A Conversation with Mike Berners-Lee; One of the World’s Foremost Experts on Climate, Carbon Footprinting & Sustainability

A Conversation with Mike Berners-Lee; One of the World’s Foremost Experts on Climate, Carbon Footprinting & Sustainability

Mike Berners-Lee is one of the world’s foremost experts on climate, carbon footprinting and sustainability. He is the founder of Small World Consulting, an associate company of Lancaster University, which is a world leader in the field of supply chain carbon metrics and management. Small World works with organisations of all sizes and sectors, from the world’s largest tech giants to SMEs. Mike is a professor at Lancaster University, where his research includes sustainable food systems and carbon metrics. He has made numerous speaking, radio and television broadcast appearances to promote public awareness of sustainability and climate change issues, and most notably appeared in Climate Change: The Facts alongside Sir David Attenborough. He is the author of three acclaimed books.   

His 2019 book, There Is No Planet B: A Handbook for the Make or Break Years is a practical and holistic tour of the 21st century’s biggest challenges, laced throughout with practical guidance for individuals, businesses and politicians. On his first book, How Bad Are Bananas? The Carbon Footprint of Everything, Bill Bryson wrote “I can’t think of the last time I read a book that was more fascinating, and useful and enjoyable all at the same time”. A fully updated version of this book was published in Summer 2020. His book, The Burning Question, co-written with Duncan Clark, explores the big picture on climate change and the underlying global dynamics, asking what mix of politics, economics, psychology and technology are really required to deal with the problem. Al Gore described it as “Fascinating, important and highly recommended”. 

In this interview, I speak to Professor Mike Berners-Lee, one of the world’s foremost experts on climate, carbon foot-printing and sustainability. We discuss the fundamentals of carbon foot-printing, why we need to measure carbon equivalents, the reality of carbon offsetting and how we can effectively decarbonise our world.

Q: What is a carbon footprint? 

[Mike Berners-Lee]: When we mention the term “carbon footprint”, we’re referring to the total influence on climate change attributed to a particular product, service, or even a whole corporation. The necessity to comprehend this comes from the need to wisely manage our carbon and climate change impacts. To do so effectively, it’s vital that we grasp the scope involved and compare the sizes of different contributions, allowing us to prioritise correctly. Just as we aim to understand relative values when handling other aspects we manage, like finances and expenses in running a business.

Q: What are carbon footprints & ‘toe-prints’? 

[Mike Berners-Lee]: When discussing a ‘toe print’, I’m referring to the temptation of only calculating the evident aspects of a climate impact. For instance, we might observe a car moving down the street, releasing exhaust. That visible emission represents an apparent contribution to climate change. However, this is only a fraction of the overall tale. 

Firstly, beyond the exhaust emissions, additional emissions are created when extracting and refining the fuel and transporting it to the fuel station for use in the car. Further still, the production of the car itself, which accounts for roughly a third of a typical petrol car’s carbon footprint. There are also less obvious factors like the carbon footprint of road maintenance, due to wear and tear from each vehicle. 

Various influences collectively contribute to the carbon footprint of driving. Similarly, when measuring a product’s carbon footprint, it’s crucial to consider all supply chains involved. However, these supply chains present a potentially infinite set of pathways. Considering our limited resources, it’s impossible to be entirely accurate. Instead, we strive for the best possible estimate, using this as the basis for decision-making and understanding the potential uncertainties. 

There’s a risk of underestimation if we only count the easily quantifiable elements, leading to what’s known as truncation error. This error arises from overlooking the infinite number of minute pathways that are impossible to tally individually. It’s easy to dismiss these as insignificant due to their size, but with an infinite number, their collective impact can be substantial. 

Lifecycle analysis is a common method used to understand a product’s carbon footprint. This process maps out all stages of a product’s creation, like manufacturing a car or a smartphone, and assigns emissions proportionately. However, this truncation error can be substantial. For instance, when analysing Apple’s iPhone lifecycle, even the most meticulous lifecycle analysis only accounts for around half the total carbon footprint. 

An alternative method is a top-down approach using macroeconomic modelling, like the output analysis. This approach considers the transactions between different sectors in the economy and uses this data to calculate the embedded carbon in supply chains. The strength of this method lies in its systemic completeness and its reliance on spending data. However, it’s quite generic, assuming that the carbon intensity for any product within a category is typical. 

The art of estimating a carbon footprint lies in blending these two methodologies, incorporating the system-wide completeness of output analysis with the specificity offered by lifecycle analysis. However, it’s essential to remember that the term ‘accurate’ is never truly applicable in this context. 

Q: How important is accuracy with carbon foot printing? 

[Mike Berners-Lee]: Firstly, it’s crucial to acknowledge that pinpoint accuracy isn’t as significant as one might think. A reasonably good estimate can still greatly assist in managing these environmental issues far better than not attempting to calculate it at all. Moreover, it’s entirely feasible to establish an accounting framework that can track the modifications and carbon-reducing actions undertaken.   

In the business world, dealing with inaccurate data isn’t a new or unique challenge. When setting up a business and estimating potential market size, for instance, there may be a substantial degree of uncertainty even after rigorous quantitative analysis. However, if you’re astute, you’ll use this information while being fully aware of its inherent uncertainty. Recognising and understanding this uncertainty maximises the usefulness of the data.  

Q: What are your views on carbon offsetting? 

[Mike Berners-Lee]: Well, I’m sorry to say, but I don’t see the concept of offsetting as a valid or beneficial solution in the long run. Here’s the situation: we need to drastically reduce our carbon emissions. If you genuinely delve into the scientific data, it’s clear that we are in a significantly dire situation, far more serious than the conventional media discourse, even from the best publications or radio stations, would have you believe. 

This urgency puts every business in a position where they must do all they can. There’s a debate about how the responsibility for reducing carbon should be distributed among industries and countries. This is an inherently complex issue as there’s no clear-cut or fairest way to divide the responsibility. This indecisiveness can be dangerous, potentially leading to inaction as everyone attempts to shirk the responsibility onto others. In reality, it’s everyone’s obligation to do whatever they can.   

For any business, the primary priority should be to evaluate the business model and assess whether the products and services provided contribute to a shift towards a sustainable economy. I often pose a critical question to businesses: if the economy began transitioning towards sustainability, would this be a boon or a bane for your business? If it’s perceived as a threat, your paramount priority should be to modify your business model until this transition becomes an opportunity. This change is a must. Without it, your sustainability efforts will always be at odds with your business practices. 

Once you’ve addressed this, the next priority is to reduce your climate impact as effectively as possible. We can engage in debates about trajectories and targets, but what I observe most often is a gap between ambition and action. The key is to act. 

Some companies approach me for detailed analysis of their supply chains. I generally advise them that I can easily provide a set of priorities they can act upon immediately. Once they’ve gained some momentum, then there will be a case for a more sophisticated and nuanced understanding. For instance, if a restaurant chain approaches me, I can guide them through the issues intuitively without much complexity. 

Indeed, the most critical factor is to start taking action. Next, it’s important to note that for the majority of businesses, their scope one and two emissions, which encompass their direct emissions and those associated with their electricity consumption, comprise a relatively small fraction of the total emissions they should be concerned with. In particular, every business needs to recognise that managing the emissions from their entire supply chain falls squarely within their purview. 

This involves considering the nature of the products you’re producing, how you manufacture them, engaging with your suppliers, and selecting suppliers with care. About a decade ago, many businesses I interacted with claimed that understanding and managing their supply chain was too challenging. However, I believe this excuse no longer holds water. We’ve known for years that if child labor exists in your supply chain, it’s your responsibility to address it. The exact same principle applies to your carbon emissions. 

Q: How do we finance decarbonisation? 

[Mike Berners-Lee]: Alright, in one way or another, eventually we’re going to require carbon to bear a tangible cost. Once that happens, it will naturally become an integral part of all management decision-making processes. Every business will then be driven to understand the full extent of the carbon in their supply chains, as there will be a direct financial implication tied to it. 

In the interim, we can facilitate conditions that make everyone more conscious about their carbon emissions. This can be achieved by companies accurately and thoroughly reporting their entire scope three emissions, compelling their suppliers to do the same, and setting and acting on targets to reduce these emissions.    

When businesses start taking these steps, they invariably push their suppliers to follow suit. That’s because a company can’t achieve its supply chain targets unless its suppliers are also actively participating. This triggers a ripple effect across the economy, where no business can afford not to participate, as other companies would be reluctant to associate with them.    

Such a scenario is precisely what we need. It also sets the stage for governments to implement a carbon price more readily. If you consider the broader question of how we reduce global emissions, it’s apparent that the bulk of fossil fuels need to remain untouched, and the most straightforward mechanism to achieve this is a carbon price.    

This doesn’t need to be applied universally or all at once, and indeed we do need to monitor carbon traded across borders. Though it will never be flawless, it doesn’t have to be; it just needs to be good enough. All taxes and trade adjustments are essentially estimations of what you’re really trying to incentivise or discourage, and a carbon price would work much the same way. 

Currently, the lack of a carbon price stems from the fact that it would indeed be effective. There are influential entities in the economy that have been tirelessly employing sophisticated strategies, originally developed by the tobacco industry, to delay action on climate science. From a cynical perspective, these entities seem to permit world policy makers to say or do almost anything, provided it doesn’t lead to effective results. The issue is that a carbon price would indeed be effective.  

[Vikas: is this where effective carbon pricing comes in?] 

[Mike Berners-Lee]: The journey towards decarbonisation isn’t inherently a financial burden on the economy; rather, it’s a transformative shift to an alternate mode of operation. This transformation teems with employment opportunities and prospects to enhance our quality of life, such as cleaner air, extended life spans, healthier eating habits, and more. However, this journey often gets depicted as a cost because there are evident expenditures involved along the way. For instance, it’s straightforward to interpret a carbon price as a direct path to impoverishment. But that’s a misunderstanding, as the revenue from this can be directed towards useful ends. 

The collected funds can be utilised to develop and implement the vital technologies that are critical for this transition. They can ensure that nobody falls into poverty as a consequence of this change. If managed intelligently, these funds can facilitate a fair transition beneficial to every nation worldwide.  

Therefore, a carbon price does more than just encouraging the shift from fossil fuels to alternative energy sources. It also aids in ensuring that the transition doesn’t cause undue hardship for anyone and that it becomes an opportunity for progress, while also ensuring that the necessary technologies are deployed in a timely manner. 

Q: How do we effectively share the responsibility? 

[Mike Berners-Lee]: The overarching question we’re led to when we consider all this is the issue of fair distribution – not just between industries, but between nations – regarding the responsibility to decarbonise. How can we ensure the journey towards decarbonisation is appealing to every country? This clearly prompts us to ponder the mutual respect between nations, as well as the respect individuals worldwide show towards one another. 

Indeed, we’re facing an unprecedented challenge as a human race. We’ve never been required to demonstrate global cooperation to this extent before. We’re confronted with a unique confluence of global systemic challenges, extending beyond climate change to include biodiversity loss, pollution, disease threats, and numerous other issues that can only be addressed through robust global collaboration. 

This level of cooperation, which is new to us, is critical for our survival. We’ve never needed to foster such a collaborative global society in the past, but moving forward, our survival as a species depends on it. 

Q: How are companies approaching this challenge?  

[Mike Berners-Lee]: So, when a company approaches my consulting firm expressing an interest in becoming net zero and asks for our help, my counter-question is, are you intending to respond suitably to the climate and ecological crisis? If they affirm, that’s what they aim to do, we then respond, alright, let’s see how we can assist with that. Not only will this encompass a review of your carbon emissions, setting new goals, and your corresponding actions, but it will indeed require a comprehensive examination of every aspect of your business, from your fundamental principles to your raison d’être and what you create. This poses a significant challenge, and at this juncture, it’s not uncommon for either us to part ways with the company or for them to withdraw from us. However, if you’re earnest about tackling this issue, it necessitates a broad, all-encompassing approach.  

Q: What are the most important things you think we (as an economy, and society) should be doing around decarbonisation? 

[Mike Berners-Lee]: Your question can be addressed in several ways. At a physical level, certain truths about the energy system are that we need to consume less energy, not more. This point doesn’t receive nearly enough discussion. We hear talk about assisting humanity in meeting its growing energy needs. However, we don’t have a growing energy demand, especially not in affluent countries like ours. We see efficiency improvements in every conceivable product and service. As long as we capitalise on these savings, this should allow us to reduce our energy consumption, but without reducing the total, the transition is impossible. This point is not emphasized enough. Even with all the renewable energy sources in the world, if they simply supplement fossil fuel usage rather than replace it, it will be of no benefit. That’s the energy aspect. 

Moving swiftly to food, amidst all the intricacies of the food and land systems, a few things are crystal clear. Primarily, science advises us, whether our concern is climate, biodiversity, or feeding the world, that we need to drastically decrease the amounts of meat and dairy in our diets. It doesn’t necessarily need to reach zero, but it has to be significantly reduced. Plus, the majority could simultaneously improve the healthfulness of their diets. That covers the food issue.   

Finally, regarding our non-edible goods and services, we need to make them more durable, share them, and repair them. If products are to be associated with status, it should be with high-quality, well-cared-for, long-lasting, repurposed items. We need to embrace the circular economy.  

The stark reality we must face is that, no matter what we do at this point, we’re likely to witness more climate disruptions during my lifetime. This is because the climate is destined to worsen slightly before any improvement sets in. I was discussing this with a client of ours, a company that manufactures outdoor clothing. As I’ve mentioned previously, revamping the business model is crucial. For this company, the central question becomes whether they can pivot their business model towards selling the idea of purchasing clothes from them, possibly pre-loved items. People would then take pride not in their brand-new apparel, but in their cherished clothing that’s been with them for a decade or more, sporting patches and stitches from various repairs. Each repair tells a tale of a thrilling adventure they’ve had. It’s a fresh perspective on how we view and value our belongings. 

Q: How can philanthropy play a role? 

[Mike Berners-Lee]: I’ve discussed the culture of truth and everything related. But there are some high impact actions that businesses could invest in. All this net zero talk and my statement that offsetting isn’t really possible. What I’d like to see as the new narrative is the recognition that offsetting isn’t feasible. But it’s still beneficial to contribute to carbon-reducing initiatives. Once we’ve recognised that the money we might’ve spent on tree-planting and such worthy causes isn’t truly offsetting, the question becomes what is the best low-carbon cause to put my money into, which could be something drastically different. I know of one company that just donated £75,000 to MP Watch, an initiative aiming to create an environment in which, at the next UK election, every constituent will be aware of every candidate’s truth track record. It’s a lofty ambition, right? But the idea is that you can choose to be careless with the truth if you wish, but everyone will be aware. And those who value truth won’t cast their vote for you.  

That’s one approach. Another one I’ve been discussing with environmental lawyers revolves around creating a broker system, where companies wishing to donate money could fund crucial environmental legal struggles. Think about battles like the one against the coal mine off the south coast of Cumbria. Just a few thousand pounds are needed there. Just a modest sum in the tens of thousands can help prevent millions of tons of ecological devastation. 

Q: What do you hope your legacy will be on this earth?  

[Mike Berners-Lee]: …the aim has to be ambitious, right? At present, my perspective is that we’re grappling with a pandemic of untruthfulness, or a post-truth plague. If I really take a step back and consider what would be required for us to begin surmounting these issues, I don’t believe we can make progress without establishing a foundation of sincerity, something currently lacking. This spans businesses, media, and politics, both domestically and internationally. So, what would I want my lasting contribution to be? I’d be delighted if my legacy entailed having fostered a profound shift towards a culture of honesty. 

Thought Economics

About the Author

Vikas Shah MBE DL is an entrepreneur, investor & philanthropist. He is CEO of Swiscot Group alongside being a venture-investor in a number of businesses internationally. He is a Non-Executive Board Member of the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and a Non-Executive Director of the Solicitors Regulation Authority. Vikas was awarded an MBE for Services to Business and the Economy in Her Majesty the Queen’s 2018 New Year’s Honours List and in 2021 became a Deputy Lieutenant of the Greater Manchester Lieutenancy. He is an Honorary Professor of Business at The Alliance Business School, University of Manchester and Visiting Professors at the MIT Sloan Lisbon MBA.