Jonathon Porritt at Cambridge Department of Engineering

Cambridge Sustainability Lectures

29th February
Sustainable capitalism: if not now, when?
Jonathon Porritt CBE

I had the privilege of hearing the legendary writer and commentator Jonathon Porritt, CBE speak at the Cambridge University Department of Engineering Sustainability Lectures recently.  He is the former Chair of the UK Sustainable Development Commission,  runs the Forum for the Future and is Co-Director of the Prince of Wales’s Business & Sustainability Programme.  Jonathon was as entertaining as he was inspiring. He has a unique way of presenting the dilemmas faced by Western capitalist societies as they grapple with the sustainability agenda.  Although I missed a more concrete “action plan” for individuals as well as organisation, the talk nevertheless made one spring into action; for example to find ways that we, as an SME, can make a difference in supporting other SMEs in the sustainability field, giving them a competitive advantage over the hydrocarbon giants that control the political agenda. Without cynicism, and fully admitting we’re in business to make a sustainable profit.

Some of the main points I took from the lecture, and the Q&A session afterwards:

  • Jonathon highlighted the recent IEA Clean Energy Report and its stark warning that only a 5-year timeframe  remains to make the shift from fossil fuels to renewables
  • We are currently locked in to assets such as fossil fuels without an exit strategy. Economically this means an asset is managed for the rest of its life, unless there is a disaster; but what if the asset never delivers a real return on investment?
    • If you foreclose on the investment it means a massive dislocation in capital markets
    • If we use the asset throughout its lifetime it means ecological disaster
    • => a no-win situation
  • The key is to evolve investment into renewables and especially storage capacity
    • Drivers are Awareness, Time and Technological Advance
  • He has personally started to see technology as an essential part of the sustainability solution(along with a fundamental shift in paradigm, including power structures and the political will to act decisively on sustainability).
    • This has previously been rejected by significant parts of the environmental movement as it worried about the wrong emphasis.
    • What particularly his thinking was the World Future Energy Summit in Abu Dhabi, which took place in January 2012 and hosts the world’s biggest prize for renewable energy technology.
  • Solar PV is especially significant, and China will make it happen on a big scale
    • The 4 leading solar technology companies are in China, and Suntech reckons it can reach grid parity (solar energy costing the same as energy derived from fossil fuels) within only 3 years, and be 20% cheaper within 5.
  • We can blame Big Business – but we need Big Business to make the transition to renewables
    • The big 6 oil companies have a quasi-corrupt incumbant relationships with our politicians – deeply entrenched in power politics. This has got to stop.
    • But we need the capital-raising powers of big business to build the new sustainable energy infrastructure
  • It’s the “Software” (political paradigm) that’s the problem, not the “Hardware” (renewable energy technologies)
    • Hardware: Efficiencies, renewables and storage capacity will be solved soon
    • Software:  The industrial capitalist model of atomised individualism is a huge barrier to concerted action in sustainability. It’s a distorted view based on false premises (individualism, ‘social Darwinism). The cooperative model based on collaboration has gained new scientific underpinnings, and would need to be the way forward.
  • Profit can be a positive driver, depending both on its definition and its deployment.
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