Wednesday, 21 March 2007

What will the Chancellor do?

On Friday at the Church House Conference Centre, Westminster, the CIRIA/ DTI's Global Watch Mission reported back on their "Towards zero carbon housing - lessons from Northern Europe" visit and research. The principle behind this was to investigate the construction of housing in Sweden, Denmark & Germany, countries that have housing with annual energy consumption for space heating of well below 2,000 kWh and to feedback back the knowledge gained during the process into the UK. The mission members were varied in background however all had significant experience in different areas of construction - be it from a housing association, volume house builder etc. The extremely well attended event showed what a hot issue this is today in the UK.

What came clear to me from the report was that to achieve the requirements of the future we need a joined up solution that encompasses Passive House design, along with some new products and an improvement in our construction skills. On top of this we need local planners to have the time to receive the education to train them up on aspects of MMC, new technologies AND an adoption of both carrot and stick to push through more energy efficient homes.

So will the chancellor look at tax incentives for the adoption of energy efficiency in construction?and how about making it more beneficial to put power into the grid from households and thus make the pay-back time for new energy providing technologies shorter and more accessable for the masses?

I look forward to hearing if the Chancellor has listened to the findings from the DTI mission...

Sunday, 18 March 2007

Low Energy Light Bulbs - A more Balanced View

Following the lead of Australia, the EU is planning to outlaw the use of old-style filament light bulbs as early as 2008. On the surface, this edict to adopt low energy fluorescent devices looks a great way to reduce energy consumption worldwide. Some analysts claim a saving of 10% energy worldwide if this were adopted by the whole planet which is likely to save much more CO2 than any green generation schemes in a much smaller timescale.

However, my training as a chemical engineer tells me to look at the full environmental life cycle of any new product. Any fluorescent light uses mercury to produce the light as high voltage is applied to vaporise and excite the mercury atoms.

Mercury is particularly bad for the environment because it does not get destroyed and can cause catastrophic effects for the food chain, for example see this article.

Traditional filament bulbs use no mercury - so should we stop this inexorable move towards compact fluorescent bulbs (CFL's)?

In short, no, because the story isn't quite that simple. Ironically, the majority of mercury released into the atmosphere actually comes from burning fossil fuels. A US study found that a filament light bulb actually released over double the mercury into the atmosphere that a CFL did due to this indirect effect. The argument may be more marginal for countries such as France, where a high percentage of power is generated from nuclear.

Another welcome development is that some manufacturers, such as Phillips, are working the reduce the mercury content of the lamps they are producing.

The other thing to remember when you change your CFL after many years of saving the environment is not to toss it into the environment - CFL's are one of the many products subject to the EU's WEEE recycling scheme - the manufacturers are obliged to recycle the products.

Convinced now? If not, see this great video - short and well to the point.....

How many people does it take to make a difference?

A production of Tamarack Media. Concept by Florence Miller.

Friday, 16 March 2007

The Big Question!

With the blog race now behind us, the taste of champagne still on our lips, I can't help but ponder the greatest sustainability issues facing England this year. If fact one is unfolding in front of our eyes right now:

Can England sustain the form that made the Aussie's cry just a few weeks ago? A shaky start, but optimism is high as Anderson rips through the Kiwi top order.... The England cricket fan, a helpless victim of Variable ratio reward, is kept on the edge every game. Think of the glory, beer will flow, ugly blokes will get lucky, plasma screens saved from pelting beer cans.

Come on boys, make us proud!

Still to come, can England sustain the ultimate glory, the World Cup of Rugby Crown.

Thursday, 15 March 2007

Be Fair, Feel Good!

We have all heard of fair trade in our local supermarkets, if you haven't here is a quick intro...

The FAIRTRADE Mark is an independent consumer label which appears on products as an independent guarantee that disadvantaged producers in the developing world are getting a better deal. As always, Wikipedia hits the nail right on the head

So why buy these products? Lets take a look.

The story of Toledo Cocao Growers Association (TCGA) is a perfect example of how much Fair Trade makes a difference. The cooperative has about 126 members and is located in the Toledo region of Belize, which is the poorest in district in the country.

The Beginnings of TCGA The cooperative was formed in 1986 in order to yield higher prices, improve living conditions, and help farmers increase the quality of their cocoa. TCGA's cocoa is grown organically and under a canopy of shade trees including valuable timbers of mahogany, cedar and teak. Farmers also use sustainable methods such as composting and typically grow a diversity of other food crops among their cocoa. Organic production keeps the river water pesticide-free. The preserved shade canopy makes the area a good carbon sink and supports a wide variety of natural species, including at least 187 kinds of birds.

Until the early 1990s TCGA's farmers earned enough from their cocoa to buy clothes, basic necessities and a variety of foods. However, the price of cocoa was suddenly cut in half between 1992 and 1993, falling below the cost of production.

Fortunately, a chocolate company from the United Kingdom called Green and Black's offered a long-term contract for a stable supply of quality cocoa. They agreed to buy all the cocoa TCGA could produce at an above-market price. The cocoa was used to create Maya Gold Chocolate, which was introduced in March 1994 bearing the Fairtrade Mark, denoting Fair Trade certification in the UK. The long-term contracts Fair Trade offers have given the farmers the confidence to make long term plans to improve their production. Many who had abandoned their crops have now returned to their home communities to resume their traditional, sustainable lifestyles.

That was the first product in the UK to bear the mark, there are now 2000 but still the sales represent only 0.5-5% in their product catagories.

Take a look the latest newsletter , or better still, put a product in your trolley and feel good!

Wednesday, 14 March 2007

Why Sustainablogability?

When we first started this blog site it was to look at two aspects:

  • Would we be able, as complete novices, to put together and run a blog that would gather enough readership? and, more importantly,
  • To highlight the growing impact of the issue of sustainability in everyday life.
Since about the mid-1990s I've been increasingly aware in the business world of the growing interest in the topic of sustainability in the sense of ensuring that what we do has a minimised impact on the earth and is efficient in the use of energy and raw materials to achieve it.

In the early days it was the likes of Friends of the Earth and others that brought the issues of the planet to the fore however this area has grown to become more and more main stream as it jumped over the chasm and into the main stream with the likes of the Fortune sustainability rankings. Nowadays it would seem unforgivable for a company to put out their Annual Report without the use of the word sustainable in their CSR section if nowhere else.

I would argue it has now become unacceptable for companies not to at least point their investors at some of their sustainability projects/ developments. But in the cynical world in which we live one can certainly feel that some of the major corporations that publish their green credentials set themselves up when the reality does not match their marketing. If you are going to advertise yourself as green then one bad news story that runs contra to that message can ruin the thousands of dollars spent on image. A most recent example was BP; having gone through a significant greening campaign over the past years the oil spill in Alaska and the subsequent inquiries have undoubtedly gone along way to undo all the past CSR work.

So what does the corporate world do? Do we almost need a root and branch check of our processes and systems along the lines of a "Sarbanes-Oxley" for sustainability - help no! Companies that are in business for the long term have a reason to act in a sustainable way. We need to help the others to come to this conclusion through legislation and our own buying habits.

Tuesday, 13 March 2007

Conservatives Stubb out Climate Change?

These are strange times in which we live. Ray Stubbs, a former credible sports presenter, is singing karaoke in front of millions on Fame Academy. At the same time, David Cameron, the leader of the conservative party in the UK, is trying to get back into power by running counter to usual Tory philosophy and arguing for HIGHER taxes on airline fuel. In both cases, there seems a smack of desperation by trying to persuade an increasingly fickle public to vote for their particular approach. The fundamental problem with the conservatives' ideas is their complexity - each passenger will be allowed one short haul flight per year without the higher tax as well as an VAT exemption for business travel - but the bureaucracy required to manage the scheme will allow loopholes and dodges for the usual beneficiaries of such schemes (i.e. those with the money to outmanoeuvre the rules).

In fairness to the Tories, personal flight allowances are but one of several options being considered. But they should be taking their traditional stance and rather than meddling, should be looking to market based solutions such as carbon trading. This is one area where the Prime Minister elect, Gordon Brown, actually has stealt a march by publicising the idea of a World Carbon Trading market being based in London.

Sunday, 11 March 2007

The next unsociable habit?

Having drinks and then driving away in the car, second hand smoking... at one period of time all quite accepted behaviour however nowadays either illegal or at least frowned on social behaviour... Will our usage of energy in the future be so viewed?

Keeping up with Jones has been a quite typical past time in many countries - not only in the UK! However could we be about to see this extended in to monitoring of carbon footprints in the future? In the past an outward sign of "we're doing well" would be the number of cars parked on the drive and the size of their engines - this could well be reversed with the neighbour hiding his gas guzzling engine away in the garage rather than proudly polishing it on the drive at the weekend... In the winter time look to your neighbour's roof - if the snow's still sitting there then they have insulation if it comes off then obviously then do not... you can just imagine where this new one up man ship could go... "How much recycling do you do?" brings Neighbourhood Watch in to a whole new ball game! And think about those annual Xmas light competitions - will the behaviour picture about be acceptable?

Or is this all a fashion statement with the icons if the media tootling around in their Prius cars? My feeling is it is here to stay... In Italy the idea has caught on as households publish how good their energy efficiency rating was for their property .. with the home buyer's pack requirement coming in in the UK the need for the seller of the property to announce this in the future to all prospective buyers begins to give the householder a reason, other than "mere energy saving", to think about investing in insulation and other energy saving devices. In the past the owners may have thought they would not recoup their investment before they potentially move along the housing ladder this in the future means a quicker sale or better price.

No doubt when this does become the next big craze rather than just the minority investing in wind turbines and such like then we will all grumbling and moaning eventually catch up and maybe, just maybe, it will all become acceptable behaviour to think about energy usage or carbon footprint size as we decide our future actions.

Forget the sustainability of the Internet, can we sustain the planet for our own future?

The Sunday Times Magazine front cover shows the UK submerged by water entitled "Tomorrow's world".

It may not be the Paper vs Electronic debate that we concern ourselves with over the coming years but how to protect ourselves against droughts, floods and landslides.

Read for yourself here the full impact global warming could have.

Friday, 9 March 2007

Is the Internet sustainable?

The more successful the author the more trees that are felled, the more paper produced, the more books delivered - the more the environmental damaging potential? So is the internet the most sustainable tool for publishing and other areas of media?

At times in the world of work it would seem that some senior execs. still have to get the handle of how e-mails are supposed to work - i.e. their PAs print out their e-mails onto paper for them to read at their desks... On the other hand of late I have noticed an increased trend in companies' sign-off text in their e-mails asking readers to only print out this message if really necessary.

The other night on Radio 4 in the programme "Click On" during the explanation about data centres and about the requirement of large, secure power sources to supply the likes of Microsoft, Google etc. and the buildings and resources to house these networks and servers I began to think again about the above ideas...

So what's the more sustainable media form... your answers please... but not on a postcard!

(To listen to the show click here: "Click On Re-run"and select Listen to the latest edition - the item's about 15 minutes through.)

Thursday, 8 March 2007

Virgin Innovators

Sir Richard Branson, renowned entreprenuer with considerable interests in the travel and tourism industry has pledged $25m to the scientist who can create a solution to help the growing carbon crisis.

Do we really need an innovative solution? And if we get one, will it take years for businesses and people to adopt it?

There are 2 things that are high up on people’s priorities: money and convenience. We have fallen into a convenient trap and money talks. We like to be able to drive our cars to work, fly to Southampton and put the dishwasher on when it’s half full. And I’m sure if you introduced a carbon tax in the monthly pay packet or gave people cash incentives to “be green”, the reduction in emissions would be immediately noticeable.

You could invest the $25mn in smart meters for homes to show people the impact of their actions or in running an efficient public transport service with seats for everyone (now that is being ambitious!)

These are simple solutions to a problem we have created ourselves. That is not to say that there are not people with the capability of developing an all encompassing solution, however in the coming months and years why can we not be encouraged more to reduce the impact ourselves.

Wednesday, 7 March 2007

China looks to Sustainability Agenda?

It was glad tidings of joy I felt as Radio Four broadcasted sections of the Annual Report given by Mr Wen to the National People's Congress in China... it felt that at last the leadership of China was beginning to acknowledge on a senior level that China also faced serious sustainability issues. Not to be too naive then I'll wait to see what arises from this recent address to the nation but it certainly felt like the waking of a giant?

China is expected to bcome the biggest emitter of greenhouse gase in 2009 however the knock on effects of massive investments into heavy industry have already shown detrimental effects on the water and air conditions in the region - particularly along the coastal development areas. Can China learn from the lessons that we learned too late? How do we balance a "need" for development but at the same time take care of the planet?

Saturday, 3 March 2007

The power of the internet?

For those of you who have yet to see Al Gore & co's mini epic "An Inconvenient Truth" I can only recommend the viewing - however it does show that in this internet age the Al Gore's of this world might survive longer in the public arena than that other candidate ...

Website to view preview - click HERE

Grow your own house? Or happy hippy building blocks?

As promised I checked out Ecobuild last week - definate improvement on last year where sheep's wool was being promoted as the next best thing for insulation - although I did get to thinking about this one - if all the 13 million homes that were currently under-insulated moved to sheep's wool then firstly would we have the volume of sheep's wool to cope with this demand? Would it be a good promotion of sustainability to then use up even more land for grazing more sheep on? Would we even have sufficient room for all that many sheep - or would we have to import it from abroad...?

I was reminded of these thoughts as my eyes met the latest development on the sustainable building products being launched at Ecobuild - "Hemcrete" - yes, you've guessed it using hemp mixed with lime and binders to produced a combination of hemp and concrete for spraying onto walls. Now this might sound like a wind up but this is a serious product behind which a number of large organisations stand behind... As I researched into this I came across information this idea is not exactly new...whatever next...

On my travels last week one of the discussions I got caught up in was on the issue of carbon off-setting... (what an exciting life I lead, I know... ) what caught my attention was that the traditional offer of off-setting the carbon emissions brought about producing a certain product against tree planting was now perceived as environmentally unfriendly! Another pointed out that if we continued down this route then Britain would once again turn back into a highly tree dense land...

Friday, 2 March 2007

Do Smart Meters Reduce Energy Usage

Today's lecture talked about a disruptive technology where utilities usage is monitored and fed back to the user - imagine a graph on your TV, fed from the internet, which shows power usage (ammunition to use the washing line instead of the tumble dryer). What would be the further ramifications? Buying power from different suppliers depending on cost (marrying the Kelkoo model with the energy meter). Driving microgeneration technologies based on actual power sold back to the grid rather than the current hype around solar panels and wind turbines.

It's a way away but closer than we think - rather than saving energy per se, I believe it will be a co-enabler for other technologies to flourish or fall by the wayside.

If you want to read more, here's a great article from the BBC website. What do you all think?