Podcast: Interview with Richard Smith, Sustainability Manager at BBC
This is an interview with Richard Smith, a sustainability manager at the BBC who’s job it is to work with everybody at the BBC to help collectively reduce the environmental impact of the BBC. And because the main thing which impacts the environment is energy use, that is directly related to climate change and that was why he was in Manchester Museum taking part in the Climate Control exhibitions and events.
Museums play an important role in our lives and societies in providing us with opportunities to encounter and think about our world. We hear about climate change on the news and in the newspapers but often don’t understand that it is happening all around us, and is tied to our everyday actions.
Manchester Museum is prompting us to be creative and through using its collections and setting up conversations, it is helping create the setting in which we can understand our connection with climate change so that we can act before we lose more of our natural world and life support systems.
From Polar Bears and other Arctic wildlife, Peppered Moths, tropical frogs, a landscape of learning how things have changed was set up. In the collections, people like Richard Smith were there to talk about what they do to help us explore the relevance to our personal lives and actions.
The BBC is a huge organisation which year to year does a vast array of activities, I asked Richard Smith where he begins with his work and how he is going about tackling it. This was a great chance for me to try and get to grips with some of the things which we dont see go on behind the scenes.
The bulk of the work he does is working with program makers to reduce the environmental impact of the productions. Blue Peter, Match of the Day, Dr Who – he works with them all. He helps them understand why the issue is so important. Not just is it the moral ethical reasons, but the financial reasons too; it is costly at all levels to be wasteful.
The reputation of organisations is now at stake as well, so it is a risk not to be altering your practices in ways to preserve the shared resources of the planet. People increasingly are taking their patronage away from companies and organisations which are not thinking how they are impacting on everybody else’s habitat.
Moving away from wasteful and unmindful practice also has implications on innovation – it produces lazy thinking and lazy doing. Optimistically Richard says that in his experience when people understand what is at risk and why it is important, they generally work with him to improve the way things are being done.
They have developed a tool for assessing the carbon impact of a production called Albert. It is a carbon calculator which estimates the environmental impact of a screen art production. It predicts the carbon footprint so that producers can report it to broadcasters and funders as well as compare it against a database of over 1,000 productions.
Since it was created, it has been shared across organisations like BAFTA and the industry to be used as an entry level tool to work out the carbon impact of TV and film productions is. Once production teams have a read out from Albert, the report can be used to drill down into the details and assess how things can be done more efficiently avoiding cost both on an environmental and financial level.
At the moment he explains that it is about working on a continuum. Where we are all starting from is a point where we need to think of how to make a more sustainable production rather than a purely sustainable production. This is a journey along which we must find the means to continue via our experience.
“The place we want to get to is a situation where every program that the BBC makes, every bit of content which the BBC makes, has a positive impact on the people and places which were involved in its creation. That’s where we need to get to”
There are two things there. To what extent it is possible, there is the move towards zero carbon; and there is a broader understanding of sustainability, which is where you are helping communities. There is a social aspect to this as well. Say a period drama is being shot in a small village the Peak District and a production team turns up, the question is ‘are they going to be of benefit to that community or are they going to be a hindrance?’.
“We want them to be a benefit and I’m quite sure that it’s the case that they are; from an economic perspective we keep sustainability as a positive thing”
This move is right across the industry, it is not just the BBC, but it is Sky and Channel 4, it is all the indies. The question is being asked ‘what could be the potential for educating, entertaining, informing audiences about this issue ?’ We have to get to the position where program makers care as much about the carbon as they do about the money, he continues… Very frequently, program makers are over worked, they have lots on their plates they have to think about like the quality of the production, health and safety, the budget, issues of diversity, and of course they have to think about environmental impact.
With Albert, they measure their footprint to get a key bit of data out, what is the carbon footprint of the production per hour of output. With this data you can start making meaningful comparisons and then start breaking it down by genre like comedy vs drama vs entertainment vs factual. Styles of program making – are you making it on location, are you going overseas, are you working in the studio, does it have a script, animation…
All these different factors Albert – as a tool – can cross reference and produce benchmarking data. But the numbers will only take you so far. Plenty of people – because of the way they are wired – are not going to engage with the numbers the way they would engage with stories. Positive stories from across the industry about what people have done differently are very important.
The next stage after using Albert is something called Albert Plus which is a certification scheme for TV and Film productions. If you watch any TV at all you will have seen this mark on screen, but you may not have known what it stands for. The logo looks like a footprint and it says Albert + sustainable production.
You will see it on the end credits of numerous BBC productions, Sky, ITV because amazingly, all the industry is working together under the leadership of BAFTA – who do a lot of great stuff besides awards. BAFTA have convened indies and production companies to work together to promote and develop sustainability in the industry.
So you can see the Albert + mark on the end credits of Coronation Street, East Enders, on Breakfast, on Dragons Den – a great and daily ever growing number of productions are using this mark to illustrate their efforts in working sustainably. Richard’s colleagues in BBC Children’s television are passionate advocates for sustainability; about a third to a half of their productions carry the Albert + mark.
We obviously have a very long way to go. For example, there are no daily practical alternatives to diesel generators. There are other technologies out there – there is solar, there is hybrid, there is waste vegetable oil – without going into too much detail, these are not ready for mass deployment.
There are issues around the cost of low energy lighting – hiring it versus buying it; the fuel mix which powers our production offices; all these things which mean we are on a journey. We are not where we need to be, but a growing number of people are on that journey. Through fantastic initiatives like the Carbon Literacy project, which started in Greater Manchester, offers a days worth of learning where people come from their sector to get tailored information, advice and shared learning around the impact of whatever they are doing in carbon terms.
“Carbon Literacy is about understanding what I actually need to do, where I can get help to do it, actually doing it and seeing that I’ve done it.”
At the BBC they have recently developed their first ‘Carbon Literacy for Technology’ course for an audience of technologists working in the corporation. It covers key things to know about such as the circular economy in terms of reuse – not just getting a new bit of kit and chucking the old away. What are we doing with that old bit of technology ? How can we work with out technology providers in creating a circular economy.
It is a very exciting journey we have to go on. How can we think about the sourcing of the equipment we can buy. For example ensuring that the procurement of equipment does not have human rights issues attached. One of the issues we look at around servers is something called PUE – Power Usage Effectiveness – and how can we get it down to that magic number of one which means you are not spending any energy cooling down your kit because it is not producing any excess energy because it is efficient.
All these kind of issues, in terms of benchmarking, as far as I’m aware that notion of PUE is a key one. This is an emerging field, and we need to take every sector, and every niche in every sector, on this journey. We have been doing work with a Manchester based organisation called Cooler Projects which is doing really key stuff.
“If you have a sector, there is not an existing course to fit but you have to create the course – this is the challenge.”
I have the challenge or dilemma, if you like, where as soon as I have finished this interview I get on a plane to the Cannes Film Festival. How can this be when I am an environmentalist ? It is about the end justifying the means, and if the work that you are doing results in reducing the overall energy consumption of your sector, then your increasing footprint is worth it.
We are probably creating more environmental impact than we think in server space via carbon creation and virtual water etc – there are lots of things which relate to this. So downloading a high def video across the web, for example, is really energy intensive – much more than we probably think.
One thing to think about with students and people at home, is where their energy supply is coming from.
What is the fuel mix ? Changing your supplier to a more environmentally friendly company is an important start. It does not mean that you should not be concerned about the amount of media which you consume, but it is a very positive step towards reducing the environmental impact of what you are doing.
When I started doing this seven years ago at the BBC – I was a journalist for 15 years at the BBC, and then I managed to do a switch, and I am now doing this which is a very different role. I was in front of the camera, and now I am very much behind the camera. Seeing the journey on which the industry has gone has been very positive.
The development of Albert has helped to start create a framework and measure these things with meaning; this was a significant advance. We didn’t have Albert +, we didn’t have Carbon Literacy, we didn’t have the partnership with the rest of the industry; we didn’t have. My colleagues in Coronation Street are literally world leaders in sustainable production. Colleagues from Coronation Street were generous enough to talk to people in East Enders about it, and that then inspired them to start thinking about more practical stuff which they could do.
“So every time I see that badge on screen, I’m mentally and sometimes physically punching the air because it is another program that has got it. “
For me, the biggest advance is about it no longer being a niche issue. As I say, I was invited to go to Cannes; would that have happened seven years ago – five years ago – three years ago ? I don’t think so… You can see it being a global movement, and players within that – whether that be Harrison Ford or most notably Leonardo DiCaprio – big names, people talking about it saying it is a big issue.
“As I say, we are not where we need to be in terms of environmental sustainability – it is frequently put in the same bracket as health and safety. I think a far more relevant topic would be diversity – it shouldn’t be a beauty competition as to what is the most deserving, but I would say that environmental sustainability is behind diversity”
Diversity has a long long way to go, as we all know in terms of onscreen portrayal, and people working in organisations such as the BBC. So environmental sustainability has a long long way to go but we are starting to make signifiant progress.
It has got to be fast though, it has got to be fast. It can just go on in little increments saying everything is all going to be alright by 2100 because as we all know the world will be a very different place in 2100 if we have not had more action. But it does keep snowballing along.
As a viewer, is there a way that the viewer can support sustainability in the BBC ? If you see a program which has got the Albert + mark on it and you think it is worthwhile, a quick call to the BBC or an email expressing your support for this initiative is a good thing. The BBC takes a great deal of notice about audience feedback.
“It being human nature that a great deal more people will phone in to complain than they will to praise; so a little praise is nice, we like that”
Other work we need to do with the audience is to help them understand better what the environmental impacts are of the different ways in which they can consume our content. So for example, watching a bit of content over 3G uses far more energy than Wi-Fi – do people know that ?
We as broadcasters need to get that information out there and work with the manufacturers of the equipment to enable people to make informed choices.
There are multiple reasons why there are people with the best intentions who don’t end up doing anything. It is human nature. The fancy term cognitive dissonance – the gap between what you know you should be doing and what you do do – if I settle down in front of the TV of a Saturday night with a half bottle of wine (maybe a bit more) and a big of chips, I know it is not the right thing to do but none the less, I do it anyway.
For a large number of people, thinking about what they can do in their personal or professional lives probably falls into the same bracket. I think the thing that tips it over for them is when they can see multiple benefits – not just for them personally, but perhaps for their production team, for the organisation as a whole, financial savings, reputational savings, team morale – people working together for a common aim…
The key thing around the issue of climate change is about people understanding what the consequences of climate change will be. There is a lot of noise around climate change, it is not always a focused noise. If you are not particularly attuned to it, it is something which is happening in the background.
Yeah you’ve heard of climate change, you don’t really understand what it is; and I think that when we have been doing the carbon literacy sessions and hopefully briefly but succinctly and clearly using mainstream science to explain what those consequences are – people are varyingly depressed and horrified.
It is our job to take them out of the curve. We take them out on this journey – I’ve got an image of an ostrich with its head in the sand, this is something people can relate to – and we take them on this journey out the other side, and hopefully it leaves them feeling empowered.
This notion of ‘stickiness’ is really interesting in terms of sustainability. What makes some things really stick with people and go ‘right Im never going to do that again’; and what makes issues less sticky ? And I think that because of the huge size of the issue of climate change, it can tend to be slightly less sticky than other issues.
For example, smoking and not smoking – it is one action to take and you are not smoking anymore. Climate change and reducing energy consumption and overall levels of consumerism is far more complex. I think peer pressure – and pressure is not the right word….
There is a video on Youtube we use on the training course. The chap is dancing alone in a field at a festival – he is arguably looking a bit foolish but he is having a great time; and then one other person joins in. And then another, and another, until eventually the whole field is dancing. Everyone is having a great time, and the ones which are left out are the ones on the side.
We show this film because it is a simple metaphor of what needs to happen, and what is happening with this. We don’t just need leaders, we don t just need people doing one thing, we need other people to say that looks good, I think I am going to join in. And I might be in a very small minority initially but others will come. That is the kind of leadership which we need.
In Manchester Museum, what me and other people who are sitting in this spot where I am now have been asked to do is just sit and have conversations with people. Whether it be people such as yourself, whether it be school children, but anybody and everybody who is interested to hear about what is my role.
I’m not here to talk about my opinion on climate change – that really doesn’t matter, its about what my organisation is doing who pays me to worry about this stuff. How can I help them understand what the BBC and the wider industry is doing; again, it is all part of our public service remit – I think – to be engaging with our audiences on this issue.
I think collaboration is key, around this area and I think forging links where I can share my knowledge, my expertise with someone who comes here. In return I can be inspired by the amazing exhibit that I see here today and talk with people such as yourself. So it’s great.