Sunday, December 31, 2006

Review of 2006

If you've come here to avoid all those lazy 'review of the year' articles in the dead tree press then you've come to the wrong place!

The year ended with the market research group Mintel publishing a report saying: "2006 has proved to be a tipping point for the eco-warrior, as environmental issues and greener lifestyles have gone mainstream," So what has triggered this sea change?

Undoubtably the big daddy of all things environmental has been Al Gore and his film/powerpoint presentation An Inconvenient Truth. On the domestic political front, the rise of David Cameron and his husky hugging antics triggered an environmental arms race with the Government releasing the Stern report, and the Lib Dems proposing a significant green tax switch. The downside of all this interest was the media's insistence on wheeling out all the discredited climate change deniers to give the story 'balance'.

We also got a tangible symbol of climate change this year - the Polar Bear. The images in the BBC's 'Planet Earth' of an exhausted polar bear curling up to die of hunger and exhaustion brought on by a lack of ice brought the consequences of climate change home to many. The year ended with the US Government designating it an endangered species, although it remains unclear whether this signifies a shift in climate change policy from the world's biggest polluter.

Hype of the year goes to the B&Q domestic windturbine. The company boasted of massive sales, but there is lack of clarity over how many have been installed, with possibly apocryphal horror stories of chimneys and gable ends being ripped off. The cynics who bemoaned that 'they could only power a hairdryer' just showed off their ignorance of energy - a hairdryer actually takes quite a lot of juice.

In the media, Green went mainstream. While it is not surprising that the Times, Guardian and Independent all started dispensing eco-/ethical advice, the surprise was The Sun's semi-conversion. The red top was happy to give out eco-tips (illustrated most creatively with bare flesh), but baulked at accepting eco-taxes. The sudden plethora of books on eco-living also demonstrated a massive interest, although the quality of some left something to be desired.

Another trend this year (which I must admit I haven't blogged before) is the take over of eco-businesses by larger organisations. L'Oreal took on Body Shop, Green & Blacks got swallowed by Cadburys and Howies sold up to Timberland. Whether this is a sign of a growth market, or simple bandwagon hopping remains to be seen.

So in summary, quite a year - the most exciting from a green point of view since the 1992 Earth Summit, IMHO.

My predictions for 2007 are that some of these bubbles will burst (with some media backlash) but that overall green will become more and more mainstream. The political agenda will continue to take a green hue, but without the Green Party benefitting. Micro-renewables will grow, but mainly solar hot water. Recycling will rise as councils feel the force of the Landfill Allowance Trading Scheme. I suspect, however, there will be no consensus on how to tackle air travel emissions.

That just leaves me to wish you a very Happy New Year!

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Did You Have A Green Christmas?

On reflection, mine wasn't bad from an eco-living point of view (much better than the telly anyway).

- We had an almost totally organic and local Christmas dinner, with the turkey coming from a farm 25 miles away, the veg from our organic box scheme and the goodies from our local organic shop. All absolutely delicious (apart from the sprouts needless to say).

- For presents, I got a couple of new eco-gadgets to try out and review here in the New Year and an axe to chop wood for our new, but as yet uninstalled, wood burning stove.

- Despite all the fuss in the green columns in the press, I had no dilemma getting a real tree which will be sawn up for firewood. It's not as if we have a shortage of fir trees, is it?

The downside was the huge heap of rubbish - our wheelie bin is rarely full, but it is now.

My eco-living New Year's Resolution is to get my carbon footprint measured and sorted out. There should be a huge drop as we're getting a condensing boiler, solar hot water and the woodburning stove in January, but I still need to sort out transport and electricity.

Post your resolutions in the comments


Thursday, December 21, 2006

The grass is greener on the eco-friendly side of the fence

The Energy Savings Trust have reported that eco-friendly Britons are more likely to experience a general sense of happiness and wellbeing, according to research from Imperial College London.

This chimes with my not-scientifically-proven-but-strongly-held-anyway belief that eco-living is fun and not the hair-shirt-fret-a-minute it is often made out to be in sections of the media. I'm not sure that the publicity around Bab Haddrill's overland pilgrimage to Australia for a friend's wedding was the best message for the wider public. While I'm behind her ambition (I tried to do the same 10 years ago, but had to turn back from Russia for family reasons), the big 'I'm doing this to save the planet' hoo-hah perpetuates the myth that 'green = hardship', which will make Jo(e) Public switch straight off.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Eco-products: What makes a product green?

Do you ever find yourself wondering whether a product is 'green' or not? Do you ever think you're being conned by 'green wash'? Fear not, here's a very simple guide, or the start of one anyway.

Basically there are two different ways a product can be green:

1. It requires/uses less stuff*.
Examples: energy efficient light bulbs, hybrid cars, lightweight packaging etc.

2. It is made of/uses 'better' stuff.
Examples: biodiesel, bioplastics, products made from recycled materials, non-toxic materials etc.

plus, there's a third possibility that's not strictly a 'product'.

3. You buy the service the product gives you, not the physical product.
Examples: video, DVD and book libraries, car clubs, on-line newspapers, e-books, MP3s etc

In my opinion, the changes required to address global environmental problems are so large, there is no point in sweating over details - a green product is either much better than the standard version, or it shouldn't be described as green.

I'll be picking up on these three approaches individually in future posts.

* "Stuff" is a highly technical term covering materials and energy

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Green Home Improvement - Insulation pt 2

If you live in an old house like us, it's really worth having a poke about the nooks and crannies. Having topped up insulation in our main attic, I had a look in the space above a small offshoot at the back of our house. There was no insulation at all above the ceiling, part of the wall was simply a thickness of wallboard, some of the central heating pipes were unlagged, and whole bricks were missing for the pipes to get into the bathroom (see above).

For a bit of variety (and economy) I ordered some Warmcel 100. This is recycled and treated newspaper that is used as a loose fill insulation. It is much cheaper than Thermafleece, but most places tried to charge me a whopping great transport charge (£60 for £40 worth of product). Green Steps only charged £20 and got my custom (and a plug here!). They also got brownie points for delivering in 2 days.

So, the pipes got lagged, the uninsulated wallboards got a vertical layer of Thermafleece, the holes got blocked with Polyfilla and Thermafleece scraps and Warmcell was used on the rest (see pic). The Warmcel was brilliant in such an awkward space as it was easy to push into the difficult corners and around the pipes. The only real drawback was that I had to build a rim around the access hatch to contain it and my carpentry skills aint the greatest.

Compared to Thermafleece:

Advantages: cost, ease of installation
Disadvatages: horizontal use only, containment

BTW, I did some rough costings of the various insulation options. For 200mm thickness, the approx costs per square metre are:

Rockwool: £5
"Non-itch" Rockwool: £7
Warmcel 100: £9 ex carriage
Thermafleece: £25 ex carriage

Revenge of the SUV

You'd think they could read - not long after I posted my 'death of the SUV' blog, a Landrover Discovery wrote off my push bike and left me somewhat battered and bruised on the tarmac. This could get personal...

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Hastings: Puppet or Muppet?

I've been passed some background information (thanks David!) on the "Renewable Energy Foundation" whose 'independent' report Max Hastings quoted in the Guardian yesterday:

"According to the Guardian (July 15th 2004), REF is backed by anonymous wealthy individuals and hopes to gather the 80 or so groups opposing wind farms around the country"

Independent? You really have to be careful what you believe, don't you? Looks like the whole "PR front/think tank with misleading name" thing is hitting these shores.

This really bothers me as the environmental movement is often protrayed as a bunch of hysterical blinkered fanatics, but we've got science behind us, and they've got, er, Mr Blobby... Apparently REF's chair is Mr 'cosmic positivity' himself, Noel Edmunds. Glad to see they've got a real expert in charge.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Personal Carbon Trading

Here in the UK, the Government has just published a 41 page report on personal carbon trading. This is the idea that everyone gets a carbon allowance and if you produce more carbon than that, then you have to buy credits off someone who hasn't. Your credits would probably be stored on a card which you would use to pay your fuel bills.

I was going to comment on the idea, but the authors note that the debate so far has been based on gut instinct which in turn is based on untested assumptions! OK, my view is that it would work technically, but are the public going to accept such overt rationing of resources? Also, none of the schemes considered includes the carbon from food production and distribution which is a huge part of our ecological footprint. One of them doesn't even include personal aviation which would make a mockery of the whole thing (see the Rebound effect).

As the authors note, the idea is a work in progress. It's worth a read if you are interested, but it does get quite technical in places.

Speaking of opinions based on gut instinct rather than the facts, did anyone read Max Hastings' piece in the Guardian yesterday? Supermarkets more eco-friendly than farmers markets because they use big trucks? I'm not even going to start.

Mr Hastings is a military historian. Maybe I should start opining on that subject as I know bugger all about it...

Saturday, December 09, 2006

S(h)UV off!

More good news.

According to The Times, The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders have announced that "sales of new 4x4s fell by more than 15 per cent last month compared with November 2005, and have fallen in every month this year except March. Sales in the year to date are down 6 per cent compared with growth of 4 per cent last year. By contrast, sales of small cars and people carriers are up significantly."

The article adds "Glass’s Guide, the leading guide to second-hand car prices, said that 4x4s were depreciating much faster this year than in previous years." - a sign of a serious collapse in the SUV/4x4 market.

The reasons given were the introduction of higher car taxes, increasing fuel prices, the planned hike in the congestion charge and even increased parking charges in Richmond (SUV owners can't all live there, can they?). Nobody mentions the widespread use of SUV ownership as shorthand for "complete numpty" in the media, which I personally believe is a much stronger factor.

Good ol' Jezza Clarkson weighs in with an unexpectedly incoherent rant linking environmentalism with health & safety hardliners, and saying there's no point because to make a difference we'll have to do much more than change our driving habits.

Well, changing from an SUV to a Prius will cut fuel consumption by a factor of 3-4. As the UK's target is to cut emissions by 60%, this is right in line with what we need. May the slump in sales continue!

Thursday, December 07, 2006

A (laundry) load of (eco)balls

I bought this set of eco-balls months ago, but it took a while to build up enough courage to try them. The idea is to put all three in your washing machine instead of washing powder. A combination of oxidising pellets inside and the thumping of the clothes by the balls knocks all the dirt out without any pollution. And by jove it works! As a trial I chucked in a dirty old towel I had used to clean the floor after some DIY and as you can see the results speak for themselves.



There isn't any smell left either - in fact no smell at all, which is a bit disconcerting when you are used to the perfumes from normal washing powders and liquids. We've discovered that adding a drop of lavender oil gives the wash a pleasing, if strictly unnecessary, 'fresh' smell.

The balls cost £35, which works out at 3p per wash which seems very reasonable. However, this discussion on the Year of Living Generously shows that there seems to be some problem with the lifespan of the balls, but most people seem pretty pleased with them anyway.

I couldn't find any hard data on the eco-benefits, but it appears fairly obvious that because you're not flushing loads of soaps down the drain, the fact you can skip the rinse cycle on your washing machine, and that these three balls replace many boxes of washing powder made from raw materials from around the world, the balls must be a winner. And they did get voted one of the Ten Best Green Household Products by The Independent January 2005.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Carbon Offsetting: The Case for the Defence

This is the second part of a piece on carbon offsetting - read the case for the prosecution here.

In terms of carbon offsetting deflecting from the real problem, the very act of measuring your own carbon footprint can be an eye-opening experience, adding to, rather than buying off your guilt. My initial reaction to the results is always to wonder how to reduce the excesses of my lifestyle.

Then, when you spend money on an offset, it is not only a contribution to projects that have carbon benefits, but also money not spent on high carbon activities like a flight to Prague for the weekend - a double benefit. The payment is effectively a voluntary carbon tax ringfenced to tackle climate change. It is almost impossible to understand why any environmentalist could criticise this.

The CarbonNeutral Company, target of criticisms of their early projects, has developed a 30 page CarbonNeutral Protocol which enshrines the measure, reduce, offset principle and requires rigorous documentation of the offsetting projects.

The carbon offsetting industry has certainly made mistakes in the past, but this doesn’t justify the sheer vitriol poured on it from certain quarters. Even the New Internationalist calms down sufficiently to admit “there is absolutely nothing wrong with funding renewables and even some well-designed and appropriate tree-planting projects. Just don’t equate them with a license to pollute.”

The sticking point seems to be the economic mechanism – the buying of carbon credits - which seems to offend the hairshirt brigade, whether or not it works. This ideological aversion to trading as a potential force for good is, in my opinion, extremely short-sighted. To deal with the impacts of consumerism, we have to fix consumerism, and offsetting is one way of doing that. Of course, carbon offsetting will not save the planet by itself, but it can certainly be part of the solution.