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Who has the power to build a sustainable future?

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The keynote debate at Ecology Building Society’s annual general meeting (AGM) this year asked an important question: who has the power to build a sustainable future?

Three speakers from different backgrounds took to the floor during the debate to argue the case for financial institutions, politics and communities. This is what they said.

Financial institutions

Beth Stratford, a PhD researcher at Roehampton University, thinks the financial community’s power and influence is crucial in building a sustainable future.

My first slide has inflating houses to illustrate the housing crisis, a flattened planet and a bank about to fall through the ground. These are three crises that are not unconnected and the case I’m going to make is that if we want to solve these crises we are going to need to make some fundamental, big-ticket changes to our financial system.

So let’s start with the housing crisis, as we all know house prices are going completely bonkers – the average house in London is earning more in terms of annual price increases than the average household is earning in wages; that’s how high and how quickly house prices are rising.

So how’s that come about? Well, one of things that drives price inflation is when you have a growing pool of money chasing a limited pool of goods and resources. Houses are a relatively limited pool of goods and the amount of money chasing houses has been growing extraordinarily quickly.

You might wonder how that is possible when our wages have been flatlining for a longer period than has happened since Queen Victoria. Obviously house prices are rising much faster than wages, so where is all this extra money coming from?

The answer is from bank lending. There’s a very common misperception that when banks lend money they take existing money from savings from the system and just transfer it to the borrowers. The truth is that when banks lend money they create brand new money at the stroke of a finger on a keyboard.

This is how 97% of the money in circulation comes into being – through bank lending. In the eight years leading up to the [2008 financial crisis], banks doubled the money supply. That obviously had a huge impact on the health and direction of the economy. In fact, in the four years before the financial crisis, the banks had more spending power than our elected government.

What were they doing with it all? Most of it was going into housing or into the financial sector for speculation; very little of it was actually going to productive business, and you might not be surprised to find out that very little has changed since the financial crisis. Bank lending is still dominated by housing loans and financial speculation. In fact, politicians are doing their best to fuel another debt-based housing boom because they don’t have the imagination or courage to work out how else to get out of the recession.

I don’t know about you, but I think it is kind of weird that we have given a handful of mega shareholder-owned, profit-orientated companies a virtual monopoly over the creation and allocation of the money supply without any real obligation to use that money in the public interest.

I also think it’s kind of weird that we have allowed our banking sector to grow, merge and agglomerate until we have one of the least diverse banking sectors in the whole world.  Some countries get why we would want a diverse banking sector, there’s Germany, the US and Japan – each of those gets it.

If you want a banking sector that can properly assess loans for small businesses, for houses, for housing co-ops and actually understand the local context, then you’ve got to have small-scale, regionally-managed banks that really understand the local context.

We simply have lost sight of that. It doesn’t have to be that way; there are things we can do to address that problem.

One thing we could do is to put a size limit on banks, because obviously the too big to fail banks get this enormous subsidy every year because the markets know that the state will come and bail them out of it comes to it.

We could also put hard limits on the amount of money created for speculation. We could have a community reinvestment act. We could, just as a start, set a much better example with the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS), our own taxpayer-owed bank, which could be broken up into regional banks and have a mandate to lend to the local economy instead of bankrolling the fossil fuel industry.

The World Development Movement estimates RBS’s lending to fossil fuel companies has a carbon footprint of up to 911m tonnes of carbon dioxide – that is around 1.6 times the entire footprint of the UK just from one year of RBS lending.

If you think that’s bad, fossil fuel shares on the London Stock Exchange are valued at about £900 billion. Most of that value comes from estimates of how much oil, gas and coal we are going to be able to get out of the ground. The trouble is that is we get all of that out of the ground and we burn it we will release 470 times more carbon than the UK.

If you have come across the research from the Carbon Tracker Institute [http://blueandgreen.wpengine.com/features/carbon-trackers-latest-analysis-is-a-warning-to-fossil-fuel-investors-everywhere/], you will be well aware that if we want to stay within in a safe carbon budget we can only burn about 20% of proven fossil fuel reserves. We have to leave the other 80% of proven fossil fuel reserves in the ground.

This means, unfortunately, that the quarter owned by public companies, which are largely owned by ordinary people’s pension funds and insurance funds, 80% of that is what is called a stranded asset. Essentially, if we are really serious about tackling climate change then it has no value.

What can we do about this? We have to have much more active shareholders, hassling their pension trustees; we have got to have much more transparency; we have got to have mandatory reporting of the carbon footprint of investments and fiduciary duty, which is unhelpfully interpreted by trustees at the moment as a straightjacket that means they can only work to maximise short-term profit, rather than thinking about the long-term economic and social interests of their beneficiaries.

I think if we clarified all of these things, we would get a long way.

Politics

Alastair Harper, who runs the thinktank Green Alliance’s Political Leadership theme, argues that the political community has the power to create the change needed to build a sustainable future.

I want to start off saying something that I think is pretty controversial: I think politicians have a very difficult job and they actually try quite hard to make progress and make a better world.

Making that better world means making people lose quite a lot. The reason we keep propping up unsustainable housing crises is that no politician can bear to tell someone that their house is worth a tiny bit less. It will always be worth more than when they first brought it but it might be worth a tiny bit less than a year ago, at which point parliament would be burnt down.

It’s a similar thing with stranded assets; it seems perfectly obvious from just an environmental reality that these assets are stranded. You can’t burn them; if you did before you got to the bottom of the pile, we would hope that some legislation would be passed. Even if it didn’t, they wouldn’t get burnt because civilisation wouldn’t really exist anymore. Explaining that to a bunch of traders is quite difficult when they are worried about the next six months.

The problem is that politics isn’t capable of creating the momentum for the problem. What we’ve seen is there are some really obvious problems out there that will be fixed after a political career is over and the full pain will be felt after a political career is over.

There are some examples of things that are becoming clearer. In the short-term, one of the obvious things is the cost of energy bills. The rise of energy and food prices over the last few years has been putting our inflation up by half a per cent each year. Meanwhile, those who earn an average of £6,338 a year spend just under £2,000 of that on their energy bills.

That’s something that gets political notice but some of the wider resource implications doesn’t, so how do we get politics more capable of dealing with this and more capable of acting?

One way is to grow the information. We’ve seen it on decarbonisation; we have a committee on climate change that brings in independent expertise and tells the government what they should be doing about this. Sometimes they even listen.

We can do the same with resources and create an institute for resources that advises on the budget and points out if [the government] is doing something incredibly stupid for the medium and long-term in the interest of the next six months of the economy – something that requires departments to reply to it.

But I would argue still that that is something quite abstract, something quite elite and technocratic and takes away from the public, which is the problem that we face when we are trying to make the right decisions.

Most of this country quietly loves wind farms but a very few loudly hate them and that has caused a political reaction, certainly in the media a narrative reaction. Part of the thing we need to start seeing is the growth of public engagement in what they love, something that Ecology Building Society is the perfect example of, but we need to role out the model and make more environmental winners in this country, rather than just framing the narrative as a problem we are trying to avoid.

One example of that is the Green Investment Bank. At the moment, it uses public money to invest in environmentally good infrastructure. Why don’t we let the public benefit from that by getting the public to invest in bonds that are backed by the offshore wind projects or the energy efficiency projects that we know will get a return?

In doing that, we create policy certainty in the same way that there is policy certainty to create a housing bubble. If we had 20,000 members of the public investing in government-backed offshore wind, it would be a heck of a lot harder for the chancellor to scrap those projects at the next budget.

In the same way, we can involve the public in the deployment of local infrastructure a lot more than we do now. At the moment we tend to use central government agencies to take the money to do flood defences or we give economic backing to large businesses to invest in big infrastructure.

If instead we could let local communities to bid into plans for central government funding for things like local flood defences, city energy or food management, we would start to get people active and wanting to defend environmental policies in this country.

It’s about opening up the whole country to the opportunities of a growing green economy. If we do that, it gets a heck of a lot easier for politicians to act.

People

Anna Dart, a Balcombe resident during the recent anti-fracking protests against Cuadrilla last year, says people – and activists – are the most important levers.   

My experience has been quite depressing in one sense and quite encouraging in another. Finance comes from people, politics comes from people – so it all starts at the beginning with us at the grassroots level and I think what we are seeing now is a failed economic system, a failed political system and we therefore need to start in our communities rebuilding politics and finance.

A recent YouGov poll showed that people supported wind farms in contrast to fracking by three to one, but the government is still pressing ahead with fracking in this country and making it more difficult to build wind farms.

Opposition in the UK has grown tremendously against fracking since 2013, with the protest in Balcombe we have seen growing public awareness about this issue, but the government still wants to press ahead.

The government now wants to get rid of the law on trespass, which will mean effectively that fracking companies can frack underneath your own private property without you being able to do anything about it and this should enrage us all and make us want to take action in our local communities.

There was a poll conducted in Balcombe, which showed that 82% of residents opposed fracking and yet despite all of this, a West Sussex county council planning officer recommended that Cuadrilla be given approval to frack in Balcombe, in spite of some 900 letters of objections. This really is quite depressing and it means we really need to take action on the ground because local democracy has completely failed.

So where do we go from here? It starts with you and me. I’m not an expert in fracking I’m just an ordinary citizen who has seen my community torn apart by companies like Cuadrilla seeking to frack. If you want to know about the affects of fracking I recommend that you watch the Josh Fox film Gasland 2 about the effects of fracking in America. America is often held up as a success story in terms of fracking but the [documentary] really shows the damage that is does in terms of water contamination, air quality, birth defects and increased cancer rates.

In Balcombe, a new social enterprise was started last year called RePower Balcombe and it aims to eventually create the equivalent of 100% of Balcombe’s energy through renewable resources.

It’s quite strange this disconnect. People at the grassroots level are taking these kinds of initiatives and yet at the same time Cuadrilla is being given approval to frack and the government is pushing ahead with this through its support for the fracking community.

So what can we do? I think we need to go back to our communities – vast swathes of the UK have been identified as areas that could be fracked in the future, so therefore no place is safe in the UK.

We need to go back to our communities if we are against fracking. We need to create small groups that oppose fracking companies if they come on our doorstep, but also need to come up with alternatives and create new initiatives that support renewable energy.

Photo: Ecology Building Society

Further reading:

Ecology Building Society AGM: sustainable finance makes ground

What’s gone wrong with finance?

IPCC findings demand investment in a sustainable future, say investors

Investing for the past or investing for the future?

A sustainable investment revolution must emerge from the IPCC’s stark warning

Economy

How Going Green Can Save A Company Money

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going green can save company money
Shutterstock Licensed Photot - By GOLFX

What is going green?

Going green means to live life in a way that is environmentally friendly for an entire population. It is the conservation of energy, water, and air. Going green means using products and resources that will not contaminate or pollute the air. It means being educated and well informed about the surroundings, and how to best protect them. It means recycling products that may not be biodegradable. Companies, as well as people, that adhere to going green can help to ensure a safer life for humanity.

The first step in going green

There are actually no step by step instructions for going green. The only requirement needed is making the decision to become environmentally conscious. It takes a caring attitude, and a willingness to make the change. It has been found that companies have improved their profit margins by going green. They have saved money on many of the frivolous things they they thought were a necessity. Besides saving money, companies are operating more efficiently than before going green. Companies have become aware of their ecological responsibility by pursuing the knowledge needed to make decisions that would change lifestyles and help sustain the earth’s natural resources for present and future generations.

Making needed changes within the company

After making the decision to go green, there are several things that can be changed in the workplace. A good place to start would be conserving energy used by electrical appliances. First, turning off the computer will save over the long run. Just letting it sleep still uses energy overnight. Turn off all other appliances like coffee maker, or anything that plugs in. Pull the socket from the outlet to stop unnecessary energy loss. Appliances continue to use electricity although they are switched off, and not unplugged. Get in the habit of turning off the lights whenever you leave a room. Change to fluorescent light bulbs, and lighting throughout the building. Have any leaks sealed on the premises to avoid the escape of heat or air.

Reducing the common paper waste

paper waste

Shutterstock Licensed Photo – By Yury Zap

Modern technologies and state of the art equipment, and tools have almost eliminated the use of paper in the office. Instead of sending out newsletters, brochures, written memos and reminders, you can now do all of these and more by technology while saving on the use of paper. Send out digital documents and emails to communicate with staff and other employees. By using this virtual bookkeeping technique, you will save a bundle on paper. When it is necessary to use paper for printing purposes or other services, choose the already recycled paper. It is smartly labeled and easy to find in any office supply store. It is called the Post Consumer Waste paper, or PCW paper. This will show that your company is dedicated to the preservation of natural resources. By using PCW paper, everyone helps to save the trees which provides and emits many important nutrients into the atmosphere.

Make money by spreading the word

Companies realize that consumers like to buy, or invest in whatever the latest trend may be. They also cater to companies that are doing great things for the quality of life of all people. People want to know that the companies that they cater to are doing their part for the environment and ecology. By going green, you can tell consumers of your experiences with helping them and communities be eco-friendly. This is a sound public relations technique to bring revenue to your brand. Boost the impact that your company makes on the environment. Go green, save and make money while essentially preserving what is normally taken for granted. The benefits of having a green company are enormous for consumers as well as the companies that engage in the process.

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Energy

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

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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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