Wednesday, 22 December 2010
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
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
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.
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
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:
- Complex and uncertain policies and regulatory environment.
- Access to the National Grid.
- Planning and Consent.
- Lack of investment due to uncompetitive returns.
Thursday, 25 November 2010
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
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.
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
2) "The Last Generation" by Fred Pearce, an immensely readable overview of the science and forecasts.
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.
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.
Tuesday, 2 November 2010
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.