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Page last updated at 10:25 GMT, Monday, 30 November 2009
How business is cashing in with low-carbon creativity

By Tom Heap
BBC Panorama, Analysis

Can a wind turbine make me money?

It is widely believed by television executives that programmes about the environment do not attract many viewers and those on climate change are particularly repellent.

Hearing about our planet in peril tends to engender feelings of guilt, impotence, anger or - in some cases - all of the above. Who would choose those sensations to pass a late November evening by the telly?

But the Copenhagen Climate change conference which begins next week is a pivotal landmark in what many believe to be an issue of global survival.

Ahead of Copenhagen, BBC's Panorama looked at the role of big business as it begins to realise the financial benefit of lower carbon emissions. We also examined the need for politicians to provide leadership, setting both the right tone and fair targets.

More and more companies, communities and individuals now see moving to a low carbon economy as an opportunity not a threat. It is do-able and it is making people money - not miserable.

Green dividends

The villagers of Fintry - 300 dwellings, a pub and an enviable leisure centre just north of Glasgow - received a proposal from a nearby wind farm six years ago.

Initial frostiness was soon melted by a cunning plan. They borrowed £2.5m and bought their own wind turbine to add to the development.

It earns £400,000 a year and after they have paid maintenance and interest, they are left with between £50,000 -100,000 for the village.

Tesco supermarket

The money is being spent on better insulation and greener heating and many residents have already saved £500 a year in lower fuel bills - hard proof that going green can pay dividends.

Think that is a bit niche? What about the giant that is Tesco? Its target is an impressive 80% cut in carbon emissions overall a push to cut its energy use by half in a decade.

It has already dropped four million truck miles per year by shunting more goods on to trains. While it is not the only supermarket turning greener, we have focused on Tesco both because of its size and its reputation for commercial single-mindedness that some believe verges on brutality.

If this competition-crunching Godzilla now has green blood in its veins, then perhaps the world is changing. Tesco claims that this blood transfusion is happening without slicing profits or leaving its customers scarred.

Greenwash?

Is this all just a monster-sized deluge of public relations? A whitewash? In this case, a greenwash?

While most serious environmentalists have worked to shed the image that they are all sweeping anti-consumerists, the caricature is embedded and has allowed critics to paint them into a cave.

This is where a problem lies, as environmentalists have thus far tended to recognise green steps only when they produce financial scars, effectively asking, "Where's the suffering?"

But if you revisit that premise and instead believe that cutting carbon should not damage performance or profits, then you will not be able to judge a company's green clout based on its balance sheet or share price.

Sir David King is convinced that Tesco's green shift is not just a case of good public relations.

The government's former chief scientific adviser, who once singled out climate change as a greater threat to Britain than terrorism, said he thinks the company has put real money behind reducing "cradle to grave" carbon in its products and is offering shoppers greener choices.

For Tesco's critics, the retailing giant's charge sheet goes well beyond carbon emissions to include killing off local shops, harsh handling of suppliers and low-cost food driving down environmental standards on farms.

The company would dispute many of these but will be held accountable on carbon.

Boom not gloom

Even for those who find the idea of "green Tesco" a little hard to swallow, there are a myriad of bite-size companies in Britain whose climate change battles are producing more boom than gloom.

An inventor backed on Dragon's Den produced roof top wind turbines disguised as chimney pots.

A Cambridge based start-up, AlertMe, has just been endorsed by Google for their kit which allows you to manage and reduce your home energy use online.

Want to run your car on leftovers from the pork scratchings factory or waste fish oil? Green Fuels Ltd of Gloucestershire is making money from the kit which turns fat into diesel.

Recycling giant EMR will soon be able to re-use 99% of an automobile that is scrapped.

According to the CBI, all this low-carbon business is now worth £100bn to the British economy and globally this sector is estimated to be worth more than defence and aerospace combined.

So why the long faces of so many environmental campaigners?

Some believe the green movement itself has contributed to a climate of pessimism that has stalled progress. An attitude of what cannot or should not happen in the name of saving the planet has permeated the debate in many people's minds.

Preaching thrift

What people should not buy, where they should not fly, what they should not have or enjoy has been the message from a membership drawn, very often, from the left wing.

It has earned environmentalists a reputation as people who frequently have it all, yet preach thrift.

The ensuing debate has been polarised and led to a particularly corrosive suspicion of scientific solutions.

"It's just a technological fix," was the response of many campaigners to any solutions offered by scientists, implying that anything shy of sacrifices that pinch are not acceptable to true green believers.

While many serious environmentalists have worked to shed the image that they are all sweeping anti-consumerists, the caricature is embedded and has allowed critics to paint them into a cave.

There is little doubt that buying less, travelling less and doing less are the most effective ways to cut carbon but people simply will not do it. And if they did, the resulting socio-economic turmoil comes with its own downside.

So perhaps it is time to seriously consider a Plan B - harnessing the potential, ingenuity and money to be made in moving to "a green and pleasant land".

Panorama: Can Tesco Save the World? BBC One, Monday, 30 November at 2030GMT. Tom Heap also presents the environment series Costing the Earth on Radio 4.



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