Website: | Email:


December 2012: But Will Xi Jinping Save the Planet?

As the world waited with bated breath for the re-election of President Barack Obama and the transfer of leadership from Hu Jintao to Xi Jinping in the People’s Republic of China, events in both countries served to emphasise the urgency of strong political leadership on environmental policy - East and West.

The return of Obama to the White House following the devastation of Hurricane Sandy was interpreted by some as a small vote for action on climate change. With his subway still partially under water, Mayor of New York Michael Bloomberg endorsed Obama just five days before the election asserting the President’s environmental credentials.

And whether or not ordinary Americans linked Hurricane Sandy to anthropogenic climate change, they have given Obama a second chance. In his acceptance speech the President affirmed “We want our children to live in an America that isn't burdened by debt, that isn't weakened by inequality, that isn't threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet.”

While it is indeed welcome that the largest economy in the world (for now) is run by a President who appears determined to address the domestic risks of climate change, it was in Beijing that more decisive policies were being fashioned. For it is in China, not in the US, that rapid economic growth creates the most spectacular environmental risks and perhaps the greatest opportunities for innovation in sustainable energy, transportation and agriculture.

In the run-up to the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China there was clear recognition of the momentous environmental challenges the world is facing, and the increasing responsibility of the world’s second largest economy to address those challenges.

According the English language China Daily, official Party commentary acknowledged that “Problems have emerged in the country's economic development, including unreasonable energy consumption and environmental pollution, causing some to doubt whether the world can survive a China living an American lifestyle.”

Popular unrest over environmental pollution continues to grow in China, with street protests successfully halting the $8.8bn expansion of a Sinopec petrochemical plant in Ningbo in October. Warnings are issued on a regular basis by state environmental protection agencies concerned about water, soil and air quality issues. Persistent photochemical smog remains a serious environmental health issue in many of China’s largest cities. And Chinese scholars have estimated that the Chinese economy is incurring environmental costs as high as 8.9% of Gross National Income, compared to just 0.5% in Germany.

But things are changing fast. In China’s new Energy Policy 2012, released in late October, the State Council announced that China wants to cut CO2 emissions per unit of GDP by up to 45% by 2020 (compared to 2005 levels). The Chinese Government promises strong support for hydroelectricity, biomass, wind and solar energy generation. And – doubtless spotting a massive export opportunity for Chinese technology - China has signalled the resumption of its domestic nuclear power generation programme as part of a commitment to reach 15% non-fossil fuel electricity generation by 2020.

In pursuing such a radical transformation in its energy mix, China is taking to heart the advice of business experts that supporting domestic markets for clean energy will enable China to compete globally in the development, sale and deployment of 21st century energy technology.

In a report for WWF released in June 2012: Clean Economy, Living Planet – The Race to the Top of the Global Cleantech Market, authors Arnoud van der Slot and Ward van den Berg of strategy consultants Roland Berger noted that by 2015, the ‘cleantech’ sector could be as large as €290 bn - up from €200 bn in 2011. Fastest growing suppliers to the global cleantech market in 2010/11 were Taiwan (+36% on the 2009/2010) and China (+29%). India and South Korea were tied at +19%.

But most telling of all is that China’s absolute sales of cleantech equipment (€57 bn in 2011), are now greater than both the EU (€47 bn) and the US (€37 bn). As a proportion of clean tech sales to GDP, at 1.7%, China is well placed between Denmark (1st) and Germany (3rd) in the ranking of economies focused on green manufacturing. Around half of these sales are wind and solar technology.

According to the WWF report, in 2011 seven of the world’s top 10 public flotations in cleantech industries were Chinese companies. And loan guarantees of more than $40bn were provided to seven Chinese companies in the solar energy business in the same year.

Given the continuing weakness of the European and US economies, and the massive investments in cleantech R&D being made by Chinese and South Korean businesses, there can hardly be any doubt that it will be East Asian businesses, and not European or American firms that will be dominating many cleantech growth opportunities in coming decades.

As long ago as 1995, strategy guru Michael Porter wrote in the Harvard Business Review: “Successful environmentalists, regulatory agencies and companies will reject old trade offs and build on the underlying economic logic that links the environment, resource productivity, innovation and competitiveness.”

It appears the Chinese were listening. They may have some way to go on resource efficiency and pollution control, and sponsoring the global proliferation of nuclear power may make many environmentalists squeamish, but which other country is promising 5 million electric and plug in hybrid vehicles on the road by 2020? With Bloomberg estimating his family wealth in excess of $1bn, Xi even might want to finance some of that personally.

David Wheeler is Pro Vice-Chancellor (Sustainability) at Plymouth University and Dean of the Plymouth Business School (At time of writing).

This article will appear in Croner’s Environment Magazine 50, 22

November 2012: City Sustainability – can we learn from other European Cities?

With 50% of the world’s population now classified as urban (approx. 3.5bn) and, according to the Hard Rain’s Tour exhibition some 6 to 7bn urban dwellers expected by 2050, life on Earth depends upon achieving sustainable towns and cities.

For the past 7 years I have led the Academy of Urbanism’s assessment of cities which have been shortlisted for its European City of the Year Award and last week I attended a ceremony in which Antwerp was announced as this year’s winner having seen off strong competition from Hamburg and Lyon.

The Academy’s award process seeks to identify and share learning from successful places ranging in scale from individual streets and neighbourhoods to towns and major cities. There is no standard formula for success. Indeed in our increasingly global world places need to remain true to their history and culture and promote their distinctiveness as a means of attracting and retaining human and financial capital – think Amsterdam and Barcelona.

What European cities do face however is a common set of challenges, such as:

  • preventing the continued outward spread of population; the land area of many European cities has doubled in the past 50 years driven by a desire to consume more space and increased mobility.
  • reducing the dominant use of the car in urban environments; the installation of mass public transit (trams and metro systems) emerges a key tool of urban transformation, although increasingly cycling is being promoted as a key means of urban mobility - Copenhagen shows what can be done –with more than one third of all journeys to work taking place by bike.
  • reusing former industrial and waterfront land to create new sustainable communities which mix housing and employment - Hafen City, Hamburg, Le Confluence in Lyon, and the former shipyards in Gothenburg are just some examples of how our cities are restructuring.
  • accommodating a growing number of immigrants from less prosperous parts of Europe and indeed further afield. Successful cities are increasingly multi-cultural cities with London as the prime example. It has to be recognised, as a visit to Oslo last year demonstrated, that in some societies achieving this is not without its challenges.
  • mitigating and adapting to the challenge of climate change. Membership of the EU is driving concerted efforts to reduce carbon emissions and develop renewable sources. Combined Heat and Power is standard in Helsinki, and other Scandinavian cities and Freiburg has built an exemplar ‘green economy’ around the development and use of solar power. Flood management is now a key consideration in urban planning and cities such as Amsterdam, Hamburg and Valencia are having to find ways of living with a higher level of risk.

I am inspired by the enthusiasm and commitment with which European cities are addressing the challenge of making our cities sustainable for the 21st Century and the evident signs of progress. More than anything I am impressed by the quality of both political and technical leadership which is driving change under difficult economic circumstances.

I am convinced that the UK and the rapidly urbanising world can learn from successful European cities. However we face a real challenge in practical delivery as a result of weak city governance and over reliance on market based solutions. We know what to do…but can we do it?

Professor Chris Balch – Professor of Planning and Chair of ISSR Management Team

October 2012: I’m Mandy, Fly Me

When David Cameron announced his Cabinet reshuffle in September, there was a shudder amongst environmentalists reacting to the appointment of (fox hunting, badger culling, climate denying) Owen Paterson at DEFRA and the replacement of (scourge of the airport expanders) Justine Greening at Transport. Green Tories like ‘honest’ Zac Goldsmith and ‘bicycling’ Boris Johnson were quick to give their ecological sabres a public rattling, with Goldsmith threatening to force a by-election in his Richmond Park constituency if the Conservatives did a U turn on the third runway at Heathrow.

The replacement of (popular and knowledgeable) Charles Hendry by (wind farm opposing) John Hayes at DECC was seen as further evidence that Mr Cameron had finally given up on his ‘greenest government ever’ aspirations, even if (beleaguered eco-enthusiast) Greg Barker was left in place as Climate Change Minister for the time being. All of these changes appeared to confirm that George Osborne was winning the argument for killing off any prospect of financing a green economic recovery via the Treasury.

One of the most intriguing observations in the aftermath of the reshuffle was the fact that new Transport Minister Patrick McLoughlin has a fear of flying.

I was reminded of the 10CC’s 1976 hit I’m Mandy Fly Me, with its juxtaposition of a fear of flying with the seduction of an airline poster girl who gets us to buy a ticket anyway. Like Mr Cameron, Mandy overcomes our fears “with a smile as bright as sunshine” and we are welcomed aboard. As Mr McLoughlin joined DfT no doubt he managed to control any irrational fears – even as the HS2 decision loomed and Virgin’s objection to the West Coast Main Line decision was being filed. Facing the combined ire of the Tory shires and Sir Richard Branson might spook many ambitious politicians, but evidently not Mr McLoughlin.

Although many Croner Environment readers may not have been born when 10CC were in the UK charts with Mandy (Zac Goldsmith would have been in nappies), those of my generation will recall that the opening lines of the song also carried a warning: “oh no you’ll never get me up in one of those again; because what goes up, goes up, must come down, down, down….”

And so if we continue weaving the narrative of the fading green credentials of Mr Cameron’s government with the lyrics of Mandy, we might ask at what point the Coalition turns into an environmental plane wreck.

The first clear signal that Liberal Democrat queasiness with their role in the Coalition might take a nasty turn came in the run up to their annual Party Conference in Brighton; with the lack of Tory support for green investment as the chosen battleground.

In an interview with the Guardian on the eve of the conference, Coalition super-loyalist Danny Alexander, chief secretary to the Treasury complained that Tories were waging a "constant war of attrition" on green issues ….claiming they were “endangering billions in green investment, as well as the whole government growth strategy”.

Former Energy Secretary Chris Huhne crossed swords with the Chancellor on these topics many times before he resigned from the Cabinet to fight his prosecution for perverting the course of justice. But the fact that Alexander was directly challenging his boss at the Treasury signalled the seriousness of this new attack, raising the spectre of open warfare over prospects for a green economy.

If such a war does break out, many of the battle lines are likely to be drawn on the energy economyenvironment axis, with the Lib Dems challenging George Osborne and the right wing of the Conservative party on how the economy gets decarbonised – with or without fracking, and with or without nuclear power. As the Telegraph noted on 22nd September “the row over energy has now become a major fault-line in the Coalition that is set to define the next few years.”

Before everyone prepares too gleefully for the disintegration of the Coalition over its developing environmental schizophrenia, perhaps we might enter a note of caution. Canada had a minority Conservative government between 2006 and 2011 and the absence of absolute control meant that the environmental scepticism of successive administrations was kept broadly in check. But since winning an outright victory in 2011, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservatives have abolished the National Round Table on Environment and the Economy, cancelled several thousand Federal environmental reviews, and confirmed themselves as unrestrained cheerleaders for the continued expansion of tar sands in Alberta.

If a majority Tory Government is elected in 2015 on the back of a Lib Dem meltdown, some on the hard right may see that as a mandate for ditching all green pretentions – perhaps with George Osborne as PM in waiting. In which case we may wish to keep our fingers crossed that life jackets will be found under our seats…..

David Wheeler, Pro Vice-Chancellor (Sustainability) at Plymouth University and Dean of the Plymouth Business School (At time of writing) 

This article will appear later in the year in Croner’s Environment Magazine 49, 22

May 2012: Joined Up Investment Opportunities for a Sustainable Economy

In May this year the Green Investment Bank (GIB) was finally established. According to the BIS web site the GIB is “the world’s first investment bank solely dedicated to greening the economy……working towards a ‘double bottom line’ [sic] of both achieving significant green impact and making financial returns”.

Established with £3bn starting capital, and - subject to banking regulations - theoretically able to leverage very large private capital investments, the GIB may yet become a game changer in bridging the austerity versus growth paradox in the UK. With hundreds of billions of pounds needed for low carbon infrastructure investments in the UK, from railways to green energy to sustainable housing, the GIB model may yet emerge as one of the smartest and most efficient models for generating growth again in the British economy.

The month before, in April, the UK Government launched Big Society Capital – a £600m scheme under the leadership of venture capitalist Sir Ronald Cohen which recycles cash from dormant bank accounts into repayable loans for social enterprise. Critics were
quick to point out that such loans cannot replace the need for grants in a sector that is set to lose billions of pounds and hundreds of thousands of jobs over the lifetime of the coalition government.

And yet, in these days of austerity, there is something very empowering about the process of human development through enterprise. The success of microfinance based social businesses such as Grameen in Bangladesh, and Kiva, the internet site that allows individuals to invest sums as little as $25 in start ups all over the world, shows the enormous potential for unlocking recyclable funds for social good.

So it is salient to note that in a recent report from the Institute for Sustainability Solutions Research: The Big Society and the Environment - Better Together, former Friends of the Earth Campaigns Director Roger Higman and Plymouth University academic Rory Shand argue that the Government is missing a big opportunity in not bridging the economic, the social and the environmental agendas quite as explicitly as it might. Having interviewed 15 well known leaders of environmental NGOs, the authors concluded “there is an urgent need for Government and civil society to come together and re-establish the conditions for synthesizing the best in the Big Society and ‘greenest government ever’ agendas” and they proposed a number of steps to achieve that.

It seems the Government has not yet accepted the need to simultaneously invest in social, environmental, human and financial capital. And BIS, DECC, DWP and the Treasury have still not quite processed the need to integrate their investments to get maximum bang for buck for society. We simply do not know if Big Society Capital will prioritise loans to greener social enterprises, or if the GIB will prioritise low carbon infrastructure investments that build social capital. A thousand community energy companies using CHP or three nuclear plants? It will make a fundamental difference to British society how these financial investment decisions are prioritised.

Happily, advocates for joined up investing are emerging thick and fast from the more enlightened wings of the NGO and corporate worlds.

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation has recently been re-packaging and promoting long established ideas of ‘industrial ecology’, ‘cradle-to-cradle’ and ‘closed-loop’ processes within the concept of the ‘circular economy’. Armed with this perspective businesses should reduce waste in their processes as much as possible and those wastes that cannot be eliminated through innovation should be captured and reused by neighbours rather than discharged to the environment. Today eco-industrial parks based on this kind of thinking are springing up in China and elsewhere based on successful experiences in Northern Europe and Canada.

Sustainability Director for global IT consulting firm Atos, Giles Hutchins has spent some time thinking about what businesses of the future will look like. For him the key to making optimum system design changes is for business leaders to look to nature for inspiration and to abandon their fear of change. Consistent with the work of Janine Benyus and her concept of ‘biomimicry’, Mr Hutchins’ forthcoming book The Nature of Business (Green Books) explains how leading businesses are starting to get closer to natural and social systems design with consequent financial benefits.

Whether governments fully embrace the opportunities for joined up investments in nature, people and social relations in time to resuscitate our ailing 20th century financial systems remains to be seen. But we have to hope that those that do are more successful than those that do not and are therefore in a position to build more resilient and sustainable economies in the future.

Professor David Wheeler, Pro Vice-Chancellor (Sustainability) and Dean of Plymouth Business School (At time of writing)

This article will appear in the forthcoming edition of Croner Environment.

April 2012: Time for Legal Counsel to Step Up to the Sustainability Plate

For two decades now, the ‘leadership case’ for sustainable business has been made in UN conferences, popular management books, scholarly articles and professional fora. Pretty well every executive function of the firm from CEO and CFO to Director of Operations and Director of Communications has been examined for ‘sustainability fit’ and the special contribution the role might make to the transformation of business in line with sustainability principles.

In a 2011 Financial Times article, Anthony Goodman even mused on the prospects for the new phenomenon of the ‘Chief Sustainability Officer’ becoming a stepping stone to the CEO job, such was the need for leadership skills, capacity for innovation and technical knowledge required by a CSO. So it is intriguing that in their current ‘Lessons from Leaders’ series examining the roles of ten C-suite players in sustainable business, Accenture completely overlooks one vital role from consideration – that of the General Legal Counsel.

In February this year the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development published a series of think pieces on The Responsible and Sustainable Business: HR leading the way in an attempt to galvanise the HR profession into a more strategic contribution to the sustainability agenda. If sustainability is a complex and context-specific concept involving the interplay of organisational leaders, corporate values and employee belief systems, then the guardians of pay, performance and organizational development must surely be part of the transformation.

We should wish the CIPD well in their campaign because “look out, here comes HR” is another standing joke of corporate life, mischievously captured by Dilbert inventor Scott Adams in his character Catbert – the evil HR director.

So who is going to be brave enough to galvanize the legal profession and what would be the benefits?

Earlier this year I attended a private meeting of four general legal counsels representing very diverse corporations with the purpose of considering exactly these questions. The meeting was convened by Bond Pearce LLC, a leading UK law firm with a values-based interest in the topic.

Of course it is not difficult to interest lawyers in issues of immediate risk: legal compliance on Environment, Health and Safety, oversight of human rights standards in the supply chain, IP protection, due diligence during mergers and acquisitions, and the Bribery Act. But if the business case for sustainability is increasingly about new products, new markets and future uncertainties, what is the role of lawyers in helping companies navigate that terrain?

We found that there was a strong consensus – at least among our small sample of enlightened lawyers – that compliance is a given. The contribution which really should matter from a legal perspective involves issues of competitive strategy, enabling new market developments, balancing comparative ethical values (e.g. in diverse international markets), and reputation management).

Exploring a series of real life case studies from a forthcoming book (1) it was not difficult to see where an incisive legal mind could add enormous value. For example we considered the case of Nina (not her real name), who until recently worked for a global mining company. The company proclaimed publically that sustainable development was very important to them. However, it was increasingly clear to Nina that there were many internal barriers to incorporating sustainability principles into the business.

While some members of Nina’s company tried to change how the company built and operated mines to reflect basic social and environmental responsibility values, most held to traditional mining engineering assumptions. In Nina’s experience, the dominant mindset of her senior colleagues was to seek the highest rate of return with little regard for resolving issues in a ‘win win’ way. And so the company, its leaders and its workers appeared to her to be stuck in a constant identity crisis.

In her words, Nina’s work was eventually: “relegated to the metaphorical dark corner of the basement. Our work was not supported, recognized, nor communicated to key people because it was considered, by many managers, to be subversive to the company’s real goal – making money.”

It did not take our meeting with General Counsel very long to decide that in such situations, a proactive lawyer would very quickly identify the risks to corporate reputation from whistleblowers and local communities if such contradictions were not addressed. Access to mineral resources and project finance could vaporise very rapidly if such disconnects persisted, and so legal counsel must be ready to act as the ‘ethical conscience of the company’.

A suitably smart lawyer might work with her C-suite colleagues and the Human Resources function to help role model authentic and reflective leadership values and behaviours within the organization for the sanity of all internal and external stakeholders. And finally, a really forward thinking general counsel would be anticipating future legal and socio-political trends to help the company’s longer term resilience and competitiveness.

This article will appear in the forthcoming edition of Croner Environment.

Professor David Wheeler, Pro Vice-Chancellor (Sustainability) and Dean of Plymouth Business School (At time of writing)

(1) See Kurucz et al 2012. Reconstructing Value: Leadership skills for a sustainable world, University of Toronto Press.

March 2012: Professor Janet Richardson

Welcome to Janet’s BLOG on behalf of the Sustainability, Society and Health (SSH) Research Group This is my first attempt at blogging so, as a ‘reflective practitioner’ I welcome feedback on what was useful / interesting and what is best left out – just in case I decide to do this again! I am also a self-confessed technological dinosaur, but was recently introduced to the magic of twitter by my colleague Pam Nelmes who is a bit of a twitter babe amongst the Department of Health glitterati. A few weeks ago I tweeted an event I co-organised with Plymouth City Council and NHS Plymouth (Public Health) on urban planning and health. Other colleagues from the ISSR and the Faculty of Health, Education and Society were involved. The event started with a public lecture by Professor Hugh Barton from University of the West of England who gave a presentation: ‘Planning and Design as if People Mattered’. Hugh’s work with World Health Organisation European Healthy Cities Network has been inspiring, and his talk raised a number of issues, particularly regarding planning and community engagement (see tweets at #Plan4Health). Hugh’s lecture was followed the next day by a full day seminar and workshop, hosted by Plymouth City Council at the Beautiful Devonport Guildhall: ‘Partnership working for healthy sustainable communities in Plymouth’. Designed to coincide with the new Localism Bill and health reforms leading to the establishment of Health and Wellbeing Boards, we heard presentations from a range of professionals concerned with making Plymouth ‘One of Europe’s finest most vibrant waterfront cities … where quality of life can be enjoyed by everyone’. The event was interesting and stimulating, and there was a real buzz and commitment to partnership working to integrate planning with health issues in the City. Some of the presentations from the day can be found at: Further details about the UK Healthy Cities and Towns Network can be found at:

The next important event in the Health and Sustainability calendar is NHS Sustainability Day on 28th March. The aim of the day is to raise awareness within the NHS and make pledges to change actions to become more sustainable. It has been organised by the NHS Sustainable Development Unity (NHS SDU), an organisation leading the way on sustainable healthcare through training, awareness raising and providing examples of good practice. For example, the NHS SDU has been receiving positive feedback on the Sustainability in the NHS: Health Check 2012. Our contribution to this day is to publish our New Horizon (ISSR) report ‘Win Win: Saving Cost and Carbon – Sustainable Waste Management in Healthcare’. It presents the findings of an interview study with key people involved in healthcare waste management in Cornwall and illustrates blocks and enablers to managing waste more sustainably. We are taking the project forward through our sustainable healthcare waste management research team by undertaking a number of observational studies at the Duchy Hospital and Cornwall Care (care homes). We are also keen to raise awareness on NHS Sustainability Day about the NHS Forest initiative Linked to this, one of our undergraduate nursing students, Christelle Page is creating garden space for 2 wards at a hospital in Cornwall, supported by Benny Goodman and other School of Nursing and Midwifery colleagues – a great project!

Benny Goodman has recently advised on embedding sustainability into the nursing undergraduate curriculum, ensuring that sustainable healthcare is a core stand that runs throughout the curriculum, rather than an ‘add-on’. Interestingly the General Medical Council has welcomed recommendations from the Sustainable Healthcare Education (SHE) Network on priority learning outcomes for sustainable healthcare. Follow up plans are now being developed, including a wider consultation with medical schools and Royal Colleges.

And for all you Midwives – check out the Nappy Waste Summit (find out more here). West London Waste Authority brings together a range of speakers to talk about their experience and interest in alternatives to disposable nappies.

The Sustainability, Society and Health Research Group has, up to now, been a ‘virtual’ community of colleagues interested in research and pedagogy around this topic. However, we are holding an inaugural meeting of this group on 29th March, 12.30pm – 3pm in Robbins SR3. Colleagues will give a 5-10 minute presentation on their sustainability and health projects, and we will discuss work in process and ideas for future collaborations. If you would like to attend this even please contact

The Sustainable Healthcare Waste Management Team are Janet Richardson, Andy Nichols, Jane Grose, Sabine Pahl, Maria Bennallick and Sean Manzi.

Please send any feedback on this blog to

Professor Janet Richardson, School of Nursing and Midwifery

February 2012: Barker Was Right – Solar Power is not the Klondyke

Late last year The Observer reported that “An extraordinary alliance of countryside campaigners, wildlife groups and green activists has launched a savage onslaught on the government, accusing it of showing "stunning disregard" for the environment.” Reacting to what they saw as an environmentally regressive Autumn Statement, campaigners from across the spectrum accused the government of reneging on the green agenda. Citing “sudden cuts to solar subsidies” and “ill-conceived planning reforms”, leaders of RSPB, CPRE, Greenpeace and FoE accused the government of “an out-of-date approach that casts regulation and the environment as enemies to growth”.

On the latter point, the green movement may well be right. But on the specific question of subsidies for solar, the argument that has been overlooked is the question of exactly how solar photovoltaics contribute to the UK’s broader environmental, social and industrial imperatives. Indeed in several hours of debate on solar Feed in Tariffs in the House of Commons on 23rd November the topic of green industrial recovery hardly arose at all.

Clearly DECC Minister Greg Barker upset many people with his announcement of an early reduction to the amount of money the government will subsidise energy produced by small scale solar photovoltaic installations (from 43.3p to 21p per kWh). Many critical responses came from the business sector. John Cridland, director general of the CBI described the announcement as "the latest in a string of government own goals".

Sainsburys CEO Justin King angrily attacked the move, accusing Secretary of State Chris Huhne of being “disingenuous” on BBC’s Question Time. King said the Government had “stopped in its tracks a massive investment in photovoltaic energy in our country. " And according to Daniel Green CEO of solar installers HomeSun “only the super wealthy with an eco-conscience will be able to wait now for a breakeven of 14 years on a solar investment".

Much of the anxiety expressed by the business community arose because of the abrupt nature of the announcement, and in particular the fact that it came before the deadline for official consultation had been reached. The response of the government has been to argue that the uptake of solar installations was accelerating out of control, the policy was in danger of adding up to £80 to 2020 household energy bills, that in any case the new tariff matches that of Germany, and that people can still make a respectable return of 4.5% on investment after tax.

The Government has also argued that the developing ‘bubble’ was in danger of making the industry unsustainable, and that a reasonable reduction in solar FITs now stands a better chance of deploying £900m subsidies effectively over the next 4 years than the current ‘boom and bust’ alternative.

However, in my view, there are even more powerful arguments for reining in solar FITs for the parallel policy imperatives of climate change, social justice and industrial recovery. On all three points, it may be argued that subsidies for solar photovoltaics are at best a distraction, at worst a poor use of Treasury money that would be better deployed elsewhere.

According to DECC, just 0.5 per cent of renewable generation comes from solar photovoltaics. However 97% of small scale FIT recipients have been solar, with less than 1% combined for micro-CHP, hydro-electricity and anaerobic digestion combined. Yet these community scale non-solar renewable technologies hold far more promise for the long term.

And so even before we consider the more obvious climate change and social benefits of investments in energy efficiency, we must seriously question the wisdom of spending as much as £8bn over the next 20-25 years on subsidies for solar when the industry is – and will remain – a tiny fraction of the renewables story. Particularly when, as George Monbiot has argued, the subsidy actually represents a significant transfer of wealth from the rich from the poor.

When it comes to jobs and industrial recovery, again the solar industry is an interesting but not critical (or especially efficient) use of Treasury money. BIS estimates that around 39,000 jobs may be dependent on the solar industry, and according to Chris Huhne approximately 8-14,000 may be directly employed (including 500 in the Sharp factory in Wrexham). Of course these jobs are important and should be maintained.

But it is spurious to pretend that the UK can or should compete with Germany on solar (250,000 employed and half the world’s installed capacity), still less with China, the US or Korea who are really driving down the costs of solar products. These are the countries that will derive future competitive advantage just as Denmark did with wind energy through similarly judicious investments.

A better, and more differentiated model for the UK may be Canada. Ontario set aggressive solar FITs in order to attract $billions of inward investment and thereby create regional industrial competitive advantage. But Nova Scotia provides no subsidies for solar (which is irrelevant to that Province) and instead has set the world’s first FITs for marine energy in order to help develop the global market place for tidal energy. The Nova Scotia policy is backed by promises of $500m investment in ocean energy commercialisation by the Federal Government.

It remains to be seen whether the UK government will similarly bite the bullet and switch future Treasury subsidies from solar to marine energy, where the UK could still achieve global competitive advantage and where the installed capacity and number of real manufacturing and service jobs would completely dwarf those available from solar photovoltaics.

At time of writing: Professor David Wheeler, Pro Vice-Chancellor (Sustainability) and Dean of Plymouth Business School 

January 2012: Dr. Tim Daley

Imagine a world in which the scientists who were pioneering new understanding of earth system processes were also those who were most active in embedding that new knowledge in the delivery of social or economic value. That value might be represented by change in human behaviours. It might be embedded in new, exportable technologies. It might even be in both. The enlightenment economist, Adam Smith, might well have disapproved, recognising that the specialisation of labour results in improved efficiency and productivity. But that appears to be the developing world of academia, where the impact of research in terms of its measurable effect on policy or economy is now also the responsibility of the academics from whom that new knowledge has come. Despite the inevitable difficulties it will bring to some, the argument for this as a way forward is compelling. In large part, it is taxpayer’s money that is used to fund research. Why then should the sector not work to ensure that maximum value is returned to the investors?

The Institute for Sustainability Solutions Research (ISSR) with Plymouth University provides a vehicle for energising that transition, for bringing the academic and the “real world” together in the context of developing sustainability. Several projects are underway currently and it seems unfair to draw on one example, but that is all there is space for here.

Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) funded research is currently being undertaken by a team that sees Plymouth University partnered with colleagues in Aberdeen, Swansea, Southampton and Exeter and is seeking to explore past changes in climate and its effect on peatland systems in both the northern and southern mid-latitudes. One of the early outputs from the research has revealed new insight not only into the mechanisms of regional climate change, but also linkage with carbon sequestration. Conservation of peatlands and their restoration has become a widespread management practice, partly on the belief that this improves carbon sequestration as well as providing a host of ecosystem services. Through the ISSR and assisted by a Royal Society grant, stakeholders will now be engaged with the new knowledge linking climate and carbon sequestration in peatlands. Through that linkage, it is hoped that experimental carbon accounting models can be developed that will allow that land owners to monetise the carbon asset that exists in their peatland and finance any required restoration via the carbon markets. The potential for a new mechanism for the delivery of a healthy environment is particularly exciting!

Inevitably, this process involves cross-disciplinary working and the drawing together of specific expertise. To that extent Adam Smith might well feel less aggrieved. The example, however, reflects awareness of just one of the potential applications of pure scientific research. Where the national steer has become increasingly clear, it is our sincere intention that the ISSR will grow this space and explore new and pioneering associations.

Dr. Tim Daley, ISSR Director (at time of writing, ISSR Deputy Director)