The dangers of specifying “how”

13 April 2011
This week has seen the publication of a major report in my “other life” as Chair of the Commission for a Sustainable London 2012 The report was accompanied with a small flurry of media appearances that saw me interviewed for TV, radio, some of the mainstream press and lots of specialist sustainability publications. We even recorded our own short video to help the process. The media reaction to a predominantly positive report has been almost universally negative, following the announcement that although the Olympic Delivery Authority will meet their carbon reduction target of 50 per cent, they will achieve this using only 9 per cent renewable energy - and not the 20 per cent that was originally targeted. The media is full of “green targets missed” headlines and quotes from my friend Darren Johnson of the Green Party describing it as a “miserable result”. In interviews I tried to support the ODA’s decision, which I genuinely believe is best for the environment, society and use of public funds. Some media provided balanced reporting, others were determined not to let facts get in the way of a good story. All this happened because the ODA tried to specify “what” they plan to achieve (50 per cent carbon reduction), and “how” they would achieve it (20 per cent renewable energy). By failing one element of the strategy and replacing it with another commendable initiative - providing energy efficiency services to local homes and schools - the ODA has been hung out to dry as a failure. Although I remain convinced history will judge them to have set new standards of sustainability in many areas. But I do think it is a lesson for us as purchasers not to be tempted to be too prescriptive when specifying sustainability requirements. In my experience it is often best to specify what you want and leave the market to work out how this can be achieved. The ODA itself provides a great example. They simply put a high weighting to carbon footprint for their procurement of concrete and left it to the market to compete on both price and sustainability. Lo and behold, the most sustainable supplier also proves to be the cheapest. Ultimately I believe the Olympic Park can get close to zero carbon by having a longer term plan to deliver energy from waste, and the 20 per cent target for renewable energy is simply a staging point in a longer term ambition. Sustainability is a long game and it requires purchasers to look beyond the next deal and observe the bigger picture. Our profession can help to make sense of some of this madness if we get it right.
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