Let’s build more than a sustainability industry
- By Jamie Andrews
- 10th Jul 2012
Over the past 10 years there has been a lot of activity focused on tackling carbon emissions, but despite this greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise. Rather than tackle the problems in existing industries, we have simply created another one - the sustainability industry. It's time to go further.
Last week we launched a simple carbon calculator. This represents a return to our core values. Indeed, when we started our first website in 2007, we referred to Loco2 as a “low carbon travel company”. But since then we’ve come to realise that talking about climate change and carbon emissions is not enough. What’s required is a robust, tangible plan to improve online rail booking so that more people can easily choose the train over the plane.
This realisation did not come easily. After all, we wanted to paint a positive vision of train travel and show how fun it was to see the world without creating a huge carbon footprint. The green travel message was confused, with a lot of focus on ‘eco-accommodation’ and offsetting flights, and so it seemed logical to focus on reframing the debate in a positive way. But as we dug deeper into the reasons why planes were so consistently beating trains, we realised that communication and vocalising the need to “do something” was only one small piece of the puzzle.
As we began to look at how to accurately calculate the carbon footprint of a given European journey we realised we needed to learn a lot about the industry we were trying to address. Not only did we need the exact routes that trains would be travelling on, but we needed to understand which trains would be running, the capacity of the trains, and the amount of space taken up by different travel classes. For electric trains, we’d need to know how the electricity for the trains is generated. And finally, we’d need to buy or build software to tie all of this information together and make it possible to query the emissions of a given journey.
And that was only to work out the carbon footprint. Actually improving the booking process uncovered a whole load more challenges, many of them even more complex. After five years of first thinking about the problem, we’re now at the point where we feel we truly understand it, and we’re starting to make some headway. We’ve recruited some great software engineers, invested heavily in design and usability, and confronted a complex data landscape. We’re still passionate about sustainability, but on a day-to-day basis we think about two things: trains and software.
The rise of corporate social responsibility has led to a huge increase in the number of job titles and reports that include the word ‘sustainability’, but also to a rise in frustration. And the rise of the climate change activism movement, from physical camps and ‘actions’ (such as this recent art installation at the Tate) to huge online campaigns that foster millions of clicks, shows a strong commitment to tackling climate change from millions of people around the world. But despite this upsurge in activity, the fundamental changes that are required to realise a low carbon future are not occurring.
It is hugely heartening that so many people are devoted to building a sustainable future. And of course there is a place for CSR and activism. But as part of this movement we need people willing to equip themselves with the technical and practical knowledge about the numerous specific problems that need to be solved.
Getting this far with Loco2 has taught me one important thing: understanding the real drivers of potential change is a complex business, and it has taken a huge amount of focused learning about viable solutions. Hopefully our learning will pay off and make it easier for people to reduce their travel carbon footprint. Then we can join with pioneers in other sectors to not just create a new sustainability industry, but to sustainably transform all of our existing industries.