When will carbon become a factor in investment decisions?

8 July 2013
I had the pleasure of presenting to an audience comprising members of the Green Business Fife network at the renewable energy innovation centre at Methil, Scotland. They are building a monster prototype wind turbine there, a seven megawatt beast that will be taller than the Forth Bridge. I heard a great presentation by Maitland Mackie, Aberdeen farmer and founder of Mackie’s ice cream and crisp company. He is retired now and his family are making more money from wind energy than upmarket foods. His vision of a decentralised energy system based on community energy schemes is very inspiring and seems a long way from government policy and the aspirations of the big power companies. I was asked to do the closing keynote speech on a low carbon economy. Ten years ago I started to talk about a time in the future when businesses will start to make carbon a factor in their investment decisions. People thought I was potty, but I think we are now starting to see some evidence of this phenomenon as companies start to think more deeply about their carbon footprints. In the technology sector, Google has recently announced development of a huge server farm in Finland powered by wind energy from Sweden, while Facebook has announced a server farm north of the Arctic Circle in Sweden. A key factor in both decisions is the abundance of low-cost renewable energy and low ambient temperature requiring less energy to cool the equipment. Server farms are not labour intensive and servers don’t care if it is dark for six months of the year. And much as we have made great strides in artificial intelligence, servers do not suffer from seasonal affective disorder - Marvin the Paranoid Android remains a fictional character in Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. The second example I have is BMW. I visited it in Berlin last year and was inspired by a presentation by the head of its electric vehicle business. The new range of electric cars, due to be launched in London this month, represents a re-invention of the car from the wheels up, a car designed from scratch to be electric. BMW has set up a new business unit to deliver this vision and invested in new facilities. Determined to keep the embodied carbon emissions as low as possible, it  has focused on the aluminium space frame and carbon fibre body shells. Both are energy intensive to make, but recycled aluminium has one fifth of the carbon footprint of virgin metal and the space frames are manufactured in a factory powered by wind energy. The decision to invest in a carbon fibre business was heavily focused on carbon emissions. The investment was finally made in Washington state, where there is good technical expertise driven by the aerospace industry, but also ample sources of low cost hydro-electricity. More enlightened businesses are making decisions in this way and more will follow this lead as their customers become more concerned about emissions and energy security. Countries or city regions that invest wisely in low carbon energy will attract more inward investment than those that don’t in the long term. Cash will always be king, but in future there will be no cash if you don’t look after the carbon. ☛ Shaun McCarthy is director of Action Sustainability 
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