheme (which paid out based on the area of land) with a more sensible approach that rewarded landowners for providing public benefits, such as flood prevention or improving habitats.  NGOs such as the RSPB and the Wildlife Trusts are furious, pointing out that there is an “attack on nature” 

But we’re also faced with an astonishing attack on workers’ rights, human health, the wider environment and even the prosperity of UK businesses.

The day before the “fiscal event”, Jacob Rees-Mogg (the improbable Secretary of State for BEIS) announced a dangerous (although boringly named) ”Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill”.  It’s announcing “sunset” on 31 December 2023, for virtually all the environmental and worker protections we now take for granted, unless they are specifically retained.

When we left the EU, over 2,400 pieces of complicated and interlinked legislation were carried over onto the UK statute book. These include the Water Environment Framework Directive and its raft of subsidiary Directives, which protect rivers and coasts from sewage and chemical pollution; REACH, which controls the safety of chemicals; the Ecodesign Directive, setting energy efficiency standards for products; and the Habitat Regulations that protect birds and animals. Thousands of others set important protections such as labelling allergens, emissions standards for vehicles, the safe operation of oil wells, protecting pregnant workers and the right to holiday pay.

To take just one example.  We have a right to clean water, because at the moment, water companies are required by retained EU regulations such as the Bathing Water Directive and the Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive to treat sewage before it’s discharged into rivers and along coasts. This applies particularly in areas where the water is used for drinking water, swimming, shellfish, fishing or important habitats.

As we’ve seen this summer, sewage discharges are worryingly common, but the worst discharges are at least illegal.  In July Southern Water was fined £90 Million for deliberately discharging billions of litres of raw sewage into the environment, in breach of its permit obligations under the Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive.

If these retained EU Directives and the threats of legal action were removed, water companies’ only obligations would be to maximise returns to their (often foreign) shareholders and give generous bonuses to their chief executives. They would be free to dump as much sewage into our rivers and coastal bathing areas as they liked. They would no longer need to invest billions in improving their sewage works and upgrading infrastructure. Foreign investors would like the short-term increase in profitability, but wouldn’t necessarily care about the pollution of UK waters, or the loss of the jobs that would otherwise have been created. Share prices in those companies would probably rise. Foreign buyers would snap up UK companies, made suddenly much cheaper thanks to the fall in the pound.

This seems to be the so called “Growth” that this disgraceful Government proudly says it wants to achieve.

To take another example: the EU’s Ecodesign Directive was introduced in 2008 and sets important standards for the energy efficiency and reparability of electrical products. These aim to reduce both running costs and carbon emissions, and include a requirement that devices must draw negligible power when on standby.  Removing these could take us back to the days when a TV left on standby could use over 100kWh of electricity (costing £34 a year at 2022 prices) to do absolutely nothing.  Do we want this?  Do UK manufacturers really want the complexity and uncertainties of having to produce energy efficient versions of their products for the EU market, while having to compete with a flood of cheap, poor quality imports newly allowed into their home market?  It would be a nightmare.

These rights and protections were developed and refined over our 40 years membership of the EU, but the new Bill says that ALL of these will be removed on 31 December 2023, unless specifically reviewed and retained.

Behind the scenes, civil servants are faced with balancing an impossible task: meeting the government’s cut-off date for reviewing the legislation vs delivering existing priorities. In any case, it’s a mammoth task for a civil service that Rees-Mogg wants to trim by around 91,000 jobs.

There’s no way this can be done properly within the time limit, and the government clearly recognises this.  MPs will just get a Yes/no vote, with no opportunity to debate and refine the legislation. Worryingly, even if a particular regulation is retained, the bill includes a clause that gives ministers the power to subsequently change, replace or revoke it, without consulting parliament. The Hansard Society has described this as a ‘do whatever you like’ power.

The Government has (slightly laughingly) published a “dashboard” summarising 2400 pieces of Retained EU Law (RUEL) They admit that the list is incomplete, the details limited, and the “search” facility is poor, but they are inviting the public to use this to “highlight any specific regulations that they would like to see amended, repealed or replaced.” Interestingly, the word “retained” is not included.

We, the British public, businesses, NGOs, MPs and lawmakers will need to fight hard to retain our protections, in the face of this outrageous Bonfire of our Rights.

First Published in Left Foot Forward.

Tax fossil fuel profits

Despite the recent U turn announcing a nominal £5 Billion windfall tax on energy companies, it’s outrageous that just 9 days earlier MPs (including Anthony Browne and Lucy Frazer) voted against a windfall tax on the oil and gas companies.

This makes me angry.

Many Cambridge households and businesses are suffering, but the fossil fuel companies are making extraordinary profits from the rocketing energy prices. We should tax these excess profits properly and use the money to help people that can’t afford their bills; to reduce the amount of energy we all need to use (for example by insulating homes and improving public transport); and to increase the UK’s clean, cheap renewable solar and wind power.

That would genuinely be an energy strategy to help address the cost of living and climate crises.

Instead, our government is behaving strangely: as if it’s on the side of the energy companies, not voters. Could this be connected with the recent revelations that UK and US oil investors are funding anti-‘net zero’ campaigns?

These windfall profits are outrageous. In May Shell announced that their quarterly profits had tripled. An analysis by the Liberal Democrats estimated that a 25% windfall tax would raise around £10.5 billion from the profits of BP and Shell alone this year.  That’s £375 per household.

It’s not just the excess profit the fossil fuel companies are making, its worse than that.

As a recent report by Green Alliance pointed out, the UK has one of the most skewed tax environments in the world. Although initially the UK government received up to £12 Billion p.a. from North Sea oil and gas, since 2013 production is now often a net cost to the UK because of a raft of tax reliefs and subsidies.

In total, since 2015, the UK government has made net payments to ExxonMobil, BP and Shell totalling £1.25 billion (£45/household). There’s also a generous £18 Billion subsidy on offer (£500/household) for decommissioning old oil rigs, so this net cost will get worse in future.

Shockingly, it becoming apparent that much of the nominal £5 Billion windfall tax will be refunded to the oil and gas companies in the form of these reliefs and subsidies. Alex Chapman of the New Economics Foundation has estimated thatthe new tax relief on oil and gas investment will mean the tax payer subsidising new investment in fossil fuels to the tune of about £5.7bn up to 2025” So potentially, its not a windfall tax at all. Just an increased cost on UK taxpayers in order to subsidise more oil and gas extraction.

And its not just the production companies, like BP and Shell. There are the astonishingly profitable ‘Network Operator’ monopolies that run the networks of gas pipelines and electricity power lines. Whereas the average FTSE100 company makes a profit of about 10%, the Network Operators make over 40%.

It’s the most profitable sector in the UK, yet they typically pay half the tax of other companies. And the profits largely go abroad. For example Cadent, who supply gas to Cambridge, is 31.1% owned by the Chinese and Qatari governments, via their Sovereign Wealth Funds.

This is nuts.

We should be taxing fossil fuel companies properly, not subsidising them. Then we can increase help for those in hardship and accelerate the transition to a fair low carbon future, free at last from dirty fossil fuels.

Upgrade all homes to EPC C

Heating buildings accounts for 21% of the UK’s carbon emissions, and everyone, from Insulate Britain to the Government agrees that improving the energy efficiency of our homes is important: it cuts carbon emissions and bills while improving health and comfort.

The Government’s recent Net Zero Strategy and Heat and Buildings Strategy, as well as the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Independent Commission on Climate’s (CPICC) recent final report, all highlighted the benefits. However the difference in the level of ambition is really stark.

Deeply hidden in the Net Zero Strategy is the surprising aim that the demand for heat in buildings should reduce by just 15-20% in the next 30 years.  This is about half the difference between an EPC D and an EPC C.

This is nuts, because the energy performance of the UK housing stock improved by this much in the 5 years between 2010-2015.  The rate of improvement then dramatically slowed, following the policy changes after the 2015 election, the failure of the Green Deal and the long wait for its replacement. It took until 2019 before the rate of improvement resumed.

figure 12 from Heat and Building Strategy, October 2021

In contrast to the Government’s feeble proposal, both the national Committee on Climate Change and our local CPICC, recommend that 99% of homes should be improved to EPC C or above by 2035.

Carbon Neutral Cambridge projection of potential route from today to 99% EPC C or above

They also propose that all new homes must be built to substantially better than EPC A from now on (as proposed in the draft Greater Cambridge Local Plan)

This is a very sensible proposal, as it would put us on a clear path to net zero.

Carbon Neutral Cambridge has estimated the impact that upgrading EPC’s would have on the energy used for home heating. Although there are a number of simplifications in the calculations, this suggests that it could reduce the demand for home heating in the Combined Authority area by 35% by 2035, and by 70% by 2050.  This is shown in the graph below.

CNC estimates, based on typical energy use (kWh pa /m2) and the changing proportion of homes at each EPC level, comparing the Committee on Climate Change’s recommendation with the target in the Net Zero Strategy

The upgrades should also be a good financial investment: As a figure in the CPICC report shows, the most common level of energy performance in the Combined Authority is EPC D.

Figure 5.2 from CPICC report October 2021

Improving from this to EPC C is not too disruptive to do: typically, it involves having good double glazed windows, a good level of loft insulation, draught proofing, and filling any cavity walls with insulation. The English Housing Survey estimates that it costs between £1,000 and £5,000, depending on the condition and age of the house. They estimate that the average cost of upgrading the whole housing stock is about £8100 per house.

Encouragingly, for those wondering if an investment of a few thousand pounds can be justified financially, evidence from a Cambridge University study commissioned by BEIS indicated that properties with an EPC C rating were worth around 5% more than the equivalent homes with an EPC D rating. As this is a £25,000 uplift for the average Cambridge house worth £500,000, investing in making your home more energy efficient will usually be a good deal.   It also helps de-risk the future: not only does it help insulate you from future energy price rises, once a home has been insulated to EPC C, it will be much cheaper and easier to install a low carbon heating system such as a heat pump, once gas boilers start to be phased out.

Seems like a no-brainer to me!

Based on article first published in Cambridge Independent October 2021

Getting off gas

The United Nations’ recently published report on the causes and consequence of climate change was alarming. But it did also clarify the importance and benefits of reducing methane emissions.

Carbon Dioxide (the main cause of climate change) and Methane (which is the main component in Natural Gas) behave in different ways:  Methane is a much more powerful greenhouse gas than CO2, with around 100 times the short term climate impact between now and 2040. However, while the CO2 that we emit now will be around and continuing to warm the planet for centuries (unless we invent and deploy vast quantities of hugely expensive machinery to capture it for us), the methane we’re emitting now will decay and disappear naturally within a few decades.

Despite this short lifetime, Methane has caused about 30% of the warming we’ve seen to date.

Figure SPM2 from IPCC summary for policy makers, 6th assessment report August 2021

This gives us an opportunity.  Stop emitting methane now: the methane levels in the atmosphere will start to fall naturally, and we’ll win precious extra time to decarbonise everything else and avoid disaster.

The main sources of methane in the UK are leaking natural gas from pipelines and drilling sites; burps and manure from cattle; and decomposing waste in landfill sites.

Encouragingly Tianyi Sun, a climate scientist at the US Environmental Defence Fund calculated that using existing technologies—for instance, by capturing leaking methane and better managing agricultural manure—we can halve methane emissions by the year 2030.

Despite the resistance from the fossil fuel industry, we should definitely stop drilling all new oil and gas wells, and urgently stop using gas for heating and cooking.  In parallel, we need to slash leakage from gas pipelines, processing plant and drilling sites (including disused ones which can continue to leak for decades). These leakages can have a surprisingly large effect.

The operator of Cambridge’s gas network, Cadent, estimates in their annual report that 0.4% of the gas leaks out from their distribution network, mainly from aging cast iron pipes. There are similar losses from the North Sea gas platforms , even though researchers report that much of this is ignored in the government’s figures. Worryingly because methane such a powerful greenhouse gas, if even 1% leaks out before being burnt, that would double the carbon footprint of using gas. As Cambridge’s gas network is old and quite leaky, gas leakage could even be the largest single contributor to our climate impact between now and 2040.

So when you see a Cambridge street that’s being dug up, yet again, to install big yellow gas pipes, it may be annoyingly disruptive, but it helps to know how important this is for getting us to Net Zero.

Based on article first publish in Cambridge Independent, August 2021

COVID-19 advice for early stage companies

I am sharing some advice from a contact of mine, who put it together for his early stage companies.

The key message is to plan for serious economic disruption on a 12 month + timeframe. This is not a short term problem.

The more companies are able to be creative and flexible in responding to the very difficult times to come, the better their chances.

Continue reading COVID-19 advice for early stage companies