Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Is switching a switch off?

Where to start? My Dad always told me to turn off the lights and save money, well I guess we need to look at switching things off to reduce our emissions. And wouldn't it be great if it saved us money as well. I mean a lot of the media sells the benefits of going green on that basis; save money AND save the planet. I know it's a good way to incentivise people to act but doesn't it also just encourage the kind of rational economic thinking that says I'm only going to save the planet if it saves me money. What if it's going to cost me money, what will I do then?

Anyway, looking at our household energy consumption seemed as good a place as any to begin our emissions reduction project. And after a few hours spent poring over a years worth of utility bills and searching out current meter readings I can announce the results of my household fuel consumption survey. I don't know if they are particularly good or bad, but they're a benchmark, our starting point. Our average annual electricity consumption is 5364 KWh and for gas we eat up 27250KWh (well that does include cooking, heating and hot water). Just typing those figures in I already feel a little guilty (those numbers look so big) and hear excuses in my head justifying our consumption (well, we're a big family, it's a big house and it's winter time).

Anyway, they are the scores on the doors. Now we have to figure out what we spend it on and how to cut it down. In one of his newsletters The Carbon Coach suggests starting your journey to greendom by switching your energy supplier to a green one, one who commits to generate or purchase the energy you consume from renewable sources, ie sources that do not generate carbon emissions - like hydroelectric, wind, solar or wave energy.

So I looked up the options on uswitch where I learned that if I switched from my current supplier to the cheapest available option I could save over £275 a year on my bills. Or I could stay with my current supplier and switch to their green tariff and save £0 except my conscience. Or better still I could switch to the wholly green good energy supplier, pay them an extra £131 per year and know that my energy was 100% green guaranteed. Now there's a dilemma I suspect we will come up against time and time again; that the clean, green option may not be a money saver, in fact it may cost us money. And with a financial disincentive going green feels that little bit harder, especially when you think of what you could do with an extra £275 in your wallet. Still it would probably only lead to further consumption in one form or another so to start with we're going switch to the green tariff with our existing supplier; I'm not ready to pay extra yet. And as for savings, we will be saving something like 1500kg of CO2 emissions annually.

What you never had you'll never miss, or so my mum always told me and I guess that will be true of the £275 savings I am not making. What worries us about the changes we may have to make in pursuit of reducing emissions is that we may end up missing things we do have.

Monday, January 30, 2006

As easy as offsetting?

I received a leaflet the other day from one of the big adventure travel companies trying to tempt me onto one of their exotic family adventure holidays. It looked and sounded great. If I'd had the time and money I'd have booked. What's more the literature said I could do in in style, go eco-friendly, low impact and carbon neutral by offsetting the carbon emissions from my long haul flight by by purchasing carbon offsets on the web from climate care.

So I looked them up and it all looks a great idea. With a few clicks I calculated I could ease my conscience for flying a family of five to South Africa for just £108.83. Not bad value for getting rid of 14.51 tonnes of CO2. Clicking a little further I found I could offset an average households car and home fuel emissions of 9.63 tonnes CO2 for a further £60.02, payable on the spot by credit card. In less than five minutes and for less than £200 I could have wiped out my annual carbon debt. Or so it seemed.

If only it were that easy. But it's clearly not the case. I'm sure climate care are a worthy organisation, doing their bit to help save the planet but it seems to me the only thing purchasing an offset is really going to reduce is my bank balance. Handing over my money is not going to make my emissions go away. If anything, it might make it all seem so easy, cheap and guilt free I might be tempted to make a few more. And even if my money is wisely invested in carbon sinks or some other technological wonder for carbon storage (as no doubt some of it would be), surely it's only storing up the problem for another day, when the trees decay and release my emissions back into the atmosphere creating a problem for my kids generation or beyond. Carbon offsetting may ease my concsience a little but it doesn't address the real problem of consumption. At best it just defers it, at worst it encourages us to carry on with business as usual.

So it's no thanks to that safari in South Africa and no thanks to climate care (but carrying on doing your good work). The real work is not offsetting emissions but not making them in the first place.

Excuses, excuses

Global warming is in the headlines again but headlines don't change behaviour. And if behaviour does not change then it seems pretty certain that we're doomed, climatically speaking. But is anyone really worried? You know worried enough to really do something about it?

The scientific community seems to have reached some kind of concensus about the need to limit emissions, recommending we should aim to stabilise atmospheric concentrations of CO2 at 450 parts per million or below. Yet even the governments top advisers seem to see this as unachievable. The BBC quotes Sir David King, speaking on Today, "But no country is going to turn off a power station which is providing much-desired energy for its population to tackle this problem - we have to accept that.... To aim for 450 (ppm) would, I am afraid, seem unfeasible."

So should we give up before we're even started? Perhaps 450ppm is a hard target, difficult, challenging, possibly even impossible, who knows, but should we really not aim for it, make at decent effort at trying to get there or is the future of the planet not really worth bothering about? I don't see why if the stakes are so high we should accept excuses, make excuses, give people an opt out before we even try to do something. Surely if we can increase our emissions in our lifetime we can reduce them too. Why can't progress mean going backwards? It's so easy to make excuses and just as easy to clutch at them as good reasons to do nothing. We do it everyday but it's got to stop. We're all in denial and it'll be the death of us. It's increasingly obvious where doing nothing or aiming low is going to lead. And it's not where I want to go... for me or my family. What about you?

Is the grass greener?

With government proposals for carbon rationing a radical but serious policy option, requiring year on year reductions in individual carbon emissions, we are planning our own family experiment to understand more about the reality of our own carbon footprint and see just what we can do to make month on month reductions in the emissions we are responsible for.

On this mission, our goal is to see if the grass is greener when you live a low carbon lifestyle and discover first hand the problems and difficulties of going carbon-lite in a carbon addicted society.

We intend to share the results of our experiment locally and globally through:
1) This regular blog, journalling the reality of making changes and how it affects family life.
2) Columns in local/regional newspapers summarising progress and highlighting issues.
3) Phone-in or interview appearances on Local or Community Radio to discuss how it is going.
4) Making written contributions, letters or columns in local/parish newsletters.
5) Establishing a community action group to discuss green issues, share tips and ideas, get support and encourage action.
6) Developing radio drama, performance and literary works based upon our experience and research.

Our experiment will involve:
a) Auditing current carbon emissions from all household energy and tranport use
b) Setting monthly targets for emissions reduction in line with likely government targets
c) Monitoring and reporting on household energy and transport usage
d) Educating ourselves and our children and changing family habits and behaviour to reduce carbon emissions
e) Researching and trying to implement other ways to reduce carbon footprints
f) Researching local and national government advice and programmes to support energy efficiency, carbon reduction and low emissions lifestyles
g) Speaking with experts about energy efficiency and green alternatives for energy, transport and living
h)Working to engage others in doing the same