Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Guardian Eco-nasties

Post-Stern, the press is struggling between the need to do the right thing and the need to pay for it. If you're reading this then you've probably had enough of it, but I recommend Monbiot's 10 point action plan.

Back to Eco-living...

The Guardian has a lovely little section today on smalll eco-nasties - Olive Oil from New Zealand, Disposable Garden Furniture Wipes, and, my favourite, the Fairy Power Dishwashing Brush. That's right, you don't even have to move your wrist.

My vote for a completely unnecessary eco-nasties goes to outdoor heaters in pavement cafes. Never mind the idiocy of burning gas to make electricity to heat the atmosphere, but this summer I've had to ask for them to be turned off because it was warm enough already and I had sweat pouring off me. 900W each - just count the number in your nearest bistro.

Oh, yes, and despite its attack on eco-taxation, the Sun has a naked green lady dispensing saucy eco-living tips, mainly chosen for their pun-tastic titles.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Scrub that - this must be Green Monday!

The green-talking yesterday has paled into insignificance compared to the release of the Stern report on the economics of climate change. Its headline conclusion was that unless we invest 1% of the world's annual wealth now, we could knock 20% of the economy in 2050 - worse than the Wall Street Crash which caused the Depression in the 1920s.

It certainly got Blair & Brown's interest, neither of whom have been willing before to walk the walk on environmental issues. The two of them were even nice to each other at the press conference. There seems to have been a realisation that the economy operates within the natural world and not in a bubble on its own - a welcome development.

The Chancellor in particular announced a raft of measures which could make a real difference if they aren't watered down before they hit the statute book. Even green taxation raised its ugly head, but The Sun got its retaliation in first with a headline "I'm Saving the Planet - YOU Lot are Paying!", a far cry from its recent green conversion.

Much to my annoyance, the press are once again wheeling out the usual ragbag of discredited climate change deniers like Bjorn "Humbug" Lomborg to try and stir up some controversy. Sky News' coverage made it sound like the whole thing was predicated on a guess. I'll say it one more time. There has never been a peer-reviewed scientific journal paper casting serious doubt on man-made climate change. Let's move on...

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Is this Green Sunday???

When I started this blog, I thought I'd comment on environmental news stories. As it turns out, I would have time for little else as the media is completely saturated with climate change at the minute.

But today is worth a special mention. With David Cameron and Menzies Campbell banging the green drum on the telly this morning, David Milliband has broken cover and announced that Labour will consider green taxes after all, a big shift from previous Government comments.

Might this just be Green Sunday?

Hope so - I've only been waiting since 1992.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Green Home Improvement Tip No.4

Windows & Doors

When we bought our house, it was completely single glazed and leaked heat like nobody's business. We replaced all our windows with slow-grown softwood triple glazed units and put in a new, matching front door. As we have a very tall house at the rear, maintenance is an issue, so we got them coated externally in a thin aluminium coating.

The windows are superb and look beautiful, but we have had some problems with the door coating. Being Swedish, all the draught-proofing is excellent and the A4 cylinder-style letter-box has to be seen to be believed. None of them cost much more than good quality PVC units (whose manufacturing process uses more energy than they'd ever save).

Unfortunately I can't recommend the UK distributer because:

a. They were a bunch of cowboys, and,

b. They've gone bust.

Good thing we never paid them for the door...

Previous Tips: Tip 1, Tip 2, Tip 3

Calling all Black Country Swiss Tonys...

Car salesmen from the West Midlands have been judged the least eco-friendly Britons according to Planet Ark.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

The Art of Climate Change

In a recent e-mail from Creative Concern I saw this image from the anti-consumerist magazine Adbusters. This made me think about the amount of recent art inspired by climate change, and how powerful art can be at getting a message across.

Here in Tyneside we recently hosted "Come Hell or High Water" an installation by Michael Pinsky as part of the Climate Change, Cultural Change programme. Six cars (all innards & oil removed) semi-submerged in the Tyne to symbolise what will happen if we just keep on driving blindly on.

The mother of them all must be the Cape Farewell project featuring contributions from luminaries such as Anthony Gormley, Rachel Whiteread and Gary Hume. The project has made three exhibitions to the arctic in a 100 year old schooner in order to develop artwork on the Climate Change theme.

If anybody else has come across any good examples, please post them in the comments.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Freecylin' Away

I'm a bit of a sucker for IKEA. Its "come to buy a bookcase and get seduced by this hi-fi rack" approach to selling gets me every time - and recently I did end up with a hi-fi rack which I didn't like when it was back in my living room. After trying it as a printer stand and a few other applications, I put it on Free Cycle and a nice man came and took it away and gave it a new life in the Karaoke business.

My local Freecycle group has over 3500 members, and there's some cool stuff turns up. Some of the "WANTEDs" are somewhat, um, ambitious... just like Swapshop back the 80s for all you 30 something Brits. The guy who was looking for a complete set of DJ decks probably didn't get many offers.

I think it's much better than taking stuff to a second-hand shop as the likelihood of find a new owner is much higher (and excess stuff doesn't get dumped on 3rd World markets).

Monday, October 23, 2006

A Nation of Energy Wasters

The UK has come bottom of a survey of the energy saving habits of European consumers - see the BBC coverage here.

The focus of the coverage as usual is TVs etc left on standby, but it struck me watching Torchwood last night that, although I needed my cable TV box on to see BBC 3, I had my DVD player and video on as well. So I whipped out my funky new energy meter and did a little experiment of my own to see how the balance of electricity works out for different behaviours.

If I say that in an average day, the TV is on about 3 hours, of which half an hour is cable TV, and a quarter of an hour each of DVD and video, then the energy required is 0.2 units per day.

If, as above, I have the unused equipment on standby when watching TV, but switch everything off outside my 3 hours of viewing, I'll use 0.34 units - 41% of which is wasted. As a result I'm going to change the way our equipment is connected to the socket, so it is easier to watch terrestrial TV with everything else switched off.

Of course, if I leave it all on standby 24 hours a day, I'll use 1.49 units, a whopping 87% of which is wasted.

These are all piddling amounts of energy, but if you start to multiply up against 60 million people over a year, then it starts to get very significant indeed.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Ground Source Heat Grump

In today's Observer, Lucy Siegel repeats the old chesnut about Ground Source Heat Pumps producing 3-4 units of energy for every unit that is put in.

What she doesn't say is it takes 1 unit of electricity to get 3 units of heat. To get 1 unit of electricity you need to burn 3 units of gas in a power station. A modern condenser boiler is 90% efficient, so you'd get 2.7 units of heat if you just burnt the gas directly. On top of this I've been told that GSHPs struggle in practice to deliver 2.5 units of heat (1 of which is waste heat from the electricity running the pump's motor). Then the gas boiler wins.

"Ah, but you could use renewable energy!" say the Heat Pump acolytes. Yes, but who has too much renewable electricity? You'd be much better off using that electricity to power IT, lights and all the other stuff that can't run on lower forms of energy.

I've got a willing student doing an engineering project to look at the whole energy balance of Heat Pumps. I've challenged him to prove to me that they are a good idea. I'll keep you posted on how he gets on.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

New Toys for the Eco-Boy

Yesterday I got two new toys in the post from the Centre for Alternative Technology. The first measures the current, voltage or wattage drawn by any device with a plug and costs £28. This is great for measuring the difference between the energy consumed when an appliance is 'on', when it's on 'standby' and the leakage into adaptors. Unfortunately it has an irritating design flaw - the screen gets obscured by the appliance's power cord and often requires a torch to read anyway.

The second is a meter which measures a house's total energy consumption. It consists of a sensor which clips around the live wire and plugs into a transmitter (bottom left in the pic). The display unit (bottom right) is wireless so you can put it anywhere in the house or carry it around as you try to find where all that energy is leaking. This cost about £80.

Expect a rash of posts relating to energy consumption in coming weeks!

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

If you're interested in the business side of things...

I hope to have a Green Business Blog up and running in a couple of months to complement this one. In the meantime, you can read my views on the opportunities for businesses in the environmental sector at Management Issues. This is the first in a series of pieces on this theme.

Britain Must Cut Flights or Miss CO2 Targets

Planet Ark reports:
The British government must curb the huge expansion in air travel or risk overshooting its self-imposed target of cutting carbon dioxide emissions by 60 percent by 2050, a study said on Tuesday.

CO2 emissions from aviation in Britain are set to surge by between four and ten times 1990 levels by the middle of the century, accounting on their own for two-thirds of the government's emission target for that year, it said. Yet far from doing anything about the problem, government policy is actively promoting airport expansion which could see passenger numbers more than double to 470 million a year, from 200 million, by 2030, it said.

"The government has to confront the contradictions in its policies," said Brenda Boardman from Oxford University's Environment Change Institute which conducted the study for the government-funded UK Energy Research Centre. "Unless the rate of growth in flights is curbed, the UK cannot fulfil its commitments on climate change. It has to undertake demand management. Relying on technological fixes alone is totally unrealistic," she said.
Note: During the conference season, a Government spokesman was reported to say: "We're not going to stop people going on holiday."

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Strike a Light

Today I was at a Carbon Trust training session on energy management. It was fairly heavy stuff on power factor correction and other dark arts, but to lighten the load the trainer did a quick demo of domestic lighting. It was good stuff - all proven with a meter - so I thought I’d pass his wisdom on.

- The little red neon lights on extension cords might only use a tiny trickle of electricity, but if we all left two of them on constantly each, their total energy use in the UK comes to the output of a medium sized power station.

- A good quality instant-start compact fluorescent lamp (CFL) will cost you £21 over its five year lifetime compared to £82 for a standard tungsten lightbulb. Don't bother with cheap IKEA CFLs tho.

- You can get CFLs in all shapes and sizes including a new compact 7 Watt model which will replace those greedy little 50 Watt halogen lights that everyone is filling their homes with.

- A fluorescent strip light uses less electricity starting up than it does at full brightness – nailing that myth about how it is better to leave them on all day than switch them off when you're not using them.

- Most old-fashioned lights (including outdoor security lights) can be replaced with newer models that consume less than a third of the energy.


Thursday, October 12, 2006

Review: Sam Smith's Organic Ale & Lager

As I'm trying to wean myself off my addiction to New World wines (goodbye Stellenbosch, farewell Napa Valley) I thought I'd try these two beers brewed not too far away in Tadcaster, Yorkshire. The lager is quite ale-y, with plenty of body compared to a mainstream continental lager, but still with enough crispness to enjoy in this Indian Summer. The ale is less distinctive, but smooth and enjoyable. I would recommend both and it is great that they are organic and (relatively) local.

If anyone wants to send me any other beverages to review, I will be more than willing to give them a shot. It's a tough job, but someone's gotta do it.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Busted flush?

The WWF is reporting the bog-awful environmental performance of the five major toilet roll manufacturers. In particular they could use much more recycled material in lieu (loo?) of virgin wood pulp. Glad someone has got to the bottom of this.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Book Review: No Waste Like Home, Penney Poyzer

No Waste Like Home is a tie-in to the BBC2 series of the same name fronted by self-proclaimed eco-dominatrix, Penney Poyzer. The book is very attractive, with plenty of slogans across arty small-depth-of-field photos (although some sections suffer from having light coloured text on a white background).

It covers domestic energy, waste and toxics, the effects of consumerism and driving, hitting the right nails on the head most of the time. Aviation, however, is excluded - a major flaw. The book claims it can save £4000 on the household bills of the most wasteful readers, but doesn’t mention that if they invest that in flying off for city breaks abroad then their carbon footprint will blot out their carbon savings instantly (our old friend the Rebound effect again).

The information is extremely clearly put across, but there are a number of inconsistencies: donating magazines to a dentist’s waiting room is ‘reducing’, but donating computers to schools is ‘reusing’. Some of the entries in the ‘what you have saved… so treat yourself’ sections at the end of each chapter are rather whimsical.

Overall, while it is great to see eco-living hitting the TV screens, Poyzer’s book is slightly disappointing. A tiny bit more rigour (and a little less smugness) would have delivered an excellent resource for beginners.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Bio-Diesel with Daryl Hannah

The lovely Daryl Hannah shows off, and drinks, her biodiesel, made from waste vegetable oil.

Today is Ecological Debt Day

Today is the day when the world's population has used up the earth's annual capacity to support us, according to the Global Footprint Network. Last year it fell on Oct 11.

Of course, some are taking more than their fair share.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Green Crucifixion on ITV

Just watched The G-Factor - a slightly bizarre episode of Tonight with Trevor McDonald. It consisted of a number of families who are trying to make a difference in their eco-footprint being torn apart by a panel of media-friendly experts.

It was good to see eco-living on primetime telly, and I suppose it made the valid point that doing a little ain't enough on the grand scale of things, but it worried me that the entire ITV audience will say to themselves "Well, what's the point?".

The programme did fail to live up to its billing that some green efforts could cause more problems than they solve, except for a poor lass who had been on an eco-holiday every year in far flung parts. Been there, done that myself - and I couldn't help thinking the panel probably had too.

BTW: How much does our Trev get paid for his 10 seconds of intro and outro?

"Green taxes backed by most voters...

reports ITN today, "...even if it meant air travel and motoring became more expensive."

Well, that's the whole blimmin' point, isn't it?!

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Green Home Improvement Tip No.3

Use materials with a high recycled content.

The building industry consumes 90% of the UK's non-energy related minerals - using 420 million tonnes every year and creating 150 million tonnes of waste.

Using materials with a high recycled content is one way of reducing this impact. The good news is that many standard building products already contain significant amounts of such materials and better examples can be found by shopping around. For example, with chipboard (see pic) the standard recycled content of chipboard is 65%, but you can get up to 90%.

In our renovation, we used Fermacell instead of plasterboard for our walls (in the background in the pic). This is made from recycled newspapers, gypsum from power station emissions treatment and potato starch - a whopping 99% recycled material. It is more expensive than plasterboard but has better fire prtotection properties and you can hang heavy pictures easily as it will take screws directly.

If you want to choose your materials on this basis, the best guide I have found is from the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP). This is a daunting 158 pages of data, but if you go to p14, you can click on the link to the type of product you want, and then select whichever brand name appeals most.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

The big question: Organic or Local?

Have you ever found yourself standing in the middle of a supermarket holding a bag of organic spuds from Israel in one hand and non-organic British spuds in the other? One has been doused in chemicals which could cause environmental damage for decades, the other has travelled 2,187 miles on its way to your plate. You look at one, then the other, desperately trying to decide which is the lesser of the two evils.

This is one of the most difficult dilemmas for the eco-lifer.

The Observer ran a good article on the why's and wherefore's of the organic food market this Sunday so I won't repeat them here.

The simplistic answer is go local AND organic. Organic box schemes abound around the country, specialist stores can be found in most cities and you can grow some yourself.

Beyond this, my rules are a bit arbitrary. If I'm in an organic store I buy anything I fancy as they tend to be better at local sourcing and don't transport stuff around the country like big stores. If I'm in a normal shop or (cough) supermarket I go local, mainly because climate change is the big destroyer of the moment.

If you have different views, post 'em in the comments.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Al Gore video

This appears to be a mini sequel to "An Inconvenient Truth". More 'I wuz robbed' gags and practical steps, less of the schmaltz.

Not so sure about the appropriateness of the Beamer ad at the start and the end...

Al Gore: One Man and his Powerpoint

I went to see 'An Inconvenient Truth' last night.

The film consists of clips of Gore's famous presentation on climate change interspersed with flashbacks to ex-next-president's life, from his farm upbringing to the hanging chads in 2000. The former sections are powerful, persuasive and chilling, the latter sentimental, going on mawkish. These bothered me, but just as I was beginning to believe that the whole thing was the longest party political broadcast in history, the two strands collided. Gore's father grew tobacco on his farm and continued to do so despite the 60s & 70s furore over the link with cancer. Then Gore's sister Nancy died of lung cancer. Al Gore Snr stopped growing the crop overnight.

The moral: sometimes we need to be shocked into action.

The presentation parts were very slick. Animations showed what the impact of global warming will be on the world's major cities and films showed ice sheets melting. Occasional cartoons lifted the mood while still pushing the point.

Gore demonstrated clearly that the 'natural cycles' argument is a myth - carbon dioxide has never hit its current concentration in the 650 000 years we can analyse using ice cores. The 'lack of scientific agreement' myth was punctured as well - a survey of peer reviewed papers on the subject found 0% doubting manmade climate change.

What the film is weaker on is practical action. A series of suggestions flashed up over the end credits, but that was that. Gore seems to be working on this and I'll post a small vid later.

The verdict: Even if you think you've seen it all before, Do Not Miss This Film.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

On the Rebound???

In December 2003 I wrote off my Ford Ka in a smallish prang. I replaced it with a Golf TDi, for two reasons:

a. I want to have the option of using biodiesel (but that's another story...).

b. It did 55mpg compared with the Ka's 40mpg.

Brilliant - cut my fuel consumption by 28% and saved £250 each year.


£250 is exactly the cost of a return flight from Newcastle to New York. Given my love of travel, this is a real option. If I take it, then I've just doubled the annual carbon emissions I had in the Ka.

This is called the "rebound effect". If we save money through efficiency, we can easily wipe out the eco-benefits by choosing to buy or do something even more environmentally damaging with the windfall.

This is why we need Green Taxes - to make sure damaging practices are expensive. Airlines don't pay any tax on fuel, so flying is an extremely cheap way to damage the planet (and I've got previous). Getting expensive haircuts with my cash would be a much better option, but isn't really my thing (see profile pic).

The choice is ours.