Old ideas painted new

Over the past few years I’ve been following the automotive industry, especially in relation to electric cars and efficiency improvements.  I have had a long time love of cars from an aesthetic/design perspective, probably rooted in the many drawings and lego vehicles I made when I was a kid.

Perhaps it was watching Who Killed the Electric Car, the talk of biofuels (and their positive and negative aspects) and hydrogen (with many questions relating to hype vs. reality) – I’m not sure which, but something clicked over the past few years that really opened my eyes to just how little innovation had actually been happening in the space, and I suppose piqued my interest from a sustainability perspective.  I also think that the industry is somewhat of a bellweather for the broader market shift to sustainable technologies.

I was interested to note that this week Lotus Engineering have unveiled a concept car design, based on the Toyota Venza, that achieved a 30% weight reduction – a critical component of efficiency – over the Toyota design.

2020 Toyota Venza concept by Lotus Engineering

GoAuto.com.au reports:

With a combination of lightweight materials and efficient design, Lotus claims to have achieved a 38 per cent reduction in vehicle mass, excluding the powertrain, for only a three per cent increase in component costs.

In other words, the Venza’s 1290kg mass was reduced to just 800kg on the Lotus-engineered 2020 concept.

… The company’s findings were released this week by the International Council on Clean Transportation and show how significant reductions in fuel consumption and CO2 emissions can be achieved for a regular mass-market vehicle through means other than the powertrain.

(egmCarTech has published an article of their own exploring the concept with further pictures.)

Over the past few weeks I’ve been reading the excellent book Natural Capitalism by Paul Hawkins and Amory and L. Hunter Lovins.  In the chapter entitled Reinventing the Wheels the authors outline how lighter materials, better aerodynamics and alternative drive-trains (hybrid-electric) can radically improve the efficiency of cars.  They call this concept the “Hypercar”, and note:

Detroit has long focused on improving the efficiency of the drive-line – the fraction of the fuel’s energy that’s converted by the engine into torque and then transmitted by the drivetrain to the wheels.  But there is an even better approach.  The Hypercar concept attacks the problem from the other end, by reducing the amount of power that is needed at the wheels in the first place.

They go on to outline how efficient use of more expensive but lighter, stronger and more adaptable materials can reduce weight and manufacturing complexity with only mild increases in costs while at the same time reducing the resource intensity (how many resources are required in energy, labour and natural resources) of the car.  Lotus’s concept seems to be taking this approach directly:

Still committed to founder Colin Chapman’s ethos of “performance through light weight”, Lotus Engineering says the 2020 vehicle architecture uses a mix of stronger and lighter weight materials, a high degree of component integration and advanced joining and assembly techniques.

Whereas the benchmark Venza’s body-in-white contained more than 400 parts, the 2020 model reduced that number to 211.

Body materials in the Venza were 100 per cent steel, while the 2020 concept uses 37 per cent aluminium, 30 per cent magnesium, 21 per cent composites and seven per cent high-strength steel – which Lotus says reduces the structure mass by 42 per cent, from 382kg to 221kg.

This is great news, and fantastic that Lotus is taking the initiative.  It’s noteworthy, I think, that Lotus are heavily involved in Tesla Motors‘ development.  However, I can’t help but have a twinge of disappointment that it’s taken over 10 years since Natural Capitalism was written (it was first published in 1999) for these techniques to be seriously considered, for a 2017 horizon.

Perhaps the technology and costs are only just starting to catch up to the vision, but I suspect it has more to do with the recent spur of activity in the automotive industry around electric vehicles that have resulted in this approach being applied.

Hopefully more of the ideas in the book start to come to fruition in the same way soon…

SMEs and environmental management

I’ve just completed my first “official” assessment item for my uni course, and I wanted to share it here for my own future reference, and because it may have potential interest to readers as well. It’s called Opportunities and challenges related to SME implementation of EMSs (PDF 176 KB) – and fair warning, it’s not exactly bed-side reading 😉

The format of the assessment restricted the length to 3000 words, though I could have gone into a lot more detail on a number of the points raised in the paper.

In particular I’m disappointed I couldn’t go into more detail about some of the thoughts I had relating to the implications of the findings and their application to encouraging SME uptake of sustainability practices. That said, I’m sure there’ll be plenty more opportunities throughout the course to do so.

As this was my first assessment, I think I overdid it on the reading front which was reflected in the ridiculous length of the first draft! All the same I really enjoyed all that extra reading – it’s more that I need to balance that with actually getting the writing done. Lesson learnt for next time I suppose.

Anyways, I hope it’s of interest and use. Now onto the next one…

Superfreakonomics – chapter 5

Given the popularity of Freakonmics, and the resultant sense of authority the authors have achieved, I wanted to point out for any potential readers that the chapter in their new book, Superfreakonomics, on climate change (chapter 5) is completely whack.

If you happen to pick up a copy, do yourself a favour and read Brad DeLong’s take first (via Paul Krugman). As Krugman says: “in this crucial chapter, there’s an average of one statement per page that’s either flatly untrue or deeply misleading”. (More on the topic from Krugman)

Reader beware…

Blog Action Day: Climate Change

Today is Blog Action Day and this year’s theme is “climate change”. This post is my contribution, professional cross-posted on my blog.

For those that don’t know, world leaders are meeting in Copenhagen December this year to discuss climate change and their responses to it.

So far we have seen very little from world leaders in terms of real, concrete targets and changes. There is a lot of hope (though dare I say not a lot of expectation) that the Copenhagen talks will result in an updated global agreement that reflects the severity of the situation as outlined by the scientific and economic communities (although Obama’s recent executive order is a positive sign).

It seems that governments the world over are having a deal of trouble committing to targets that are decades away. But I suspect this is part of the problem – the focus on decade long cycles (e.g. “25% by 2020”) needs to shift binding 1 and 5 year targets and plans as well. Whilever plans focus on 10 or 20 years away, action will not be swift. Let’s reduce by 1% this year, an addition 2% next year and soon the totals will add up to the 25%+ that we need to achieve.

To most people it is clear that societally we need to rapidly (i.e. over the next 10 years) reduce carbon emissions across the globe. It is also clear that the costs of acting now will be much lower than later.

To put this into perspective, WWF-Australia recently teamed up with Climate Risk to produce an estimate that places the cost of transforming to a low-carbon economy in Australia at half the cost of the recent economic stimulus package – if we act now. If we allow the amount of carbon in the atmosphere to reach potentially catastrophic levels, the cost will be far, far greater.

Our government and business leaders know this. There is popular support for action. And yet things are still stalled…

What we do know

While there are a lot of unknowns, and acknowledging there is no “silver bullet” solution to reducing carbon emissions, there are a few things that are already underway and with further support will make a significant impact on our emissions.

Renewable energy

Renewable energy systems need to be developed and rapidly deployed to offset coal-based generation. So-called “clean coal” is not a long-term solution, yet it has a medium-term development cycle – the case just doesn’t stack up (you might consider joining GetUp’s “iCoal 2.0” campaign to let our politicians know we know).

Investment needs to be channelled to existing and emerging technologies such as wind, solar, and wave energy. Report after report shows how these, existing, technologies can service our needs. Google has stated that more early stage funding is required. But of course there are myriad ways the government could be supporting the industry – a “real” emissions trading scheme (one that doesn’t let big polluters off the hook) or feed in tariffs are a good start. But even better support for R&D in the area would be welcome.

Alternative fuel vehicles

Alternative fuel vehicles – especially electric vehicles powered by renewable energy – will play a significant role in the short-term transformation of mobility towards low-carbon goals.

It seems that the market has landed on electric vehicles – with the Tesla roadster launched and the Model S on the way in 2011, GM launching the Volt in 2010, followed hotly by the Nissan LEAF late 2012. Nissan’s concept is interesting as they plan to lease the battery – the most expensive component in electric vehicles – to reduce the up-front cost of the technology for buyers.

And of course A Better Place has a novel concept that they hope to launch in Australia, among other countries, soon.

There are longer-term solutions, including re-thinking our cities, something that City of Sydney council seems to be making a lot of noise about with their 2030 Sustainable Sydney plan. But in the short-term cars will be the transport option of choice for many people as our existing infrastructure is geared to best support this mode of mobility.

Energy efficiency

Energy prices will inevitibly increase over time – if not through government levies through geo-political and other factors. In addition, a shift to renewable energy will to an extent require us to be more efficient with our use of energy.

But being more efficient now can also have a significant positive impact by reducing consumption, or maintaining current levels of consumption as population grows, reducing the need for new capacity while new renewable energy capacity enters the mix and some emerging technologies gain a footing.

This is where individual action can make a big difference – if we all choose more efficient appliances, upgrade to more efficient lighting technology, and the like can reduce the need for new capacity, as well as reducing our bills.

Collective action

Over the past few years there’s been a lot of emphasis on individual action – in us as “consumers” playing our part in creating demand and making lifestyle changes. While individual action is important, this will only get us so far.

We need our leaders in government and industry to truly step up to the mark. This is why the Copenhagen agreement is so critical. There will be many, many actions that can be taken in the lead up to the Copenhagen talks – but on this Blog Action Day can I suggest writing or speaking to your federal government representative (you can user OpenAustralia to find out who your rep is) and telling them how important this issue is. Outline the ways that you’re doing your bit, and put forward your ideas about how you want the government to do theirs.

If that’s too much, consider casting your vote with EarthHour, or support an environmentally-focused non-profit who is doing good work in the area.

In either case, let’s give our political leaders the support they need to ensure that we get the right result at Copenhagen.

Emissions trading objections

In my (admittedly limited) reading about the proposed emissions trading scheme here in Australia, I get the impression there’s two primary objections (mostly from business, but also the opposition party – coincidence?) to the trading scheme.

The first is that a scheme will raise prices for the Australian public for goods from high-emissions industries, like electricity. I suspect this is to raise public opposition to the scheme, but I think that we’ve mostly overcome this objection.

The second seems to be that the scheme will negatively impact exports for these products, which in Australia will have a significant impact on exports. An extension to this argument is that producers in countries that don’t have such impediments will be able to undercut the price of Australian companies’ produce.

Over the jump I’ve put together some initial thoughts on these objections and the Government’s proposed approach…

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Where’s the green vision?

In a recent post, Joel Makower points to the seemingly missing vision of what a “bright green” future might look like as playing a significant role in the lack of on-the-ground support for sustainability.

There’s long been a fundamental problem with the green world — the myriad companies, activists, evangelists, politicians, clergy, thought leaders, and others who, each in their own way, have prodded us to address our planet’s environmental ills. And it explains why, after four decades of the modern environmental movement, only a relative handful of companies and citizens have joined in, while many more have dragged their heels to slow, or even reverse, environmental progress.

The problem is this: No one has created a vision of what happens if we get things right.

I couldn’t agree more – I think it is something that is sorely lacking. For me, one of the inspirational elements of Cradle to Cradle was it’s appeal to our sense of aspiration for a better life. It presented concrete examples of what a bright green future might look like, that there was an alternative to business as usual that met our aspirational needs without bankrupting the planet.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately, and I’m more and more convinced of the need to reframe the debate about “growth” and sustainability.

Instead of spreading a message of “less”, we need to appeal to our natural, innate, human sense of aspiration – replacing the aspiration for “more stuff” to focus on what really does constitute a “better life”.

Can we do a judo move (I’m channelling Naomi Klein in No Logo here), to take the weight and momentum of this idea of “growth” and “aspiration” and hurl them towards sustainable goals?

Maybe it’s possible, but to do this we absolutely need a vision of what the future could be like – something to aspire to (rather than away from) – as Joel suggests.

In an earlier TED video, Barry Schwartz talks about the paradox of choice – that as we get more options (which, he points out, is often equated with “freedom”) we are actually less happy.

I think many people recognise that our drive for “more stuff” isn’t working. Certainly in my day-to-day interactions with friends and family we collectively recognise the problems in the banking system, in the corporate payouts for un-performance, in deteriorating public health and education systems, of layoffs following multi-million (if not billion) dollar profit announcements. And of course in the global financial meltdown.

A lot of us intuitively know this is wrong. It grates against our sense of justice, of our ideals of meritocracy and our social values. But we feel trapped – lost without an alternative. If only we had… a compelling alternate vision.

This is a latent force that, I think, has yet to be fully tapped. If we can reframe the debate – from the oppositional framing of “growth vs. sustainability” to the inclusive and aspiration embracing “wellbeing and a better life” – I believe we can go a long way to leveraging this sentiment to achieve significant, and rapid, change in our world.

Live Local

Last time I was around at the Igloo (Digital Eskimo‘s HQ) I was excited to hear that a new project of there’s, focused on sustainable living, was close to launch.

The other day Dave announced that it’s live – the project is called “Live Local” and it is a community driven site where people can share their experiences with living more sustainably.

I’m quite excited about the site because in many respects it extends my original vision for the (now very different) Future is man made.

The site already has a bunch of great ideas on it. You can share your own story, comment on others’ stories. or join in the action by “re-creating” the idea in your world. For example, I’ve re-created the Riding my bike between work and home idea – this is something I’m already doing and it was easy to add my name to the list of people participating.

While this is a simple example, I think the site has a lot of potential. For other activities, like the Bristol Street Party or the Permablitz in Newtown, re-creating gives you an opportunity to try some different things and share your experience in more detail, including adding videos and photos.

Collectively we can be inspired and inspiring, and share our learnings to make it easier for the next person who wants to do something a bit more, or a bit different, to help make their small part of the world a bit more sustainable.

I do hope that a community grows around the site. I’ll certainly be contributing when I can – I hope you will too 🙂

Sylvia Earle’s TED wish

In this TED video, Sylvia Earle talks about her TED wish – to protect the oceans. It’s a pretty amazing video, and an important statement about the damage we’re collectively doing to our oceans and how it’s going to affect us before long.

I can’t help but think that while our “political reality” is centered around an unsustainable concept of growth, the required changes to behaviour simply won’t come about.

In a similar vein to framing sustainability around aspiration, perhaps we need to reframe our concept of growth to something that is more akin to the growth we see in natural ecologies (the very ones we are destroying).

So rather than saying “we have to stop growing”, we could instead change how we view growth so that our human tendency to pursue it can be satiated, but not at the expense of the planet.

Letter to Tanya Plibersek re: Carbon targets

I received a response from Tanya Plibersek to my previous letter re: clean feed just before I went away on holidays, and just after the Government announced their woefully inadequate targets for CO2 reduction.

Below the fold is my follow-up.

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Retailers “doing it tough”. Again.

It seems every year, in the lead-up to Christmas, we hear about how “retailers are doing it tough” and that the Christmas period is crucial for retailers, so we, as consumers, had better “spend, spend, spend”.

This year was no different, except the “global financial crisis” had “hit retailers hard” and that, more than ever, we needed to spend, spend, spend. Never mind the fact that families might need the Rudd government’s handout for bills and savings – it was our duty to spend to save the economy.

Before the Christmas rush I commented to Ang (though I wish I had have blogged the prediction here) that by the time Christmas was over we’d hear that spending was up this year, if not to record levels. Why? Because I’ve noticed that this happens every year.

Last year it was the weight of growing interest rates denting consumers’ spending. This year, the economic crisis. I forget what it was the year before that.

I did entertain the thought that the financial “crisis” might, in fact, have an impact this year – but I posited that we’d still see a surge in spending all the same.

Well… the scare tactics appear to have worked.

According to the salesman at The Good Guys near my Mum’s home, large LCD TVs have been “walking out the door” (hardly an objective measure I know). And Gerry Harvey is surprised that sales had increased 8.7% over the same period last year.

Mr Rudd must be very pleased that his bonus is being spent so wisely…

Now, I am aware that retailers have experienced a significant decrease in spending over the past few months and that some, especially I suspect smaller operators, will actually be “doing it tough”.

I don’t know about you, but I just find the whole “it’s your duty to spend” line a little sickening and that the justifications for why we should are wearing a little thin when retailers continue to report record profits even after claiming that they’re “doing it tough”.

I’d like to see journalists, when reporting such statements, take a look at the profit figures across the previous year and put it all in a bit of perspective: “Despite the fact that David Jones posted a record profit last year, the best in it’s history, the retailer says its preparing for ‘tough times’.” (tough times = “net profit after tax … in line with previous guidance of five to 10% growth” – emphasis mine.)

I think it’s all very much a sign of our myopic focus on growth at all costs (hilariously captured by this YouTube video) as though the environment is just a never-ending source of resources and that permanent, endless growth is possible.

It’s quite simply not possible – the environment has limits that are already stretched by our current consumption habits. Sooner rather than later we’re going to have to face that fact.

Perhaps we should be looking for alternative models and starting to look at the economy from a different perspective? Models and perspectives that don’t rely on infinite, unsustainable growth fueled by private, debt-enabled spending – which, after all, got us into this mess in the first place.