Moves from UK Green Investment Bank, Scottish government, Bangladesh Ship Breakers Association and all the latest from other brands in corporate responsibility and sustainability this month.

Hot topic

British business could soon start to benefit from the UK government’s renewable heat incentive scheme, with cash payments for installation of biomass boilers, ground source heat pumps and other renewable heating technologies. Pending parliamentary approval, the scheme will make £860m available in its first four years. The first beneficiaries will be companies and the public sector, with households able to starting applying for subsidies from October 2012. The government’s objective is to reduce Britain’s reliance on fossil fuels for heating, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 44m tonnes in the period up to 2020.

Cutting down on carbs

Alongside the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme, the UK government has also published, as part of its Carbon Plan for the next five years, details of the UK Green Investment Bank. This will be operational by September 2012, with initial funding of £1bn, and will finance “infrastructure projects that support economic growth and our environmental objectives in areas where private sector investment is currently constrained”. Examples of initiatives likely to be backed by the bank include electric vehicles and renewable power generation – in particular, offshore wind.

Tide to be tamed 

The Scottish government has approved a scheme to bring the latest in underwater power generating technology to the Inner Hebrides. By 2015, 10 underwater turbines in a tidal channel between the Scottish islands of Islay and Jura will be providing up to 10MW of power, enough for 10,000 homes. The turbines will be anchored to the sea bed in the Sound of Islay, which has tidal flows of over 10km an hour. The power generated would be more than sufficient to power the homes of Islay’s 3,000 residents and the island’s eight world-famous whisky distilleries.

Back in business

An ongoing tussle over the conditions in the shipbreaking yards of Bangladesh took another turn in March when the country’s high court said yard owners could resume the import of obsolete vessels, as long as the yards met certain environmental and worker safety conditions before dismantling began. A moratorium on ship imports was imposed in January after four workers died in an explosion at a breaking yard near Chittagong. The latest ruling is seen as a victory for the Bangladesh Ship Breakers Association, which has been under pressure to make shipbreaking safer. The NGO Shipbreaking Platform says the high court “seems to be steering the shipbreaking industry in the right direction”, but warned that safety upgrades “will not be structural, but merely cosmetic”.

The power of five

Chinahas finalised its five-year plan for the period until 2015, with the aim being to steal a green growth march on the world’s other major economies. Targets for 2015 include non-fossil fuels to provide 11.4% of China’s power, and a 17% cut in the carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP. Cities and provinces have adopted their own plans, with Beijing, for example, saying it will obtain no more than a fifth of its power from coal, with hydropower, natural gas, nuclear power and renewables being used instead. The scale of China’s ambition is illustrated by the figures from just one province: Shanxi, in northern China, plans to spend about twice as much as the European Union per head of population on renewable energy and clean fuel in the run-up to 2015.

Recycled risks

Recycled packaging might be resource efficient, but it could also be bad for health. Swiss researchers have found that mineral oils from newspaper printing inks can potentially migrate into food when pulped newspapers are used to make boxes for breakfast cereals, pasta and other products. The Swiss study says three-quarters of packets tested exceeded safe levels for mineral oil, which has been linked to organ damage and cancer. One firm, cereal maker Jordans, has taken a precautionary approach and ditched recycled packaging, while other companies are looking at changing the mix of material that goes into their recycled cardboard.

Legal eagles

The long reach of American law enforcement in the fight against corporate corruption has been demonstrated by the case of Jeffrey Tesler, a British/Israeli lawyer who pleaded guilty in March to offences under the US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. He will be sentenced in June, for helping to channel illegal payments to Nigerian officials in exchange for huge energy construction contracts. Although Tesler is not a US citizen and was operating outside the US, he acted on behalf of Texas-based Kellogg, Brown & Root, and the US authorities were able to extradite him from the UK. Tesler could go to prison for up to 10 years. KBR has already paid about £250m in fines over the case.

Oil saga

The Chevron/Ecuador saga continues. A February Ecuadorian court judgment that the oil firm should pay indigenous inhabitants $8.6bn in damages for long-running toxic waste dumping, has been swiftly followed by a US preliminary court order blocking the enforcement of the fine (now worth $18bn with certain punitive damages factored in). There was “abundant evidence” of corruption in Ecuador’s legal system, the US judge said, and the case needed to be further studied. Meanwhile, Chevron has gone to the Ecuadorian courts to appeal against the fine. Representatives of the Ecuadorian plaintiffs say the US judgment was “a slap in the face to the … thousands of Ecuadorian citizens who have courageously fought for 18 years to hold Chevron accountable for committing the world’s worst environmental disaster”.

Dam plans

Meanwhile, Ecuador could find itself at the centre of another environmental controversy over plans to build a hydroelectric plant across the Coca river, 20km upstream from the San Rafael waterfall, one of the country’s most spectacular, and most protected, natural sites. The Ecuadorian government, which is using a Chinese contractor and Chinese money to build the plant, says the river’s flow will not be impeded and the waterfall and ecosystem around it will not be damaged. Environmentalists are not so sure, saying hydrological studies need to be reviewed, and the project in any case will put poverty-stricken Ecuador in long-term debt to China.

Bag ban

The European Union is pondering a Europe-wide ban on freely handed out single-use plastic shopping bags, following a request to the European Commission from EU member state environment ministers. Despite measures in some countries, such as Belgium and Ireland, where carrier bags are taxed, an estimated 800,000 tonnes of bags are handed out each year, with many ending up as “plastic soup” in the oceans. An EU ban could take a lead from Italy, where non-biodegradable plastic bags have been outlawed since the start of this year.




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