The London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) has held the above conference for its students for the last few years. Heavy snow prevented me from being a panellist in 2013, so I wasn’t going to miss out this year.
The economist Nick O’Shea was in the chair and on the panel were Kene Umeasiegbu of Tesco plc, Urvi Kelkar of Impactt Ltd, Amanda Feldman of Volans, Robbie Parker of Osmosis Investment Management and yours truly.
It felt like going back 20 years walking into the New Theatre of LSE’s East Building. Academic institutions always have a distinct smell, a not wholly unpleasant mix of industrial cleaning products, linoleum, the idealism of youth and chalk.
They also bring back the memories of academic and relationship triumphs and disasters, accompanied with the echoes of far too many examinations in stuffy halls on sweltering days in spring (1995, for those who want to know, but are too polite to ask).
I was one of the first to arrive, but the hall soon filled up. Really filled up. I was pleasantly surprised that this number of people were interested in a corporate career with conscience. It gives you hope.
O’Shea led by getting our audience to stand up and then sit down as he mentioned a salary they expected to achieved by the time they were 30. Going up in £10,000 brackets, we lost large swathes at £30,000-40,000 and I think there might have been one left standing at £50,000.
Each panellist gave a short description of what they did and how they came to have a career with conscience.
Kene Umeasiegbu is the head of climate change and sustainable sourcing at Tesco plc. He studied geology at a Nigerian university where oil giant Shell funded a research team. After the various Niger Delta spills, his conscience wouldn’t let him work in the oil and gas industry so he moved over into environmental geology. He started out volunteering with and then working for AIESEC, an international not-for-profit organisation that provides students with leadership training and internship opportunities, before entering the corporate world at Cadbury. His interest in climate change triggered a move to the Carbon Trust and then Tesco in late 2013.
Urvi Kelkar is senior project manager of Impactt Ltd, a consultancy specialising in human rights, labour standards, gender and international development. Before joining Impactt in 2008, she volunteered in Mumbai and, like Umeasiegbu, worked with AIESEC. She has also worked with our friends at Forum for the Future.
Amanda Feldman is director of impact and innovation at Volans, a consultancy founded by John Elkington of SustainAbility fame. She volunteered with the American Legacy Foundation, a not-for-profit dedicated to preventing teen smoking and encouraging smokers to quit. She joined Volans in 2009, working on social innovation with global businesses, government leaders and entrepreneurs.
Robbie Parker is an analyst at Osmosis Investment Management, having graduated from LSE in 2012. Osmosis is an investment manager focused on finding best-in-class sustainable investment opportunities. The firm played a role in drafting parliament’s resource efficiency agenda.
Running through the many excellent points and amusing anecdotes was the panellists’ desire to make a positive difference. Volunteering was a regular theme for three of the five. Umeasiegbu recommended getting a mentor (his “calmed [his] radicalism”) and similar to this was the need to surround yourself with people of similar values who can support you in your career.
Meanwhile, Feldman stressed the importance of a life outside work and that travel really does open the mind. Her move from activist, where corporates were the “bad guys”, to someone who helps them transform is common.
While working with a variety of corporates, she was asked to sit on a panel with a representative from tobacco giant Philip Morris (despite having protested against the industry in an earlier life). But rather than criticise its practices and products, she was told to imagine the firm using its expertise to deliver vital drugs to those most in need, in an effort to reframe its mission.
To effect change, Umeasiegbu uses a ‘five C’ framework. You need connections who you can influence and use for support, a context (or platform) for leveraging change such as working for Tesco, credibility from your experience and expertise, confidence to deliver your message and capabilities.
It was pointed out in the question and answers session that you need to decide whether you want to make a big difference in a small company or small difference in a big company. Both are valid approaches, but the former means you may miss out on the training and networking opportunities that large corporates can more easily afford.
The clear benefit is you have a large context to effect change. The latter probably means not using your degree, if it’s in a pure environmental/sustainability fields, until you have built up some connections, experience and status. The clear benefit is you will be more hands on.
One person asked if you needed technical skills in climate science and sustainability. Umeasiegbu pointed out, “The higher you go in sustainability, the less technical skills you need.” He added you just need to know where to go to get the information you need.
For my part, I stated that the best advice I had ever been given was “to not be afraid to be fired” or to walk out of a job. I have excelled at the latter, often finding the ethics and decisions of management falling far short of the level I had been taught at business school. This included being told to promote financial products that were inappropriate for customers, firing good people whose face simply didn’t fit, restructuring for the sake of restructuring and working with senior executives with no apparent moral compasses.
Coming late to sustainability while working for a Cambridge-based research house that profiled fast-growth clean technology companies, I saw the existential threat of climate change and the role of investment in addressing that threat. This was the genesis of Blue & Green Tomorrow.
What my troubled existence in the corporate world did teach me, though, were the commercial skills to run a business and the strengths and weaknesses of corporations. Most corporations are blundering about in the dark when it comes to sustainability, with positive change sabotaged by the short-term self-interested fear of shareholders, ill-informed executives and middle managers.
The panel represented a small slice of the people changing those companies from within, helping them from without through consultancy or investment or starting a magazine that highlights the heroes (and occasionally names the villains).
The answer to the question, “Can you have a corporate career with conscience?” is clearly a resounding yes. It is by no means the easiest or most straightforward career path, but it’s certainly the most worthwhile and fulfilling.
Simon Leadbetter is the founder and publisher of blueandgreentomorrow.com.
Will Self-Driving Cars Be Better for the Environment?
Technologists, engineers, lawmakers, and the general public have been excitedly debating about the merits of self-driving cars for the past several years, as companies like Waymo and Uber race to get the first fully autonomous vehicles on the market. Largely, the concerns have been about safety and ethics; is a self-driving car really capable of eliminating the human errors responsible for the majority of vehicular accidents? And if so, who’s responsible for programming life-or-death decisions, and who’s held liable in the event of an accident?
But while these questions continue being debated, protecting people on an individual level, it’s worth posing a different question: how will self-driving cars impact the environment?
The Big Picture
The Department of Energy attempted to answer this question in clear terms, using scientific research and existing data sets to project the short-term and long-term environmental impact that self-driving vehicles could have. Its findings? The emergence of self-driving vehicles could essentially go either way; it could reduce energy consumption in transportation by as much as 90 percent, or increase it by more than 200 percent.
That’s a margin of error so wide it might as well be a total guess, but there are too many unknown variables to form a solid conclusion. There are many ways autonomous vehicles could influence our energy consumption and environmental impact, and they could go well or poorly, depending on how they’re adopted.
One of the big selling points of autonomous vehicles is their capacity to reduce the total number of vehicles—and human drivers—on the road. If you’re able to carpool to work in a self-driving vehicle, or rely on autonomous public transportation, you’ll spend far less time, money, and energy on your own car. The convenience and efficiency of autonomous vehicles would therefore reduce the total miles driven, and significantly reduce carbon emissions.
There’s a flip side to this argument, however. If autonomous vehicles are far more convenient and less expensive than previous means of travel, it could be an incentive for people to travel more frequently, or drive to more destinations they’d otherwise avoid. In this case, the total miles driven could actually increase with the rise of self-driving cars.
As an added consideration, the increase or decrease in drivers on the road could result in more or fewer vehicle collisions, respectively—especially in the early days of autonomous vehicle adoption, when so many human drivers are still on the road. Car accident injury cases, therefore, would become far more complicated, and the roads could be temporarily less safe.
Deadheading is a term used in trucking and ridesharing to refer to miles driven with an empty load. Assume for a moment that there’s a fleet of self-driving vehicles available to pick people up and carry them to their destinations. It’s a convenient service, but by necessity, these vehicles will spend at least some of their time driving without passengers, whether it’s spent waiting to pick someone up or en route to their location. The increase in miles from deadheading could nullify the potential benefits of people driving fewer total miles, or add to the damage done by their increased mileage.
Make and Model of Car
Much will also depend on the types of cars equipped to be self-driving. For example, Waymo recently launched a wave of self-driving hybrid minivans, capable of getting far better mileage than a gas-only vehicle. If the majority of self-driving cars are electric or hybrids, the environmental impact will be much lower than if they’re converted from existing vehicles. Good emissions ratings are also important here.
On the other hand, the increased demand for autonomous vehicles could put more pressure on factory production, and make older cars obsolete. In that case, the gas mileage savings could be counteracted by the increased environmental impact of factory production.
The Bottom Line
Right now, there are too many unanswered questions to make a confident determination whether self-driving vehicles will help or harm the environment. Will we start driving more, or less? How will they handle dead time? What kind of models are going to be on the road?
Engineers and the general public are in complete control of how this develops in the near future. Hopefully, we’ll be able to see all the safety benefits of having autonomous vehicles on the road, but without any of the extra environmental impact to deal with.
New Zealand to Switch to Fully Renewable Energy by 2035
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.