Can thinking differently now help environmentalists plan for an unpredictable future? Catherine Early reports on a debate exploring the issues

Climate change, resource depletion, population growth, societal changes, new technology – the list of future trends those working in environment and sustainability need to consider is seemingly endless.

Delegates at a recent event* held by IEMA and hosted by consultancy WSP|Parsons Brinckerhoff discussed the challenges and opportunities presented by these megatrends, and how practitioners can respond.

Building the future

Predicting the future is notoriously difficult, said David Symons, director of environment at WSP|Parsons Brinckerhoff. A glance back into recent history would reveal many predicted technological advancements that never came to pass, such as waterless baths and flying cars. However, other technologies we now take for granted, such as mobile phones, had advanced incrementally over the years, reaching the point assumed to have been impossible when Motorola engineers made the first mobile phone call more than 40 years ago.

‘Looking into the future is hard to do but, if you go back, you can see how much things have changed,’ Symons told the event. In the environment and sustainability profession, concepts such as the circular economy and natural capital were barely talked about five to ten years ago, but now were ‘right in the heart of our lexicon’.

Symons pointed out that building codes and manuals did not anticipate these trends. ‘But if infrastructure is not designed with these issues in mind, it could become unusable or very expensive to maintain,’ he said.

There were companies working on projects that could fundamentally change how we thought about infrastructure, he said, citing French civil engineering company Colas, which had been trialling photovoltaic surfaces on motorways. ‘Think about what that does to the future of a road network when potentially every road becomes a power station. What opportunities could that bring for Highways England when we’re designing roads for them?

‘Some of these things may seem strange, utopic and challenging but, if we look into the future, we know that it will be different from the past.’

In response to such megatrends, the consultancy is rolling out its ‘Future ready’ programme to all 35,000 staff worldwide. It involves training engineers to understand trends and think about how they need to take them into account when designing and building roads, railways, homes and offices. Symons said staff were being challenged to bring ‘clever thinking’ to their projects and think how changes to the climate, society, resources and technology would affect their area of work and geographical location.

Industrial strategy

Challenges that industries in general face include reducing pollution, greenhouse gases and resource use while increasing output.

Steve Evans, director of the Centre for Industrial Sustainability at the University of Cambridge, said industry had to become more efficient and take on methods used by the likes of car manufacturer Toyota, which, between 1993 and 2013, reduced by 70% the energy it used to make a vehicle. ‘What happens if all manufacturers get halfway to the Toyota dream?’ he asked. ‘We’re not asking everyone to be world class, just halfway. If all UK manufacturing went halfway to world class, we would save about 27 million tonnes of carbon – that’s around a 4.5% reduction in the UK’s CO2 emissions.’

Not only would this cost nothing, but it would improve profitability of firms by around 12%, he estimated. ‘Why aren’t politicians screaming for this?’

However, efficiency on its own will not deliver all the change needed, Evans warned. Changes to value and systems were essential. ‘Although I’m a very strong believer in efficiency as a first action, other measures will be needed to achieve our 2050 [climate] goals. We’re doing a lot of work with companies on what value means to them. What happens when we start selling the performance of energy to a company instead of litres of fuel?’

Evans gave the example of British Sugar, which used waste carbon and heat from its processes to heat a greenhouse and grow tomatoes. In November 2016, the company switched to growing crops to be used in epilepsy drugs. Evans added: ‘They’re using knowledge to extract value of what’s already there; they’ve already paid for it.’

Systems transformation was essential, he said, using the example of car rental as preferable to purchase and ownership. Evans is a partner in hydrogen car company Riversimple, which is planning to use this business model by charging people per month and per mile travelled. The firm will be responsible for fuelling the car. ‘Because we put the fuel in, we are directly incentivised to use as little as possible as that increases our profits,’ Evans said. ‘This car is cheaper to own than a Smart car, but generates more than $10,000 in profit for us, the equivalent of a top-end Porsche. This is not a bad equation.’

Evans is optimistic about the potential for businesses to propose ideas such as these: ‘Lots of people are trying out a lot of new ideas at a rate that I see as exciting.’

Energy systems

Tyrone Kalpee, environmental director at BP International, said a different way of thinking would be required to change the world’s energy systems fast enough to meet climate targets. Much of the growth in energy demand was coming from the newly emerging economies where vehicle ownership is expected to triple in the next 20 years.

But a different message will be needed in many of these countries, where electricity and water supplies are sporadic or non-existent, compared with that used to drive efficiency in higher-income economies. ‘How do you speak about being more efficient to people who don’t have running water or lights in their homes?’ said Kalpee. ‘How do you tell someone not to have a car when they’ve never had it? You can’t, you have to find another solution that meets both their needs and global climate needs.’

Getting there

Learning to think differently in such ways would take time, the participants agreed. Symons acknowledged that rolling out the ‘Future ready’ programme to all staff globally is a huge task for WSP|Parsons Brinckerhoff. ‘But when we do it, it will have far more impact than just myself and my environment colleagues working on this. Our role is to be leaders,’ he said.

Kalpee concluded: ‘We have to be an optimistic. When we decided to go to the moon, we didn’t know how we were going to get there. The same type of thinking is required now.’

*The event was an IEMA initiative in partnership with WSP|Parsons Brinckerhoff and held as part of ongoing work on the broader corporate sustainability agenda.