Wednesday, 22 December 2010

10:10 performance - deeply technical stuff!

In my first post of 2010, I set the target for my home's 10:10 challenge - to cut our domestic emissions to 4.5 Tonnes CO2-e by Christmas eve.  This required our annual energy use to drop by 10%, to 4,770kWh electricity and 12,655kWh gas.

And the results are: SUCCESS with electricity but FAIL with gas.  I am disappointed with this because, despite the cold and snowy weather we had in February, our moving annual total gas consumption was 13,000kWh from February to May and it hadn't risen much over the summer.  It had crept up to 13,600 by mid-November and I was determined to keep the thermostat turned down but this made no difference when one week of snow was followed by our current, much harsher freeze.  In the last four weeks of Arctic weather, our annual total gas usage has jumped to 14,850kWh.

My friend and neighbour, Vincent Jansen, has just introduced me to the concept of degree-days.  The Environmental Change Institute at Oxford University run the i-measure website, where you can benchmark your home's energy use and emissions each week.  They also publish tables of heating demand for buildings, measured at a number of sites around the country - available here.  These record the effective temperature difference that has to be maintained in buildings, in units called degree-days.  You can plot these weekly or monthly data sets against your home's heating energy usage to see how much benefit your insulation improvements or boiler upgrades have given you.  As you can see, the correlation between degree-days and gas usage in my home is remarkably strong.

Each record has a columns of degree-days recorded against a range of reference temperatures and it is important to choose the appropriate reference temperature for your building.  15.5°C is traditionally used for homes and offices (and 18.5°C for hospitals) but my records fit closest to the 14°C curve.  I have split the difference and used a base temperature of 15°C.

If you plot a building's energy use against degree-days, the line is called the performance line and the slope of this line is the building's energy loss rate.  Here are three separate performance lines for my family's home in 2008 (red), 2009 (blue) and 2010 (green).  The slope of the green line is noticeably less than the blue and red, suggesting that the extra-thick loft lagging I added last autumn has been of some benefit.

So the bottom line is that I missed my 10:10 target for home heating energy but, given the extreme weather we are experiencing this month, I could quite well have used 10% more gas than I have done, if it weren't for the extra insulation that I put in to meet my 10:10 commitments.

What about the 'leccy?  You may recall that I fitted LED lights in the kitchen and in the bedrooms.    I also switched my tower PC off last Christmas and replaced it with the amazing Fit-PC 2 net-top computer, running on just 8 watts.  The result has been remarkable.  Our moving annual total usage has dropped smoothly throughout the year and is almost on target, at 4798kWh.

One last picture shows my home's cumulative gas and electricity use through 2009 and 2010.  The effect of our prolonged cold spell is strikingly clear when this year's gas usage jumps ahead of  last year's at the end of November.  Nationally, this must have led to a huge surge in energy demand, emissions and customers' bills.

So far, I have neglected the carbon-intensity of my electricity provider.  In calculating my home's carbon emissions, I use DECC's national average carbon-intensity of 430g CO2 per kWh electricity.  However, as a British Gas customer, my electricity has the lowest carbon-intensity of any of the big 6, at 371g CO2 per kWh supplied.  If I recalculate using the British Gas carbon intensity, my home emitted 4.6 Tonnes CO2 for the year to Christmas Eve 2010.  So I can console myself that, despite missing my target for gas usage, our overall carbon emissions are almost where I had hoped.

For the broader aspects of carbon footprint, such as diet, lifestyle, shopping and travel, I don't have any hard and fast measures.  If we all eat less meat and dairy, buy more local and seasonal food, make our clothes and electronic gadgets last longer and keep our feet firmly on land (or water) when we take our holidays then I suspect we'd make a big dent in Britain's climate-changing carbon emissions.  The transition to a sustainable economy is going to be a major theme of the coming decade and I hope many people here and around the world will jump at the chance to make life better for all the generations to come.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

What colour Christmas are you dreaming of?

My inbox is filling up with seasonal cheer and helpful advice, generally around the theme of a enjoying a jolly green Christmas.  For instance, this beautifully wrapped cracker from Global Action Plan and this charming range of e-cards from Friends of the Earth.

But what is the real impact of Christmas?  Beyond the original, spiritual meaning(s), our festive season clearly retains a central cultural role in bringing families together.  Unfortunately, this leads to the seasonal binge of over-consumption - from wrapping paper to decorations, from turkey to more turkey and from overcooked veg to repeats on TV.  As a vegetarian household, we are at least spared the excesses of turkey - but we do have to endure our share of repeats.

Recent press coverage suggests that most families are letting their heads rule their hearts and agreeing budget caps for presents, in response to the financial pressures that we are all feeling this year.  But there is also the danger that, when times are hard, we cut back on our charitable giving.  We may not want to give a goat, indeed we're being told that a goat might be a burden for some families and their local environments, but the Good Gifts range has presents that will appeal to everyone.  Rather more personally, KIVA and Deki allow you to lend a little money ("microloans") to an individual family in the developing world, for a specific purpose.  Microcredit was pioneered by the Grameen Bank (whose founder, Muhammad Yunus, won the 2006 Nobel peace prize for this) in Bangladesh and it has spread rapidly around the developing world because of its amazing power to change the lives of the ultra-poor.

KIVA and Deki both allow you to give gift certificates to your loved ones, who then have the pleasure of selecting the projects and the people that they wish to lend to.  Almost all the projects repay their loans and the lender is then free to withdraw their money or to lend to another project - meaning that the credit "revolves" to help one family after another.  It could be a gift for life, not just for Christmas.

One of the perennial debates during Advent is the merits of real vs. artificial trees.  When our children were young, we always went to buy a freshly cut tree from the nearby Crown Estate in Windsor Great Park.  About 10 years ago, my uncle decided to throw out his old, artificial tree, and offered it to us.  Since then, we have changed our annual ritual to a journey into the attic to bring down this majestic fake fir and I was delighted that, last weekend, my daughter put the tree up and decorated it all by herself while mum and dad had a leisurely lie-in!  The moral of this tale has to be that, whatever the relative merits of real or artificial Christmas trees, the greenest choice has to be the artificial (or real, if potted and movable) one that you carefully store from year to year.

My top tip for December shopping?  B&Q Everyday Eco loft insulation - mineral wool top-up at £3 for 5.5sq. metres.  That's the cheapest it's ever been so snap it up while it's going!  Merry Christmas everyone.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Will Britain ever be sustainable?

Walked through Hyde Park in the snow last night to attend this fascinating debate at the Royal Geographical Society in Exhibition Road (next to the Albert Hall).  The presentations and the discussion were videoed and are available to watch online, here.  Author and sustainable business advisor, Peter McManners, has published another thought-provoking take on this debate here.

Sir Stuart Rose (of M&S fame) talked about positive action from business and was credible, upbeat and sharp.  He recognised that most of the hard work lies ahead and acknowledged the paradox that, right now, it's business leaders rather than consumers who are leading the transition to sustainability.  When asked what can WE as individuals do to make Britain sustainable, Sir Stuart replied with admirable candour,
"Eat everything in your fridge (I eat lots of out-of-date stuff) - keep your clothes for longer (they're much tougher than you think) and use less."  Good on him!  The debate's chair and Guardian editor for Environment and Sustainability, Jo Confino, has reported Sir Stuart's comments in more detail here.

Hilary Benn, MP, Shadow Leader of the House of Commons and former Minister at DFID and DEFRA, took a very different tack from our nation's premier shopkeeper.  He highlighted issues of unsustainable consumption in our modern world, from the inequality of food supply (1 billion overweight/obese and another billion going to bed hungry tonight) to the impoverishment of biodiversity.  He noted that scaring people is bad politics and asserted that we must lead the way to sustainable lifestyles in Britain with a dream, not a nightmare.  Most provocatively, Hilary told us that Government can't do things alone: radical change involves all of us.  Where were the public and NGOs during the fuel price riots, he asked?  The Labour government looked all round for support for their environmentally-driven fuel price escalator but found not a single voice.

Mr Benn concluded that others must show leadership, especially when the going gets tough.  As you might imagine, the audience returned to this point during questioning.  Rad Hart-George asked him whether the transition to renewable energy was too big for citizens to lead themselves and, if so, would the Government step up to make it happen.  Benn responded with the importance of citizen-generated renewable energy through the Feed-In Tariff and Rent-a-Roof schemes.  Of course, this was not intended to be a technical discussion but I didn't get the impression that the Shadow Leader of the House sees any substantial barriers to the decarbonisation of Britain's energy sector, which I found deeply troubling in the light of Monday's "Countdown to 2020" conference.

A very creative and inspiring presentation followed from Andy Hobsbawn, founder of Green Thing, the not-for-profit organisation behind the outstanding  website, Do the Green Thing.  Why do people queue all night to get the latest iPad but can't be bothered to switch a light off when they leave the room?  These activities live in different brain areas, he said, one associated with pleasure, desire, reward and the other with admin, chores and to-do lists.  Great creativity transforms things - it's a "meme-maker" and leads to insanely desirable tools for self-expression, like the iPad.  Andy applies great creativity to making the simple, sustainable choices attractive - like going for a walk and turning off a lightswitch.  He showed us his solutions to these challenges - they were all lovable, quirky and fun, making environmentally sustainable choices and behaviours desirable.

A "clean coal" developer asked the Panel whether his penchant for frequent air travel makes him into a "walking contradiction".  In response, Hilary Benn talked of the "complex ecology of modern existence" and the interdependence that makes it hard for countries to act on their own  - whereas Andy Hobsbawn said, "Think, act.  Get information and then do it right.  Change the people around you."  In that moment, I saw where the clear vision of a sustainable future is going to come from.  While business leaders will work  pro-actively to make their products and services sustainable, to protect their future earnings, politicians need the likes of Andy Hobsbawn to wake up the electorate - because democratic Governments can't and won't act until their constituents demand that they do.  As Mr Benn said, radical change involves all of us.

Post Script:
This 5-minute video from the American Post Carbon Institute just landed in my inbox, thanks to Eco-Tube. I think it encapsulates what Hilary Benn tried to convey in his opening remarks and I am inspired by the narrative.  More creative communication than creative solutions, it makes the point that we are heading for a post-carbon future either way. By acting now, we can make it sustainable and beautiful. Do nothing and it will be ugly and terminal.  Last night's debate was really about how we get this message across to people, effectively and immediately.

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Renewable Energy: Countdown to 2020

Thanks to the lovely people at the UK Youth Climate Coalition (UKYCC), I was able to attend the Energy Institute's conference yesterday, reviewing the prospects for a renewable energy revolution in the coming decade.  My thanks also to the organisers and sponsors for a very professional and informative event.

So what are the prospects?  On balance, the speakers expressed significant doubts as to whether we will achieve the UK's target of 15% renewable energy by 2020. They made clear what the obstacles are.  Broadly, these boil down to four key areas:

  1. Complex and uncertain policies and regulatory environment.
  2. Access to the National Grid.
  3. Planning and Consent.
  4. Lack of investment due to uncompetitive returns.
The first speaker was our Minster of State for Energy, Charles Hendry, MP.  He enthused about Britain's renewable energy prospects and promised comprehensive reform of the electricity industry, including a floor price for carbon emissions, emissions performance standards (EPS), upgraded grid "interconnects" between regions and a roadmap to meet our renewables targets, all within 6 months.  Under questioning, he was unflappable but made no commitments - particularly in response to my enquiry about the level of the EPS, which he said would be decided by consultation, at a level to encourage investment in new coal and gas.  Knowing that new unabated coal power stations will be a call to arms for climate change campaigners, I am deeply concerned about the Minister's response.

Subsequent speakers exposed the holes in the current financial and regulatory frameworks.  Gemma Grimes described this as "policy soup", making investment unattractive because of the risks and uncertainty of making acceptable returns.  Most disturbing, one eloquent speaker complained that, of all our government departments, it is the Treasury that simply doesn't "get" renewable energy and the need to decarbonise our economy.  Their incomprehension is perhaps the greatest risk to our country's low carbon future.   

The shining star of the conference was Alastair Dutton from the Crown Estate, promoting massive scaling up of our offshore wind power capacity.  They are now licensing 9 "zones" in British territorial waters, where collectives of partners with different strengths will be able to establish offshore wind farms that will triple our offshore wind capacity.

The Cassandra, surprisingly, was a large-scale investor, managing £500M of pension funds.  He told us plainly that the funds needed to meet our renewable energy targets will not be available.  

I asked the panel to comment on the sustainability of liquid biofuels, used in all our transport fuels but also planned as fuel for two new power stations being developed by W4B-UK.  We were privileged to have the CEO of the Renewable Fuels Agency, Nick Goodall, to shine a spotlight on bioliquids and their carbon reduction and sustainability credentials.  A real expert in getting the details across, Nick made clear that, due to the RTFO, transport is the only area of our 2020 renewables targets that we are on track to meet.  "But not at any price", he said.   His agency's target is for 80% of biofuel to be sourced against meaningful sustainability standards: the industry's current performance is a meagre 33%.  Of the 3 billion litres of biofuel that have been burnt in Britain's fuel tanks from 2008 to date, over 250 million litres were palm oil.  Nick told me afterwards that this is just 3% of the country's consumption of palm oil and he asked wryly when Greenpeace is going to go after lipstick.  

It seems to me that the palm oil industry has aligned itself with campaigners this year, in acknowledging that production methods are unsustainable and threatening tropical biodiversity.  Is this a tactic to buy them a little more time?  My fear is that, by the time the industry implements the sustainable production standards and traceable sourcing that it now claims to want, there won't be any remaining habitat for orang-utans and all the other species clinging to life in the threatened rainforests and peatlands of Borneo and Sumatra.

In conclusion, as noted by a lawyer specialising in renewable energy finance, the low carbon economy can only be delivered by government.  My feeling is that there is a critical role for citizens and campaigners to call for decisive leadership from our government to decarbonise Britain's economy - and to make their voices heard above the siren calls for less capital-intensive fossil fuel energy capacity (that's unabated coal and gas) and more attractive returns for investors looking for 12% annual growth (nice if you can get it).

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Windsor & Eton Brewery

What an excellent evening we had last night!  Our local brewery hosted a meeting of Sustainable Windsor, with an inspiring tour of their newly-built plant and the opportunity to taste all three of their excellent, cask-conditioned ales.

The brewer, Paddy Johnson, explained many fascinating details of the brewing process, ingredient sourcing and distribution, emphasising how sustainable these processes are for a local brewer delivering cask-conditioned beers to local pubs.  From the low-energy malting of their barley to the heat-recovery systems on the copper, everything felt right about the way Paddy is crafting his beers.  Moreover, he explained that the brewery was deliberately situated in the heart of the town, in order to play a responsible part in our community.

In the Sustainable Windsor meeting that followed, Paddy once again led the way with some great suggestions for engaging local businesses and promoting sustainable activities and behaviours through regular features in the local press.  An inspiring vision for 2011 from the team that have created an exciting and successful local business in 2010.

The Two Brewers at The Two Brewers!
Willie and Paddy at the launch of their first beer on St George's Day, 2010

Monday, 22 November 2010

Sustainable Living, beyond energy

In my recent post, "The Basics Revisited", I covered the essentials of cutting carbon by saving energy at home.  Here I want to look beyond energy and explore the vast question of how to live more sustainably in our consumer society.  I can do no more than scratch the surface - whereas the film, "No Impact Man" gets uncomfortably close to the bottom of this issue!

While I am doing my best to reduce the impact of my everyday living on the environment, I remain comfortably affluent and middle-class. In discussing these matters I am aware of the risk of hypocrisy in bleating about sustainable sourcing while poverty, war and natural disasters are ravaging millions of families around the world.  My purpose in writing this is not to solve the world's problems but to offer you practical ideas and encouragement to make your life a bit greener by cutting waste and making the most of what you have.  I hope this will make you a little happier and it will also rub off on the people around you.  This article, published in the Wall Street Journal last month, compiled decades of research that demonstrates the best way to persuade other people to make ethical and environmental choices is to lead by example.  When we do what we say, practice what we preach, other people take notice.  "You must be the change that you want to see in the world" - Mahatma Gandhi.

Food and Drink
We had friends round for dinner on Saturday.  While dinner parties are not about sustainability, I was very happy with the menu we prepared.  To start, ricotta and herb-filled courgette parcels in beetroot cream (from the Montali vegetarian cookbook).  For main course, MSC-certified lemon sole with Atlantic prawn and breadcrumb gratin.  The dessert was FairTrade chocolate mousse with walnuts and cream.  Tragically, I used Divine's 85% cocoa recipe which turned the mousse rock hard.  Lesson learned!

The Lemon Sole link, above, takes you to the START initiative, which encourages us all to - yes - start doing a little to help protect our climate and the diversity of life on earth.  To buy sustainable seafood, look out for the MSC logo. Similarly, to buy products from the developing world, from bananas to coffee, sugar to cotton and roses to red wine, look out for Fair Trade.  It is often slighted as being "less good" than some other people's schemes but, honestly, it is the best across-the-board consumer signpost for ethically sourced produce.  Rarely seen in Tesco now, this is the best argument for shopping in Sainsbury's (their own-label teas and ground coffees, their bananas and their Taste the Difference jams are all fair trade) and the Co-op.

The important point is not to restrict yourself to finding only the most ethical and sustainable ingredients but rather to develop your sense of particular things to avoid.  I've been trying lately, for example, not to buy products containing palm oil that do not state it is sustainably sourced.  It is practically impossible to avoid this ubiquitous ingredient - it doesn't even have to be listed in the Ingredients Declarations! - so I'd prefer to give my business to companies that recognise the importance of sustainable sourcing.  Sainsbury's "Pure" soap and Nairns oatcakes are just two examples.  So far, I haven't found a low-fat vegetable spread that claims sustainably-sourced palm oil and I am waiting for the likes of Unilever to fix this.  Fortunately, that's exactly what they are going to do.  This week they launched their Sustainable Living Plan, committing to source ALL their ingredients sustainably within a decade. I hope they will move fast on palm oil while there are still orang-utans left to save.

More broadly, the most sustainable food is local and seasonal.  We've lost touch with the gardening year so most of us, myself included, are pretty woolly on what's in season each month.  Of course, the best remedy is to grow your own and gain a real connection with the soil.  Reading the labels to find home-grown veg at a decent price per kilo is a poor substitute but it does help to home in on seasonal produce!  Conversely, Mike Berners-Lee points out in his book, "How Bad are Bananas?" that a single kilo of organic cherry tomatoes grown in Britain in March has a carbon footprint of 50 kg CO2!  That staggering figure is the highest carbon footprint of any food.  He advises us to buy tinned tomatoes in the winter / spring, or fresh tomatoes grown in warmer climes like Spain, to avoid the intensive fossil fuel heating of greenhouse-grown crops.  While the transport impact of shipments within Europe is much smaller than heating the greenhouses, I do try to avoid fresh, perishable foods that are flown from South America - 12,000 miles away.

The golden rule of sustainable housekeeping is to plan your meals and make a list.  Buy only what's on the list, cook only as much food as needed and eat everything you prepare - leftovers make great ingredients!

Waste and Recycling
For years, the mantra of environmentalists has been "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle".  We tend to skip over the first two so let's just remember that they mean buy only what we need, make it last and, when it breaks, try to repair it or use it in another way.  Throwing things away is the last resort (and  there is no 'away') but we are all becoming accustomed to the third R, recycling.  My council (RBWM) has introduced a progressive policy of commingled recycling, with consumer vouchers to reward residents for recycling.

I find it ironic that they are aiming to maximise weight of recycled material by giving away vouchers for buying more stuff!  More serious is the fact that they will collect NO PLASTIC, other than bottles, in their doorstep recycling service.  Other packaging they consign to landfill includes aluminium foil and drinks cartons!  These exceptions are absolutely crucial and must be addressed - either by upgraded doorstep recycling or expanded "bring sites" for residents to recycle these materials.  I hope that my readers will be motivated to collect all these packaging materials and find ways to recycle them because, let's face it, the decision to send stuff to landfill is a personal one.  I refuse to send mixed plastic packaging to landfill so I am filling my garage with bags of the stuff, cleaned and ready to recycle when the Council finally recognises their duty to enable this.  Foil and cartons are much simpler (as are batteries and compact fluorescent lamps) because there are "bring sites" that I can take them to when my boxes are full.

Transport and Travel
I covered driving in a much earlier post but the key points bear repeating.  Personal transport is one of our largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions.  Nowadays, a typical car emits something like 150g CO2 per kilometre.  We drive an average of 12,000 miles a year.  Assuming we're always alone in the car, this emits  around 3 Tonnes of CO2, which is 20% of the average Briton's total of 15 Tonnes/year.

There is a great decision tool on the Start website, to help you work through the choices of whether to keep an old, inefficient car or replace it with a shiny new, low-emisisons model.  Living without a car for a couple of years taught me to view them as antisocial constructs!  Of course, we need them for commuting, shopping and holidays.  Indeed, the car is a greener choice than the plane for our summer hols but still we are poisoning our atmosphere and tarmacking our countryside to make this choice possible.  Accidents result in horrendous cost and suffering for the unlucky victims - frequently the people who chose to walk or cycle, without the protection of a steel box packed with airbags.  What is impossible to appreciate when regularly driving all over the place, for all sorts of reasons (good and bad), is how dependent we are on these machines and the freedom they provide, as they propel us wherever we wish to be on a cloud of carbon emissions from highly-refined fossil fuels.  

Ours is a genuine and complete addiction and it is not clear how we will ever break the habit.  If we can't quit then let's at least cut down a little!  With cars, like flights, it is time for us to begin weighing up whether each journey is necessary.  Our commute to work might not be optional but the school run, the quick trip to the post office or the corner shop, might be better and more enjoyable without the car.  Clean your boots, pump up your bike tyres and get outdoors!  I now walk to town for all the minor errands and only drive to the supermarket for a big shop once a week.  Even this could be ordered online, and delivered by a fuel-efficient multi-drop driver but I'm not usually that well organised.

There are endless other categories and tips but this is a blog post not a Haynes manual.  Please have a look at some of the book references in my last post - particularly Chris Goodall's comprehensive "How to live a low-carbon Life".  I would be very interested in your own suggestions so please add your comments to this page.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Green Teams, Best Books and a Teen Movie

A big "Thank You" from me to the Centrica / British Gas Green Teams, for inviting me to open their annual Forum at the Energy Academy in Leicester today. I was given half an hour to explain why the environment, and sustainability, is so important to me - and to run through the current status of our knowledge of climate change and biodiversity. What an opportunity - and what a reception! I enjoyed meeting so many of you afterwards and discussing particular points that had caught your attention. My presentation, together with the References for each slide, will be on your intranet site and I hope you will also have my library of public-domain reports that will help you to drill down into any areas that interest you.

In my humble opinion, anybone wanting to read some particularly accessible books on climate change could do no better than these titles - available from all good bookshops!

1) "What's the Worst that could Happen" by Greg Craven, a science teacher from Oregon who posted a famous series of common-sense videos on YouTube that became the biggest hit in 2008.

2) "The Last Generation" by Fred Pearce, an immensely readable overview of the science and forecasts.

3) "The Hot Topic" by Gabrielle Walker and Sir David King, former Chief Scientist.

3) "Do good lives have to cost the Earth?" edited by Andrew Simms and Joe Smith. Essays from many famous commentators.

4) For unsurpassed insight into the demographic and political issues, with the best attempt at regulatory solutions, "Hot, Flat and Crowded" by Thomas L. Friedman was President Obama's holiday reading in 2009.

5) For the best photographs, "An Inconvenient Truth" by you know who.

6) To hear it from the horse's mouth, "Storms of my Grandchildren" by James Hansen pulls no punches.

7) To understand the global movement of our everyday goods, "Confessions of an Eco-Sinner: Travels to where my stuff comes from" by Fred Pearce is an eye-opening travelogue of the sources and sinks of modern consumer goods.

8) "How Bad are Bananas" is a light-hearted number-crunch through "the carbon footprint of everything", by Mike Berners-Lee. Mike is an unbeatable sustainability consultant - his company, Small World consulting, put together the Guardian's excellent, "Quick Carbon Calculator".

9) Lastly, the definitive guide to reducing our impact is "How to Live a Low Carbon Life" (2nd Edition) by Chris Goodall. Chris writes Carbon Commentary, which is a much better blog than this one, and his books are just about the last word in meticulously researched advice for sustainable living.

Tomorrow is a very special day for young climate campaigners.

Beyond the Brink is a young filmmaker’s take on the climate change debate. 18-year-old Ross Harrison spent a year chasing up experts, studying the news and filming to create a short documentary that answers the ever-pressing questions, Are we really causing climate change? and Who cares?

The result is a 40 minute film about the knowns and the unknowns of the science, about the risks, and about being hopeful for the future too. Interviews with Sir David Attenborough, Mark Lynas, David Shukman, Prof Dieter Helm, the UK Youth Climate Coalition, and Ross’ grandparents among others, offer fresh perspectives on a subject that saturates the media, divides the public, and yet is still meaningless to many.

At a time when people feel overloaded by hype and put off by scandals, Beyond the Brink seeks to lay out how things really stand now. Beyond the Brink is a not-for-profit production available for free for anyone to watch and use. Please let us know if you intend to screen it.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

No Impact Man

Sustainable Windsor has teamed up with the Firestation Arts Centre to bring you the best eco-films at a discounted price. That's right, being eco-conscious really does pay off!

The first film in our eco-films promotion is No Impact Man on Thursday, November 4 at 8pm. The film tells the true-life story of Colin Beavan and his family who abandon their high-consumption New York lifestyle to try and live for a year without making any net environmental impact on the planet. That's no cars, no buses, no electricity, no rubbish.

Go here to see the trailer.

The first 25 Sustainable Windsor film lovers will get a massive 20% off the price of their tickets (normally £7.25). Just say, 'I'm with Sustainable Windsor!' when you book and you can see the film for just £5.75,

Don't worry if you haven't come to one of our fab Sustainable Windsor meetings before - you can still enjoy along to the screening and, hopefully, we'll see you at the next one!

Go to the Firestation website for more info and call 01753 866865 to book tickets or just turn up on the night.

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

The basics revisited

I've had so many people asking me for advice on saving energy, reducing emissions and consuming less in recent weeks. I do love advising people on these topics but, really, I'm delighted because it shows that many more people are becoming interested in reducing their own impact.

So here's my attempt to summarise the things that we can do to reduce our emissions from energy use at home.

I won't be able to get everything in but feel free to let me know anything important that I've missed. Other guides to the basics are available, such as this one from Tesco, but I'd recommend caution with any advice - for instance, Tesco claim that DAB digital radios save energy compared with your existing, analogue radio - the truth is precisely opposite.

Before you even start thinking about cutting your home energy use, please please PLEASE begin recording your meter readings on a regular basis! Monthly is ideal. Weekly if you're really into it, like me, or if you want to use i-measure to compare your energy and emissions with other, similar households.

If you can put your readings straight into a spreadsheet then you are well on the way to seeing exactly what benefit your energy-saving efforts are giving you. If not, just write them down in a small book or log-sheet and keep it in your meter cupboard. When you want to know how much you have saved, you'll have the all-important data to answer this question.

Our homes are responsible for over a quarter of Britain's carbon emissions while, altogether, buildings account for more than half our emissions. What works at home may well be applicable at work, in the shops or in public buildings across the country.

The biggest chunk of our home energy use in Britain goes on heating: both air (space) and water. Ultimately, this heat is all lost to the home's surroundings. Energy efficient heating involves slowing the rate at which our heat escapes, so that we can maintain a comfortable indoor temperature using less fuel and therefore less emissions.

The cheap and easy place to insulate in most houses, or top-floor flats, is your loft. I've posted lots of links to various types of loft insulation in this blog but, basically, any DIY store should have plenty of top-up insulation available at half price, or BOGOF, subsidised by the energy companies under their carbon reduction commitment. The recommended depth of loft insulation is now 275mm (call it a foot) but I've gone for 400mm over most of my loft, to make up for the storage areas where I have only got 200mm of rigid urethane foam. This works, in conjunction with reflective bubble-wrap on the rafters, to keep my water tank from freezing in winter.

Post-war houses typically have cavity walls and these need to be insulated. If yours haven't been done, you will find this an unbeatable investment - it will pay for itself in reduced energy bills in a couple of years! Older houses have solid walls, which are tougher to insulate. But all is not lost! If you're redecorating, it's the ideal opportunity to fit high-performance internal wall insulation. Although only 1 or 2 cm thick, these amazing materials can cut heat loss through your walls by as much as 25 cm of mineral wool loft insulation.

Doors and windows are, put simply, holes! To keep your warmth in, fit draught excluders to make sure that they fit securely. This is one of the cheapest DIY energy-saving methods. Nice thick curtains are great insulators and they turn south-facing windows into passive solar heaters, allowing the light and warmth in during the day but preventing it from escaping at night. Just so long as you use them.

Replacement windows and doors are much more expensive than draught excluders and curtains but replacing single-glazed windows and doors with double glazing will make your home warm and quiet and can be a good investment in maintaining the value of your home. The latest energy-efficient windows have cleverly-designed frames to prevent "thermal bridges" - parts of a building structure that conduct heat through the fabric of the building. At lower cost, secondary double glazing can be a fantastic investment and may be the only way to reduce heat loss from windows in listed buildings or conservation areas. Magneglaze polycarbonate panels fit inside your existing window-frames and are secured with magnetic strips. They cost £100-120 per square metre. They will reduce your energy bills and emissions, cut down external noise and reduce condensation. Of course, you could make your own secondary glazing - we used the ultimate cheap solution in our previous house, until we could afford to fit decent double glazing.

Other holes are responsible for heat loss as well. Chimneys, kitchen extractors, cat flaps, gaps round pipes and even air bricks. Ventilation is important but modern buildings, built to 'passivhaus' or even zero-carbon standards, are designed to be hermetically sealed. Ventilation is then provided deliberately, using ducted heat-recovery systems that bring fresh air in and pump stale, moist air out without losing its heat. I live right under the Heathrow flightpath and fitted one of these systems to my 1950s house in 2008. We have benefited in 3 ways: firstly, the energy savings from heat recovery and an airtight home (I have found and blocked up all the holes in our walls and around doors, windows and pipes). Second, clean, filtered air means less dust and smells in the house (and you should see the inlet filters when I change them every quarter). Finally, the ventilation system means that we can keep our windows closed at night and this means that we are not woken up by aeroplanes before dawn!

The last place to consider heat loss is through the floor but, as I am not prepared to raise the level of my home's floors, there is very little that I can do to cut this heat loss.

While space heating is very seasonal, we need hot water all year round. Solar water heating is a big investment (about the same as a new boiler) but it does enable you to shut down your boiler in the summer months. If you have a hot water cylinder, it pays to insulate it thoroughly - it should keep your water hot for 24 hours.

You can also save energy, and cut your emissions, by using less hot water when you shower. First, get used to turning off the shower water when you lather up. This technique is called a navy shower, and allows you to have a relaxing and effective shower while using running water for just 2 minutes in total. Second, fit a low-flow device such as this one from EAGA, available free in a government-funded energy-saving scheme.

Use your heating controls. Make sure that the hot water cylinder is fitted with a thermostat and that you set it to a lowish temperature, that is hot enough for showers / baths / washing up.
Lots of people prefer to keep their hot water "always on" which means that your heat loss from the cylinder is continuously at its worst. Instead, limit the time that the boiler runs - for both hot water and for central heating - because heating fuel consumption is, surprisingly, well correlated with running hours! It's also worthwhile replacing your room thermostat (the temperature dial) with a modern, "adaptive" thermostat. In my home, this saved 10% on the winter gas bill because it learns how your home responds to the boiler and prevents the room temperature from over-shooting and wasting fuel. Lastly, thermostatic radiator valves (TRVs) can help to reduce heating bills by limiting the temperature in bedrooms or unused rooms. They can only do this if you adjust them to meet your needs. Don't have a TRV on the radiator nearest to your room thermostat - it will prevent the room 'stat from turning the boiler off when it should.

Many of my earlier entries in this blog detail how to replace inefficient lights with energy saving alternatives. The variety is bewildering so I would just say here, make a start. Don't try and do it all at once. Pick on a type of lighting in your home and try one or two replacements. When you find the energy-efficient lighting solution that you like for that type of bulb, fit it to all instances of that light in your home. When you're ready for another round, pick on another type, and so on. I started in 2006, with the SBC (small bayonet) golfball bulbs that were all around my living and dining rooms. I moved on to ceiling mounted BC (bayonet) and ES (screw) bulbs and then tackled the mains halogen bulbs called GU10s.

Next came the fluorescent striplights over the kitchen counter and the filament striplights found in our drinks cabinet and lots of bathroom lights. Replacing these with LEDs was a big win, reducing power consumption of those lights by 90%.

Lastly, the plethora of low-voltage halogen lamps that have colonised our homes in the last 10 or 20 years. It is now becoming practical to replace these with LED bulbs but to obtain equivalent brightness to the commonest halogen lamps (50 watt) remains very pricey.

After heating and lighting, our gadgets are the biggest energy consumers in our homes. Top of the league are WET appliances - washing machine, tumble drier and dishwasher. Minimise energy wastage by running them less often, waiting until they are fully loaded, and selecting a lower temperature. Your kettle also swallows up a surprising amount of energy for such a little feller - be sure to boil only as much water as you need.

Next comes COLD appliances - fridges and freezers. Any of these over 10 or 15 years old are likely to be costing you a fortune to run. My 1990 Zanussi larder fridge got through almost 800 units of electricity (kilowatt-hours or kWh) a year: its same-sized replacement runs on just 80 kWh a year! At a cost of less than £200, this new fridge has paid for itself within 3 years.

Thirdly, entertainment and IT are using an increasing proportion of our household electricity. The proliferation of little black plugs and in-line boxes shows how many transformers we have plugged into our sockets in recent years. They ALL need to be switched off at the wall when not in use because they all (apart from the very latest, super-green phone chargers) suck power from the grid 24/7, regardless of whether or not we are using them. Remote controls like Bye Bye Standby are great for lights and home entertainments but, for all the black boxes you have around the home, the best thing to do is to hunt them down and UNPLUG them. Just plug them in when you need them and pull them out when you're done. No cost and even a bit of aerobic exercise for free!

Specifically on IT, I am writing this blog on my Fit-PC 2. This magical machine (technical term, net-top) is a small block of aluminium, about the size of two fag packets side-by-side (I don't smoke but it's the best illustration), that runs Windows just as well as my old tower PC but consumes less than 10 watts! When I got it, I expected that it would only be good for email and spreadsheets but I've come to rely on it for all my digital photos, music (I run a Squeezebox sever on it the whole time), Skype, YouTube and even BBC iPlayer! It's not quite as quick as my old PC when it comes to playing DVDs but, to be honest, I don't want to do that on my PC.

Another brilliant gadget for power saving with your computer bits is called the Intellipanel. You plug your computer and all its peripherals into the panel and, when you shut down or hibernate your computer, it kills the power to all the peripherals. It has special sockets for external hard drives, so that these don't crash if they're still running when the PC stops. You can even switch the Intellipanel off at the wall when everything's off and, when you turn it back on, it is ready to detect when you press the power button on your PC for another online session. Magic!

This post has concentrated on reducing home energy use. In my next post, I will review other aspects of sustainability in everyday life in modern Britain, such as food, recycling and travel.

Thanks for reading and don't hesitate to get in touch: either leave a comment or email cutyourcarbon (at) gmail (dot) com - this is not a clickable link because I don't want lots of spam from automated crawler bots.

Monday, 23 August 2010

Coming of age

We hosted my son's 18th birthday party at the weekend. A low-carbon occasion? Probably not. Much work went into preparing the house and garden for the influx of guests and we were so happy to be able to celebrate with most of our family and many of our friends.

Having finally completed the recycling I can confirm that we got through a fair few bottles and cans. The most important thing is that everyone enjoyed the party, particularly the birthday boy and his friends who stayed up most of the night.

I do think that our celebration had sustainability in mind, though. While we did have some gorgeous pastries made for us by Waitrose, the bulk of the catering was home-made: we enjoyed an extensive buffet (mostly vegetarian - there was no meat but we did poach a couple of salmon) and our daughter made several delightful desserts - some healthy, others less so. We had a spectacular birthday cake prepared and decorated by my wonderful Mum. Friends from the Windsor & Eton Brewery provided us with a firkin (70 pints) of "Knight of the Garter" - an irresistable, golden ale brewed within a mile of our house. Waitrose loaned us all the glasses and we borrowed cutlery and crockery from friends and family, to avoid all those disposable cups and plates. The solar garden lights and the LED spotlights in the marquee made for a great evening atmosphere. Fortunately, the only breakage of the evening was an exceedingly old deck-chair that gave up the ghost when three merry 18-year old girls tried to share it.

Although I seemed to be running the dishwasher non-stop throughout the party (about 6 "eco" cycles, I think), our annual electricity usage has slipped below 5,000 kWh for the first time today. This will help me on my way to my 10:10 target of 4,770 kWh electricity during 2010.

My other 10:10 target has been to sign up as many local people as I can. Last week, at Centrica's offices in Windsor, I was honoured and delighted to present 10:10 tags to 6 members of the Board of British Gas, all of whom pledged to sign up to the campaign. This took place during the final presentation of the Customer Panel, where we set out the challenges of our Customer Charter. I am sure that British Gas will work hard to publicise this in the autumn and they have promised to bring the Customer Panel back together some time in the spring of 2011, to tell us how they are getting on with implementing our Charter. For now, I will only say that it has been an absolute privilege to take part in the Customer Panel and I have complete confidence that British Gas have taken sustainability right to the heart of their business.

Friday, 9 July 2010

Soap Boxes

The erudite comedian David Mitchell has summed up the true position on climate change perfectly in this 3 minute Soap Box monologue. Priceless - and probably more use in spreading the word than Al Gore's Inconvenient movie. Please watch it and share it with everyone you know with a sense of humour and an open mind.

I heard another Soap Box oration yesterday afternoon, from Phil Bentley, the Managing Director of British Gas. I'm on his company's Customer Panel because I want to encourage them to promote sustainability to the 12 million households that buy energy from British Gas.

The amazing thing about Phil's address to the Customer Panel was that his strategic concerns and intentions are exactly what I would have wished them to be. He highlighted three aspects, that he called the 'eternal triangle' of energy supply:

1) Security of supply - the past winter was the the first time that Britain imported more gas than we produced. As North Sea gas supply continues to wane, our net energy imports will continue to rise so we need to act now, to diversify our energy supplies.

2) De-carbonise the energy supply - climate change will have a huge impact on society across the world and Britain is taking the lead on building our low carbon energy future.

3) Affordability of energy - British companies will spend £200Bn over the next decade, to secure energy supplies from low-carbon sources. Unfortunately, while we have the lowest unit prices for energy in the whole of Europe, our energy bills are the highest because of the low energy efficiency of much of our housing stock. British Gas focuses resources to support households that are low-income and vulnerable, these costs are shared by all its customers. Phil is happy to discuss the best solutions to improving the energy efficiency of the nation's homes with you, me and our Governement.

I suggested that these were the same requirements for our sustainable energy future that Thomas L. Friedman articulated in his book, 'Hot, Flat and Crowded', where he argues the case for clean, cheap and plentiful electrons. Phil responded emphatically that he can't deliver cheap and I am in total agreement with him that affordable is the more appropriate target.

In my view, it's because energy is so cheap today that we are willing to waste it without a second thought. Just as you can't unboil an egg, the laws of thermodynamics mean that we can't unwaste energy. All we can do, going forward, is to waste less.

Being on the Customer Panel at British Gas has given me unique insight into the company's environmental programmes and practicies. As a volunteer, with no contractual arrangements to constrain what I say, I remain fully independent and willing to criticise and praise as I see fit. I have nothing but praise for Phil's strategic intentions and hope that constructive criticism of his company's pace of change, and actions to communicate these intentions to customers and the wider public, might help them to lead the energy industry and its customers in Britain towards a more sustainable future.

Thursday, 27 May 2010

Exploring an onshore wind farm

There was a lot of discussion last week about the merits of offshore renewables, following the launch of "The Offshore Valuation", the latest report from the Public Interest Research Centre.

I agree with their findings but not with some of the interpretations of this report in the press. For example, George Monbiot argued that this work shows that onshore wind is not worthwhile in comparison with offshore wind, wave and tidal power.

Last week, I took the train from King's Cross to Aberdeen to visit the Centrica's 20-turbine wind farm in the Glens of Foudland, near Huntly. The airports were closed that morning by volcanic ash so there wasn't a spare seat to be had on the train. The plus side was that the emissions per passenger-kilometre were absolutely minimal on this journey. Actually, I was pretty confident that, during April and May, Eyjafjallajokull was responsible for more carbon emissions reductions than the wind farm I was visiting - but that's not a popular sentiment amongst our erstwhile-airborne friends and colleagues. I have to confess that the return journey, with about 30% occupancy on the train, was a lot more comfortable.

The windfarm was commissioned in April 2005 and is ideally situated at an altitude of 330m on rocky hills set in a wide, windy valley. Because of this situation, it has achieved a consistently high load factor (ie., proportion of its theoretical peak output) throughout its 5 years of operation. It is now reaching the end of its manufacturer's warranty period so there were several engineers on site, checking each of the turbines for faults and preparing to change the gearbox oil (which, I was assured, is taken away for reconditioning and reuse). With the right build quality and the appropriate level of care, these turbines will continue to generate renewable energy from free fuel for a quarter of a century.

Wind turbines are very valuable assets and their components operate under extremely high stress - just imagine the weight of a turbine blade (which can now be up to 60 metres long) turning full circle every few seconds, bolted onto a steel shaft driving a generator through a huge gearbox on top of a hollow steel tube, in a highland gale.

Now picture the same construction glued onto another 100-metre pile driven into the seabed, battered by waves and corroded by salt spray. The maintenance challenges are much more extreme than for these onshore wind turbines but the access is unimaginably difficult and expensive. So, while I agree that the longterm prospects for renewable energy from Britain's offshore territories are superb, I am certain that we need to continue erecting onshore wind turbines in suitably windy locations across the country. Britain faces energy supplies issues from the middle of the current decade and we need to be working flat out to install do-able renewable energy technologies now, at the same time as we are developing next generation renewables for the future.

The other piece of the puzzle which was written up by Jamie Bull, one of the researchers for the PIRC report, but not developed within the report, is the return on energy invested in building and maintaining renewable energy assets. Along with tidal range schemes like the lagoons proposed as a alternative to the Severn barrage, wind turbines yield the greatest return on energy invested in their manufacture, installation and maintenance. They are about three times as efficient as solar electricity panels, for example. And that goes for both onshore and offshore wind installations. So let's keep putting more wind turbines in windy places, where the load factors will be as high as possible and where the ground won't be damaged (for example, installing wind turbines on peatland dries out the precious peat, causing large-scale methane and CO2 emissions) and let's get used to their visual impact. After all, we have covered the countryside with pylons and cables for distributing electricity - let's put up with these bigger pylons that actually make it, for free!

My thanks to British Gas, for covering the costs of my rail fare and accommodation for this visit, and to Matthew Walsh, the extremely knowledgeable and able manager in charge of the operation and maintenance of Centrica's wind farms. He's one of those unknown soldiers in the fight against climate change and I take my hat off to him.

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

First "Sustainable Windsor" Newsletter

It's two weeks since we had our first meeting to launch Sustainable Windsor and we have just published the following newsletter to report all the great ideas that came out.

This new community organisation has a bright future ahead: email if you'd like to be added to our distribution list.

Local people form "Sustainable Windsor", a community organisation to promote sustainable living.

Sustainable Windsor, a community group inspired by the 10:10 initiative to reduce our carbon emissions by 10% in 2010 (, had its first meeting in April. We enjoyed a good turnout at The Alma pub in Springfield Road, with plenty of lively debate and many practical ideas across a range of subjects. Please feel free to pass on this newsletter to anyone you think might be interested. Details on how to get involved with Sustainable Windsor are at the end of this newsletter.

We started on waste and composting. We heard about the Composting Coach, who teaches companies how to compost their organic waste matter, and that Transco (who run the National Grid) are planning to build a huge biogas plant for London.

We talked about the "Green Point" logo, owned by Valpak, that obliges consumer goods manufacturers to fund the recycling of their packaging in Germany but not in other parts of Europe. We also recognised the missed opportunity to recycle valuable cans and bottles that are drunk "on the go" and thrown away in our high streets. We agreed on the need to campaign for on-the-go recycling points in our town.

We also liked the idea, emailed by one of our members, of collecting the red rubber bands that are dropped all over town by our dear postmen and women. We could then make them into balls and bounce them into the Post Office in Windsor for reuse, with a friendly journalist on hand to witness this simple action on litter and waste!

We learned that British business uses brown and clear glass whereas green glass is principally reused in Spain, for European wine bottles. The current trend of mixed glass recycling ends up as aggregate (replacing gravel) for surfacing roads, meaning that the UK glass industry has lost its free supply of recycled material. Waste sorting companies can readily segregate recycled glass into separate colour streams, renewing this valuable supply of clear and brown glass as raw materials for British manufacturers.

The last point on waste was mixed plastics recycling. Several of us have been fobbed off by the council, who say that collecting plastics (other than bottles) for recycling is prohibitively expensive and that there is no market for these plastics. Peter considers both these points to be false and is working with the Royal Borough's waste management team to find a solution for mixed plastics recycling in Windsor, as soon as possible.

We moved on to local food and allotments. It was noted that, although the council have long waiting lists for allotments in the Royal Borough, many of our allotments are currently lying fallow. Anne offered to contact Geoff Lane, the allotment manager in Eton Wick, to dig deeper (excuse the pun) into the reasons for this. Laura suggested that we partner up with the Windsor Allotment Society (WAGGA) to drum up more support for their summer fair and sales of produce from the allotments.

Neil proposed that we need to, "live like a village, not a town". This captures perfectly the essence of community actions for sustainable living. He suggested that we can arrange to collect all the windfall and unwanted apples across the town this summer, to make community cider. We loved this idea and will seek the help of our friends at the new Windsor & Eton Brewery.

Suzie thought we should co-opoerate with the CPRE, Civic Voice and the Civic Trust, to support our open spaces and wild areas.

Next came home energy use, looking at the latest LED lights that can replace low-voltage halogen lamps. We talked about the carbon club, called "Windsor Sustainable Living", on the imeasure website at Anyone signing up to imeasure is asked to enter their weekly energy usage, in the form of meter readings, and you can then see the emissions of CO2 per person from your house, in comparison with all the other users of the site, or with the other members of the carbon club if you decide to join. It's a great way to see how you're doing compared with like-minded people and the element of competition pushes you to turn down, switch off, and save a little more than you might otherwise do. Peter would be more than happy to offer informal, free advice to anyone wishing to reduce their home's energy use. Indeed, he was heard on Radio 4's "You and Yours" programme last week, extolling the virtues of saving energy - and money - at home. You can hear him here:

We then considered how to promote cycling in Windsor. Peter pointed out the little-known bye-law that permits children aged 12 and under to cycle on pavements in the town. We agreed that this should be publicised, together with the need for courtesy towards pedestrians, to encourage families to help their young children to begin cycling more safely. Hand-in-hand with more use of pavements, we recognised that the anti-social practice of parking on pavements is becoming prevalent in some parts of town and needs to be addressed pro-actively by both the council and the police. We also felt that the Windsor cycle network needs to be more integrated - particularly in the light of the major redevelopment of the Imperial Road roundabout that is due to begin shortly.

We addressed media and communication with a proposal that the Fire Station Arts Centre could screen an amazing eco-film festival this autumn, with titles such as "The Age of Stupid", "Eleventh Hour", "The End of the Line" and many more. Hannah, Laura and Neil all know Dan and the team at the Fire Station so we have a real opportunity to put together a major event in the civic calendar for Windsor, and attract a wide range of new members to join Sustainable Windsor.

Finally, we thought about education and the benefit of speaking to children at school, to engage them and their families in Sustainable Windsor. This will be more practical once we have some teachers amongst our membership, which should happen naturally as we continue to recruit local people through our initiatives and activities.

Having talked through so many topics at our first meeting, we look forward to a second meeting in a couple of months time - probably late June or early July. In the meantime, please email me your comments and suggestions on the points raised in this newsletter and any other matters you feel we could usefully cover in our next meeting.

To find out more about Sustainable Windsor or to be added to the email list, please contact

Friday, 23 April 2010

Earth Day and St George's Day

Thursday 22 April was the fortieth Earth Day, when people around the world reflect on our ecological impact and try to change their behaviour in some way that lessens this impact. An article in "Slate" (an American online magazine) this week has reviewed research published in the Journal of Industrial Ecology (which sounds like an oxymoron to me) on how to reduce the environmental impact of households.

Their key recommendations are: insulation, energy-efficient appliances, drive fuel-efficient cars (and drive less), eat less meat and dairy products, eat more locally produced food and drinks and more foods in season.

I cannot disagree with any of these but the important thing for me is to encourage people to look beyond their household and feel part of their community. This week, Hannah Masters-Waage, Laura Spence and I launched "Sustainable Windsor", a community organisation focused on making Windsor a little more sustainable. I will write up the outcomes of our first meeting separately but it was a really positive start.

Speaking of Start, The Prince of Wales has launched a campaign called Start which encourages people to begin changing their behaviour now, with the things that matter most to them. Prince Charles is known to be the lead member of the Windsor household for sustainability and I look forward to seeing this campaign grow.

Another initiative launched for Earth Day was GreenMyParents and its Facebook page. This is a great movement for young people to influence their elders and to spread the message by teaching their peers to do the same. It has a commercial side (they are selling a book) but the basic message to young people and their parents is to work together to save money and the planet through simple, everyday actions.

And now it is St George's Day. There could be no more sustainable way to celebrate our Patron Saint than with a pint of Guardsman ale, the first product from the Windsor & Eton Brewery.

Produced within a mile of my home by the father of two of my Scouts, and three of his friends, this beer epitomises the local economy. Its launch today has been eagerly anticipated by thousands of Windsorians through their remarkable use of social media to link up local people online. And I am looking forward to joining the Brewers, and the newly-appointed Mayor of Windsor, for my first taste of Windsor beer at the Two Brewers in Park Street, right next to the Long Walk. It is auspicious that today's Google header shows the exact location of the Two Brewers - it is in the first "O" of Google!

Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Resigned to our fate?

Listening to James Lovelock on the Today programme this morning was deeply disturbing. You can hear his interview with John Humphries here.

I am not troubled by his comments on the so-called 'climategate' emails from the University of East Anglia. He hasn't read the transcripts and, if the scientists involved have fudged the data in any way, then I would agree with his dismissal of any dishonest practices in science.

What really concerns me is his fatalism. He asserts that it will take us 20 - 30 years to rein in our carbon emissions and that this will lead to the cumulative total addition of a trillion tonnes of carbon to the atmosphere. He describes this as "civilisation has pulled the trigger" and says we'll be lucky if the world population is as high as a billion people in future. Although Lovelock does not give a date for this future population in this interview, he did refer to the earth's population being well below a billion people in 2100 in his recent book, "The Vanishing Face of Gaia". In a similar interview on The Guardian website yesterday, Lovelock stated that the inertia of humanity is such that we can't do anything meaningful about climate change.

In my opinion, everyone who cares about the future of humanity and life on earth should take this as a personal challenge and set about making Lovelock wrong on this point. After all, as Greg Craven has so powerfully observed, "What's the Worst That Could Happen?"

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

A visit to the Council

I have been collecting mixed plastic packaging (ie., food trays, tubs, pots, etc. but not bottles, bags, expanded polystyrene or film) at home for the past two years and have tried throughout that time to contact the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead and ask them to recycle it.

In February, the local paper carried this story, with a picture of me glaring from a mountain of binbags full of our accumulated plastic. This led to an invitation to addresss the Council's Sustainability Panel, which met last night.

I had the honour of speaking before presentations from the Head of Packaging at each of our two largest retailers. My message was that many residents of the Royal Borough labour under the mistaken belief that their local authority recycles mixed plastics. These are therefore carefully cleaned and placed in the purple recycling boxes, along with bottles and cans, for kerbside collection by the council's contractor, Veolia, who then strip them OUT and send them to landfill!

Since 64% of our waste still goes to landfill, I said, it is the duty of the local authority to extract these valuable materials from our waste stream and recycle them. Pure picked polymers (ie., mixed plastic packaging SORTED into separate types) have a commercial value of £50 - £150 per Tonne.

I was saddened by the response from the council officers responsible for waste management, who said that reclaiming additional plastics from the waste stream would add greatly to the cost and would not make much difference to the tonnage going to landfill (because of the low density of plastic packaging) and also by the somewhat cynical allegation that many other authorities across the country are only 'pretending' to recycle these materials while actually burying, burning or exporting them to the developing world.

On the other hand, I was heartened to learn that the borough's contract for waste management is up for renewal in 2012 and that stringent environmental criteria could be included in the specifications for tender. My comments in response were that the Goverment's Waste and Recycling Action Programme (WRAP) had made the case for mixed plastics recycling and that RECOUP has developed comprehensive tools and analysis to enable more local authorities to do this in future.

When the senior packaging people from Tesco and Sainsbury addressed the Council, their presentations were inspiring, impactful, relevant and positive. It was a privilege to hear these thoughtful and informed contributions and this confirmed my view that retailers really are striving to green their operations because their customers expect this of them.

I was particularly moved by the forceful support for my position on post-consumer recycling of mixed plastics from one of these speakers - who told the Councillors that the myth of '36 types of plastic to sort' is an archaic hang-up from the past. There are just 4 or 5 high value polymers to sort and there are automated sorting facilities in operation around the country.

He went on to say that non-bottle PET is a high value material that can't be left to go to waste, that polypropylene (PP) is the next high value target for collection and that 'on-the-go' bottles and cans, thrown into street bins, are a problem that must be solved.

He said that his customers send him more letters about the availability of local recycling facilities than anything else and that bringback facilities in store car parks are destined to be replaced by kerbside collection as Councils increasingly fulfil their responsibility to recycle more of the domestic waste stream.

I was invited to visit the waste management officers in the coming weeks and am optimistic that, away from the political atmosphere of a Council panel, there is much that can be achieved and that there will be a shift in Council policy towards greater recycling in the coming years. Bring it on.

Sunday, 7 March 2010

A day for 10:10

Hannah, Laura and I have been working together for a few weeks, preparing to promote the 10:10 campaign to our local community.

It was a great pleasure to visit the 10:10 office in Camden last week and meet the team who are running this amazing initiative, many of them volunteers and all of them incredibly committed to inspiring the public at large to make personal commitments to combat dangerous climate change. They kindly lent me a 2-metre high 10:10 banner and gave us lots of handouts and even the coveted 10:10 tags to sign up lots of new recruits.

Yesterday, we spent 8 hours in Waitrose, chatting about climate change and this simple pledge to cut 10% of our carbon emissions right now, in 2010. This certainly improved our sales techniques, to the point that I could now sell "The Big Issue" if things go wrong on the domestic front.

There is definitely a 'fear factor' to be overcome when talking to the public and you have just milliseconds to allay their suspicions and convince them that you're not after their money or their time and that you're not going to sell their email address to spam marketing outfits!

In our experience, many people who got as far as understanding what 10:10 means were happy to sit down at our laptop and add their name to our campaign. The only disappointment was the number of shoppers who support the idea of 10:10 but do not use email. We did keep their telephone numbers, to invite them to be part of the sustainability group that we plan to set up in our local community as a result of yesterday's promotion.

We are incredibly grateful to Waitrose for their hospitality in allowing us to talk to their customers in the comfort of the store. We are also grateful to Julian, Shaun and Theo who gave their time yesterday to catch people's eyes and charm them into hearing what 10:10 is about.

Many lovely people signed up on the spot, or went away with literature and agreed to sign up online later. Some told us that what we were doing was important and worthwhile, for which we were grateful.

A few were forthright in telling us what's really going on!

One gentleman explained that it's the human population that has gotten out of control (I'm with him so far) and that this has shifted the Earth on its axis, resulting in the climate getting hotter.

Another said that it's all these damn wars (again, nothing to disagree with to this point) and, now we've pumped all the oil out of the ground, there's nothing left to absorb the noise of all those bombs and they are warming the planet by ringing it like a bell.

Other than these contrarian theories, the only objections to the idea of 10:10 came from serving and retired cabin crew - because the town is not far from Heathrow. In the words of Upton Sinclair, quoted by Al Gore in 'An Inconvenient Truth', "It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it."

Hannah, Laura and I felt privileged to present such an important message to the people of our town and were delighted with the response we received. It was an enlightening way to spend our Saturday and will lead, we hope, to a small reduction in the town's carbon emissions.