Colleague Interview

In recognition of World Environment Day, we spoke with Alex Lee, Principal

Alex Lee leads the Environment & Climate Change technical division of our Forensic Technical Services. We spoke to him about the industry he works in, the environment and how we can be more sustainable in our own lives.

Getting to know your experience a bit more, what is your background in the environmental industry?

I have a Master’s in Environmental Modelling and Monitoring and a Ph.D. in Geology. Specifically, my doctorate provided an opportunity for me to roam glaciers which was brilliant.

My first job was assisting in the development of long-term safety cases for nuclear repositories. This included modeling groundwater plumes up to 150,000 years into the future. It necessitated developing models inclusive of long-term future climate change, glaciations, sea level change, geochemical evolution, and much more.

We were using supercomputers to code and develop our models from first principles, where I learned so much from some of the very brightest. I was very lucky to have been part of such a strong team.

From there, I joined ERM, a global environmental consulting business, as a lead risk assessor in their soil and groundwater team. For the 17 years prior to joining HKA, I was on the management team at WSP. My career has enabled me to work globally and on some of the most challenging environmental problems, direct multi-disciplinary projects, and deliver expert witness testimony.

Principally, my background is in ground and surface water contamination, human health, and vapour risk assessments. But at the root of it all, I joined the environmental industry as I truly just liked being outside. I joined on a promise (in part) of exotic field works. I remain unsure if I was sold the truth, but I have certainly seen some interesting, albeit dirty, places.

That’s a great lead to my next question: where the passion for the environmental industry comes from? One part of it is from your love of the outdoors, and presumably, you want to make a difference as well.

Most people, including myself, who join the environmental sector want to be impactful (besides being outside). They want to make an actual difference. We tend to be people who, when we walk past a piece of litter, we pick it up. It’s not somebody else’s problem. Many who join this sector are climbers, walkers, kayakers, etc., or just people who are immersed in the outdoors and who see great value and importance in protecting it in all its detail and diversity.

Even in a corporate setting, when I am sitting at my desk, on a spreadsheet, crunching numbers, I get satisfaction knowing the delivery of my work seeks to impact the physical world around us.

It’s about making the world a better place, which sounds cliché, but there is truth to it.

Furthermore, because of each environment’s uniqueness, no two jobs are the same. This uniqueness creates appeal and a challenge. It requires environmental scientists to be adaptable and practical in acquiring the data and yet also be academics learning and leaning on other disciplines to process it.

It is this combination of the practical and uniqueness that provides another common appeal to those that embark on a career in the environmental sciences. Indeed, this combination, including the opportunity to make a difference, ultimately drew me to the sector.

Moving on, how ingrained should ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) principles, and more specifically, environmental sustainability principles, be in a company’s operations?

Whether you believe in climate change or not, or any other ecocide headlines in your daily newsfeed, I believe that we have an individual responsibility to use the Earth’s resources wisely. You may not believe in climate change, but that does not mean it is acceptable or sensible that we consume our finite resources at an uncontrolled rate.  

Meanwhile, none of us can avoid the term ESG in evolving policy, legislation, and guidance. This term can invoke mixed messages and is indeed seen by some as a burdensome requirement to company reporting, a barrier to operations, and a potential source of litigation.

I agree that the ESG journey will not always be easy, and that transition and change will take time. Yet because something is hard is not an excuse to do nothing or not to start. I believe and have seen that a failure of companies to embrace ESG practices as part of their core values can, and will, likely result in negative impacts, whether that comes in the form of monetary penalties for non-compliance with existing regulations, damage to a brand’s reputation, lost finance, or lost customers.

ESG governance and acceptable reporting must lead to long-term behavioural and policy change.

In summary, ESG provides a lens and a framework within which companies may now be monitored to improve and drive accelerated change. Consequently, its principles, even if imperfect, can, I believe, only be a positive addition to society.

I would ask employees to be curious, ask questions about the company’s operations, and hold themselves and others accountable (without fear) at all levels. Be courageous, be critical and get involved to deliver change.  


The 2023 World Environment Day theme is ‘Solutions to plastic pollution’. What is your perspective on plastic pollution and how can we be more sustainable, with regards to plastic consumption?

I am thankful to all those who pick up plastic and litter without being asked, for it is a cleaner world thanks to what they do. Individual actions matter in creating a better environment.

In specific consideration of synthetic plastics, they are undoubtedly useful stuff. They are lightweight, durable, and waterproof. Yet these same qualities mean that they hang around in landfill sites, transform our beaches into junkyards, and are ingested by animals and fish and may even affect our health.

From a carbon perspective, the resistance of plastic to decay is good in that it will not add to methane emissions. If placed into a landfill rather than thrown onto a street, then arguably, the hydrocarbons are going back into the ground they came from (the need for landfill space is another question)! But most plastics are improperly disposed of at or near the location where they end their usefulness. They are littered to the ground, thrown out of a car window, heaped onto an already full bin, or inadvertently carried off by a gust of wind. This is despite the average distance of litter from a bin being just 5 metres!

Unfortunately, cutting the demand for plastics is tricky as it is a far too convenient product; indeed, world plastic production is increasing by 4% per year. So, irrespectively, there is no getting around the fact that we all need to try to untangle (reduce) ourselves from plastic dependency wherever we can.

There are some things we can do to be more sustainable:

    • Think about “need vs want”
      • Refuse any single-use plastics you do not need – look at what you are buying, which may also save you money! Avoid plastic bottled water. This avoidable disaster keeps growing. We are using 200-390 billion litres per year.
      • Avoid products with excessive packaging.
    • Ask and think about the full lifecycle of a product e.g.
      • Avoid products that contain microbeads – Look for “polyethylene” and “polypropylene” on the ingredient labels of cosmetic products. 
    • Think before you dispose of any plastics and actively seek out recycling options.
    • If you see plastic litter pick some of it up. Litter clean-up costs over £ 1 billion in the UK and $11.5 billion annually in the US.
    • Consider being proactive and maybe get involved with your local litter picks or even organise an office pick.

Aside from plastics, what are your top practice tips for being more sustainable?

Offsetting is a seductive concept but no substitute for cutting our footprints. Instead, we should always adopt the mantra to try and eliminate or reduce. There are three typical steps on the journey to becoming more sustainable.

Step 1: Understand your environmental footprint. There is no such thing as an average person’s footprint because some fly, others do not. 70% of flights are taken by ~15% of the population. If you are a frequent flyer, you have some big potential wins in getting your footprint down. Plenty of personal carbon calculators are online for all to look at. Start by having a look.

Step 2: Now that you understand your footprint, pick your battles. If you’re going to make a difference, focus on the larger things, not the smaller ones, e.g., one premium economy flight from London to Hong Kong burns around 4.5 tonnes CO2e. If you have a 5-tonne aspirational target per year, this will leave you only 500g for everything else! I am not saying don’t fly but think twice or maybe reduce your trips.

Step 3: On a more day-to-day basis, for me it’s food. People don’t often realise how big the environmental footprint of food can be. Again, it’s about thinking twice about some of the products you are buying and, ideally, only buying products that are in season. If you have a meat-heavy diet, you could use up most of your 5-tonne aspirational target just on food shopping, so maybe try to reduce it. Other examples include, 250 grams of Parmesan Cheese has a 4.8kg CO2e footprint, or three bottles of wine a week is equivalent to driving 385 miles in an average car. However, these are just examples, and you need to look at what you are buying then think what I can eliminate or reduce.

I would iterate that the golden rule is not to become misdirected and overly focused on chasing out the small things. Each family is different and has different needs and a different shape of footprint; it should be personal and tailored. Yet always remember that any change is always better than no change. For some, it may be food; for others, travel or energy. Just take one area at a time and maybe one big thing in each area.

Ultimately it also helps to be informed with some easy reading. Without such, you may miss some of the easy wins or be shocked at some of the avoidable products you use. Finally, we must recognise that none of us is perfect and all of us are environmental hypocrites but let’s just try. Do not be fooled by the arguments that my footprint does not matter. Cumulatively, they do and, as a bonus, may even save you money! 

Finally, do you have any recommended videos or readings?

There’s a book called ‘How Bad are Bananas?’, which puts in perspective the carbon footprint of everyday items in the average person’s life. It calculates how much carbon and water they use up. I would recommend it as an easy read to dip in and out of and it’s surprisingly enjoyable. The United Nations has also published 170 actions to combat climate change, which is good.

This publication presents the views, thoughts or opinions of the author and not necessarily those of HKA. Whilst we take every care to ensure the accuracy of this information at the time of publication, the content is not intended to deal with all aspects of the subject referred to, should not be relied upon and does not constitute advice of any kind. This publication is protected by copyright © 2023 HKA Global Ltd.


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