Anshu Bahanda: Welcome to another episode of Wellness Curated. This is your host, Anshu Bahanda, and as you know, the aim of our podcast is to help you lead a healthier, happier, and more hopeful life. And we do so by giving you ideas, trends, techniques, and tools from all over the world. This season, we’re focusing on environmental wellness, and today we’re discussing a pressing global issue that’s shaping the future of our planet: climate change. We have with us Dr Marcus Watson. He’s an esteemed expert who has a passion for service quality and innovative solutions. He was CEO of Ground Control, a UK-based ground maintenance company. He’s now known as the Executive Director. He also invests in environmentally friendly projects, and he’s going to bring us a wealth of knowledge and expertise and shed light on this important topic. Welcome to the chat, Marcus, and thank you for taking the time to be here with us today.
DrMarcus Watson: Well, it’s an absolute pleasure to be here and thank you so much for your kind introduction. I hope I live up to it.
AB: Thank you. I’m sure you will. But Marcus, I’m going to jump right in and ask you— what inspired you to focus on environmental wellness and climate change in your career? Because I know you had another career, you used to fly one time.
Dr MW: Yeah, it’s an important question because I think a lot of people are probably also like me, realising that we’re in a really tricky place when it comes to the double crisis of climate change and also affected by that in great part is the loss of biodiversity, which is impacting the way that we are going to live happy, healthy lives in the future. And so those two things are huge crises, the likes of which we haven’t seen in the history of humanity. And I have children, and I would love for my children to inherit a world that is at least as good as the one that I was born into and hopefully better. That is my personal motivation for wanting to help those businesses and projects that are making the transition to net zero and living in a more sustainable way in harmony with nature. That is my personal motivation. And I’m optimistically hopeful that a greater number of people will see it as we do and will join this movement, be able to help it along, and achieve the things that are so important for us to achieve in very short time scales.
AB: That’s exactly what my motivation is as well. Can you give us an overview of how businesses can be a force for good when it comes to climate change? And what are some of the pressing problems that you see related to climate change that businesses can actually help solve?
Dr MW: Yeah, well, I think that businesses have an incredibly important part to play in the transition to net zero, and there are enormous business opportunities in that transition as well. So by some estimates, the reallocation of capital that is required to transition to net zero is the largest reallocation of capital that the world has ever seen. And some estimates are $100 trillion or thereabouts to be able to affect that transition. Now, the reason why business has such an important role is because, as you’ll often hear from the government, the world leaders need to do more, and of course they do. The pace of change that we need is perhaps hampered by the sometimes necessary slower pace of change in government and those who are able to affect it at a macro level. So being able to move quickly, being an entrepreneur— being able to move quickly and to spot an opportunity to do good and actually create a good business out of it is something that businesses are very good at doing and entrepreneurs are very good at doing. So if I look, for example, at the transition to a new source of energy, a sustainable source of energy, whether that’s wind or solar battery storage, hydrogen to some extent, so long as it’s green hydrogen, and this needs to be carefully considered because hydrogen can actually be greenwashing if we’re not careful. So there are so many opportunities in, for example, the production of energy, but there’s also how we go about the use of energy—how efficient are we in our use—and how do we change that? And the automotive industry is a fabulous example of how they’ve transitioned from fossil fuels or are transitioning from fossil fuels to battery storage in order to deliver a new kind of automotive industry. So I think one of the keys is that there are two really pressing reasons why businesses can be a force for good. One is the speed at which it can act. And the second one, actually, is that it makes good business sense to do so. There is an enormous amount of opportunity, just as imagined when the automobile was first conceived in the late 19th century. And that created an enormous amount of business opportunities, not just because of the vehicle but all of the other things, such as motor insurance. Motor insurance didn’t exist in 1850. But those kinds of opportunities are real, they’re tangible, and they will continue to evolve until such a time as we reach that steady state of net zero and live in a sustainable way with nature. And in that transition, business is superbly innovative. It will try things, fail fast, and test different innovations to see what sticks and what works, and if it works and if it sticks, then do more of it, right?
AB: Yes, absolutely. So tell me, how have you seen the conversation around climate change and business responsibility evolve in the last decade? Because there is a lot of talk about it at the end.
Dr MW: You’re absolutely right, and it has shifted enormously. And I’m part of that shift. A decade ago, I was not as educated on these matters, and as I became more educated, I became much more interested. So that the conversation for sure has shifted from perhaps always this thing for real, not really understanding the data, the information, and the scientific background that supports the fact that we are facing two crises that are much, much better understood. The basis of the conversation is that we have a problem. How do we solve it? Do we really have a problem? So there is, of course, a voice out there that says, Well, we don’t really have a problem, do we? But it’s much smaller than it was ten years ago, and the volume of information and educated businesses is far greater than it has been, and I believe it is also far greater than the deniers.
AB: Okay, and how would you define purpose beyond profit, the concept that you’ve been talking about in the context of climate change and environmental wellness and also give us some examples of how companies have effectively addressed climate change while also maintaining profitability?
Dr MW: Let’s first and foremost put to bed the fact that it costs money to be sustainable. It costs money to be green. We’re doing this for an altruistic reason. That’s just wrong. If we look at the amount of investment that’s going into businesses that have green credentials and sustainability at their heart and a purpose beyond profit, they receive more investment, are more profitable, and are more valuable than those companies that do not. And over time, those companies that are not sustainable will reduce their profitability as consumers. The population will vote for it. We will not wish to buy from companies that are harming the future of our children. So the purpose beyond profit can be not just for climate change and sustainability. It can be used for anything. And this is a personal belief that if businesses wish to have the right to be in business and wish to have the right or the privilege—it’s not a right, it’s the privilege to be successful—then they have to give back to society. If the sole motivation of a business is to make profit, I think there’s a huge amount that it’s missing, and that amount is the community, the links that it has with the communities that it serves, its people, and its customers. And it would be like operating in a vacuum. And in my opinion, those types of businesses that don’t have a purpose beyond profit, frankly, make me question whether they have the right to be successful businesses. You know, it can’t just be ‘take’, it’s got to be a two-way equation here.
AB: Right. And can you share some examples of companies that are effectively addressing climate change and maintaining profitability?
Dr MW: Yeah. The business in which I’m still a shareholder and a director is Ground Control. It’s an amazing company. I am biassed, by the way. But it’s a company whose purpose is to care for our environment and ensure that humans and nature can cohabit well and happily. The way that Ground Control goes about it is to actually invest in tech and people to help achieve the outcome of caring for the environment. And what we do, as you said earlier, is maintain the external space; we create landscapes, we manage vegetation— we plant trees and vegetation. But what’s particularly interesting is that Ground Control is very profitable. What’s particularly interesting about caring for our environment at the forefront of our minds is that it drove us to make certain decisions that have actually proven to be very financially beneficial. So back in 2019, I think it was December 2019, it was decided that, actually, from now on we’re not going to buy company cars that are diesel or petrol. There are alternatives that are better for the environment, and therefore we’re going to only buy electric cars from now on for our fleet. Vans was going to take a little bit longer, but let’s make the first step, which, by the way, in my view, is perhaps the most important. But then what we found is that we had range anxiety, and we thought, Well, if we have range anxiety, our customers might do as well. So hey, why don’t we create a business that is about supplying and installing electric vehicle charge points for our customers? And that is a brand new business where caring for our environment has not been the purpose of Ground Control. Arguably, we wouldn’t have thought that this was an obvious thing for us to do. And of course, you dig a hole, you plant a tree, you dig a hole, and you plant an electric vehicle, to name a few. And again, this is a new area of business. It’s exciting, it’s a growing market, and it’s profitable. And so that’s one small example.
Another company that wouldn’t even have existed had the transition not been so critical is a company called Xlinks. It’s a very large British project. When fully funded and fully deployed, it will be about 20 billion pounds worth of investment. And Xlinks is about recognising that the provision of energy needs to shift away from fossil fuels and go to more sustainable ways, and the cheapest form of producing electricity is the cheapest way. So if you start with a blank sheet of paper and you don’t have legacy infrastructure that is holding you back, it’s solar power. And so, my dear friend and the brain behind Xlinks is Simon Morrish. He founded the business on the basis that this was a sustainable and much more cost-effective way of generating electricity, switching away from fossil fuels in the process. So imagine now that this is a small entrepreneurial business with enormous ambition that has secured with the Moroccan government an agreement to generate electricity in Morocco through solar, wind, and technology, all combined, and deliver that energy to its customers, including the UK. Much of the UK’s electricity is generated to start with through renewables, generating 8% of the UK’s electricity. 8% through 100% sustainable means at a price point that is actually really cost-effective and attractive. The beauty of this is that because of the location and the mix of technology, this is uncorrelated to the energy, for example, produced in the North Sea through wind farms, and therefore this is valuable. This energy is also predictable; it doesn’t fluctuate to the same extent. It is almost base load effective, as I call it. It’s not base load, but it’s effective. Base load is another way of looking at it. So putting all of these things together, this is a really attractive solution to not just mitigating a very difficult climate change crisis, but also to… So it’s 8% of the energy mix of the 6th largest economy in the world, but on top of that, it’s a great business. This is a business that did not exist a few years ago. And with investment from partners such as TA CR and Octopus Energy, the project is continuing to progress. If I may go on a little bit here, some of the consequential decisions of starting this project led us to have a look at, well, what’s the availability, for example, of Cabling to be able to connect Morocco to Great Britain? What is the availability of the engineering ships that are required to lay the cables, the cable-laying vessels? And what Xlinks found is that there is an insufficient supply across the world of both cable and cable lane vessels. And so another company was created to create two factories to make cables, and those cables will be sold to Xlinks and anybody else who needs cabling.
AB: Oh wow!
Dr MW: Exactly. We’ve also designed the world’s largest cable laying vessel which will again service not just XLinks, but will service other customers. So there are so many opportunities that start with purpose and deliver fantastic businesses.
AB: Marcus, this brings me to a question that I’ve had very often when it comes to companies which are trying to do good for climate change. You’ve put cables all the way from Morocco to Great Britain. In this case, is that more carbon efficient than generating the electricity in the UK?
Dr MW: Right, so there are some losses, for sure. So the losses between Morocco and the UK will be for less, because XLinks is using HVDC technology. So the losses there have been modelled, and they’re modelled to be, and I’m making this up from memory, so forgive me if I get the numbers slightly wrong, but it’s roughly ten to 15% or thereabouts. So when you consider that loss, and the losses there because their HVDC are significantly lower than they would be on an AC network. And that’s why we’re creating an additional network here, one for capacity. You just need more electricity as you’re shifting away from fossil fuels. Then you actually need the non fossil fuel bit to be able to cater for that existing and continued demand. But the second reason is we needed an HVDC network in order to mitigate the losses and reduce the losses over those long distances. Now, all of this is well known technology. It exists. There are these projects, for example, in China, and there’s another project that’s linking Australia to Singapore in this way. So our view here is, well, let’s use existing technology and apply it to a problem. A problem that needs a solution here.
AB: I have another question here. My question is, you’ve had to lay these cables, look at the carbon efficiency of that. Was that still more carbon efficient, creating the cables, laying them, than generating the electricity in the UK?
Dr MW: Immensely so. Absolutely immensely so. And let’s not forget that the infrastructure required to produce fossil fuel energy sources also requires an energy input, if you like. So it is, of course, measurably so. Everything can be measured right, but it is much, much more efficient than not having it. So that’s not something that’s worrying us. It is so much more efficient to do it this way.
AB: Okay. And with your experience as a CEO and as an investor, you talked about tech and people being some of the strategies that help integrate environmental considerations with business decision-making. Can you give us some other practical strategies? And can you also share some of the challenges that businesses might face when they try to adopt a more environmentally friendly approach? Because you did say that it is more expensive to try and be sustainable.
Dr MW: And forgive me if I’ve inadvertently given the wrong impression. I do not believe that it is more expensive to be sustainable. That perhaps might have been true some time ago, but the cost of doing business sustainably is so much more cost-effective now than it ever has been and will continue to be. And the prices of such technologies will come down continually as they ramp up. And we’ve seen that, for example, in the automotive industry, where in the early days, if you wanted an electric hub, then you needed to have pretty deep pockets, whereas now it’s become much more available to a wider audience and will continue to do so. One of the key challenges, however, is regulation and how the competitive landscape actually looks. So, for example, how do you disincentivize being green in the UK when there is a way in which you can export, for example, your manufacturing to another country where manufacturing might be subsidised in that country and make it actually cheaper for that country to produce that manufacturing item using old, dirty technology? So there’s a problem there in terms of regulation and making sure that there is a level playing field that enables green tech to compete at least on the same footing as dirtier technology. And in my view, actually, it should be completely the reverse. Where there is help, it needs to be directed at those technologies and businesses that do have sustainability as part of their business ethos. And they’re not polluting the world. They are doing good at what they do. So regulations are the key challenge. And therefore, as businesses, we need to engage with people who have the ability to consider such regulations and make them. And that’s part of our responsibility as business entrepreneurs as well: to have those conversations so that people are educated and are able to make good, informed, supportive decisions for the business community.
AB: And coming to regulations and government. Let’s talk about the Paris agreement. What can businesses do to help the global efforts to achieve the target set in the Paris Agreement?
Dr MW: The first thing to do is to join the movement. In my view, the first thing to do is become the leader that you want to see, be the voice and be heard, believe it, and join that. Perhaps one of the most important things that businesses can do is decide: you know what? We are going to do this. We’re going to investigate, we’re going to get up to speed, and we’re going to change for the better the way that we do things in order to be the sustainable business that we want to be. Now, part of that journey will require understanding, education, and figuring out what your carbon footprint happens to be now. And there’s help that you can get. There are consultancies and people. So, for example, the Carbon Trust is one such organisation. Carbon Footprint is another consultancy. These guys, and there are plenty, will help businesses understand where they are now and what kind of initiatives will be helpful to get to a net zero position by 2051. Of the things that I would encourage all businesses who are looking into this, what I would encourage them to do is consider their plans on an SBTi. SBTi, and that’s a Science-Based Target initiative.
AB: Sorry, can you repeat that, Marcus?
Dr MW: Yes. So it’s Science Based Target initiative, SBTi. So I would recommend that companies follow that methodology, if you like, because it’s pretty stringent and it will push companies to consider very practically and in a measured way how they’re going to reduce their carbon footprint from where it is today to zero. And it will require milestones and some quantitative steps to be able to achieve that. And these plans will be signed off by the likes of Carbon Trust. For example, without having the SBTi, you could be accused as a business of perhaps greenwashing. So if you say, we’re going to be net zero by 2040, and our plans are very good, and here they are, but they haven’t been, if you like, audited or reviewed against the SBTi standard, then that may make you look like you’re greenwashing a little bit because you don’t know what you’re doing. So that’s not to say that having a plan that is not backed by SBTi is not relevant, but it is just less strong. So I would recommend that, and then, having got the plan, just do it like any strategy plan does, and that’s it. There is a bit of review in there to make sure.
AB: That’s it?
Dr MW: Of course, your plans are on the right track. So I would certainly recommend those as key initial steps for businesses to take. And of course, within the plan, you can put anything in there, right? So whether it’s carbon reduction, a new business stream, and the like…
AB: So Marcus, what about carbon credits? What are your thoughts on carbon offsetting as a tool for businesses to reduce the impact on climate change?
Dr MW: Carbon credits are very useful, and they’re a very useful way to offset those emissions that you simply can’t remove at the point of source. Of course, a preference is to not always reduce carbon emissions in the first place, but where you simply cannot, the technology is not there yet, or you are on a journey on your SBTi net zero plan, then you might be left, and you will be left. And as Ground Control has an element of carbon emissions that you need to offset, offsetting is a way of mitigating that emission, which you have now. It is important, though, in my view, that not to be a primary solution. It should be something that you use when other options to remove carbon from the atmosphere are not there yet or are not viable. And also, how you choose those carbon credits is going to be pretty important. So what in reality are you buying, and what are people going to do with that money that you’ve ineffectively invested in an offset project? And some carbon offset projects are more robust than others. There are VCs, for example, and there’s the gold standard as well, which appears to have a higher standard than many, so choose wisely which carbon credits you’re going to be purchasing in that way. Now, carbon credits do have some people saying that they should be absolutely part of the economy and will be where it is more cost-effective to offset than to remove carbon outsource. Then we should be doing that. And others are saying offsetting is just the least bad of a bad bunch of options, so we shouldn’t really do it. We should really focus all of our efforts on avoiding emissions in the first place.
AB: Can you explain exactly what carbon credits are?
Dr MW: Right, so carbon credit is a way in which companies will pay for somebody else to remove carbon from the world in a different area. So if you’re flying a lot and flying is actually a big generator of carbon, then companies will say, well, in order to offset these x tonnes of carbon, I’m going to buy credits from companies that will plant trees, that will, for example, invest in transitioning wood-burning stoves to more efficient types of stoves in other parts of the world.
AB: So it’s not just planting trees, as a lot of people understand it to be. It could be other things as well— Carbon offsetting.
Dr MW: Absolutely. So, for example… Here’s another one. For example, there’s a company that I’ve been helping. It’s a company called DBE Energy. So the founder there, Steve Sharratt, is a friend, and what his company does is take food waste from hospitals, schools, and councils, and that food waste is delivered to a waste-to-energy plant. And what that plant does is process the food waste. It creates a kind of soup and feeds it to a bunch of bugs. The bugs create methane. The methane is then captured, refined, and purified, and it’s then inserted into the grid, where it can be used to replace fossil fuels. So you’re using food waste, which would generate methane. Anyway, methane is, as you know, a greenhouse gas, and it’s much more potent than carbon dioxide. Therefore, having methane escape into the atmosphere is actually more damaging than carbon dioxide. So being able to capture that methane that would otherwise create more damage and be able to use it instead of methane natural gas to heat our homes is a good way of achieving a sustainable energy source. Now, that company happens to be able to offer carbon credits to customers. As I said before, there are carbon credits. Some are more valuable than others and/or more robust than others. And therefore, of course, ticking the box, please offset my flight, is a good thing to do. What I tend to do as well is that I don’t like flying, so I reduce flying as much as I can. And technology like this, by the way, allows us to have great conversations without necessarily having to meet in person. And therefore, this is a much more cost-effective way of having important conversations. So the first thing that I would…
AB: Marcus, that’s a very good point. We talked a little bit about innovation and technology. You talked about electric cars a little bit. But tell me about innovation and technology in combating climate change. Are there exciting developments that maybe we haven’t heard of, that will surprise us all? Let’s talk a little bit about that.
Dr MW: Yeah, okay. So a lot of the technology that I’m involved with already exists and is mature. If I go back to my dear friend Simon, who created Xlinks and founded Xlinks, he was very clear that we’re going to use existing technology such that we can deploy it quickly at a lower risk. So sometimes the innovation in technology is not about R and D and finding something new or a miracle, a pure silver bullet to be able to solve this. Actually, innovation comes from bringing together existing technology to solve the current problem in an innovative way, which I think is important. I mean, if you look at DBE Energy as well, a lot of that technology is well known. The bacteria’s biology is known. The bugs that are creating methane by ingesting food waste have that technology. The pipes, the pumps, and the processing—all of that is known. Again, the control systems are all known. So therefore, that combination of existing technology and knowledge of how to solve a current problem is also, in my view, an important way to look at things because you’re not hoping for a breakthrough or a silver bullet to save us and find a solution here. Many of the technologies are already in existence, and we just need to apply them, perhaps to a new situation.
AB: And what role do you think businesses should play in educating people about environmental wellness and climate change?
Dr MW: Yeah, to the very same extent that they’re engaged in it. I think it’s important to do things like this. I mean, I thoroughly appreciate you giving me the platform to be able to speak about a topic that is super important to me and important to the businesses that I’ve invested in or work with. It is also possible, and I would recommend that all businesses do this— that when they’re talking to their employees, they do so in a way that helps them also be mindful of climate change, sustainability, and biodiversity loss in their own personal lives as well. So, to give you an example, in Ground Control, when we decided that company cars were going to be electric, one of the things that we selected were Tesla cars. They were a little bit more expensive to purchase, but the payback was going to work out quite nicely. Now, when we started to talk to our employees about this, they were obviously so excited to be receiving a new car that their kids would think, “Dad, cool car, now please, can you drop me off at school? I would like my friends to see you drop me off in this nice car.” What we decided to do was offer that benefit to the families of our employees. And our employees could, through a salary sacrifice, actually buy a second car for their partner, their children, or whatever. So we didn’t make the delineation that the air that we breathe in business and the air that we breathe in our homes are different. We don’t believe that to be the case. Therefore, why wouldn’t we have those kinds of conversations with our colleagues, our employees, and our friends, in the same way and encourage them, for example, when we say you can actually, through sacrifice, get an electric car? What we were clear on was that you needed to demonstrate that the electricity that you had at home to recharge your car was 100% sustainable, and therefore we wanted to see a certificate, if you like, that you were not using a fossil fuel tariff but a sustainable tariff. So again, some people said, “well, isn’t that interfering with people’s lives?” We’re actually educating, and we’re showing that there are alternatives that are cost-effective and that are beneficial for the planet as well. So that’s an example of engagement. Another one in Ground Control, we created a thing called Green Games Live. So imagine a festival where we bring like-minded people together: our customers, our employees, figures in industry, and government charities. We bring everybody together, and we create a conversation and excitement around these two pressing issues and how we can help solve them, not just as businesses but as stakeholders of the businesses that we represent.
AB: There are three pillars that can affect climate change and they need to collaborate and work together, and that’s businesses, governments and NGOs. But very often they’re at loggerheads because each one has a different agenda. How do you think that problem can be solved?
Dr MW: I’m not sure that there is much overlap between businesses, government, and NGOs. I think there is enormous overlap in the interests of these three types of organisations working together. The distinction that I would make is that there are organisations that are perhaps deniers of climate change and organisations that are not. And in each one of those businesses, NGOs and governments, there are those two camps. My sense is that the camp that says this is a real problem that we need to address is growing by the day and continues to do so, and I hope we’ll continue to do so rapidly in the very near future. And then the other group says, we get it; we need to get on and do something about it. So I think there’s much more that brings people together than separates us, and it’s the job of businesses, governments, and NGOs to see that there’s a problem and that we need to solve it with speed. They need to engage with those who disagree with that view. Now, of course, we also see this play out: that we can’t switch off one technology and immediately switch on another one. It takes time to do so. So perhaps that is where the difference is. Even in the camps that do believe that there’s an issue and we need to do something about it, the speed at which we do that is an area of debate. I get, for example, that the government has many plates that it needs to keep spinning in order to maintain a stable society. And that creates a rub, particularly when certain governments are just dragging their heels a little bit. It’s wonderful that NGOs and one of my heroes is Greta Thunberg, which is absolutely wonderful.
AB: We do a rapid fire round at the end of each conversation to summarise what we’ve said. Marcus, one reason for businesses to work towards a sustainable business model?
Dr MW: A key reason for businesses to go to a sustainable business model is that your business will be irrelevant and die if you don’t do so.
AB: One important way businesses can contribute to achieve the target set by the Paris Agreement
Dr MW: Start by knowing your baseline. Do so quickly. Engage with friends, understand your baseline, and create a plan that gets you from where you are today to net zero, preferably using SBTi— Science Based Target initiative.
AB: Lovely. And Marcus, I want you to leave people with one thing that everyone can do.
Dr MW: About climate change?
AB: Yeah. Businesses, individuals, schools, universities, everybody. One thing.
Dr MW: So the one thing that people and businesses can do, I would say, is to review all of their areas of activity and pick out the ones where they have a significant carbon footprint and just dial those down or replace them. So, for example, here would be: did we need to meet face-to-face or could we conduct this via Zoom? And actually, this is really effective, and it’s reduced our carbon footprint, just from this conversation.
AB: Thank you. And thank you so much, Marcus, for being here with us today. And to my listeners, that was Dr Marcus Watson, who shared many, many powerful insights that will help change your life for the better.
Dr MW: Fabulous. It’s an absolute pleasure to be here. Thank you so much for giving me the platform to share some ideas.
AB: To my listeners, thank you for listening in today. We hope you learned something new and that we brought you a little closer to leading a healthier and happier life. If you enjoyed the conversation, please press like and invite your friends and family to subscribe to my channel. I would love to hear from you, so let me know any topics, suggestions, or questions that you have. My email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you for being here today, and we’ll see you next week.