Monday, April 30, 2007

Book Review: Heat by George Monbiot

I like George Monbiot*, even though I don't always agree with him. He's one of life's essential awkward squad, constantly challenging the status quo, vested interests and what I like to call 'institutional inertia' - the tendency for large organisations to keep doing the same thing because changing would be too difficult.

In his latest book, Heat, tackles climate change and what could be done about it. He likens society's relationship with fossil fuels as a Faustian Pact and manages to extract an appropriate quote from Marlowe's version of the Faust tale to start each paragraph**.

Much of the book will be familiar to readers of his Guardian column: the exposure of the professional climate change deniers, the trashing of the offsetting industry and the criticism of biofuels and their impact on Indonesian rainforest. But there's plenty more in here. He starts by setting a tough challenge - a 90% reduction of carbon emissions by 2030 and then sets about how to achieve that. One of his early conclusions is one which I think will be the main stumbling block: to stop the rebound effect, some form of carbon rationing is needed. He admits at the end that he hasn't been able to take political feasibility of his solutions into account because "it is up to you".

Heat is a joy to read with Monbiot's pithy way with words - "the British government wants to see a massive number of new homes built... to accommodate the people desperate to escape from their families." - and his nagging worry that he will suffer "the dreadful fate of all disillusioned activists" and "become an aromatherapist".

There were one or two places that I wasn't sure if Monbiot was double counting - for example, he comments on the electricity used by supermarkets and how it might be reduced, but he had already identified a way of decarbonising the whole electricity supply for the country. I might e-mail him to challenge him on this, but he can be a bit withering towards correspondents - many are hung out to dry in the book, so on the other hand I might not.

OK, so Heat is not really about eco-living per se, but if you are interested in the bigger picture and the challenges ahead, this is a good place to start.

* I didn't use to like him - in fact I found one of his early books, "Amazon Watershed" so sanctimonious that it nearly turned me into a Daily Mail reader.

** For those more musical than literary (like me), Faust was a bit like an early Robert Johnson, selling his soul to the devil for fame and fortune, then panicking when old nick came to get his part of the bargain.


Friday, April 27, 2007

Cradle to Grave - our lives laid bare

In the novel How The Dead Live by Will Self, the dead protagonist is in limbo followed around by a number of ghosts including three blubbery humanoid shapes which consist of all the fat she gained and lost again while she was alive. I was reminded of this while watching Human Footprint on the UK's Channel 4 last night. The programme went from birth to death for the average Brit, showing you how much stuff we consume and produce.

The makers amassed our life of consumption together, piling up carrots, potatos and apples, racked up empty wine bottles and emptied a bin lorry full of packaging waste. The sight of two kids tumbling over a huge pile of nappies reinforced my view that cloth is best.

The stuff that comes back out of us was a little more modest - only five buckets of vomit? I got poisoned by dodgy Russian vodka once and thought I produced that in one day. The pile of poo was a little smaller than I expected as well. But the best bit visually was when they ignited the equivalent methane that we fart over our lifetime producing a reasonable mushroom cloud - now if we could only capture that...

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Wednesday, April 25, 2007

I love the smell of nappisan in the morning!

I've just had a piece published on about real vs disposable nappies. You can probably guess what side of the debate I'm on (if not, check the picture for a clue).

What I find funny about using real nappies is the reaction from other parents: "So you're still perservering with those?", "Oh, you're brave!", and of course "We thought about it, but...". OK, so I'm not doing the washing, but it really isn't that difficult. The only real problem is that most baby clothes are designed for the slightly slimmer disposable-clad derriere.

We're going on holiday in June to a cottage in Scotland with no washing machine, so we'll be on the eco-disposables from Nature Babycare. We've test driven them once or twice and they seem OK, but as we've never used Pampers or whatever, I can't tell you how they compare.

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Monday, April 23, 2007

The Crow Road?

You've probably seen the fuss over Sheryl Crow's one-sheet-wiping solution to the consumption of loo roll problem. The thing that really bothers me is that she says: " I think we are an industrious enough people that we can make it work with only one square per restroom visit, except, of course, on those pesky occasions where 2 to 3 could be required".

Industrious? Is this not one scenario where working smarter would beat working harder hands down? And if you think that pun is bad, wait til tomorrow's papers get their teeth into this one.

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Friday, April 20, 2007

Some Art for a Friday

No pics this week, so here's Banksy's take on The Singing Butler to cheer up your Friday.

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DTI stops home renewables grants

Despite Gordon Broon's extra £6m for the Low Carbon Building Programme following unprecedented demand for its home renewables grants, the DTI has suddenly suspended the scheme for some months. Apparently someone (I'd guess his initials are GB) has spotted that £5m has been allocated, but not many systems have actually been installed, according to the Guardian.

Apparently the DTI mandarins are looking at how to improve the allocation system - I would suggest the problems lie in the planning laws instead. These are due to be revamped in Oct to make getting permission easier. Here's hoping...

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Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Work Greener Part 1

I mentioned before that, according to Chris Goodall's book, 10% of our carbon footprint arises from our workplace. Well, in an exclusive extract from my forthcoming e-book, The Green Business Bible, here's my top ten tips for reducing the carbon footprint of your office:

Top Ten Tips for Offices

1. Run a ‘switch it off’ campaign. Rebut energy myths like “it is more efficient to leave lights on than switch them on and off”;

2. Provide feedback to your staff on energy consumption. Switch it off campaigns work best with real data to back up the message;

3. Purchase Energy Star Compliant office equipment;

4. Upgrade all lighting to the most energy efficient available;

5. Downgrade the level of lighting in non-critical areas. Most corridors are much brighter than they need to be;

6. Install automatic lighting controls, particularly for windowless rooms;

7. Set heating controls to the optimum temperature and make sure they remain there;

8. Make sure your heating tracks the temperature outside in the Spring and Autumn. If staff start opening the windows to ventilate rooms, then energy is being wasted;

9. Install a tea urn rather than individual kettles;

10. Laptop batteries will discharge if you leave them plugged into the wall, whether or not the plug is switched on – unplug them to save the charge.

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Monday, April 16, 2007

Guide to Eco-products Pt4 - "no stuff, just services"

This is the last in my series on what makes a product eco-friendly - but we're going to stop thinking about products and look at the service they provide instead. For example:

- we don't need books, we want the information they hold, so we could borrow a book from a library or read it on-line.
- we don't need CDs, we want music, so we could download it instead and keep it in electronic format on an MP3 player.
- we don't need a central heating system, we just need to be warm, so we could improve the insulation of our house instead.

So we could buy 'services' rather than 'products' - join a book/music/DVD library, subscribe to pay per view movies and on-line magazines, join a car club and/or use a nappy laundry service. The industries that supplies these services are then encouraged to use less stuff in doing it to keep their costs down, rather than trying and sell us more and more stuff to make profit.

With the broadband revolution and better technologies we are already seeing a big shift to moving information around electronically (well you're reading this), so we'll be spending more of our money on subscriptions rather than materials. But there is one big drawback to this - most of us like 'stuff' for its aesthetic value or for the kudos it gives us. Being a member of a car club will not appeal to those who want to polish a Cosmocharged Tottymagnet 3.8 GTi on their driveway on a Sunday morning. Me, I like reading a real paper in the morning (and a full sized one - don't get me started on the recent shift of quality papers to a tabloid size), a house full of books, and the big drawback of iTunes to a music obsessive is that you don't get proper sleevenotes. And that's bad.


Thursday, April 12, 2007

Rocking all over the World

The line up for the UK leg of Al Gore's Live Earth concerts have been announced - not a bad show if a little bland. I'll be very interested in how the Beeb covers this if they get the TV rights - watching Jonathan Ross tying himself in knots covering the Make Poverty History concerts as he couldn't even hint at anything 'political' was car crash telly at its best. They even had to cut out bands' patter between songs in case anybody said anything vaguely controversial. Is climate change political? Well if poverty is, then this will be too.


Tuesday, April 10, 2007

The Green, Green Shoots of Spring

Given the now not so new arrival, we hadn't been to our allotment this year, but I went down yesterday and planted a blackcurrant bush a neighbour had donated. It wasn't as overgrown as I expected to be and the fruit trees were blossoming nicely. We're roping in a couple of friends to share the effort and spoils so hopefully it will soon be back on track.

Growing your own food is probably the single most effective and easiest thing to do to reduce your ecological footprint. The Guardian is reporting today that there has been a huge increase in vegetable seed sales so it seems to be becoming trendy too.

You don't need an allotment or even a garden as many crops can be grown in containers and window boxes. There are many, many books, magazines, TV/radio programmes and websites on gardening and most of them take a reasonably eco-friendly approach. The Centre for Alternative Technology has some good tipsheets for download at just 50p if you want to be even greener.

My top tips are:

- Use organic fertiliser/plant food (horse manure, worm juice, or commercial organic products)
- Don't use toxic pesticides like slug pellets (use beer traps, mixed planting and other organic tricks instead)
- Get a water butt
- Build a compost heap

But most of all, enjoy it!

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Saturday, April 07, 2007

A Good (Easter) Egg

If you want to buy someone an Easter Egg this year, go for Sainsbury's according to Oxfordshire County Council. According to the Beeb, the council reviewed the amount of packaging on a range of eggs and found that the big supermakets' offering had only 16% packaging by weight compared to 47% for a Nestle egg. Excessive packaging is actually illegal in the UK, although there have been very few prosecutions - mostly for computer software being sent out in huge crates.

And on that note, have a good Easter!

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Thursday, April 05, 2007

Micro generation red tape to be cut

Good News, Ruth Kelly, the UK's Communities Secretary, has announced that the need for planning permission for micro-renewables will be removed in many cases. I'm very pleased to here this - a neighbour of mine built a massive garden house without needing planning permission but you do need it for some solar panels - a daft situation.

In the meantime Conservative leader David Cameron has had to take his much vaunted micro wind turbine down as it was installed a whole metre from where it should have been - to avoid ripping his chimney off methinks. Bet he wishes he'd waited a few months.

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Tuesday, April 03, 2007

One Brit's Carbon Footprint

Digging a little further into Chris Goodall's book, here is my best shot at a graphical representation of the average Brit's carbon footprint. Some people may surprised at the whacking great contributions from 'food' and 'the workplace' (assumed in my sums to be an office), and how small a carbon contribution you are addressing with your energy efficient light bulb.

Every time you see one of these breakdowns it will be a bit different as it depends on a whole pile of assumptions and decisions on how to allocate different emissions. For example, Goodall's figures include overseas freight for food, but only covers UK industrial emissions - so all those plastic products being made for us in China are deemed to belong to China, and all that whiskey the Scots distill for the US belongs to us...


Monday, April 02, 2007

Cow Burps Banished!

I've been away on a short break (only 40 miles from home, carbon counters), so just a quick look at recent news today:

With the news that the UK's greenhouse gas emissions rose 1.25% last year, German scientists claim that a new pill to reduce
cows' burping
is the way forward. Bovine wind apparently accounts for 4% of greenhouse gas emissions... well I never.

More seriously, the Energy Savings Trust has issued a 'Green Barometer' on public attitudes to climate change which shows the gap between concern and action isn't closing fast. You can read my views on it here.

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