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Leo Johnson and the power of people



While his siblings Boris, Rachel and Jo actively sought out and seemingly enjoy the political and media limelight, Leo Johnson is content working in sustainability. He talks to Alex Blackburne about his career.

There is a lot more to Leo Johnson than his public profile would suggest.

A member of a high achieving dynasty which includes older brother and mayor of London Boris, older sister and editor of The Lady magazine Rachel, younger brother, MP for Orpington and head of number 10’s policy unit Jo and their father, environmentalist, politician and writer Stanley, he is a recognised authority on sustainability.

It would be unfair to call Leo the odd one out in his family. But in a recent interview with the London Evening Standard, he outlined three crucial differences between him and the rest of his immediate relatives: “I’m not blonde. I’m not Tory. I’m born with the gene for self-publicity missing or at least defective. It comes on and off, and when it comes on, no one is interested.”

But while his siblings have opted for high profile careers in politics and the media, for Leo, sustainability was his calling.

This mindset was drummed in from an early age. His father would say openly, “I would save a seal over any one of my children.” And not just the last seal on the planet, Leo adds, but any seal. However, unlike Stanley – an author and former MEP – this Johnson is not an environmentalist.

I ask him if there is a word for someone like him; someone who isn’t an environmentalist but cares more about the “people stuff”. His train of thought momentarily derails.

The thing I like is communicating the ideas to help people see things differently and then act differently. But there is no phrase for that”, he says, before settling on ‘sustainability expert’.

His career in sustainability really started in November 1991, when he attended the South-East Asia Clean Environment meeting in Bali. Four years before that, a trip to Malawi as an 18-year-old had revealed to him the true extent of the world’s social and environmental challenges.

One of the organisers at the Indonesian summit asked the 22-year-old Johnson whether he spoke English. Being English, obviously he said he did. He seemingly met the necessary criteria and was swiftly roped in to moderating a panel discussion on used lubricant oil re-refining, despite having no prior knowledge of the subject.

I got up there, quickly checked out the names of the people of the panel and introduced them. Then I thanked them. That was it”, he says.

After winging his way through the session, a woman from the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO) came up to him and invited him to Jakarta to discuss used lubricant oil re-refining. He agreed and was put to work on a project that helped fund a master’s degree in environmental economics at University College London. It also gave him a foot in the door at the International Finance Corporation (IFC), part of the World Bank – former employers of his father.

I’m not a Tory but I love this thing about the power of people to do unbelievable, super-rocking, crazy stuff. That’s exciting

After working in the IFC’s environment department for a while, and meeting his now wife in the process, Johnson moved to France to do an MBA at the business school INSEAD.

On leaving, he set up Handbag Pictures – a film company that he describes as “catastrophically loss-making”. Its main film, Eating & Weeping, a compelling tale of Stanko the Bulgarian pastry chef who accidentally causes the collapse of capitalism, didn’t do too well. “It bombed”, Johnson comments, recalling a conversation with film guru Samuel Goldwyn Jr, who described it in Cannes as “the worst story I have ever heard, in 37 years in the business.”

After this brief foray into the glamorous world of filmmaking, he went back to the World Bank. He began looking at the relationship between the private sector and sustainability, and co-founded Sustainable Finance Ltd.

I set up this company advising big banks on how not to do disaster projects: how not to do mega-dams that resettle the indigenous people, the big pipelines smacking through the high conservation value forest, projects that cause huge social and environmental impacts as well reputational risks for the bank”, Johnson says.

To my amazement this company started taking off. The big banks were all coming to us, and suddenly we had 50 large banks and corporates wanting advice on how to manage these things.”

It was shortly before setting up Sustainable Finance that he made the connection between sustainability and business. At a recent TEDx event in Newham, he spoke eloquently on megatrends and the sustainable future of cities.

His eyes light up at the mere mention of megatrends – large-scale global economic, demographic, technological, scientific and ecological changes that are rumbling away under our feet – although he’s more interested in talking about when they collide. “That’s when the action happens”, he says, grabbing two packets of sugar from a pot on the table to form lines on a graph.

He labels the first packet, rising from left to right on this homemade chart, as the cost of Chinese offshore manufacturing. There was a time when companies dealt with declining margins by simply offloading their work to China. But this is becoming ever-more expensive, he says.

The second sugary megatrend, falling from left to right, is the manufacturing revolution. Things like 3D printing, Johnson says, are “pulling manufacturing out of the vast offshore assembly line and back into the hands of the maker.” He uses an example of aircraft manufacturer Airbus, which by 3D printing the buckle on its seatbelts – reducing the weight by around 100g – is saving 3.3m litres of fuel during the plane’s lifetime.

He sweeps the two packets of sugars up and begins talking about energy megatrends.

His brother Boris wrote in the Telegraph last year that Britain should “get fracking”. In stark contrast, Leo says we should “forget fracking” because it doesn’t represent a worthwhile investment. The energy return on the energy invested is too high, he says – the same that can be said for deepwater oil and tar sands.

On that note, he adds that the current mayor of London does understand sustainability, quipping, “He’s a pinko-lefty-greenie-liberal inside.” And to be completely clear, he says, all credit for implementing the ‘Boris bikes’ – the pay-as-you-ride London cycling scheme that Boris introduced – goes to Boris. Leo, while running with his brother in Paris (“we were running very slowly, like two old ladies”) was simply the man who said it would be “super cool” to recreate the French capital’s scheme in London. So Boris did it.

Leo’s real vision, though, is of cities where new technology is deployed, not to create a ‘cyburbia’, but with the goal of making lives better.

He points towards a project in Texas called Pecan Street, where just fewer than 1,000 homes are connected together on a smart grid, as a possible solution to the energy crisis.

They’re putting together an energy internet”, he says.

They’re plugging the buildings into this grid together. They’re then plugging the Chevy Volt electric vehicles into the houses. They’re plugging the grid into the battery systems of the Volts to stabilise the grid, and what they’re effectively doing is they’re co-producing power that radically reduces energy bills.

You’ve got this possibility for manufacturing to return to the cities and communities, and instead of us living in these cities made for cars where we commute to these centres of mass production, leaving behind these bankrupt jobless places, we’ve got these viable places where people are working, making and claiming.”

At TEDxNewham, Johnson spoke of “iPad cities” – cities built for obsolescence that construction companies might love and that give illusions of ecological benefits, but are actually throwaway. He grimaces slightly upon mentioning an iPad; his daughter had just sat on his at home.

The thing I like is communicating the ideas to help people see things differently and then act differently. But there is no phrase for that

With the distributed smart grid mode, if you look at the last 150-200 years, there have been four or five moments when there have been real surges in welfare. And it’s always when two things come together”, he says.

It’s always a new energy source getting distributed to allow more people to do more things. That’s what creates growth; that’s what creates wealth. What you’ve got is the potential for communities all around the world to be generating power.”

With a healthy list of big corporates as clients, in 2010 Johnson decided to sell Sustainable Finance to PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) – one of the ‘big four’ accountancy firms.

One of the reasons that I wanted us to be bought by a company like PwC is I don’t think the transition that we need is going to happen without a lot of big companies getting on board”, he says.

If you can manage to shift an organisation like that, you have got a huge leverage. You’ve got a huge multiplier effect. It means you’re not living in this sort of eco-paradise; you’re kind of living in the real world. That’s what’s terrifying but it’s also what’s important.”

Upon selling, Johnson became a partner at PwC. For the last couple of years, he’s been dipping in and out of the film side again, presenting documentaries for BBC World. He teaches at the Smith School at Oxford and has recently co-written a book, which he describes as “a tome that started in a really dark place, with all the carbon and population challenges, and ended up, weirdly, as a tidal wave of optimism.” Called Turnaround Challenge, it’s set for publication in September.

I ask him what inspires him to do what he does. What drives a man with his charisma and intellect to work in sustainability? After a pause for thought, he looks out of the window of the tiny north-west London cafe we’re sitting in and says, “It’s just so brilliant when people do things. You see what they can get up to; the sheer empowerment. I’m not a Tory but I love this thing about the power of people to do unbelievable, super-rocking, crazy stuff. That’s exciting.”

He offers an alternative view. With his tongue firmly in his cheek, he recites a theory thought up by a friend: “Sustainability is like a mid-life crisis. It’s so popular because it’s much easier to heal the biosphere and deal with the intractable problems of climate change than to try to deal with the miasma of human problems.”

Either way, the sustainability space could do with a few more Leo Johnsons. And even though the man himself is undecided about whether he has any political ambitions, having this particular Johnson in number 10 would be quite a coup indeed.

Johnson for PM? Not that one; this one. He’d probably have my vote.

Leo Johnson interviewed World Bank vice-president for sustainable development Rachel Kyte at the 2012 FT/IFC Sustainable Finance Conference, and will be attending the event this year, held at London’s InterContinental Hotel on Park Lane on June 13. Blue & Green Tomorrow readers get 20% discount on tickets to the conference, and the accompanying awards ceremony, when quoting the discount code: FTBGT. See here for more information.

Further reading:

Stanley Johnson, environmentalist: a lifelong fight to diminish humanity’s negative footprint

China: economic supremacy at any cost or global environmental leadership

The six industries that are crucial to sustainable economic development

Home-grown innovation that might just change the world

We need a credible green innovation growth strategy

Editors Choice

2017 Was the Most Expensive Year Ever for U.S. Natural Disaster Damage



Natural Disaster Damage
Shutterstock / By Droidworker |

Devastating natural disasters dominated last year’s headlines and made many wonder how the affected areas could ever recover. According to data from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the storms and other weather events that caused the destruction were extremely costly.

Specifically, the natural disasters recorded last year caused so much damage that the associated losses made 2017 the most expensive year on record in the 38-year history of keeping such data. The following are several reasons that 2017 made headlines for this notorious distinction.

Over a Dozen Events With Losses Totalling More Than $1 Billion Each

The NOAA reports that in total, the recorded losses equaled $306 billion, which is $90 billion more than the amount associated with 2005, the previous record holder. One of the primary reasons the dollar amount climbed so high last year is that 16 individual events cost more than $1 billion each.

Global Warming Contributed to Hurricane Harvey

Hurricane Harvey, one of two Category-4 hurricanes that made landfall in 2017, was a particularly expensive natural disaster. Nearly 800,000 people needed assistance after the storm. Hurricane Harvey alone cost $125 billion, with some estimates even higher than that. So far, the only hurricane more expensive than Harvey was Katrina.

Before Hurricane Harvey hit, scientists speculated climate change could make it worse. They discussed how rising ocean temperatures make hurricanes more intense, and warmer atmospheres have higher amounts of water vapor, causing larger rainfall totals.

Since then, a new study published in “Environmental Research Letters” confirmed climate change was indeed a factor that gave Hurricane Harvey more power. It found environmental conditions associated with global warming made the storm more severe and increase the likelihood of similar events.

That same study also compared today’s storms with ones from 1900. It found that compared to those earlier weather phenomena, Hurricane Harvey’s rainfall was 15 percent more intense and three times as likely to happen now versus in 1900.

Warming oceans are one of the contributing factors. Specifically, the ocean’s surface temperature associated with the region where Hurricane Harvey quickly transformed from a tropical storm into a Category 4 hurricane has become about 1 degree Fahrenheit warmer over the past few decades.

Michael Mann, a climatologist from Penn State University, believes that due to a relationship known as the Clausius-Clapeyron equation, there was about 3-5 percent more moisture in the air, which caused more rain. To complicate matters even more, global warming made sea levels rise by more than 6 inches in the Houston area over the past few decades. Mann also believes global warming caused the stationery summer weather patterns that made Hurricane Harvey stop moving and saturate the area with rain. Mann clarifies although global warming didn’t cause Hurricane Harvey as a whole, it exacerbated several factors of the storm.

Also, statistics collected by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from 1901-2015 found the precipitation levels in the contiguous 48 states had gone up by 0.17 inches per decade. The EPA notes the increase is expected because rainfall totals tend to go up as the Earth’s surface temperatures rise and additional evaporation occurs.

The EPA’s measurements about surface temperature indicate for the same timespan mentioned above for precipitation, the temperatures have gotten 0.14 Fahrenheit hotter per decade. Also, although the global surface temperature went up by 0.15 Fahrenheit during the same period, the temperature rise has been faster in the United States compared to the rest of the world since the 1970s.

Severe Storms Cause a Loss of Productivity

Many people don’t immediately think of one important factor when discussing the aftermath of natural disasters: the adverse impact on productivity. Businesses and members of the workforce in Houston, Miami and other cities hit by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma suffered losses that may total between $150-200 billion when both damage and sacrificed productivity are accounted for, according to estimates from Moody’s Analytics.

Some workers who decide to leave their homes before storms arrive delay returning after the immediate danger has passed. As a result of their absences, a labor-force shortage may occur. News sources posted stories highlighting that the Houston area might not have enough construction workers to handle necessary rebuilding efforts after Hurricane Harvey.

It’s not hard to imagine the impact heavy storms could have on business operations. However, companies that offer goods to help people prepare for hurricanes and similar disasters often find the market wants what they provide. While watching the paths of current storms, people tend to recall storms that took place years ago and see them as reminders to get prepared for what could happen.

Longer and More Disastrous Wildfires Require More Resources to Fight

The wildfires that ripped through millions of acres in the western region of the United States this year also made substantial contributions to the 2017 disaster-related expenses. The U.S. Forest Service, which is within the U.S. Department of Agriculture, reported 2017 as its costliest year ever and saw total expenditures exceeding $2 billion.

The agency anticipates the costs will grow, especially when they take past data into account. In 1995, the U.S. Forest Service spent 16 percent of its annual budget for wildfire-fighting costs, but in 2015, the amount ballooned to 52 percent. The sheer number of wildfires last year didn’t help matters either. Between January 1 and November 24 last year, 54,858 fires broke out.

2017: Among the Three Hottest Years Recorded

People cause the majority of wildfires, but climate change acts as another notable contributor. In addition to affecting hurricane intensity, rising temperatures help fires spread and make them harder to extinguish.

Data collected by the National Interagency Fire Center and published by the EPA highlighted a correlation between the largest wildfires and the warmest years on record. The extent of damage caused by wildfires has gotten worse since the 1980s, but became particularly severe starting in 2000 during a period characterized by some of the warmest years the U.S. ever recorded.

Things haven’t changed for the better, either. In mid-December of 2017, the World Meteorological Organization released a statement announcing the year would likely end as one of the three warmest years ever recorded. A notable finding since the group looks at global land and ocean temperature, not just statistics associated with the United States.

Not all the most financially impactful weather events in 2017 were hurricanes and wildfires. Some of the other issues that cost over $1 billion included a hailstorm in Colorado, tornados in several regions of the U.S. and substantial flooding throughout Missouri and Arkansas.

Although numerous factors gave these natural disasters momentum, scientists know climate change was a defining force — a reality that should worry just about everyone.

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How to be More eco-Responsible in 2018



Shutterstock / By KENG MERRY Paper Art |

Nowadays, more and more people are talking about being more eco-responsible. There is a constant growth of information regarding the importance of being aware of ecological issues and the methods of using eco-friendly necessities on daily basis.

Have you been considering becoming more eco-responsible after the New Year? If so, here are some useful tips that could help you make the difference in the following year:

1. Energy – produce it, save it

If you’re building a house or planning to expand your living space, think before deciding on the final square footage. Maybe you don’t really need that much space. Unnecessary square footage will force you to spend more building materials, but it will also result in having to use extra heating, air-conditioning, and electricity in it.

It’s even better if you seek professional help to reduce energy consumption. An energy audit can provide you some great piece of advice on how to save on your energy bills.

While buying appliances such as a refrigerator or a dishwasher, make sure they have “Energy Star” label on, as it means they are energy-efficient.

energy efficient

Shutterstock Licensed Photo – By My Life Graphic

Regarding the production of energy, you can power your home with renewable energy. The most common way is to install rooftop solar panels. They can be used for producing electricity, as well as heat for the house. If powering the whole home is a big step for you, try with solar oven then – they trap the sunlight in order to heat food! Solar air conditioning is another interesting thing to try out – instead of providing you with heat, it cools your house!

2. Don’t be just another tourist

Think about the environment, as well your own enjoyment – try not to travel too far, as most forms of transport contribute to the climate change. Choose the most environmentally friendly means of transport that you can, as well as environmentally friendly accommodation. If you can go to a destination that is being recommended as an eco-travel destination – even better! Interesting countries such as Zambia, Vietnam or Nicaragua are among these destinations that are famous for its sustainability efforts.

3. Let your beauty be also eco-friendly


Shutterstock / By Khakimullin Aleksandr

We all want to look beautiful. Unfortunately, sometimes (or very often) it comes with a price. Cruelty-free cosmetics are making its way on the world market but be careful with the labels – just because it says a product hasn’t been tested on animals, it doesn’t  mean that some of the product’s ingredients haven’t been tested on some poor animal.

To be sure which companies definitely stay away from the cruel testing on animals, check PETA Bunny list of cosmetic companies just to make sure which ones are truly and completely cruelty-free.

It’s also important if a brand uses toxic ingredients. Brands such as Tata Harper Skincare or Dr Bronner’s use only organic ingredients and biodegradable packaging, as well as being cruelty-free. Of course, this list is longer, so you’ll have to do some online research.

4. Know thy recycling

People often make mistakes while wanting to do something good for the environment. For example, plastic grocery bags, take-out containers, paper coffee cups and shredded paper cannot be recycled in your curb for many reasons, so don’t throw them into recycling bins. The same applies to pizza boxes, household glass, ceramics, and pottery – whether they are contaminated by grease or difficult to recycle, they just can’t go through the usual recycling process.

People usually forget to do is to rinse plastic and metal containers – they always have some residue, so be thorough. Also, bottle caps are allowed, too, so don’t separate them from the bottles. However, yard waste isn’t recyclable, so any yard waste or junk you are unsure of – just contact rubbish removal services instead of piling it up in public containers or in your own yard.

5. Fashion can be both eco-friendly and cool

Believe it or not, there are actually places where you can buy clothes that are eco-friendly, sustainable, as well as ethical. And they look cool, too! Companies like Everlane are very transparent about where their clothes are manufactured and how the price is set. PACT is another great company that uses non-GMO, organic cotton and non-toxic dyes for their clothing, while simultaneously using renewable energy factories. Soko is a company that uses natural and recycled materials in making their clothes and jewelry.

All in all

The truth is – being eco-responsible can be done in many ways. There are tons of small things we could change when it comes to our habits that would make a positive influence on the environment. The point is to start doing research on things that can be done by every person and it can start with the only thing that person has the control of – their own household.

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