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Sustainability is hard – but that doesn’t mean it’s not a good thing



Alex Blackburne speaks to Penny Walker: author, environmentalist and inspirational sustainability change agent.

It wasn’t so much that I suddenly realised there was a problem; it was more that I suddenly realised that it is possible to do things very differently.”

Penny Walker is recalling a visit to the Centre for Alternative Technology nearly three decades ago. She was in her early-20s and on her first holiday with the man who would later become her husband.

Driving through the Welsh hills in his battered old car, their journey was interrupted with the sight of a wind turbine up ahead. While the occurrence might not be so extraordinary in 2014 (the UK now has over 5,000 turbines – both onshore and offshore – which produce over 10 gigawatts of electricity), around the time Walker came across her first turbine in the late-80s, they were a relatively rare phenomenon. So much so, that when this particular turbine appeared in front of the couple, it came as a bit of a shock.

Walker spent the rest of the day at the nearby Centre for Alternative Technology in Machynlleth – which owned the turbine – and she attributes this experience as a turning point in her life. There are others from her childhood, such as having three bins in the kitchen – all for different things – and her mother’s “hideously embarrassing” campaigning for speed restrictions in her local area, but seeing her first wind turbine helped her understand that there were big shifts available.

The experience in Wales kickstarted Walker’s enthusiasm for environmental issues and sustainability. She became a volunteer at her local Friends of the Earth group, helping to organise monthly waste paper collections, partly as a fundraising activity and partly to get the paper recycled. She then moved to volunteer at campaign group’s head office in London, before being offered a full-time job as a campaigner.

She was at Friends of the Earth for seven years, leaving in 1996 to pursue an area that had begun to really interest her: working with people who want to change, but find it hard to do so. This way of working contrasts somewhat from the traditional campaign group style of pointing out what the bad guys are doing wrong and putting pressure on people to alter their consumption or living habits, and Penny’s specific area of work, which involved campaigning for changes to policies, services and laws.

And so, not long after leaving Friends of the Earth, Walker became an independent consultant, working with a range of businesses, from ones that are very large like Unilever, to smaller social enterprises or NGOs.

Despite the differing approaches in her past and current jobs, there are aspects in both that overlap. The real similarity, she says, is that both jobs were essentially about trying to help society understand its environmental limits.

One of the things that the two approaches do have in common is that I am still trying to create change so that we, as a species, can negotiate that incredibly difficult switch between being globally unsustainable to being globally sustainable”, she adds.

We’ve never done it before, so it’s no wonder that it’s hard. And it’s no wonder that it’s going to take lots and lots of different approaches.”

That said, Walker says the biggest difference “is that I used to try to create change by being horrible to people; now I try to do it by being nice.”

Today her credentials are impressive. Alongside her consultancy, Walker is also a senior associate at the Cambridge Programme for Sustainability Leadership (where she was also a tutor on the acclaimed postgraduate certificate in sustainable business course for a decade) and an associate at Forum for the Future. She is a chartered environmentalist – a professional qualification handed out by the Society for the Environment – and works closely with organisations like Dialogue by Design, InterAct Networks and the Sciencewise Expert Resource Centre.

She is also the author of a number of books, including her most recent publication, Working Collaboratively, which looks at how collaborative working can shift entire systems.

On the homepage of her website, Walker states, “There’s no blueprint for bringing about sustainable development.” This is a sentiment echoed by Michael Blowfield and Leo Johnson in their recent book, Turnaround Challenge: Business & The City of the Future in which city scenarios they call Petropolis and Cyburbia are trumped by a third: the distributed economy that comes without a blueprint.

But if this is the case, and there isn’t a set formula for sustainability, how do we expect the majority to adopt a low-carbon economy? Walker admits that getting to grips with the gravity of the problem and the subsequent solutions is difficult.

The more you appreciate about a problem like, for example, climate change, the bigger it becomes and the more frightening it becomes. That, paradoxically, can make you feel less able to do something about it. You become better informed, but your sense of empowerment and agency reduces. What can I, as an individual, do about this problem? Actually nothing significant, and that is really problematic.

So a lot of the work that I do is about helping people acknowledge the size of the problem and acknowledge what they can do about it, coming face to face with the contrast between those things and finding the ability to act despite there being no easy solutions. And that’s hard. When people are properly thoughtful about the size of the problem we face, they realise that just switching their lightbulbs to energy efficient ones or switching the tap off when they brush their teeth are never going to be enough. But that doesn’t mean they’re not good things to do, because one thing can lead to another.”

She often comes across people stuck in this mindset; people who are doing things that make their lives ever-so-slightly more inconvenient and make them look a tad eccentric compared to their neighbours, and who have become disempowered as a result.

But Walker believes the solution to this potential rut is collaboration. Where one individual or organisation cannot do something on their own, joining forces with others allows coalitions of actors to access more parts of the system. Forum for the Future is one good example of this, with its diverse list of members from a range of sectors and its commitment to experimenting with system level change.

It’s this collaboration that is at the heart of Walker’s work as a consultant and facilitator – as well as being the topic of her most recent book, Working Collaboratively. She helps connect people and organisations that previously wouldn’t have known where to start and has an impressive CV to boot – not bad, nearly 30 years on from a chance encounter with a wind turbine in mid-Wales.

Further reading:

Will Day, PwC: the companies that deserve to succeed call sustainability ‘common sense’

Success means seeing ourselves as part of the bigger system

Sustainable investment is about optimisation, not maximisation

Leo Johnson and the power of people

Why businesses must ‘shape and innovate’


New Zealand to Switch to Fully Renewable Energy by 2035



renewable energy policy
Shutterstock Licensed Photo - By Eviart /

New Zealand’s prime minister-elect Jacinda Ardern is already taking steps towards reducing the country’s carbon footprint. She signed a coalition deal with NZ First in October, aiming to generate 100% of the country’s energy from renewable sources by 2035.

New Zealand is already one of the greenest countries in the world, sourcing over 80% of its energy for its 4.7 million people from renewable resources like hydroelectric, geothermal and wind. The majority of its electricity comes from hydro-power, which generated 60% of the country’s energy in 2016. Last winter, renewable generation peaked at 93%.

Now, Ardern is taking on the challenge of eliminating New Zealand’s remaining use of fossil fuels. One of the biggest obstacles will be filling in the gap left by hydropower sources during dry conditions. When lake levels drop, the country relies on gas and coal to provide energy. Eliminating fossil fuels will require finding an alternative source to avoid spikes in energy costs during droughts.

Business NZ’s executive director John Carnegie told Bloomberg he believes Ardern needs to balance her goals with affordability, stating, “It’s completely appropriate to have a focus on reducing carbon emissions, but there needs to be an open and transparent public conversation about the policies and how they are delivered.”

The coalition deal outlined a few steps towards achieving this, including investing more in solar, which currently only provides 0.1% of the country’s energy. Ardern’s plans also include switching the electricity grid to renewable energy, investing more funds into rail transport, and switching all government vehicles to green fuel within a decade.

Zero net emissions by 2050

Beyond powering the country’s electricity grid with 100% green energy, Ardern also wants to reach zero net emissions by 2050. This ambitious goal is very much in line with her focus on climate change throughout the course of her campaign. Environmental issues were one of her top priorities from the start, which increased her appeal with young voters and helped her become one of the youngest world leaders at only 37.

Reaching zero net emissions would require overcoming challenging issues like eliminating fossil fuels in vehicles. Ardern hasn’t outlined a plan for reaching this goal, but has suggested creating an independent commission to aid in the transition to a lower carbon economy.

She also set a goal of doubling the number of trees the country plants per year to 100 million, a goal she says is “absolutely achievable” using land that is marginal for farming animals.

Greenpeace New Zealand climate and energy campaigner Amanda Larsson believes that phasing out fossil fuels should be a priority for the new prime minister. She says that in order to reach zero net emissions, Ardern “must prioritize closing down coal, putting a moratorium on new fossil fuel plants, building more wind infrastructure, and opening the playing field for household and community solar.”

A worldwide shift to renewable energy

Addressing climate change is becoming more of a priority around the world and many governments are assessing how they can reduce their reliance on fossil fuels and switch to environmentally-friendly energy sources. Sustainable energy is becoming an increasingly profitable industry, giving companies more of an incentive to invest.

Ardern isn’t alone in her climate concerns, as other prominent world leaders like Justin Trudeau and Emmanuel Macron have made renewable energy a focus of their campaigns. She isn’t the first to set ambitious goals, either. Sweden and Norway share New Zealand’s goal of net zero emissions by 2045 and 2030, respectively.

Scotland already sources more than half of its electricity from renewable sources and aims to fully transition by 2020, while France announced plans in September to stop fossil fuel production by 2040. This would make it the first country to do so, and the first to end the sale of gasoline and diesel vehicles.

Many parts of the world still rely heavily on coal, but if these countries are successful in phasing out fossil fuels and transitioning to renewable resources, it could serve as a turning point. As other world leaders see that switching to sustainable energy is possible – and profitable – it could be the start of a worldwide shift towards environmentally-friendly energy.


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5 Easy Things You Can Do to Make Your Home More Sustainable




sustainable homes
Shutterstock Licensed Photot - By Diyana Dimitrova

Increasing your home’s energy efficiency is one of the smartest moves you can make as a homeowner. It will lower your bills, increase the resale value of your property, and help minimize our planet’s fast-approaching climate crisis. While major home retrofits can seem daunting, there are plenty of quick and cost-effective ways to start reducing your carbon footprint today. Here are five easy projects to make your home more sustainable.

1. Weather stripping

If you’re looking to make your home more energy efficient, an energy audit is a highly recommended first step. This will reveal where your home is lacking in regards to sustainability suggests the best plan of attack.

Some form of weather stripping is nearly always advised because it is so easy and inexpensive yet can yield such transformative results. The audit will provide information about air leaks which you can couple with your own knowledge of your home’s ventilation needs to develop a strategic plan.

Make sure you choose the appropriate type of weather stripping for each location in your home. Areas that receive a lot of wear and tear, like popular doorways, are best served by slightly more expensive vinyl or metal options. Immobile cracks or infrequently opened windows can be treated with inexpensive foams or caulking. Depending on the age and quality of your home, the resulting energy savings can be as much as 20 percent.

2. Programmable thermostats

Programmable thermostats

Shutterstock Licensed Photo – By Olivier Le Moal

Programmable thermostats have tremendous potential to save money and minimize unnecessary energy usage. About 45 percent of a home’s energy is earmarked for heating and cooling needs with a large fraction of that wasted on unoccupied spaces. Programmable thermostats can automatically lower the heat overnight or shut off the air conditioning when you go to work.

Every degree Fahrenheit you lower the thermostat equates to 1 percent less energy use, which amounts to considerable savings over the course of a year. When used correctly, programmable thermostats reduce heating and cooling bills by 10 to 30 percent. Of course, the same result can be achieved by manually adjusting your thermostats to coincide with your activities, just make sure you remember to do it!

3. Low-flow water hardware

With the current focus on carbon emissions and climate change, we typically equate environmental stability to lower energy use, but fresh water shortage is an equal threat. Installing low-flow hardware for toilets and showers, particularly in drought prone areas, is an inexpensive and easy way to cut water consumption by 50 percent and save as much as $145 per year.

Older toilets use up to 6 gallons of water per flush, the equivalent of an astounding 20.1 gallons per person each day. This makes them the biggest consumer of indoor water. New low-flow toilets are standardized at 1.6 gallons per flush and can save more than 20,000 gallons a year in a 4-member household.

Similarly, low-flow shower heads can decrease water consumption by 40 percent or more while also lowering water heating bills and reducing CO2 emissions. Unlike early versions, new low-flow models are equipped with excellent pressure technology so your shower will be no less satisfying.

4. Energy efficient light bulbs

An average household dedicates about 5 percent of its energy use to lighting, but this value is dropping thanks to new lighting technology. Incandescent bulbs are quickly becoming a thing of the past. These inefficient light sources give off 90 percent of their energy as heat which is not only impractical from a lighting standpoint, but also raises energy bills even further during hot weather.

New LED and compact fluorescent options are far more efficient and longer lasting. Though the upfront costs are higher, the long term environmental and financial benefits are well worth it. Energy efficient light bulbs use as much as 80 percent less energy than traditional incandescent and last 3 to 25 times longer producing savings of about $6 per year per bulb.

5. Installing solar panels

Adding solar panels may not be the easiest, or least expensive, sustainability upgrade for your home, but it will certainly have the greatest impact on both your energy bills and your environmental footprint. Installing solar panels can run about $15,000 – $20,000 upfront, though a number of government incentives are bringing these numbers down. Alternatively, panels can also be leased for a much lower initial investment.

Once operational, a solar system saves about $600 per year over the course of its 25 to 30-year lifespan, and this figure will grow as energy prices rise. Solar installations require little to no maintenance and increase the value of your home.

From an environmental standpoint, the average five-kilowatt residential system can reduce household CO2 emissions by 15,000 pounds every year. Using your solar system to power an electric vehicle is the ultimate sustainable solution serving to reduce total CO2 emissions by as much as 70%!

These days, being environmentally responsible is the hallmark of a good global citizen and it need not require major sacrifices in regards to your lifestyle or your wallet. In fact, increasing your home’s sustainability is apt to make your residence more livable and save you money in the long run. The five projects listed here are just a few of the easy ways to reduce both your environmental footprint and your energy bills. So, give one or more of them a try; with a small budget and a little know-how, there is no reason you can’t start today.

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