Every week the Green Column appears in the Isle of Man Examiner. The authors come from different organisations and backgrounds. They all share love and respect for their environment and the topic of the Green Column is always connected to that.
We have had many outstanding Green Columns written in the last 3 years. Some of them are featured underneath, selected by availability and whether their content is still valid.
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29 December 2012
Time to ‘close the loop’
This week, Cat Turner, secretary of IoM Friends of the Earth, finds that creative recycling can give even old tyres a rebirth.
Used tyres: not the most inspiring candidate for recycling, you’d think – but with a little imagination, they can get used for all sorts of things. Farmers use them for weighting down tarpaulins, low carbon builders fill them with rammed earth to make beautiful and liveable homes known as ‘earthships’, and lots and lots of people use them as planters. I can recall seeing Laxey school put small columns of them to great use as raised potato beds, easily dismantled when the children needed to harvest their produce.
All commendable stuff, but not really making big inroads into the huge numbers discarded every day of the year, the world over. And there are billions of them, amassing in stockpiles all over the place.
To be sure, the situation’s improving. Back in 1990, only about 17 per cent of the tyres discarded each year were reprocessed into something else of use (including energy, when burned in power plants).
That number has improved massively – nowadays, around 80 per cent of the world’s discarded tyres end up being ‘chipped’ into rubber granules and chunks, for use in playgrounds (the nice squishy-but-firm surface your child lands on after plummeting from the climbing frame), combined into aspalt, made into low-grade rubber materials or burned as a low-cost fuel.
Now, however, the stuff’s finding its way into much higher-value products.
This is because after being flash-frozen and then pulverized into a fine powder, the rubber from old tyres can be a valuable (but cheap – really cheap – and clean) ingredient in just about everything you can think of, from plastics to automobile parts.
It’s great news – in part because it lowers the cost of stuff, but mostly because it saves having to get more oil out of the ground to make those products, and so helps make a significant dent in the world’s carbon footprint. And that’s crucial, as the effects of climate change begin to really hurt the world’s economies and ecologies. It’s a double-win for the environment too, being an example of what’s known as ‘closed-loop’ industrial system thinking. This sounds complicated, but it’s just the term used for any production system in which the waste or byproduct of one process/product gets used to make something else.
Industrial ecosystems thinking is a way of comparing commercial production systems to what’s going on in the biosphere, and trying to learn from it and work in sympathy with it, and closed loop production is an elegant example of it at its best – just as in the natural environment, plant material gets eaten by animals, and the resulting animal waste ends up fertilizing the soil that in return nourishes the plants.
Tyres might look dull and utilitarian – but tyre rubber is actually a pretty sophisticated blend of natural and synthetic rubbers, plus something like a dozen other chemicals.
If you see it as a low-grade, low-tech commodity, then its worthwhile uses are quite limited and low value (for example the planters and playground surfaces we spoke about before).
But once you take a closer look at what tyres are actually made of (ie, they’re a brilliant cheap source of complex polymers), they become much more interesting. Using the methods I mentioned above, it’s possible to convert them into amazingly fine powders – as small as 50 microns, which is narrower than a human hair – for making everything from plastics to automobile parts, significantly more cheaply than is the case where those things are derived from natural or synthetic rubber.
And eventually, of course, the goal is to ‘close the loop’ on old tyres.
One company involved in this process is Lehigh Technologies. Lehigh has created a micronized rubber powder out of old tyres, by first freezing them with liquid nitrogen and then running them through what amounts to a ‘turbo jet engine with teeth,’ as the company’s CEO, Alan Barton describes it. Lehigh is using this ‘cryogenic turbo mill’ to make what it thinks are the finest powders yet from old tyres, to create valuable new material at low cost and with minimal environmental impacts. The recycled material goes into new products which would otherwise require new oil to make them – thus significantly cutting the greenhouse gas emissions which are involved in their manufacture. Good result!
So far, Lehigh says it has put some 150 million new tyres back on the road (composed of 10 per cent old tyres), and it’s aiming to get into providing materials for roads, construction materials, shoes and plastics.
As the cost of many resources spirals, and the environmental impact of sourcing them gets ever more damaging, we may find that mining waste for new materials becomes our most abundant option.
Let’s hope 2013 is the year of closed loop innovation!
17 November 2012
Big business stepping up?
This week IoM Friends of the Earth’s Secretary Cat Turner turns a shade greyer, as more reports from the international business community back up science’s calls for urgent action on climate change.
In recent weeks, we’ve seen some debate – in the Isle of Man Examiner letters columns and in the wider press – over whether global warming (as climate change used to be referred to) has ceased. In particular, I mentioned that the UK’s Meteorological Office had to berate the Daily Mail (again) for printing false allegations that it had published a study concluding that global warming stopped 16 years ago.
With admirable timing (it’s as if they were reading this column!), on November 5 international accountancy and consulting firm PriceWaterhouse Coopers published the results of its annual Low Carbon Economy Index.Rather startlingly, the report states that if global warming is to remain contained at no more than 2C, we would need to cut world carbon intensity by an average of 5.1 per cent a year – for the next 39 years. Given that we’ve not managed cuts of that level for a single year yet, this seems laughably unlikely without some big, and prompt, changes in the way we do things. The financial crisis hasn’t helped, despite the fact that lower growth can sometimes help contain carbon emissions – carbon intensity has fallen by less than 1 per cent a year in each of the four years since the financial crisis began.
So what? What if we don’t make these changes?PwC had something to say on this matter too – echoing predictions being made by a number of climate scientists in the last year or so, but less easily dismissable by the climate change denial camp because of PwC’s standing as a ‘friend of the business community’, rather than an environmentally concerned group of academics.
PwC’s Jonathan Grant says: ‘Even doubling our current annual rates of decarbonisation globally every year to 2050 would still lead to 6°C, making governments’ ambitions to limit warming to 2°C appear highly unrealistic.’6°C, said quickly, it doesn’t sound too scary, does it? Nice hot summers, less chilly winters. But these images are not what the reality would be. Remember, 6°C is the global average increase that would result from our continuing on the current path. But with most of the planet’s surface being ocean, an average global temperature rise of 6° actually means land temperature rises of considerably more – well into double digits for continental Europe, and edging into them for the US. Recall the heatwaves we saw in Europe in 2003, which resulted in 15,000 ‘excess deaths’ and undertakers in Paris having to open warehouses to cope with the large numbers of (particularly elderly) people succumbing to heatstroke, in temperatures of 36 to 38°C. Add another 10°C to that scenario and you have something truly frightening.
‘Business leaders have been asking for clarity in political ambition on climate change. Now one thing is clear: businesses, governments and communities across the world need to plan for a warming world – not just 2°C, but 4°C, or even 6°C.’ It’s hard to see this as anything other than a global emergency – unless you’re amongst those who like to trust that technology will ‘find a way to save us’. Good luck with that, as it’s clearly not done much so far.
The trend is still inexorably upwards, despite the efforts of denialists to seize on short-run variations in the trends.
So against that backdrop, and the pleas not just of the mainstream scientific community but, increasingly, business interests, it’s surprising that governments (including our own in the island) aren’t doing more to engage openly and courageously with the public on the matter, and find more effective ways of working towards solutions.
There are some beacons of positive news though, and one in particular not too far from our shores.
Next week, we’ll look at the inspiring work being done by Manchester City Council, which is doing great work in ‘decoupling growth from carbon emissions, driving economic success, creating jobs – and the plans have stayed on course despite the recession’. It’s an example of forward-thinking, inspiring and searingly honest leadership – something we should be demanding ourselves from Tynwald. Check the Green Column next week to read about Manchester’s journey to a lower-emission future, through carbon reductions and an entire programme of cultural/behavioural change.
Wouldn’t it be great for us, here at home, also to feel we lived somewhere which was a part of the solution?
03 February 2012
Sustainability in the world of financial services
by Cathrine Turner
What does the idea of ‘sustainability’ mean for the world of financial services? It’s a question which is exercising the boards and senior management of the world’s major banks, insurance companies and investment houses – including, of course, those with places of business on the Isle of Man. When groups such as Lloyds, Barclays and HSBC are appointing group Directors of Sustainability and similar titles, you can be sure that these issues aren’t marginal – the fodder of cranky, exciteable environmental doomsayers (though they’re sometimes mistakenly characterized as such). They’re being taken seriously by people with responsibility for the planning and budgets of our best-recognised institutions.
The issues that are emerging for the financial world impact at three main levels:
- Operational: for example, ‘how can we as a bank make our day to day operations ‘greener’? And how can we engage our employees in this?’;
- Governance: what are the policies and protocols (both internal and external) that the organization needs to develop and/or comply with, and how are these transferred into the business?; and
- Commercial: what are the emerging products and services that will be demanded by a remodeled economy in a lower-carbon world?
This last area is one of the areas where most work is being done at present – unsurprisingly, as it’s key to the ongoing profitability of both major and niche finance houses. The responses range from – at the macro-level – Biodiversity Bonds and Forest Bonds, multi-million pound loan products being developed in conjunction with the UN Environment Programme’s Finance Initiative – to carbon trading schemes and (more prosaically) funds which invest only in ethically-sound companies, and insurance and lending products adapted to take account of incoming, carbon-friendly building regulations in many countries.
The term ‘sustainability’ means different things to different people – and in the world of finance, it’s no different. But the definition which is most regularly applied outside the financial world – and which is increasingly being adopted within it, both by individual firms and at policy-setting level, is one known as ‘Bruntland’ (the name derives from the Chairman of a 1987 report ,‘The Report of the Brundtland Commission: Our Common Future’, which was – and still is today – influential in developing thinking on sustainability issues). Bruntdland said: “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
These are wide-ranging ideas, but they can be summed up as: our planet has finite resources, and we should foster them carefully – so as to maintain the world in a fit state to pass on to our children, and their children – taking only our fair shares, and doing so in a way that doesn’t damage our environment.
Within the sustainable financial services arena, there are some main themes being debated. They are:
- climate change and global efforts to limit carbon emissions;
- peak oil;
- the protection of biodiversity
These issues are rapidly moving out from the fringes of discussion and onto main board agendas. This is happening as a result of a number of drivers: there are new international laws, such as those requiring organisations to demonstrate that they are behaving responsibly towards their environment or criminalising behaviour that damages it – these things are making it imperative for the finance industry as a whole to come up with meaningful responses. However, increasingly it’s the more grass-roots demands of employees and financial services consumers that’s setting the pace; people want to know that their money is being invested wisely and that their banks and insurers are accountable and transparent about what they do with it. Whereas 20 years ago ‘ethical investment’ was discussed as an option for people who wanted to avoid banking with organisations that financed the alcohol, tobacco and arms trades, nowadays the concept of ‘impact investing’ is emerging – a style which favours not just the avoidance of unethical industries, but a active focus on those which have a positive impact on the world whether it be environmental or social.
What will this mean for the finance industry in the Isle of Man? It’s a good question, given our high level of dependence on providing financial and tax-planning services to international businesses and individuals. Some of the impacts will come down the way such things usually do – by way of an edict from ‘Head Office’, from the parent organisations which have financial subsidiaries here. But the Island has shown itself to be keen to play an active role as a responsible player on the world financial stage – it regularly seeks to be at the forefront when implementing internationally-recognised standards (its enthusiastic adoption of international anti-money laundering protcols is an example of this). It would be good to think that we won’t just be re-active, accepting the changes that will inevitably be forced on us – that the Island’s finance sector embrace the changes and opportunities that are emerging, developing specialist expertise in clean technologies and the financing that surrounds them – and showing our international counterparties how a sustainable financial services industry can be put into practice.