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The View From A Different Window

This is an edited version of the radio script. The programme on BBC Radio 4 can be listened to by clicking HERE 

I have gone back to peddle power. Not, I have to say, that I am very good at it. It’s just part of my attempt to do things a little differently and a little better and, of course, to keep off public transport during the pandemic.' It’s forced me to realise I can make a change to my routine that’s good for me and happens to be good for the planet too.


The COVID crisis and the resulting  economic recession, has led to widespread calls to recognise that we now have a once in a generation opportunity to re-think how we put the economy back together again and whether we can do it in a more environmentally friendly way So in this programme, that’s exactly what we’re trying to find out - how can we build back better? 


The United Kingdom and in fact, the world finds itself in a time of unprecedented economic hardship that requires significant government investment to enable a recovery. 


Brian O’Callaghan is one of the authors of an Oxford University report into how to Build Back Better. It’s the phrase of the moment. It means re-building an economy that is greener and fairer. 


Brian tells me that "We found that green type initiatives outperformed traditional alternatives on both economic and environmental characteristics."


In other words, their research claims that investing in environmentally sustainable recovery projects, create more jobs, produce more profit per pound spent, and saves the government money - all at the same time. 


So what kind of policies will help with our green recovery? Encouraging more cycling and building bike lanes have become a hot topic since the Covid outbreak.  The advantage, many claim, is not just environmental.   A report by Transport for London, quotes research which claims encouraging walking, cycling and public space improvements, can increase retail sales by 30%, as consumers have better access to shops and no problems rushing back to the parking metre. It says that £1 spent on walking or cycling projects, delivers £13 of benefit to the economy.


Creating more bike lanes would create more construction jobs and a whole new industry could  bloom  - that of electric bikes. I’ve come to meet Tom Mcphail whose company are primed  to take advantage . 


Tom tells me: "Pure Electric was founded around two years ago with the express purpose of decarbonising transport and providing the means for millions of people to travel around the country without causing environmental damage. So we sell electric bicycle's electric scooters and partly as a consequence of lockdown and partly because the demand already existed. We're growing at a phenomenal rate."


Together with Tom, I borrowed a cargo bike and went on a an electrically powered ride. Cargo bikes carry up to a couple of hundred, maybe 250 kilos of goods. You've got an electric motor. So it makes it easy to run it. It's very like riding an ordinary bicycle. You've got the same breaks and gears pedals. But they are an electric motor. 


You have to pedal to make the motor work, but when you start pedalling, the motor will deliver power to the wheels to help you along. So if you're in this case carrying a cargo on the back or if you're trying to get up a hill, it will help you get there


Tome tells me that "The idea of last mile delivery so you can have large amounts of freight delivered to hub points, either by road or by rail. Yeah. And then unloaded from there and then distributed from there on Cargo Bikes So you take the vans and the cars out of the city.

 So we're running, trials, some large delivery companies at the moment. And we fully expect to see the big delivery companies embracing this kind of technology."


If you think that a typical cargo bike will cost low thousands of pounds, but compare, of course, the running costs are very, very low. Yeah, you're not. You got no fuel costs. You got no road tax costs. You've got almost no spare parts costs relative to to a conventional car. Yeah. So not only does it cost less money to buy for your operating costs are far lower. And for small businesses, the big appeal as well is that your delivery times will be pretty much the same as with a car factory. Often in London particularly, you'll be quicker on a bicycle than you would in a car.


Tom says: "Well, the government has this legal obligation to be carbon neutral by 2050. That was already set in stone. In order to achieve that, it has to change our transport habits. So that means building out cycling infrastructure. And it means encouraging people to ditch the car and buy bicycle. So that creates retail activity and it creates construction activity, all of which will stimulate the economy at a time when we desperately need that."


Bikes may be one way of engaging with a greener economy but the big differences might be made by something more substantial. Few would consider concrete, a glamorous industry. It’s just one of those things which surrounds us but to which we give little thought.But there’s a problem with concrete, one that Connor O’Riain at Ecocem is trying to solve.

Connor says: "Concrete is the most consumed substance on Earth After water. For every person on Earth, there is a cubic metre, which is about two tons of concrete poured every year on Earth." 

The carbon footprint of concrete principally comes from the manufacture of the cement, which is the element that allows us to bound bind all the ingredients of concrete together. Now cement is responsible for up to eight percent of CO2 emissions. And this is a huge impact on the on the environment, huge impact on global warming. So it's something that we obviously have to do something about if we want to reduce our impact on the on the environment.


Cement is responsible for 8% of global carbon emissions- so if it were a country, it would be behind only China and the USA. So Connor’s company have come up with a product called Ecocem, an alternative cement.  


To make traditional cement, the first part of the process is to get your raw material, which is to quarry limestone. The second part of that process is to cook that limestone at very high temperatures. So there we have two sources of CO2, the carbon that's contained in the limestone that will be released during the cooking process. And then we have the second course of CO2, which will be the energy needed to get that limestone up to the temperatures needed. So that's between 12 hundred and fifteen hundred degrees. So 10 times more than you need to cook a pizza oven. 


Ecocem claims to have got round that problem.


"Well, we replaced the limestone with a BY-PRODUCT from the production of steel.  So we buy that off the steel industry and do a minimum amount of processing. the carbon footprint of our product is 16 kilos at the end of its lifespan versus the seven to eight hundred kilos of traditional cement."


So a product that, its makers claim, benefits from the double whammy of being cheaper and better than what it replaces and can therefore help us build back better. 


More environmentally friendly cement could be very important in the construction of new projects. But actually trying to improve what we’ve already got  - can be a lot more economically and environmentally efficient than building something from scratch. So another path to a greener economic recovery, is all about the road to retrofitting and replacing.  


In his summer statement, the Chancellor Rishi Sunak, agreed to invest £2 billion in grants to make properties more energy efficient. There’s a specific grant aimed at lower income households, which should not only help reduce carbon emissions but increase social inequality by reducing ongoing energy bills for those most in need of help. 


Econic is a business that hopes to benefit from that renewed renovation and retrofitting market, with a new kind of insulation made from a more ecologically friendly kind of plastic, that can be used for insulation and a wide variety of other purposes. 


Rowena Sellens, Econic’s Chief Executive says: "We're focussed on the polyurethane industry and Polyurethanes are used in a vast range of products and that's insulation in our homes and offices. It's insulation in appliances like refrigerators. It’s used in memory foam, for mattresses in foam in most of the furniture that we use to the soles of our running shoes….So a massive array of materials with very different properties in different applications.


The best way to describe these types of products, these plastics is like a string of beads. And if you imagine the old way, every individual bead is an oil based chemical unit. With their new technology, they're enabling the manufacturers to replace every other bead in that chain with a unit of waste, carbon dioxide. It's chemically bound in there. It's not floating around. It won't escape. So they're reusing, recycling that carbon, that waste carbon dioxide into the chain of those beads


So they’re taking waste carbon dioxide, which causes global warming, and locking it into their product. In the process, they’re reducing the harmful carbon emissions of other industries.


Building with more environmentally friendly cement or improving insulation, are very visible ways of trying to create a greener economic recovery. But perhaps less immediately obvious is what’s going on in the world of big money investing.


Sarah Malvin is the lead Black Rock's business in the UK.


Black Rock is the largest professional investment company in the world. It controls huge amounts of the money in our pension funds and how successful companies like it are, will largely determine how much people’s pensions are worth. 


What it does with its billions of pounds of assets, also has huge influence on the shape of the world economy. Removing investments from polluting industries puts pressure on them to change their ways, whilst investing in environmentally friendly industries, gives them the capacity to expand. 


So how significant a role do investors like Black Rock have, in creating a greener economy?

Sarah tells me that: "I think we have a very positive contribution to make to the recovery and to the recovery being sustainable…what's very clear to us is that climate risk is an investment risk. What that means is that if climate change damages the environment, it also damages companies ability to operate properly. In other words, as well as an ecological concern, climate change puts the economy in peril. " 


As a result, this year Black Rock made a huge change in the way it does business and how it invests its billions.  


"So traditionally, when we're selecting companies to invest in and add to our portfolios, we would assess things like profit and loss. We'd look at their balance sheet. We'd look at the strength of their board….We are now assessing climate risk as part of that assessment as well. So we're applying a score to companies based on our views of how sustainable their companies are. So if, for example, it's a manufacturing company. We would look at the carbon emissions from their transportation. We would look at their energy management. As our last resort, we've we've actually voted against against management. So we have asked them to address certain issues.  we did that at a range of companies this year on climate votes. So, for example, at Exon or Volvo or Lufthansa."


It’s a big change in the way fund managers are making their investment decisions. So why now?


"Because we believe climate risk is going to pose a very real investment risk…many of our investors have a horizon of 20, 30, sometimes 40 years. So is this company that I'm investing in going to be around in the long term? … If we are to deliver to investors investment objectives, then we need to make sure that we have understood the risks posed by climate…this is a substantial step in a journey towards sustainability and investing."


So-called ethical investing has been around for a long time. But in the past, many have feared that to be green, investors have had to accept lower profits. Black Rock claim that’s no longer the case and that so called green or sustainable investments, are now doing much better than more traditional assets. 


That view, says Sarah, is changing. "Actually, what we've seen more recently is evidence that sustainable portfolios are outperforming their traditional counterparts. What we found was that during Q the first quarter of this year that 94 percent of sustainable indices outperformed their broad market benchmarks


There is no doubt that the pause created by the covid crisis, gives us an opportunity to re-think what sort of economy and society we wish to re-build. Whether we want to take that opportunity to do something different - is another question. Brian O’Callahan from the Smith School for Enterprise and the Environment at Oxford University, again. 


"If we support the status quo now and we pump more investment into supporting the economic system as it stands today, our trajectory continues as before. That trajectory is not one that reaches our net zero emissions targets. And it's one that, quite frankly, puts the British population at risk, at risk of the harmful implications of climate change. The second part is that if we don't spend now on these green initiatives, I'm not sure when we will, because coming out of this pandemic, we budgets would have been stretched quite thinly. And so in some ways, the question is if we're going to spend now and versus if we're going to spend at all."

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