Time magazine listed him as one of 30 global eco-heroes in 2008. A British newspaper said he was among 50 people who could save the planet. It’s flattering, but Prof Peter Head abhors sensationalism by the media.
Over a cup of black coffee in a noisy cafe, Head shared how he ended up founding the Ecological Sequestration Trust. In a way, his story tells you how an “eco-hero” discovered his “super” power.
When he was planning head at Arup, he landed a project commissioned by the Institution of Civil Engineers, UK, where he could choose any subject to write about and be paid to deliver his findings around the world.
“I did this big analysis of how nine billion people could live on the planet,” he said. For more than two years, he visited 33 countries, got feedback from government, universities and the private sector.
“I had a good picture of the way countries were thinking, their ambitions and so on. It became very clear to me, and through the planning work that we had done in Arup, that there were solutions to this – low-carbon living with a low ecological footprint. But it required a profound transformation. I had the information in my head. I just didn’t know what to do about it.”
The tipping point came in the form of a casual conversation at a major conference organised by Climate Exchange in China in December 2010. This was just before China announced its 12th Five-Year Plan. Climate scientists warned that the planet was on a trajectory for 6–7 degrees Celsius of warming by 2070.
“It was worse than what I had heard. And we only have 10–15 years to actually head in a different direction, or we’ll be in real trouble,” said Head. What was disheartening was that China admitted that while they would work to reduce their carbon intensity, emissions would still increase over the Plan period.
“At the conference, I asked a couple of negotiators on stage: ‘Why aren’t we doing something about the issue of carbons emissions from coal-fired power stations for example?’ And they said it was not their job to do that. ‘That’s the job of someone else. We’re negotiators for national governments’.
“So I sat down in an audience of 800 people and a woman in front of me turned round and said to me: ‘If you had the resources, what would you do?’ And I said I would get the top scientists, top business people, top financiers in the world together and persuade them to show that it is possible to do things different because we know it is possible. You just have to go and demonstrate it. Then she said to me: ‘Winston Churchill in the last war didn’t have 100 people to win the war. He only had 15 experts from the air force, the navy, the army. Couldn’t you do with 15 people?’ I said yes, I probably could, with the right people with their global networks and so on. Then she looked me straight in the eye and said: ‘Why don’t you do it?’”
Head had done eco-city projects in China, and he knew India well. And he had his own global networks. “So I went home and talked to my wife. I thought I should be able to make a difference or at least try. I’ve got three grandchildren and I can’t bear the thought of them having to go through a terrible outcome in their lives.”
He set up the Trust in April 2011.
Head’s idea is to develop an integrated agent-based resource model that can be used by any region of the world. It will use all available data, which is modelled to develop new strategies to close resource loops, lower carbon emissions and improve business cases.
“It is an economic and resource model. People have components of it already and I wanted to put it all together, and then put that model in a region in China, in India, in Africa and in Europe. We then help those regions steer investments and plan in a better way, to show that profound change is possible. And to share that learning process with the rest of the world. (See box story.)
Head said they will also have to work with communities and stakeholders to help them see a different approach, and to take them from planning to financial close, so that they can see the change process in real life. “The model will tell you, if replicated across the whole region, what the transformation will be.”
He said that depending on the region, there might be a low-carbon ecological development site, integrated utilities using anaerobic digestion, an area that has transformed electric cars and cycling, an electric vehicle delivery system, an upcycling of waste systems, or biomass waste-to-energy plants.
He envisioned a combination of systems, all of them part of a long-term transformative process which will please investors with attractive investment returns, and residents with a better quality of life and more jobs.
“So there’s a link between air and water quality, nutrition and food, which is measured as part of the model. It’s very ambitious,” said Head.
Head said the Trust is having conversations with global foundations set up to make change happen and large corporations who see this project as an opportunity for innovation and developing new products.
Head said the Trust has to be run like a business because “we are talking about world-class activities, expert outcomes, high quality data, and modelling”.
“It’s quite an unusual NGO, as it is delivery-focused. It’s not a lobbying organisation. We are not trying to force the world to be better. We actually support delivery, which is quite unusual. My belief is that the public sector all over the world is constrained by financing, by silo structures that were inherited, and by a lack of knowledge. The private sector is constrained by existing business models and can’t step very far out of those because of shareholder interests. So it does need a different organisation to step into the middle. Not forever, but just to jumpstart the business.”
The team is aiming to have the first prototype model for each region in about a year. Surat in Gujarat, India, is preparing a 2014 Master Plan, and the team is hoping to input into that to influence the strategy. The same is happening in South Wales.
“In the real world, businesses want to see whether their investments will yield the outcome they want,” said Head. “All the work we have done suggests that with an innovative financing model, it can be done, but it can’t be done if every investment is in isolation from every other investment. But if you integrate building investment with infrastructure investment, with green space investment, with water investment, then the quality of life, attractiveness of the place, can drive value which then delivers returns.”
Will the team need some control over the projects they do? Head said they do not plan to exercise control, but instead to facilitate. “Most planners are frustrated that they do not have the tools. And the places we are going to are where people are trying to do this but are not able to because they don’t have good tools. It wouldn’t work if we were trying to implement some sort of control. It would be a complete failure.”
Would governments be required to put in some money? “Generally, no,” said Head. “We are putting together a consortium of companies to provide some of the funding locally but some governments are saying they have extra funds. So, there might be 20 or 30% from the public sector and the rest from the private sector.”
Head will also be talking to multinational banks, pension funds and sovereign wealth funds to use these regions to demonstrate innovative financing models for sustainable development.
“I think people are very nervous about investing in very large projects. What I’m saying is you don’t have to invest in very large projects; the projects can be quite small but what we need to do is invest in the planning and the overall resource planning systems.
“I’m a big-page planning person who believes that once you have a profoundly good plan, the small investments then start accelerating, new ideas can start developing and you get an accelerated outcome. Gandhi said: There’s no point in running fast, unless you’re running in the right direction.”
Head is hoping for real-time models, where data will be fed to the community for them to benchmark so that they know where they are going. “If you are an energy or water company, building owner, you could second your staff into the team in the building. We then get better value from integrated thinking. People in the system will discover all sorts of amazing ways to improve the outcome.”
Head said the Trust has an excellent and growing team and a lot of volunteers among the young who believe in the project. “I think in the next five years, the organisation should be strong enough to carry this through.”
The Trust uses social media like Facebook and Twitter to spread the word. “This isn’t just about the Trust, but what happens on the ground. There is a big community focus in this.”
Biodata of Prof Peter Head