Sustainability expert, professor and best-selling author Mike Berners-Lee took part in the opening debate at our inaugural micebook Ventures in Liverpool last week.
We took the opportunity to catch up with him after the debate to get his insights on the scale of the climate crisis we are facing, the race against time, offsetting and greenwashing, and how the events industry can help drive the sustainability agenda and be a catalyst for change…
According to the latest report from the UN, there is “no credible pathway” to keep the rise in global temperatures below the key threshold of 1.5C. What are your thoughts on this and is there still hope?
Limiting temperature change to 1.5 degrees is going to be a flat-out challenge but if the whole of humanity woke up now, we could probably do it. The difficulty is we are so far away from that.
The way I think about it is that we are in a race between tipping points. If you look at what’s going on with the environment now, we are at extreme risk of tipping ourselves into a catastrophic change that could be very bad indeed for the whole of humanity. But, if we were to undergo a big systemic wake up, then we could act very fast indeed to deal with the situation we’re in. So that’s the race and there’s no time to lose. The question is, how quickly can we wake up?
What does the event industry need to do to be more sustainable and drive positive and lasting change?
The biggest issue for the events industry in terms of its own carbon footprint is undoubtedly the flying. There is no getting around it, the world needs to fly less. That doesn’t mean no flying, but we need to do it a lot less.
The events industry can also be quite a powerful influencer for change in all of this. If the industry wants to have a sense of real agency on this, it needs to ask the question ‘what can we do to help create the conditions under which humanity can wake up and start to make the systemic changes that we need to see?’ And that is all about the influence you can have.
Every time somebody goes to an event, they encounter a culture, and through that culture they can be presented with suggestions about what good diets could look like, what sustainable living could look like, what values we could have, how we think about and respect the rest of the people in the world. The events industry could be a hugely important catalyst for change.
Are events about climate change and sustainability like COP27 important? And do they really need to be live?
Sometimes, there is something about a face-to-face meeting that cannot be substituted. At other times you can reach and engage more people and be more productive when you don’t meet in person and do the whole thing online. It’s a balance that has to be struck and specifically if I felt that COP27 could achieve a great deal of value, if that means a few flights, then it’s worth it. I think the problem with COP specifically is that we have had 26 of them so far, and they’ve delivered us no dent that we can discern at all in the carbon emissions curve. So, we need something else on top of the COP process to get us moving.
Do you think we are close to reaching a tipping point with sustainability a key part of the corporate decision-making process?
We are getting to the point where sustainability is becoming main stage in the decision-making process and there is no doubt it is going to become central to every business. The question is, how fast can we get to that place, and will it be fast enough?
Our customers are starting to wake up, our supply chains are starting to wake up, our governments are slowly beginning to wake up, the public is beginning to wake up, and our employees are starting to wake up. This whole agenda is starting to matter, so if you are a business in any industry at all and you want to be able to recruit the best staff, have the best customers, and have the most exciting supply chains, this agenda is really coming alive. It’s much more alive than it was two years ago.
But none of this is actually the main reason why we should do it. The most important reason why we should respond in a big way to this agenda is because we have a moral imperative to do it, we will feel better on our death beds, and our kids will know how we responded at this critical moment for humanity.
What is your view on carbon offsetting?
There is no such thing as an offset. It’s a bogus concept. If you do something that has a carbon footprint like getting on an aeroplane, there is nothing you can do to undo the fact you have had that impact. That doesn’t mean to say you shouldn’t ever fly, but you have to decide for yourself whether that flight is worth it for whatever reason and then you have to own the impact. You can’t offset it.
As someone who must get invited to speak at a lot of conferences and events, how do you make the decision whether to travel there in person?
For me personally, it is always a tough call as to whether the travel I might do is worth the carbon footprint. It is the easiest thing in the world for anyone to say, ‘I am so important that I am the one who can justify taking the flight’. But that is a slippery slope.
We must all ask the hard questions about whether any piece of travel we do can be justified. A couple of weeks ago I flew out to the states for a conference because I had decided it was worth it. I didn’t fly business class and suffered somewhat because of that flying through the night, but that halved the carbon footprint, so I did it. I have had several trips to Europe this year, some of them I have managed to take the train, some of them I just haven’t managed to do that and have had to take a flight. It’s always a dilemma, but I have to own that carbon footprint and it’s on me to make the decision whether or not I can justify it.
Is corporate greenwashing a big issue?
If I vomited once for every time I heard some corporate greenwash, we would be drowning in my sick. There is so much of it around. But the public is slowly but surely getting increasingly sick of it, and increasingly discerning about greenwash. Whatever industry you are in, if your company wants to be trusted, you would be very well advised to say it like it is and not overstate your green credentials. It’s far more important to be honest than it is to be perfect. Honesty is the big factor that everyone is increasingly yearning for right now.
Can business events truly be a force for good?
The events industry has a huge opportunity to be a force for cultural change and changing the way that people think. Every time someone attends an event, they enter the culture of that event, and within that, there are all sorts of messages that can be sent out, implicit and explicit. You can send delegates away with a different view of the world, more open-mindedness and suggestions about how we could all live better and more sustainability.
Mike Berners-Lee is an expert speaker on sustainability and on how we can address this overarching 21st century challenge. He is the founder of Small World Consulting, which works with organisations of all sizes and sectors, from the world’s largest tech giants to SMEs, and an associate company of Lancaster University, which is a world leader in the field of supply chain carbon metrics and management.
He is also a professor at Lancaster University, where his research includes sustainable food systems and carbon metrics, and the author of three acclaimed books: There Is No Planet B: A Handbook for the Make or Break Years; How Bad Are Bananas? The Carbon Footprint of Everything; and The Burning Question.