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by Liam Kirkaldy
17 March 2014
Environment by numbers

Environment by numbers

For a man with a Nobel Prize certificate sitting on his mantelpiece, Dr Richard Tipper is surprisingly keen to talk about computer software. The climate scientist, who was jointly awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for his work on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), is now the Chairman of Ecometrica, an environmental consultancy and software design company. 

“The approach of the company has been to take our expertise in environmental measurement, monitoring and accounting – both the impact of the company on the environment and the impact of the environment on the company – and to turn that, where possible, into software products, rather than just consultancy and advice.

“Environmental issues have always been in a contested area, full of arguments and strong opinions that are not always based in evidence. So things like the impact of wind farms – how good or bad they are – pesticides and their effects on species or crops, almost anything you can imagine, can lead to polarised views. We see our role as not to take sides but to be an objective, evidence-based company, to assemble evidence and make it as clear as possible. So our central motto is to bring clarity – not to weight it one way or another but to present information as clearly as it can be presented. The important thing is to be able to put numbers around things,” he adds.

Ecometrica designs software that allows companies – under increased pressure to minimise their environmental impact – to audit their carbon footprint in the same way they measure financial results in their annual reporting cycle.

“It’s become quite mainstream, during the recession, the issue of environmental impact went off the top burner – it got pushed to the back of company’s priorities – but we’ve definitely seen signs that that’s changing over the past year. Listed companies are now required by law to report their greenhouse gas emissions as part of their reporting cycle, and most boards will want an environmental audit to sign off on, alongside the normal financial audit. Auditors aren’t traditionally trained in environmental stuff, which can make it quite tricky and expensive, so we’ve built an audit-friendly process, which means the tricky environmental part is all pre-audited by us, or by PWC for us. I see it as part of the Scottish tradition of developing new financial and business services, in this case, by bringing a background of understanding environmental impacts and combining that with a knowledge of how companies need to assemble the data for reporting.”

So in a sense, Ecometrica is filling a gap in the market, by providing evidence to guide the behavioural changes that companies are introducing.

“The problem is that money is spent, but there isn’t a clear outcome. So we can offer a way of measuring what your money has done – if you can’t show a benefit to something then it is difficult for a company to justify spending money on it.”

It was this evidence-led approach that brought Ecometrica to the attention of the Green Investment Bank (GIB), which asked the company to sit on the GIB panel of advisers, though Tipper says that – having only been notified of their selection in December – they have not yet had time to do anything substantive together yet.

It was also Tipper’s expertise in providing evidence on the impact of emissions on climate systems that brought him into contact with the IPCC, though he is keen to stress that his Nobel Prize was part of a team effort.

“The way the IPCC works is that the tasks are broken down into sections, and groups of authors work on each one – so the areas I was working on related to the role of vegetation and forests in the carbon cycle, which is the flux in CO2 between the vegetation and the atmosphere, and the oceans and the atmosphere. Fossil fuels are disrupting that.

“I was one of the authors on what we can do to reduce emissions and increase the storage of carbon in terrestrial ecosystems. It’s a big team effort, these IPCC reports, and it was very nice that the IPCC won the Nobel Prize. I got an individual certificate but I didn’t go to collect it – there were too many of us to all go up individually, but it’s nice to be recognised – and nice to have something to put on the wall,” he adds.

Ecometrica does the same research, and a significant part of the work it does on mapping and emissions is in collaboration with universities, as well as with the EU in attempting to improve the measurement of change in forests and agriculture. Over half of its work in mapping emissions is public sector research.

“Climate change is accepted by most governments as an ongoing process – they accept that it’s happening and there are various policies in place to try and minimise it. Now arguably, those policies aren’t really going far enough to contain it, within the stated objective of keeping warming within a two degree increase. But nevertheless, governments have a range of things they are doing, both in mitigation, which is really trying to reduce the increase of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and in adaptation to the change that will happen.

“On the ground, it is a combination of mitigation and adaptation in different sectors, so things that you do in supply chains for agriculture would combine mitigation with adaptation – you might try to minimise destructive elements in the chain – but also try and make sure that the chain is resilient to things like drought, or water stress, or flooding. We can’t just compartmentalise activities, they include both objectives, and a large part of that is bringing good scientific evidence, so that companies can measure their impact properly.”

So how bad could it get? And how far does Tipper mean we should go when he says we must adapt? Technological attempts to mitigate the effects of climate change can range from carbon capture and storage to ideas seemingly straight out of sci-fi films – such as the plan to fire a lens into space, to act as a ‘sunshield’ and reduce warming.

“There are unknowns in the carbon cycle, particularly if things like methane start to leak out of seabed deposits or large-scale CO2 and methane leak from tundra. Something like this could cause the worst-case scenario – then maybe there wouldn’t be an option, the risks wouldn’t seem so risky – and we would need a stop gap. In those situations it is possible but at present, I don’t see it.”

He continues: “Some of these solutions are pretty wacky and I am not sure governments are taking them that seriously. There are a lot of problems with them, though it depends what you mean by geo-engineering. Carbon capture and storage is probably one of the most obvious geo-engineering solutions and it has had quite a lot of investment, but the fundamental problem is that it is up against the physics of capturing CO2, which makes it expensive, meaning there would be an impact on energy prices at home, and people aren’t really willing to see that happen. Things like mirrors in space, technically, have some feasibility but politically, it would be very difficult for a single country to go out and start geo-engineering the planet without other countries shooting down satellites and intercepting things. So unless there is a climate catastrophe looming then I can’t see it being used as an option, other than experimentally. Maybe in 50 years – you can’t rule it out entirely.”

But Tipper is not too pessimistic about the future, believing as he does that technology could offer solutions to a changing climate.

“Obviously things have to change technologically – and they will – but the question is how much policymakers need to do to force change, to make it happen quicker than it would do naturally, through technological evolution. I am quite critical of people who take a neo-Malthusian approach – saying there are too many people and we are growing too much and there aren’t enough resources and we’re going to end up with massive scarcity problems – painting a kind of Mad Max-style dystopian future.

“One of the things that Ecometrica can do is to apply data to challenge these kinds of extreme views. There are definitely areas where humans are causing big problems, and we do need to change, and maybe that change should be happening faster, but I am hopeful that we can make the improvements. But then the other thing is that Ecometrica is not too bothered what the general public does – our materials might be publicly available but the people who are interested are businesses and policymakers – we are somewhat at the geek end of things.”

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