Until sectors where the case for green investment is blindingly obvious embrace clean technologies the low carbon transition will struggle to get out of the slow lane
Last month the Murray family enjoyed a wonderful 10 days taking a bit of a road trip around England's north west. It was motivated not by a government-backed, post-flooding, solidarity tourism campaign, but the simple fact the region is one of the most beautiful, friendly, and pub lunch amenable corners of the UK and we wanted to show it off to the newest member of the Murray clan.
The only downside to a gloriously memorable trip (high points: the soaring, cloud-clad beauty of Wasdale and a rain-lashed trip to see the Irish Sea with my baby boy) was the soul-crushing requirement to spend more time and money than is healthy in motorway service stations. It was an endurance test amplified by the dawning realisation that here is the perfect metaphor for both the willingness of too many industries to retreat into the comforting embrace of asset-sweating, small c conservative, short termism and the gaping chasm that we still need to bridge if we are to deliver the low carbon infrastructure the UK so desperately needs.
In truth, service stations have improved immeasurably in recent years. High street food and retail brands have imposed some much needed quality and hygiene standards and a gradual investment programme is in evidence across the UK. There are even some signs that clean tech's inexorable march has made it through the service station barricades. Electric car charging points are now much in evidence - and occasionally even in use, the newer sites eschew the traditional 'basement where dreams go to die' look in favour of using natural light, and the services on the M6 toll road even boasted a solar array.
And yet, it is hard, having visited at least 10 separate sites in the last month, to avoid the impression of an opportunity not so much missed, as actively squandered.
Here are businesses with a captive audience and long term stability to make many other sectors envious. Customers have virtually no choice but to use them on pain of bladder-related accidents or actual death - remember, 'tiredness kills - take a break'. When your nearest competitor is 43 miles away (and the government pays to maintain road signs to tell your customers the nearest competitor is 43 miles away) you can get away with some, shall we say, punchy pricing. Two coffees and two sandwiches that appeared purposefully designed to bypass the point at which they qualified as food en route to the point at which they qualified as food waste routinely cost the best part of £15.
'Couldn't make money out of a service station', could easily replace 'couldn't organise a piss up in a brewery' as the metaphor of choice for corporate incompetence.
From these fundamentals the case for early and rapid investment in proven new clean technologies should be compelling. The captive cash cow that is the weary traveller should make it easy to justify investments that curb operating costs and deliver long term returns. All you need is a corporate horizon that extends beyond the end of year report and a basic understanding of the huge savings on offer from new clean technologies. If the cash position cannot cover the investment then banks should be lining up to offer finance to projects that will pay for themselves in a few short years.
The list of potential clean tech deployments is as long as it is obvious. Premier amongst them are solar installations. For well over five years financial returns from solar arrays have been highly attractive and it has been well known that the best way to maximise these returns is to use as much of the power that you generate as possible on-site. Even now, following steep cuts to solar incentives locations that can use power onsite are seen as the financially viable sweet spot for the solar industry. In motorway service stations we find flat-roofed sites with considerable daytime power-demand and solid grid connections. And yet anyone pulling up for a pit stop is as likely to find a competitively priced coffee as they are a working solar array.
Exactly the same argument applies to a host of microgeneration technologies. Combined heat and power units, small scale wind turbines, biomass units or ground source heat pumps - all promise attractive returns for sites which by definition should face limited planning issues and should have the wherewithal to invest in projects that promise long term returns.
The case for proper energy efficiency upgrades are, if anything, even more compelling. Much of the current service station estate seems to have two temperature settings: boiler broken perishing and sauna level stuffy. Smart building controls, triple glazing, optimised ventilation, sensor-enabled LED lighting should, following at least five years during which these technologies have seen their viability proven beyond doubt, should come as standard. Instead, they remain a rare beacon of best practice in a sea of battered asset mediocrity.
Meanwhile, the less said about the paucity of effective recycling bins and the absence of even the faintest nod in the direction of resource efficiency amidst the tornado of packaging on sale at every outlet the better.
Perhaps it is unfair to pick on service stations (although in charging £15 for two coffees and inedible sandwiches, I think they started it). After all, plenty of industries have failed to embrace the obvious financial savings and environmental benefits on offer from green technologies, and there is some evidence of a shift in thinking across the service station sector as a handful of solar arrays and a network of EV charging stations finally starts to emerge.
But the reluctance to invest in urgently needed new infrastructure that will only serve to bolster productivity and enhance long term returns is indicative of an economy-wide problem. An economy where too many companies would rather sit on cash piles than invest in essential new technology, maximising returns this year at the expense of future competitiveness and long term sustainability. If a public-facing industry with High Street tenants who like to trumpet their green credentials from the roof tops (Waitrose, M&S, Starbuck's and Costa - we're looking at you) and the opportunity to confidently plan on a decade-long cycles can't do more to mobilise green investment at a much faster rate, then what hope sectors where the business case for clean tech is more complicated?
For all its considerable progress the green economy still has a really long way to go. Too much of the proverbial low-hanging fruit remains unpicked, even when it offers attractive returns and the technologies on offer are proven. A combination of managerial short termism and conservatism, a prioritising of asset-sweating over investment in the future, inadequate policy sticks and carrots, and the failure of clean tech companies to scale up their offering and overcome client intransigence have combined to leave vast swathes of UK infrastructure looking dated, dirty, and increasingly unfit for purpose in a decarbonising world. Anyone doubting that should simply take a road trip.
Survey on eco-concerns shows older people more worried about plastic waste, while younger people cite global warming as top green challenge
New MIT study suggests cost of climate policies targeting CO2 reduction will be more than cancelled out by reductions in healthcare costs from air pollution
Preliminary results from Starbucks trial suggests charging customers extra for takeaway cups is an effective way to change behaviour
Robertsbridge's Charles Secrett takes a tour d'horizon across the UK's green economy, and asks if mainstream businesses are ready for the disruption ahead