Change agent: Man on a mission

7th February 2014


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  • Mitigation ,
  • Management/saving ,
  • Skills ,
  • CPD ,
  • Management

Author

Heidi Curran

Jae Mather explains how he has helped organisations abate at least 5,000 times more carbon dioxide than he will generate in a lifetime

When people ask me what I do for a living, my most frequent response is: “I try very hard to prevent us from destroying ourselves and I fail miserably.” I have absolutely no qualms in saying that I am on a mission to make a difference, to disrupt accepted thinking and spread the message that, to become a truly sustainable society, business-as-usual attitudes and approaches must be turned on their head.

I moved from my native Canada to Europe 16 years ago because, as someone who wanted a career in sustainability, my options were limited to performing environmental impact assessments and I wanted to do more. Since then, I have enjoyed an incredibly varied career. I’ve lived in the Netherlands, Switzerland and the UK. I’ve worked for local authorities on procurement initiatives and NGOs on designing sustainable communities.

I have been involved with projects helping small businesses innovate green products and advised large corporations on tackling their environment impacts. I’ve developed a new award-winning sustainability service offering for an accountancy firm and set up an events series that has enabled me to talk to thousands of people.

A career in sustainability is multifaceted and complex. It’s not simply a case of working for company A, then B and then C, and you’re a success. You have to forge your own path by looking at things in a more creative way. In 2007, I managed an EU-funded project aimed at helping small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) get new environmental products to market.

It taught me that at least 65% of the innovation happening in developing sustainable goods was occurring at the SME level, and got me thinking in a different way about how we are going to solve the problem of living within our means. It struck me that success will be down to micro-innovators and individual champions, even in large businesses, and that sustainability cannot be achieved with bits and pieces of kit, but by understanding the interdependencies between products, systems and people.

As a result, together with some of the innovators I’d been working with, I co-founded the Carbon Free Group. We established consortiums, bringing together examples of best practice in sustainability. We live in a reductionist society that assumes we can find answers by breaking everything down into their component parts. What is essential is the pulling together of different ideas to create solutions and the Carbon Free Group does that.

Seven years on, I’ve been able to achieve some incredible things through the group. I worked with Birmingham City Council, for example, on its renovation strategy for its 65,000 Victorian social houses. Birmingham has the largest number of hard-to-treat houses of any city in the UK, and I was able to write a report demonstrating the viability of retrofitting those properties. We showed the council it could achieve an 80% reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions from those houses straight away in a technically feasible and cost-effective way.

I also helped with the tender for the groundbreaking ultra-low-carbon Brent civic centre in London. The £75 million project, which was awarded an “outstanding” BREEAM rating, includes sustainable features such as natural ventilation and a combined cooling, heating and power plant which runs on waste food oil, cutting carbon emissions by 33%.

Alongside my work through the Carbon Free Group, I have another role heading sustainability at HW Fisher. I joined the accountancy firm 2.5 years ago after two of its accountants attended a course I was giving and asked me to develop a new sustainability services offering. We now conduct forensic energy and carbon audits – identifying energy savings of 15%–35% on average – as well as offering training and sustainability strategy creation.

I go into boardrooms and really challenge executives as to the sustainability of their business model and how they could be changing it. It’s a great feeling to see that look when someone finally understands, and they say: “I never thought about it like that before.” I’m proud that I get to help people and companies transform the way they’re approaching things. That’s why I embarked on this career; to galvanise change.

When I started the Carbon Free Group, I set up a spreadsheet and I’ve marked down every project that I’ve been involved with and the amount of carbon it abated. So far, I estimate that I have helped organisations save the equivalent of at least 5,000 times the amount of carbon I will generate in my lifetime. Now, there will be some executives in large corporate that could do the same in a day, but what I’m really proud of is that 90% of those carbon savings are from small businesses, where the projects save just five or 10 tonnes.

At the end of the day, each of us has just one life and if you want to try to effect change you have to put yourself in the places where you have the most chance of that. After 16 years, I’ve managed to fight my way into the system and do just that.


Jae Mather, MIEMA CEnv, is director of sustainability at HW Fisher & Company, the co-founder of Carbon Free Group UK and a guest lecturer at the Universities of Birmingham, Cambridge, Westminster and Portsmouth.


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