The table for our London Salon

On big messy London and why Oz has no excuse but to be a green star

We’re in the UK and it’s like stepping into Queensland a few months after Campbell Newman took over.

Major green programs have been slashed and there are fears of worse to come. Even the Climate Change Act could be on the chopping block; the prospect is whispered in the same tone as the courtiers must have used when they heard about the young princes locked up in the Tower of London.

UK Chancellor George Osborne is totally dismissive of green anything, we’ve heard. This week he cheerfully announced he had secured cuts averaging 30 per cent over the next four years to government spending. Guess which departments? Transport, local government and environment.

The reason we’re in the UK, in London, is to hold a salon on climate bonds and sustainable property on Thursday night – London being the centre of the financial world as we know it, and COP21 coming up in December, just around the corner in Paris. This event is to make full use of the carbon miles we’re consuming in accepting Bentley Systems’ generous offer to host journalists from around the world to attend its yearly conference.

Our salon’s theme is typically ambitious and optimistic but it’s a bit of a shock to see the backwards steps the UK government has embarked upon. Worse is that the UK seems to have missed the big global shift going the other way.

You have to wonder if the UK advisers have done their homework properly. Have they not observed recent history and what happens to leaders who take the extreme view? Not the least in Australia and most thrillingly now Canada.

Apparently not.

In England you’d think they invented history, given the great swathes of elaborate and impressive buildings from the Tower of London to Westminster and beyond. At the Smithfield Market area near the city, the sign points to less cheerful reminders of times past, relating the torture and publicly sanctioned killings that routinely greeted marketgoers.

It’s clear historic buildings are forensically protected and you notice there are no commercial signs to tarnish the image. In fact there is very little signage anywhere, and even the most impressive buildings betray nothing of what goes on inside.

Near the restaurant that will host our salon on Thursday night, smack in the banking district, the only hint of what’s around is on a hoarding on the new construction site in one of the cobblestoned rabbit warrens we must negotiate to get there – it’s a mention of the Bank of England. We ask the front of house staff if it’s indeed the Bank of England across the lane and she says she has no idea.

It’s like that, it seems, in London. A vast divide between those who know and those who don’t.

So when the Chancellor decrees that green is gone, over, it feels useless to protest that the Conservative ideology was founded on conservation of nature (and the estates and privilege, of course).

Trust us, is the message. We know so much you have no idea about.

At the UK Green Building Council, the mood is sombre.

Julie Hirigoyen

Its talented, relatively new chief executive Julie Hirigoyen has a background in law and deep immersion in strategic sustainability advisory for corporates, in particular through a company she co-founded that was picked up by JLL. So she’s well placed to deal with the business side of green.

But even so, it’s going to be hard to talk enough rational business sense to break through this negative political climate.

“It’s pretty dire,” she says. The problem is that good business sense doesn’t seem to make an impact.

“From an organisational point of view we will still try to influence the national government but we won’t put as many resources into that as we might have done five years ago.

“We’ll try to influence, we’ll desperately try to influence, where we can.”

One glimmer of hope is that the government will see energy efficiency as a worthy inclusion in its major infrastructure priorities, to which it’s committed £100 billion.

England has the “most inefficient housing stock – people dying every winter because it’s too cold and in the summer because it’s too hot”, Hirigoyen says.

Evidence the GBC will present will show the economic benefit of saving energy could be worth £8-9 billion pounds, Hirigoyen says.

Another event that ought to convince is a massive spike in electricity prices in London last week during a surge in consumption, and consequent urgings to business to use back up power to avoid an outage.

There are so many good schemes that could help, Hirigoyen says, but sadly there’s bad history with the programs such as the Green Deal, botched in its rollout, much the same way that many innovative and ambitious schemes are botched in their first iterations. Australia’s included.

The other big problem is that while there are some highly rated green buildings in terms of design, performance can fall far short of the promise.

Some of the highest-rated, supposedly green buildings are “belching carbon”, Hirigoyen says, mainly because tenants have barely stepped onto the first rung of the sustainability ladder.

Tenant engagement is a major issue.

Hirigoyen’s outlook lifts though when she mentions there will be a green finance and built environment day at COP.

Looking around this big messy city, with its government out of control Newman/Abbott style, and the massive problems of poverty, appalling housing and refugees massing on borders in numbers rivalling those in the second World War, we look at Hirigoyen and her peers with a mix of admiration and trepidation at the job ahead.

Australia looks like a cinch in comparison, a walk in the park, with our leading property owners pretty well committed to sustainability and the biggest problem to convince the B and the C grade building owners to take action at the very least to save their own pockets.

In Oz we’d like to think the political pendulum on climate is on the way back – at least to a more middle ground. And it certainly is a more manageable country, with a manageable population, climate, infrastructure, budget and optimism.

We can’t help this recurring thought: we have no excuse to do anything we want in Australia. From this perspective, perched up here at the upper latitudes, Australia shines like some amazing precious gem.

Yes, there are major social equity issues too, but how relatively easy it would be to tackle them, to provide decent housing, transport and job opportunities compared with the mammoth challenges that face the ruling powers in countries such as Britain.

In some way we begrudgingly understand why extreme solutions take over: it’s crazy hard to even begin to tackle the issues facing Europe.

But the pendulum is moving globally, despite the challenges.

In Paris, in Europe, momentum is building for the climate talks, and what’s fantastic is that this momentum is building in the very centres of power, where the pollies go to for instructions – the financial and investment markets.

See the article that our UK correspondent David Thorpe has written for us this week. Note the good news and where it’s coming from. For instance:

  • Goldman Sachs wants to leverage $150 billion into clean energy financing and investments by 2025
  • A new Low Carbon Technology Partnerships initiative has in its sights US$5-$10 trillion of investment into low carbon sectors, with – great news – 20 million to 45 million jobs likely to spin off this new economic boom
  • China, re-born, positive keen-for-respect China, is planning to ramp up its renewables capacity from just nine gigawatts in 2007 to a stupendous 608.9GW by 2025 (knowing China it’s probably underquoting the ambitions)

Another excellent article we caught sight of this week was on a Harvard Business Review assessment of the world’s greatest corporate leaders.

The No 1 placegetter, Lars Rebien Sørensen, chief executive of the Danish pharmaceutical company Novo Nordisk, was discussing the ingredients of corporate success.

Key, he said, was taking environmental and social issues into consideration and thinking longer term.

“Corporate social responsibility is nothing but maximising the value of your company over a long period,” he said. “In the long term, social and environmental issues become financial issues.”

But there is one thing over we don’t have the luxury of a long-term frame to get right, and that’s climate action.

In this, we don’t have a minute to waste.

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  1. What’s even worse about this backdown by the Conservatives on environmental grounds is that slippery Dave Cameron, the PM, announced on election in 2010 that this would be the “greenest government ever”.

    It has turned out to be a complete lie, as was his claim that the NHS was “safe in his hands” (he’s selling it off to private enterprise as fast as possible).

    All that after being photographed during the 2010 on a glacier in Greenland, hugging a husky. The man’s a charlatan.