Monday, June 25, 2012

Despite the politicians, Rio+20 gave us plenty of inspiration

Rio+20 has provided an opportunity for developing countries and some NGOs to complain that the Summit was merely an opportunity for rapacious corporations based in the developed world to further carve up the resources in poor countries for their own benefit.

It is right to be extremely sceptical of the activities of many corporations, particularly when they give grudging assistance, or funds with strings attached that ensure greater ultimate financial returns to them.

Some pledges seem astonishingly miserly. I'm particularly gob-smacked by the one from some of the world's richest energy companies, members of the Global Sustainable Electricity Partnership, who expect us to applaud their donation of a meagre 50,000 solar lanterns to off-grid households. They could easily afford to give 1,000 times this number!

The activities of other corporations shame these. Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever, a company which has made bigger strides than most in trying to turn itself around to become sustainable, made a visionary speech at Rio+20 that is truly inspiring.

He began by saying: "The very essence of capitalism is under threat, as business is now seen as a personal wealth accumulator. We have to bring this world back to sanity and put the greater good ahead of self-interest," he told his corporate audience.

"We need to fight very hard to create an environment out there that is more long term focussed and move away from short termism."

Are you listening, David Cameron and Barack Obama?

Polman said that the lack of ambition shown by politicians are Rio+20 will only make him double his efforts to work with other business leaders and NGOs on sustainable development.

His analysis is: “We are in an inter-dependent world where unfortunately the governmental processes are very local and to internalise these global problems at the political level is proving difficult".

That's putting it mildly.

Relentlessly optimistic, he concluded: "Criticising never leads to anything. The final text has a lot of good elements and there is a declaration for the oceans and a starting process for the Sustainable Development Goals. It recognises an increasing role for business and paints a picture of green growth and a future for the world that we can relate to."

And leading businesses are increasingly recognising that this is what they must do. Partly it is as a result of pressure being brought on them by public campaigns, scientists and NGOs, and partly it is because it is dawning on them that there is nowhere else to go.

The road to the sustainable future was on show at Rio+20, if you knew where to look.

As covered in our news last Friday, Microsoft is to go carbon neutral within a year. Also last week, eBay announced plans to build a data centre powered by startup Bloom Energy's renewable energy fuel cells. These utilise biogas derived from renewable organic waste, the same equipment which Apple last month said it would use to power its main U.S. data centre.

There were many other positive ideas from the private sector on show in Rio. At the splendid Copacabana Palace an initiative called Sustainia100 was launched. It is a showcase of the best, scalable sustainability solutions that exist right now, from solar power in Sudan, to sustainable fashion in Switzerland; from water-cooling in Canada to solar-cooling in Singapore; from buses in Brazil, to smart buildings in Sydney. There are ideas for using bikes, rewarding recycling (currently being used in London) and energy performance contracting.

Talking about transport and energy, what about this? Siemens has reinvented the old idea of the tram with overhead wires, to come up with an 'eHighway' system for trucks that eliminates noxious diesel emissions and noise on heavily travelled roads. It comprises hybrid trucks that automatically connect to the overhead electrical lines, which power them until disconnection, at which point the truck automatically switches back to diesel!

One of my favourite of the scalable innovations has been developed by Velux, a company which has certainly moved with the times. No longer just producing rooftop windows, it is preoccupied nowadays with the more holistic question of sustainable construction. Velux has designed a house optimised to eliminate energy consumption for cooling in the summer, that captures passive solar heat energy in colder months, and takes the most advantage of natural daylight all year round. It uses intelligent ventilation and other modern systems.

A Norwegian company, NCC, has taken this design principle a stage further, to the level of a mid-rise office block. Its O27 building includes a heat recovery ventilation system to optimise indoor conditions, a green roof to absorb stormwater and other ways of minimising energy use. Similar, entirely replicable, principles are used in the Santander Tower south of Rio, in São Paulo, Brazil, while a Forest Office in Skolkovo, Russia is being designed to completely harmonise with its surroundings.

Let's take this even further. How about a green business district? Such a thing already exists in one city: Songdo International Business District in South Korea. Built on reclaimed land and designed by Kohn Pedersen Fox, an international architectural practice, the 100 million square foot master plan includes commercial office space, residences, retail shops, hotels as well as civic and cultural facilities. It will be the first LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified district in Korea and the largest project outside North America to be included in the LEED ND (Neighborhood Development) Pilot Programme.

You've got your sustainable office block in your sustainable city, now what you need is a sustainable factory. Will a zero carbon, zero industrial discharge one do? And would you like it to churn out cars? This is exactly what is being developed by waste company Veolia Environment in partnership with the Kingdom of Morocco. The Tangiers-based facility also has reduced water consumption by 70% compared to similar facilities and utilises wind energy and biomass boilers fuelled by sustainably harvested olive pits and eucalyptus. Aggressive energy recovery technologies are also employed. It's an operating facility that can produce 400,000 vehicles a year and be replicated around the world.

See? The sustainable future is here now. It just needs the rest of the world to wake up and notice.

Its seeds were planted in the 1970s, at the time when the Centre for Alternative Technology was founded as an experiment in sustainable living. CAT's founders, such as Gerard Morgan-Grenville and Peter Harper, felt that capitalism and technology had moved us away from nature, to our detriment, and that a U-turn was required.

Twenty years later came the first Rio Earth Summit, that filled the world with hope but lacked critical mass. Twenty years since then the world's now-jaded eyes have again been on Rio. In another twenty years' time this U-turn, which is nothing less than a revolution in the way humanity lives alongside nature, will be much nearer to completion.

If it isn't, then the whole of human evolution will have been pointless.

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