A three-day conference at Oxford University on a low-carbon future began at 8.30 am with so much noise over coffee and patisseries that some of us had to spill outside to hold a conversation. The Veolia Institute invited some of the loudest academic, business and consulting voices to their conference on 2nd and 3rd November. Voices from Japan, South Africa, USA, China, Zurich, Delft, Grenoble, Hamburg, Paris and London - but above all the authoritative voice of Lord Nicholas Stern. An hour invested watching his speech to the packed Examination Schools hall is recommended. It is his call to arms, a positive statement of why a low-carbon future is the central challenge of our time.

By the close, as Veolia Chairman and CEO Antoine Frérot thanked us for participating, we had heard from 54 speakers. This was a world class opportunity to hear Sir John Beddington set out the mega trends, Paul Ekins propose that companies be permitted to sell only services and not resources, Amir Rashid propose a better way of categorising products, and Pascal Peslerbe demonstrate how to recover polymers from the 80,000 types on the market. And for Thomas Graedel, Alex King, Georges Calas and Edmund Nickless to delve into the issues of resources constraints and related questions if we are to create a low-carbon economy. Andy Clifton from Rolls Royce silenced a workshop of experts with the challenge of how to manage ever more high-performance and complex products for which there is currently no cascaded reuse option.

Yet, by the end, there was an unsettling and unanswered question. Why had Veolia Institute invested so much to host this invitation-only conference? Certainly, it was noisy. Certainly, the challenge of raising resource productivity to 3% annually was acknowledged: but what next? Veolia, Suez and similar firms have an important role in recovering secondary resources for recycling but the conference implied, too, that recycling is not going to be sufficient to achieve the step change required. For that step change, “normal” needs to be that many more products are designed so their life is extended and they are not merely collected, shredded and recycled.

At the last moment, Dinah Louda of the Veolia Institute revealed all. Sir Nicholas Stern would be joining their foresight panel; a brilliant coup. This conference had been a gift to celebrate their 10th conference, but this was a gift intended to keep on giving. “We hope we have created a body that could form a new IPCC panel on resources.” If there was any doubt about the global ambition of Veolia Institute to create a low-carbon economy, it ended as the conference closed.

Photo of Lord Stern courtesy of Oxford Martin School