Doughnut energy management in the 21st century
My eye was recently drawn to an interesting headline; “How to do business with doughnuts”, which was the title of a thought provoking article by Kate Raworth of the Environmental Change Institute at Oxford University. Kate’s work on “doughnut economics”, which I had not found before, is really worth exploring. Soon after I saw a piece about Brian Chesky’s, the Co-founder and CEO of AirBnB, letter to stakeholders about what a 21st century company should look like. There seemed to be a connection but let’s deal with the doughnuts first.
In Kate Raworth’s model the doughnut is a ring that sets out to define boundaries set by ecology and by social conditions. In many areas such as climate change and biodiversity we are clearly exceeding the ecological limits. On the social factors we have massive deficits as billions of people still fall short on even basic essentials. The challenge is how to meet the social needs without exceeding the ecological limits i.e. how to live within the doughnut.
Kate Raworth lists five reactions to the diagram she has had when talking to a range of corporates about this idea over the last six years. They are characterised as:
Do what pays
Do your fair share
Do mission zero
Brian Chesky’s letter to stakeholders talks about building a company for the 21st century and even the 22nd century ie a long-term focus rather than a focus on short-term results. For AirBnB this means:
We will have an infinite time horizon
We will serve all of our stakeholders
Both Kate Raworth’s work and Brian Chesky’s letter address some fundamental questions we should all to be concerned with – what are businesses for, (both on an individual enterprise level and a social level), and how should they be organized and operate to best serve their purpose?
This caused me to consider what does this kind of thinking mean in an energy context, specifically for energy consuming (i.e. all?) businesses? Using Kate Raworth’s five responses as a guide:
Do nothing means simply that – don’t bother about energy consumption and costs at all. In the corporate world this is unusual, at least in larger companies in the developed world. In other markets and SMEs it is still common.
Do what pays means reduce energy costs by investing in cost-effective projects. This could be characterised as “standard energy management” which most corporates have. Even where there is energy management many very cost-effective projects are not implemented for a number of reasons including; uncertainty about the outcomes and competing and more strategic demands on capital. A lot of work on energy management, including my own, has been about improving the do what pays model to maximize the uptake of the huge economic potential that we know exists, and maximizing the returns.
Do your fair share means committing to science based targets for reducing emissions. Adopting science based targets appears to be growing, at least amongst large corporates. A recent example is TH Real Estate, one of the largest real estate investment managers in the world, with equity investments in nearly 900 office, retail, industrial and residential assets globally.
Do mission zero means committing to a goal like net zero energy or net zero emissions. A net zero energy building or facility would put back as much energy as it uses into the system or grid. Of course there are deeper questions here, generating on-site energy in a way that has higher emissions per kWh than the grid may be net zero energy but not net zero emissions. IKEA has committed to use 100% renewables by 2020.
Be generative means going beyond zero energy or zero emissions and building a business that is net positive in energy and emissions. This may include supporting energy production in excess of usage, something that Unilever is targeting for 2030, or a business that removes carbon dioxide from the environment, either through a production process making something, such as cement production that absorbs CO2, or whose main revenue generating activity is removing CO2 from the atmosphere, (which of course would require a value to be ascribed to a tonne of CO2).
To build a 21st century enterprise (or for that matter a 22nd century enterprise), we need to consider many factors – both technical, financial, social and human. It seems, however, that such an enterprise would at least be working to improve its position on the doughnut in relation to energy and the environment. That means moving energy management beyond the “do what pays” model – what we may call a 20th century model – into at the very least a “do your fair share” model, and ultimately into a “mission zero” and “generative” model. The doughnut gives us a new model for categorising the response of companies to energy problems.