Gloomy outlook from BT/Independent’s SustainIT forum

Yesterday’s forum run by BT and the Independent was a culmination of a ’multi-channel media campaign’ called SustainIT. The forum promised to ’explore the potential of ICT solutions to help businesses reduce their environmental footprint’. And it promised to talk about ’how to empower the developing world.’

What it actually did was frighten the audience witless and provide it with some virtual hatches to batten down.

Frightener-in-chief was Tony Juniper, environmental activist, ex-director of Friends of the Earth and the Green Party’s candidate for Cambridge. As you might imagine, from someone who’s been beating the environmental drum for many years and who had a major hand in creating the Climate Change Act, we have no time to lose.

Among other things, he pointed out that the temperature-rise effects of our behaviour take 30 years to show up in the atmosphere, which means we’re already deeply in the clag. Later in the session, Michael McCarthy, the Independent’s environmental editor, reckoned our actions to date have already committed us to a 1.4 degree rise. Juniper pointed out that the most recent records show that the past three years have been even worse than the worst predictions.

He showed a chart from the Stern Review of the consequences of temperature rises on various elements of our environment. If the predictions are correct, everything starts going pear-shaped at two degrees:


The next speaker, Charles Leadbeater, is author of We-think and was introduced as “Tony Blair’s favourite thinker”. Not something designed to go down well with an audience whose politics were unknown. Despite this, he struck an encouraging note, suggesting that technology (including the web) could be mobilised to tackle some of the issues raised by Juniper: dematerialisation in the form of eliminating travel and using screens to collaborate/meet; and, sharing knowledge about solutions online so that the physical work can be done locally using indigenous materials.

He likes the way that the web can make lateral connections in new ways. He does, however, see that the creative solutions that will be invented to sort ourselves out will cause significant change and turmoil. He believes that we need to look both backward to pre-industrial times, at our old ways of organising and commmunicating, as well as forwards to a different kind of future.

The other speakers – Chris Tuppen, BT’s Chief Sustainability Officer, and Hamish McRae, the Independent’s Chief Economic Commentator, tried to focus on the positive but the backdrop of gloom was fairly palpable. They talked of efficiencies and savings that were possible but, overall, the sense was that bad things were happening and good things, in the sense of proper political leadership, weren’t.

Everyone saw the upcoming Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen in December as a crucially important meeting. The hope is that the participants will lay the foundation for a low carbon recovery from our present financial woes. But this requires political will of a high order.

Reading between the lines, it would seem that many senior politicians still haven’t realised that their previous, perhaps lifelong, concerns have been trumped by this new reality. When our own government cut VAT, it sent out a signal to ’buy more’ which wasn’t a remotely environmentally friendly message. This futile gesture did nothing for sales but it cost the government billions in lost revenue. Imagine if that money had been targeted at home insulation, or something else that would have cut energy use and, for the beneficiaries, their electricity bills.

Hope flickered intermittently, as speakers talked about intelligent grids, cutting consumption rather than increasing generation, electric cars and carbon capture. But, without the drive from the top, as in that shown by a Churchill or a Kennedy (and a corresponding willingness by businesses and the public to be led), then we would appear to be facing a very uncertain future.

Technology will undoubtedly play its part but what’s really needed is a dramatist to write a new script. And quickly.

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