Sunday, 21 December 2008

Teach your granny to text

My son discovered a fantastic book in Sainsbury's - Teach your Granny to Text from the marvellous We Are What We Do is a child's guide to changing the World. It's an indication of how well the book is pitched at its target audience that my eight year old homed in on it and insisted on buying it from his own money - a fairly rare occurrence.

It's not just an eco handbook - it also covers bullying, animal rights and other topics in keeping with We Are What We Do's central mission of changing the world for the better. It's funky, accessible and full of tear outs, make and do projects and stuff to get kids involved. After all, you're never too young to start.

Sunday, 14 December 2008

Top Gear Goes Green

The petrol heads at Top Gear are finally taking green cars seriously. James May positively drooled over the striking goods looks of the Tesla, the first electric car that looks properly desirable, even though it proved less than reliable on the track. It left the Elise for dead in a drag race and delivered a creditable lap time with the Stig, but broke down twice. And the 16 hour charging time is bound to be an inconvenience on a long journey.

The Honda Clarity, on the other hand, is a genuine breakthrough in automotive engineering. Powered by a hydrogen fuel cell it is effectively its own generator, and takes no longer to refuel - with compressed hydrogen - than a regular petrol car. And it looks - well, just like a normal saloon car, really. It may not be as fast or as sexy as the Tesla, but that's not the point. It actually looks like Honda might just have designed a regular car neither kills the planet nor requires us to make compromises.

Monday, 8 December 2008

Now I'm the fun police

I used to enjoy seeing all the Christmas lights on people's houses - when our son was very young he would be so excited by them and I would adjust my route to take us past the households that really made an effort. Now I just shake my head and fret about the wasted energy. This year I agonised over whether to put up our single row of icicle lights on the front of our house. In the end, we've put them up but used a timer so that they light briefly, at the right time of day to welcome us home. Our Christmas tree has its lights on a timer, too. Even so, I feel guilty about the energy we're using.

There are houses in our town that really go overboard with their Christmas lights, collecting money for charity from the people that come to see them. It's a kind gesture that gives pleasure, but perhaps its time to find another way to help. With energy so expensive, they could probably raise more for charity by just donating the amount they would have spent on powering the lights. On one level our lives would be a little poorer for not having the displays, but it's time for new thinking.

Our son is eight now, and pretty well informed on environmental issues. I'm sure I could explain to him that our Christmas lights are no longer a good idea and he'd understand. But it would make me feel like I'm stealing some of the fun from his childhood. And I don't think I can do that until I can find another kind of fun to put in its place.

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

David Kennedy at Green Monday

David Kennedy - the chief executive of the independent committee on climate change - addressed Green Monday last night. Yesterday, his committee has unveiled a new report on carbon budgets, designed to support the commitments of the new Climate Change Act. The report recommends that the UK should unilaterally aim to reduce greenhouse gas emissions - not just CO2 - by 34% by 2020 (compared to 1990 levels). In the event of a global deal on greenhouse gas reduction being reached, this would increase to 42%.

This follows on from the release of an interim report on October 8th which called for an 80% reduction in all greenhouse gases by 2050, to include shipping and aviation.

David believes we can meet these ambitious targets, without adversely affecting quality of life, largely through better energy efficiency and energy management. In terms of power generation there are two scenarios. The first is primarily via renewables; the second through fewer renewables but increased nuclear power. Carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) is not an option during the 15 year timescale, because of time to market. This raises the question of whether we should continue to invest in coal fired power plants during the intervening period. The committee’s recommendation is yes, as long as the plants are designed for CCS to be retrofitted.

In order to achieve these targets, both corporate change and culture change are required. We need to change our behaviour, make more considered purchasing decisions and do things more efficiently. The anticipated cost is between 0.5 and 0.8% of GDP - around one third of the recent cost of bailing out the UK banking system. It’s not a large amount and, as the Stern review pointed out, the cost of doing nothing is much,much more.

Sunday, 30 November 2008

Green Christmas Gifts

For the traveller: Recycled Travel Journal from

For the bathroom-hog: Frog Shower Timer from

For the comfort queen: Naked In The Meadow gift set from

For the little one: Organic cotton Lion Rattle from

For the green goddess: The Little Green Book of Beauty from

For the wildlife lover: Elephant Dung Paper Notebook from

For the kids: Santa wind-up or shake torch from

For the fashionista: Funky gear from

For somebody who has everything: Watering can donation from

And why not use Christmas tags that turn back into trees - Plantable Holiday Gift Tags from

Want to marry? Plant a tree!

According to the The Red Carpet Blog, some communities in Indonesia have introduced novel measures to combat deforestation. In Malalo village in West Sumatra Province, ancient tradition has a couple plant two trees before getting married. Steps are now being taken to enshrine this act in legislation. Now Balikpapan city in East Kalimantan, Indonesia, has decreed that before a couple can secure the recommendation letter required to get married, they too must plant a tree seedling.

Data shows that forest area in Indonesia has decreased from 162 million hectares to 98 million hectares in the 50 years up to 1996. The problem is compounded by illegal logging, forest fire and widespread corruption in forestry industry.

Friday, 28 November 2008

Stuff Your Rucksack

A great idea for travellers: provides information on equipment wanted by charities and other worthy causes at your destination.

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Solar cemetary

Santa Coloma de Gramanet, near Barcelona, has found an unusual place to generate renewable energy - it has placed 462 solar panels over its multi-storey mausoleums. The panels will create enough energy each year to supply the needs of 60 homes.

The cemetery was chosen for the project because it is one of only a few open, sunny places in the city, which has a population of 124,000 crammed into 4 sq km (1.5 sq miles). The installation cost 720,000 euros (£608,000) but will keep about 62 tonnes of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere every year

Santa Coloma de Gramanet has four other solar parks, mostly on top of buildings, but the cemetery is by far the largest. The full story can be found on the BBC website.

Monday, 24 November 2008

Train trouble

I want to travel by train, I really do, but they don’t make it easy for me. Travelling to North Wales this weekend began with a Friday afternoon Cross Country service to Stafford - a journey of about two hours. The train was late arriving in Reading and it soon became apparent that the reason for the delay was that the train was so full that passengers couldn’t get on within the scheduled stopping time at the stations. We had reserved seats in advance but to get to them we had to pass through a solid wall of people and luggage which had nowhere to go.

Inevitably, my son needed the toilet during the journey. We clambered through the carriage in one direction only to find that somebody had locked themselves in at Reading and despite much banging on the door was refusing to yield to needy passengers. So the only option was to repeat the ordeal in the other direction. Moving through the train was so difficult we decided to leave our seats at the previous station to ensure we had time to reach the door before our stop.

I assumed at first that this was an unusual situation caused by some unforeseen event, but no. Fellow travellers told me they use the service regularly and it’s always the same. The train is woefully inadequate - too short for the volume of traffic and with no luggage facilities to speak of, despite an itinerary that crosses half of England and links several large cities.

Inevitably the delays increased throughout the journey and we missed our first connection so our journey had to replanned along the way, causing much stress and delay. The journey back was even worse - we couldn't get on the train at all. In fairness to Arriva and Virgin the other sections of our trip were perfectly acceptable, but the damage is done. If I have to make that journey again, I'll take the car rather than trust Cross Country Trains to get me there.

It was reported this weekend that fares are to go up by 8% next year. If the objective is really to get more people off the roads and onto public transport, it’s the standard of service, not the fares, that should be increased.

Friday, 21 November 2008

Water from thin air

A new office water cooler uses technology developed by the American military for the desert to draw moisture from the air and turn it into drinking water. The O2 water cooler was developed by 1st4thirst in Slough to offer an alternative to bottled water in locations where a mains water supply isn’t available for a plumbed-in unit.

The units are being trialled at a factory in Slough, where they are able to be moved to any point in the production line on demand.

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Low-cost electric car mooted

An amateur inventor from my home town has developed plans for the world’s cheapest electric car. Reading-based Graham North plans to sell the car through supermarkets as he believes car dealers are too closely connected to the oil market to provide sufficient focus. The Mass-EV is designed to be charged at home and will have a range of 100 miles, with a spec similar to the Focus C-Max. It would cost just £7,000.

Graham helped develop an electric car for a company in Hampshire but now wishes to go into business himself. He is currently trying to raise funding of £100,000 to build the prototype, and around £1m to go into production. His plans are at

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

First Climate Change Refugees

According to an article on Treehugger, the first climate change refugees have begun to evacuate from the Carteret Islands in Papua New Guinea. The islanders have battled for more than two decades against the rising ocean, building sea walls and planting mangroves. However, storm surges and high tides continue to wash away homes, destroy vegetable gardens, and contaminate fresh water supplies. Three years ago the Papua New Guinean government authorised the evacuation of the islanders to nearby Bougainville, 10 families at a time. But the evacuation has not been able to start earlier because of a lack of funds - the evacuation will take six years and cost millions of dollars, which the islanders have to raise themselves.

Waters around the atoll have risen 10 centimetres in the past 20 years. This might not sound significant, but the total land area is only 0.6 square kilometres and maximum elevation is only 1.2 metres above sea level. It has been estimated that the Carteret Islands could be largely submerged and entirely uninhabitableby 2015. About a third of the 2,000 Carterets Islanders have apparently refused to be relocated, but in early 2009 the first 40 families will begin the exodus. A group called Tulele Peisa ("riding the waves on our own") has been founded by Carteret Island resident Ursula Rakova to drive the fundraising effort.

Take a look at the videos and photos about the plight of the islanders by independent film maker Pip Starr.

Monday, 17 November 2008

WWF Living Planet Report 2008

The WWF Living Planet report 2008 has been published, and provides a sobering reminder that the current economic crisis could pale into insignificance besides the consquences of continuing to live beyond our planet's resources. I found one page particularly poignant - it contrasts the ecological creditors and debtors from 1961 with the present day. I was born in 1961 so this really brings home to me the fact that so much harm has been done in my lifetime.

Debtor countries have an ecological footprint larger than their own biocapacity, and creditors exist within the limits of their biocapacity. Back in 1961 ecological creditors included the USA whose biocapacity was considered to be 50-100% larger than its ecological footprint; today its ecological footprint is considered to be 50-100% larger than its biocapacity. Other countries that have moved from ecological credit to debt include China (now at a deficit of 100 - 150%), eastern Europe and most of north Africa.

Humanity’s demand on the planet’s living resources now exceeds the planet’s regenerative capacity by about 30 per cent and at current rate of increase we will need two planets to support the World's population by the early 2030s. Despite these shocking statistics, WWF concludes that a sustainable world is not an unachievable goal: the solutions are there before us and within
our grasp given the personal and political commitment of individuals.

Friday, 14 November 2008

Earth from the Air

I was invited by the lovely people at Best Foot Forward to an event at Oxford Castle, where the Earth from the Air exhibition is currently located. The exhibition is a triumph. Stunning photos of both natural and man made scenes, presented alongside poignant facts about our impact on the planet. The exhibition is at Oxford until 11th January 2009, presented in the open air and totally free of charge.

The associated website is well worth a visit, although it has less impact than the enlarged photos and not all of them are included there. There are free ecards, mounted prints to buy and educational resources. Lots of relevant links and addresses, too.

This is a fantastic body of work in its own right, but it's given extra resonance by its mission to inform, inspire and educate. The courtyard of Oxford Castle provides an evocative backdrop, too. Just beautiful.

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Poppies or planet?

In an astonishing act of environmental hooliganism, a million poppies were today dropped over the QE2 to say farewell to the ship which is being decommissioned to begin a new lease of life as a floating hotel in Dubai. Whilst we should of course honour those killed in combat, this seems like a ludicrous way to do it - quite apart from the waste of making a million poppies to create a spectacle lasting onlya few seconds, what about the pollution they will cause in The Solent?

It's astonishing that nobody involved in planning this event seems to questioned the wisdom of the act.

Monday, 3 November 2008

Formula One vs Formula Zero

Whilst I wouldn't want to take anything away from Lewis Hamilton's achievement, I do have issues with Formula One. I know that its advocates would cite its innovation into relevant technologies like fuel efficiency, but it's hard to imagine a more profligate use of fossil fuel.

Formula Zero, on the other hand, is a zero emission racing series powered by hydrogen fuel cell technology. Launched in August 2008, it already operates the world's first championship for hydrogen fuel cell-powered vehicles and, as the technology and commercial interest develop, it plans to scale up to full size racing by 2015. It's supported by the FiA's Alternative Energy Commission, and will only use renewable hydrogen sources.

Six teams from international universities are taking part in the inaugural Formula Zero Championship, including one from Imperial College, London, called Imperial Racing Green. The first race took place in Rotterdam in August 2008 and further races are planned in South Carolina, USA and London. Could this be the future of motorsport?

Thursday, 30 October 2008

PAS2050 standard published

Businesses can from today assess the carbon footprint of their goods and services and play a greater part in fighting climate change, thanks to a new standard launched by BSI British Standards, the Carbon Trust and Defra.
The standard – called PAS2050 – is a consistent way of counting the greenhouse gas emissions embedded in goods and services throughout their entire life cycle – from sourcing raw materials, through to manufacture, distribution, use and disposal.
The aim of the new standard is to help businesses move beyond managing the emissions in their own processes and to look at the opportunities for reducing emissions in the design, manufacture and supply of products. This will then help businesses make goods or services which are less carbon intensive and ultimately develop new products with lower carbon footprints.
The Carbon Trust has already piloted PAS 2050 with 75 product ranges across a wide range of companies including PepsiCo, Boots, Innocent, Tesco, Cadbury, Halifax, Coca Cola, Kimberly Clark, The Co-operative Group, Scottish & Newcastle, Coors Brewers, Müller, British Sugar, Sainsbury’s, Danone and Morphy Richards.
Some of the results include:
For its Botanics shampoo, Boots has redesigned its logistics network so that products could be delivered direct to stores, reducing road miles and packaging. This alone has reduced the carbon footprint of making the shampoo by 10 per cent.
By working with one of its suppliers, Innocent helped identify an opportunity for the supplier to set up a group of employees to look at how they could increase the amount of waste materials being recycled throughout the factory. In the first month, waste to landfill was reduced by 15 per cent, and within six months the reduction reached 54 per cent.
Defra has also carried out research testing of the PAS on up to 100 food products through their production, manufacture and distribution and is studying the greenhouse gas impacts of food preparation and consumption in the home.
Critics say that the PAS2050 standard is unneccessarily complex and that this will make it uneconomic to apply across the entire range of a company's product output. If you want to assess the benefit of PAS2050 to your own organisation, you can dowload it free of charge here together with a guide to its use.

Monday, 27 October 2008

Staff skeptical about green

According to a recent survey of 1,200 staff by recruitment firm Office Angels, most office workers don't believe that the small green steps they take themselves will make any difference to global warming. The research also found that only a third of UK offices have green policies in place, and 25% have appointed green crusaders among their staff. Marketing workers are the most likely to become involved in environmental initiatives at work, and HR staff the least likely.

Is the enthusiasm of marketing staff driven by their awareness of the commercial benefits that can be gained by publicising the green initiatives once they have been carried out, or their closer connection to the media and the hot topics of the day? Either way, it's good to see that marketers are leading the way.

Tuesday, 21 October 2008

Zac Goldsmith at the launch of EcoConnect

A good showing at tonight's launch of cleantech network EcoConnect, encouraged no doubt by the presence of Zac Goldsmith. His address was brief, witty and to the point - and, by his own admission, less depressing than the editorial content of The Ecologist. Departing from the political convention of grouping ideas in threes, he began by highlighting two key points about sustainable technology. The first was, rather surprisingly, that it's not really about climate change, but rather the depletion of resources, from fossil fuel to food, which should be compelling even to those who remain unconvinced by the science. The second was that this represents an unparalled opportunity, a point which has clearly not escaped those present.

Moving on, he offered four solutions. Our economic systems must learn to value the environment. Our leaders must match rhetoric with action. Taxation must be relevant and transparent - and here he cited the futility of vehicle duty changes that penalise people for historic purchases rather than taxing gas guzzlers at the point of purchase. And finally we must recognise that sustainability is about more than carbon, we need to reconnect with the natural environment in order to understand our relationship with it and address our impacts on it.

His closing point was that far from being overwhelmed by the scale of the problem, we should be encouraged by the fact that if we take best practice in each sector now and make it the norm tomorrow, we're half way to success. Judging by the buzz at EcoConnect, that seems a realistic aim.

Monday, 20 October 2008

Turn it off, Honda!

It's a little thing but it's really bugging me. Honda has a new showroom that has just been built between my office and my home. It's all finished but still empty and has been for weeks. Yet every evening when I drive past all the lights are on. What a waste of energy!

Now, it's probably not Honda's fault - I'm guessing the contractors or property agents have left the lights on by accident. But their brand is not visible and the building has Honda emblazoned on it - so it's their brand that is being damaged by association with this act of environmental negligence.

Either nobody has told them yet, or they don't care. Anyway, I'm off to find a contact from their website and see if I can get the lights turned off.

Sunday, 19 October 2008

In praise of libraries

I rejoined our local library today. I'm ashamed to say it was my son's idea - his drama teacher had sent him there to find a script. I used to use the library all the time but somehow got out of the habit. It was great to rediscover the joy of browsing the shelves looking for titles that might appeal - and the fact that you can borrow makes you far more likely to take a chance and discover a new author or genre that you would never have considered if you had to buy. Ebooks are all very well, but I find there's something very satisfying about handling books, which ebooks just don't deliver.

If, like me, you tend to read a book just once, borrowing from the library makes much more sense than buying, both financially and environmentally. Go on, check out your local library - I'm definitely a convert.

Thursday, 16 October 2008

Do we still need a Green party?

Amid all the chaos and uncertainty caused by current global economic troubles,
energy and climate change secretary Ed Miliband yesterday committed the UK to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050, overturning the previous target of 60%. Miliband also stressed that the government would not be distracted by current economic conditions: "In tough economic times, some people will ask whether we should retreat from our climate change objectives. In our view, it would be quite wrong to row back, and those who say we should misunderstand the relationship between the economic and environmental tasks we face".

Miliband also announced an amendment to the energy bill to allowing small-scale energy producers such as homes with wind turbines or solar panels to sell electricity to the grid at a guaranteed price. A similar strategy has helped Germany to create a huge solar industry. A full report of Miliband's speech is here.

So, as the establishment finally embraces the need for urgent action to combat climate crisis, is there still a place for a Green party in British politics?

Commentators at recent green events I've attended have emphasised the importance of mainstreaming green issues if we are to achieve the critical mass required to achieve the required reductions in greenhouse gases. Having a separate political party dedicated to green issues can only perpetuate the misconception that somebody other than the population at large is responsible for addressing the problem.

Sunday, 12 October 2008

Melting ice caps threaten arctic foxes

A recent study by researchers from the University of Alaska Fairbanks has found that arctic foxes may be just as threatened as polar bears by reduced access to sea ice. They tracked fourteen foxes as they endured their first arctic winter, and only three survived - by spending five months travelling for 3,000 miles across frozen sea ice and scavenging seal carcasses left by polar bears. None of the 11 foxes that remained on the mainland survived.

The researchers were surprised that the foxes spent so long on sea ice but concluded that their odessy is essential to find food to sustain them through the winter. Sea ice is expected to reach record low levels this winter, making it harder for the foxes to travel and potentially leading to lower survival rates. There is also the risk of increased conflict with humans, as the foxes search for food near settlements.

Saturday, 11 October 2008

Solar pioneer in the heart of oil country

The heart of the oil-fuelled middle east is an unlikely place to find a solar pioneer, but the tiny emirate of Ras Al-Khaimah is just that. Through collaboration with Swiss engineering company CSEM, RAK (as it's known by its residents) is planning a remarkable project which could have major implications for global energy supplies. The idea is to create floating islands of solar panels, and an 87m-diameter prototype is already under construction. Due for completion in 2009, the prototype is the first step towards a 1.6km-diameter solar island capable of generating 360GW hours annually.

The concept employs a plastic membrane stretched over a floating pontoon, resembling a giant trampoline. Banks of solar mirrors track the sun to reflect its rays onto pipes where water is superheated to create steam and thereby generate energy. With 350 days of guaranteed sunshine and calm coastline, RAK is considered an ideal site - raising the unlikely prospect that this tiny emirate could become an exporter of renewable energy.

Thursday, 9 October 2008

Something old, something new

I loved the story in Metro this week about the bride and groom who paid for their honeymoon flight with rubbish. They spent three months picking up 60,000 items of litter and taking it to their local Tesco store to claim one Club Card point for every four items they recycled. By converting the Club Card points to 36,000 air miles they paid for their BA flight from Atlanta Georgia to Gatwick at the end of their honeymoon touring the United States - having sailed there on Queen Mary 2.

I wonder if they offset the carbon for the flight?

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

Richard Barrington on scale

The final keynote at October's Green Monday was Richard Barrington, ex Sun, who began with the intriguing revelation that the reason Sun initially engaged with climate change was because its HQ is only 1m above sea level and the business deemed that global warming presented a corporate risk. The close proximity of the San Andreas fault, however, is not considered to pose an equal threat.

Richard's view is that seismic shifts are needed to effect the changes we need in global consumption patterns. They key to this is dematerialisation, with products giving way to services, and new business models along these lines are already being developed. But conventional thinking on intellectual capital won't allow us to achieve sufficient scale quickly enough.

An "open source" approach is needed to create the momentum for a new technology to spread with sufficient speed, similar to how Java has become so ubiquitous that Richard estimated every member of the audience had 3 pieces of Java on them.

There are already some good examples of the power of open source - Curriki being one. This online information resource (another project which originated at Sun) provides disadvantaged teachers and students around the globe with open access to high-quality educational materials, challenging the vested interests in education. This collaborative approach, with people freely sharing their knowledge, is rare in the commercial world, but in my experience the one place it's currently thriving is in sustainability circles. It's heartening to see how willing people are to share their knowledge and expertise on this topic.

But to really effect the change we need, the new technologies we develop must be substitutional, not additional. As Richard pointed out, commentators feared that the emergence of Amazon would kill books because we'd all download the texts. That didn't happen, and book sales are higher than ever.

His ultimate conclusion was that we have no choice but to embrace the new world order because our challenge is about survival of the species; the planet will take care of itself, and may do a better job without us.

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

Sir David King at Green Monday

The second keynote at this month's Green Monday provided much food for thought. Sir David King agreed with Jon Williams that population growth is a key challenge, fuelled by life expectancy increasing from 45 to nearly 80. Not only that but urbanisation means that these people will have increasingly higher aspirations, and that has to be balanced against the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. An 80% reduction is needed on average, so the change must be transformational, not incremental.

Energy is seen as a basic freedom but decarbonisation of the economy is essential, and necessity is the mother of invention. We will find ways but it will proably be the private sector that seizes the opportunity. As an example, if we only converted one 10,000th of the sun’s energy to power we would have enough to sustain a population of 9billion.

If we fail to accept the challenge of decarbonisation, the great powers will battle for resources. Sir David King considers that the Iraq war may have been the first example of this. The cost of that conflict is estimated at $3 trillion. It’s estimated that the global emissions trading scheme which emerged from Kyoto will be worth $1 trillion when it first goes global. If the US government had invested in finding alternative energy sources rather than going to war over oil, then we could be in a very different place now.

We need visionary leadership from the great powers, and we need them to mainstream climate issues. It's not about making freestanding speeches about climate change, but making climate part of every speech as a key part of government strategy.

Monday, 6 October 2008

Jon Williams on living beyond our means

Three great keynotes at this month's Green Monday, the first from Jon Williams, former partner for sustainability and climate change at PwC and now a consultant on such matters. His provocation was that both the credit crunch and climate crisis arise from living beyond our means; in one case economically and the other ecologically. We simply don't have the resources on our planet to live in the manner to which we have become accustomed. Even less so when you take into account the effect of population increasing to 9 billion by 2050 and the additional pressure placed on natural resources by urbanisation and wealth creation. In fact, he posited that climate change could the next sub-prime crisis.

The problem is that when global warming reaches the same degree of crisis that provoked this global economic meltdown, there will be no prospect of recovery. Economic cycles are relatively brief and, whilst many may suffer genuine hardship, we all understand that if we can weather the financial storm it will pass in a few years and equilibrium will be re-established.

Somehow we need to harness the kind of hysteria which is generated by current financial fears and transfer it to climate and population issues. Because once the planet is bankrupt, there really is no going back.

Shame on Starbucks

Funny how things happen. I was sitting on the tube, reading John Grant's appraisal of Starbucks' Welcome to Evergreen campaign in The Green Marketing Manifesto when I looked up and saw the headline of the newspaper being read across the aisle. The lead story was about Starbucks wasting millions of gallons of water every day by leaving taps running as policy in its coffee shops. Worse still, staff don't seem to be aware of the reason why this should be necessary - which is allegedly something to do with preventing a build-up of bacteria in the tap.

How can a big brand like Starbucks make such a massive misjudgement, that risks undermining all the other apparently credible social and environmental projects it's undertaking? Its a perfect example of how the activities of one department can conflict with those of another if care is not taken to ensure that policies on key issues are not communicated clearly and consistently throughout an organisation.

Friday, 3 October 2008

First Friday

I was asked to give a brief address at a new networking event called First Friday. Nerve racking for me, but I'm keen to accept any invitation that allows me to raise awareness of green issues in business. Luckily they were a friendly crowd, and it seems my attempt to generate some debate actually stimulated some genuine concern.

Most of the people I spoke to had no idea that initiatives like the Carbon Reduction Commitment would cause them financial pain if they didn't get their houses in order, and were still thinking that an environmental policy is largely about demonstrating to customers that they're doing the right thing. But in today's difficult economic environment, the potential savings to be gained from cutting waste present an even more compelling argument.

Some days it really does feel like I'm making a difference.

Thursday, 2 October 2008

Government buildings come bottom for energy efficiency

In a survey published today, two of London's most famous landmarks were exposed as some of the least energy-efficient public buildings in the country. From this month, all public buildings over 1,000 square metres have to display an energy certificate recording their annual CO2 emissions. Rankings between A and G are awarded for energy efficiency, in the same way as for white goods.

The Houses and Parliament and the Bank of England both score G, and between them emit over 21,000 tonnes of CO2 per year - the equivalent of 14,000 people flying between London and New York. In fact, only 1% of buildings achieved A rating, and the Department of the Environment's headquarters only scored E.

This initiative should be useful as a means of highlighting the issue of carbon emissions from public buildings, but I hope it doesn't lead to calls for old, wasteful buildings to be bulldozed to allow new, energy-efficient buildings to take their place. Quite apart from their aesthetic value, conserving an old building is usually more sustainable than replacing it with a new one. And modernity is no guarantee of sustainability either - City Hall scores E despite having opened only in 2002. The Guardian has the full story here.

Wednesday, 1 October 2008

Sustainable procurement

A big talking day for me today - a one hour talk, repeated twice, to the Sustainable Procurement Conference. My topic was employee engagement and how it's not sufficient to purchase environmentally preferable equipment; you also need to change working practices to ensure that it delivers the maximum environmental gain. Changing habits, of course, is not an easy thing to do.

A very satisfying day, as it turns out - we had to bring in extra chairs for the morning session and both audiences displayed a very gratifying level of engagement with the topic. Some very animated and productive conversations took place at the end of each session, and overall there was a great deal of positive energy. I really think this would not have been the case only a year ago - the people I was talking to then were a lot less receptive. If we can keep this momentum going, we have a really good chance of making the changes that are necessary to mitigate the effects of climate crisis.

Tuesday, 30 September 2008

New tidar power project for Scotland

Massive new tidal turbines could be operational at three undersea sites around Scotland by 2011, according to a report in The Times. ScottishPower Renewables has identified the Pentland Firth, the Sound of Islay, and the North Antrim coast off Northern Ireland as the most suitable sites for the underwater turbines. Each location will have between five and 20 1MW machines which could lead to a combined output of 60MW - enough to meet the energy needs of 40,000 homes.

Tidal turbines are described as similar to wind turbines but with much shorter blades which turn more slowly. They are anchored to the sea bed and aligned to the tidal flow. The UK has almost a 10 per cent share of the global tidal power resource, representing 13bn kilowatt-hours. More than 80 per cent of the potential is located in Scottish waters.

Monday, 29 September 2008

Tracking carbon footprints by phone

A fascinating story in today's Guardian about an application that automatically tracks your movements via your mobile phone and uses the data to calculate your carbon footprint. Carbon Diem's inventor, Andreas Zachariah, a graduate student of the Royal College of Art in London and chief executive of the appealingly-named Carbon Hero company.

Carbon Diem is the world's first automated carbon calculator. It uses GPS to measure the speed and pattern of movement, using an algorithm to identify the mode of transport being used. It can therefore calculate the amount of carbon dioxide that a journey has emitted and keep a constantly updated diary of a person's carbon emissions, without any need for input from the traveller. As a result, a user can easily track their environmental impact and, if they choose, modify their behaviour to lower-carbon alternatives.

It's a great idea, but I wonder how it tells the difference between walking and crawling along in a traffic jam? And it may be difficult to track journeys made by tube when no signal is available underground. But anything which makes monitoring environmental impact easier for the user can only be a step forward.

Sunday, 28 September 2008

Largest consumers of electricity

According to the Guinness Book of Records 2009, the United States is the biggest consumer of electricity in the World. The USA used over 3.7 billion KWH in 2005, almost a quarter of the total 16.3 billion KWH consumed Worldwide that year. This equates to 12.343 KWH per person.

Surprisingly, though, the Americans aren't the biggest per capita users of electricity - that "honour" goes to Icelanders, who used an astonishing 26,101 KWH per person in 2005.

Friday, 26 September 2008

Greening the city

The 39th floor of a glass tower in docklands is perhaps not the most obvious venue for a debate on sustainability but it was quite an eye opener. For example, it was sobering to hear that the price of carbon is widely expected to reach 40 Euros within the next few years - resulting in bills of billions for large businesses. But that's not nearly so alarming as the view that the current economic meltdown has pushed sustainability off the radar for most blue chip companies.

Economic crises come and go, but irreversible changes in the planet's balance are happening now and will continue to happen irrespective of share prices and interest rates. And companies without carbon abatement programmes are simply burning money - increasingly so, as energy prices rise. This is no time to take our eye off the ball.

For the most part, though, the speakers at the Boardroom Edge-backed event presented compelling and well-formed arguments to support the greening of business, not merely for altruistic tree-hugging reasons but because it makes good commercial sense. It helps us to run leaner businesses, attract the best talent and compete more effectively. It finally seems that carbon is firmly on the corporate agenda, and this time for sound commercial reasons. Now the challenge is to dismantle the conventional business structures so we don't have to occupy huge glass monoliths in order to demonstrate the size and stability of our businesses.

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Greening the channel

I work for a technology company and our channel to market is through IT distributors and then resellers. It's an ongoing dilemma for us that our whilst our product is designed to offer sustainability benefits, it might be resold by companies which don't have a carbon abatement policy. But to restrict our channel only to resellers with green credentials would not be commercially sustainable. Today, I had the opportunity to meet with resellers at the Reseller Leadership Forum run by CRN magazine.

First observation is that the interactive session on sustainability was not so well attended as the others running simultaneously with it - perhaps an indication that the channel's engagement with the issue is lagging behind that of the organisations they supply. Second observation is that if this is the case, the resellers who do engage with the issue stand to benefit hugely because they will little competition. And final thought is that if refresh cycles for hardware become longer - as many of us expect - then resellers will be forced to face up to the fact that they need create new revenue streams to replace this lost income. Services around balanced device deployment, energy management and paper-free document solutions are natural choices.

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Simple carbon calculator

We made a simple carbon calculator to work out how much CO2 we saved by not bringing our cars to work on Monday - this could be useful to others so if you'd like a copy, leave me a comment or drop me a message. It's just a simple excel sheet with some average carbon values set up; you enter the number of miles against the intersection of the relevant modes of transport and it works out the CO2 saving.

Monday, 22 September 2008

In Town Without My Car Day

My company took part in In Town Without My Car Day today, organised by our local council as part of European Mobility Week. The idea is you try to avoid bringing your car to work and explore alternative means of transport. Bus fares have been reduced for the day to encourage more people to use public transport, and buses from the "park and ride" scheme are free.

I have been impressed by the number of people who have entered into the spirit of this, especially one colleague who spent more on a train ticket than she spends on petrol for the entire week normally, to make a journey which started and 6.30 am and took twice as long as driving! There are plenty of bikes parked in our lobby, too. Altogether, half the 48 people who came to our office today did so without using their car - and we saved as much CO2 as a 32inch TV would create if used for two hours per day for three years, about 75Kg.

Today's event is a great way to draw attention to the fact that it is possible to leave your car at home, but I'm not sure that anybody found their journey either quicker or cheaper by public transport. Bus fares here are pretty high and the service fairly patchy. I doubt whether many people will continue to travel in the way they did today - but at least it gets the debate going.

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

No, seriously, I don't want a bag!

Taking the train to London today for a conference, I found the coffee machine broken at the snack bar on the platform and had to buy coffee on the train. I refused a bag but the buffet manager refused to let me take the coffee away from the counter unless it was in a paper bag - his reasoning being that "if you spill it on somebody, we'll get sued". This kind of response is very frustrating when you're trying to reduce the amount of packaging you use - and doesn't make a whole lot of sense either. Nobody minds you bringing the coffee you buy from the platform snack bar on to the train without a bag - or, indeed, drinking it standing up (because of course you can never get a seat). I would prefer to be served fairtrade coffee in a china cup, but you're a captive audience on public transport. And I've yet to find a single-serving coffee-to-go container that doesn't leak.

On the plus side, though, my cranberry and pecan nut flapjack from the quaintly-named Honeybuns came in a package where the printed inner was designed to be re-used as a bookmark. Nice touch.

So, that's Honeybuns 1, First Great Western 0.

Friday, 12 September 2008

Wells for India

I was fortunate yesterday to be invited to Ufton Court, an educational resource near Reading, for an open evening on the subject of education and sustainability. Among the many excellent exhbits, I was touched by the work of Wells for India. It's a tiny charity, with just one and a half full time staff supported by volunteers, yet in its last financial year it raised and invested around £400,000 in projects to bring water to the people of rural Rajasthan.

Water poverty is already a serious problem in areas like the Thar Desert, but could be greatly exacerbated by the effects of climate crisis. The actions of groups like Wells for India make a real and lasting difference, by giving people the tools and resources to create solutions that will secure their water supply for years to come.

Thursday, 11 September 2008

Free cash for UK greentech SMEs

Shell Springboard is offering grants of up to £40,000 for small UK businesses with viable carbon-busting technologies. Closing date for applications is 7th November 2008.

Since 2005, Shell Springboard has attracted over 500 applications from small business owners throughout the UK. 75 businesses have meet with regional judging panels and 25 of those have been supported with funds. You can read some of their stories here.

Shell comes in for a lot of criticism, much of it justified, and we could be forgiven for labelling this activity window-dressing. Certainly the investment is a drop in the ocean compared with Shell's annual profits. But without their support, some of these small businesses would not have had the funding to grow, and might not have survived the first difficult years of trading. So, credit where it's due - and the best of luck to all those competing for this year's award.

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

Prof. John Beddington at Green Monday

I spent a most enjoyable evening at Green Monday, the monthly networking event organised by the 2degrees network and Green Business Events. Keynote speaker was Professor John Beddington, the goverment's Chief Scientific Advisor. Surprisingly, he talked less about green issues than about urbanisation and food security, although it soon became clear that these issues are closely connected with climate crisis.

Currently, 47% of the World's population lives in an urban environment, and this is expected to increase to 60% by 2030. Meanwhile, the population is increasing by 6 million people per month and migration from rural to urban areas is increasing fastest in the developing world (in fact, migration from urban to rural is the rule in many developed countries). This is partly driven by changing rainfall patterns, which have caused a 20% reduction in agricultural output according to the Hadley Centre.

Efforts to alleviate global poverty are working - which is, of course, a good thing. But there's a trade-off. The World Bank calculated that in 2005 250 million households had an income greater than the equivalent of £8,000 sterling per annum - not a massive amount but well above the poverty line in most developing countries. It predicts that the number in this income bracket will be 2 billion households by 2050. And as these people acquire more disposable income, they will increase demand for certain products.

So what does all this mean? Well, the arrival in the cities of these newly affluent individuals will put increasing pressure on the food and water supply. Water is currently a free good in these areas, but increasing scarcity and demand will make it a tradable commodity and cities will compete against farmers - and the wealthier cities are likely to win. Without sufficient water for irrigation, food production will be compromised in currently fertile areas, accelerating the rate of decline in food production. Demand for food is expected to increase by 50% over the next 20 years; the conflict is clear.

Climate crisis is now a widely accepted phenomenon and the debate has moved on from whether or not it exists to what we should do about it. But even if we fail to prevent global warming, the full consequences could take decades to manifest themselves. Meanwhile, subtle changes in the weather pattern are being exacerbated by urbanisation to create food security issues which are already being felt and which will become critical within our lifetime.

Monday, 8 September 2008

Everyclick search engine is a great way to raise money for charity by doing something you would have done anyway. It's a search engine, but with a difference. Every search raises money for your nominated charity, and it's already raised over half a million pounds. To celebrate its 100,000th registered user it's awarding an extra £100 to every 10,000th new user's charity of choice until it reaches 200,000 registrations. Everyclick also hosts fundraising pages for sponsored events, with Gift Aid support so that the charity you pledge to receives your donation grossed up to its before tax value. Evouchers are available which you can give your friends to enable them to make a donation to a charity of their choice (and the charity receives more cash than it would do if the same donation was made directly with a credit card). There's even a shopping channel, with top high street brands. Better still, charities don't have to pay a fee to get included.

It's a fantastic concept, which has already earned its founder Polly Gowers the Triodos Bank "Entrepreneur of the Year" title at the Women in Ethical Business Awards 2007, a place in the Semi Finals of the Ernst and Young Entrepreneur of the Year and a BlackBerry Women in Technology Award in 2008. Is this the idea that could finally topple Google as the search engine of choice?

Friday, 5 September 2008

Energy cash handout

I'm not sure how to react to the news that the PM has failed to secure a £1bn cash handout from energy companies for families to help defray the impact of rising energy costs. Whilst I sympathise with families who are experiencing genuine hardship as a result of the recent price hikes, all but the most disadvantaged should be able to recoup most of the increase through energy saving measures. In fact, as far as climate crisis is concerned, increasing fuel costs is probably a good thing - if ecological arguments have failed to motivate us to cut energy consumption, then economic arguments surely will.
Offering handouts to compensate for rising energy prices would have sent entirely the wrong signals to a generally affluent nation which urgently needs to curb its consumption. Yet the replacement of the proposed fuel poverty package with an energy efficiency programme was announced almost apologetically. I'm not saying that we should not provide state support for those whose income is insufficient to sustain them, but support should be provided holistically, not focused on a single category of expense - and especially not on a commodity on which our disproprotionate reliance could prove to be our downfall.

Thursday, 4 September 2008

Acme Climate Action

Thanks to the nice folks at Ethical Junction, I just found Acme Climate Action. It's an appealing project that takes a lighthearted - dare I say irreverent - look at climate crisis and what we can all do to address it. It's a book, reviewed here by Ethical Pulse, and also a website which adopts a retro newsprint look and feel and a "howdy partner" tone of voice to create an environment which is both engaging and informative.

Acme Climate Action is the brainchild of an agency called Provokateur which displays a heady mix of ideas and ethics and is also behind the We Want Tap campaign. A great example of the ongoing shift from the worthy, earnest but boring approach to important issues towards fun, mischief and mayhem. Long may it continue.

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

Kiva microfinance

Just made my first loan on Kiva, a great site which provides interest-free loans to entrepreneurs in developing countries. It's a beautifully simple business model, offering a (more or less) cost-neutral way to do some good. Profiles of the entrepreneurs seeking funding give the impression of a more personal relationship than just writing a cheque, and the involvement of field agents provides assurance that the loan will be monitored so you have at least some confidence of repayment. In fact, most supporters reinvest when their funds are repaid, and a "my portfolio" page builds up a history of who has benefited from your original stake.

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

Don't ask why - just switch it off!

I was interested to hear on Scottish radio ads from the fire service urging people to turn off and unplug all their electrical appliances at night in order to reduce the risk of fire. Of course, this will also stop them drawing power when not actually in use - but how many of us actually do this? Is the risk of fire a bigger motivator than the risk of climate crisis? And if so, how many other environmentally preferable actions could we be persuaded to take if they were presented to us under the guise of an entirely different benefit?

Sunday, 31 August 2008

Shake powered torch

Most of my travel accessories are old and dearly loved - I don't really like new things, I much prefer old objects with a story to tell. I was disappointed to realise that my ancient maglite didn't make it back from my last trip, but took the opportunity to replace it with something more sustainable. My new torch is powered by shaking it; I got it in Tesco but there's one just like it at It's really very effective, you don't have to shake it for long to get a light and unlike a battery-powered one you can revive it very quickly if it does run out, even if you have nothing else with you.

Friday, 29 August 2008


We're travelling with my friend Debbie and her family. She removes one battery from her camera when she's not using it - she tells me the batteries last much longer this way. My camera seems to use up batteries at an alarming rate, and definitely wears them out quicker if I use the screen feature to line up shots rather than the viewfinder. I'm using rechargeables, and have a great daysack with solar panels. It comes complete with a set of 4 AA batteries and a charging pod for them, plus a selection of leads to charge different devices. I wasn't sure how effective it would be, but it really does work!

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

Wind farms and peat cutting on the Isle of Lewis

Visiting the Outer Hebrides today I was struck by the conflict between old energy technologies and new. The islands are rich in peat, which used to be the islanders' main fuel source in the old days but had fallen out of favour. There's evidence now of new peat cutting, motivated by the recent steep rises in energy costs. Of course, peat is a carbon sink so a revival in peat burning will result in carbon emissions; I have no idea though whether substituting peat for conventionally-produced fuels will be better or worse in terms of carbon emissions.

There are three wind turbines on the hillside above Stornaway. I heard that a plan to build a major wind farm with 200 turbines elsewhere on the island was finally rejected in April 2008 after many years of wrangling. There will be more wind farms there, but none on such a massive scale. Of course they will change forever a wild and ancient landscape, but so did the building of the standing stones, brochs and blackhouses of which the islanders are so proud. Could wind farms eventually become the tourist attractions of the future?

Monday, 25 August 2008

Solar Powered Lighthouse

Even in August, the Western highlands of Scotland aren't the sunniest spot in the World, so I was surprised to see PV panels on the Rheu lighthouse. I'd be surprised if it ever gets enough sun to light the bulb, and given the wet and windy conditions we experienced there I think I might have been inclined to opt for a wind turbine.

Sunday, 24 August 2008

Making plans for Nigel

I've just found Nigel's Eco Store, an impressive emporium of all things green. According to a profile I read in BT's customer newsletter it's a relatively new business, established (by Nigel!) in 2006 which has already grown to three staff and a half a million pound turnover.

I'm liking his green hints and tips page, although those who read my previous post will be interested to see that washing machine balls aren't much in evidence there!

Saturday, 23 August 2008

Washing machine balls

Call me a cynic, but do those washing machine balls really work? You know, the ones you put in your washing machine instead of detergent to clean your clothes. I'd really like to believe it, but surely if they were that effective we'd all be using them already? The science seems plausible enough - something to do with ionising the water. It just seems a little bit too good to be true.

Friday, 22 August 2008

Japan adopts carbon footprinting methodology

News today that brewer Sapporo will be among the first companies in Japan to publish carbon footprint data on product labels. From next spring government approved labels will appear on food and drink, detergents and electrical appliances from around 30 firms in a project led by the Japanese trade ministry. The labels will show how much carbon dioxide is emitted during the manufacture, distribution and disposal of each product, following a methodology loosely modelled on the PAS 2050 standard being developed in the UK by The Carbon Trust and Defra.

According to a report in The Guardian, the companies involved in the pilot project will display their labeled items at an eco-products fair in Tokyo in December, and the products are expected to start appearing in shops at the beginning of April 2009.

Thursday, 21 August 2008

Green Google

My husband found Google's carbon footprint pages today. It looks like a really interesting project. You can calculate your carbon footprint, map it, get tips on how to reduce your impacts and much more. Well worth a look.

Tuesday, 19 August 2008

£20 wind turbine

A product design student at the University of Portsmouth has developed a £20 wind turbine from recycled materials which can be used to help people in the developing world. 22-year old Max Robson set out to create an electricity generator which could be put together anywhere in the world. His 1.8m turbine, which can produce enough electricity to run lighting for 63 hours or a radio for 30 hours, can be constructed entirely from scrap by unskilled workers in less than a day.

This project follows the fine example set by Ian Thorpe with his Pump Aid project, which provides low cost water pumps using locally-sourced materials.

Monday, 18 August 2008

Corn phones revive food vs. energy debate

Samsung has proudly reported that its new E200 phone is made of “bio-plastic,” which it claims is better for the environment because it's naturally extracted from corn rather than hydrocarbons. Apparently, each ton of bio-plastic saves two tons of CO2 emissions compared with oil-based plastic. So far, so green - but isn't corn a food crop? Hasn't Samsung heard the debate about the impact on world food supplies - and prices - caused by increased demand for bio-diesels and bio-plastics?

Samsung also boasts that this phone and its charger are also free from "harmful bromine-infused flame retardants" - but I thought these had been banned throught the EU a couple of years back under the RoHS directive anyway. Samsung is a huge global corporation and one of the World's top 10 brands - a fact which earns it instant credibility with the majority of consumers who don't have the time or inclination to examine green claims. I wonder how it will perform in next year's Greenpeace Green Electronics Guide?

Sunday, 17 August 2008

How to use energy saving lightbulbs

A question – since energy saving lightbulbs are compact fluorescents, presumably they consume more energy when powering up than they do when actually lit. So in a room which is often vacant, but visited frequently – like the toilets in an office – is it better to leave them on all day or to switch them off when you leave the room? When we first installed such lights in our office, we were told to leave them on all day, but that was fifteen years ago. Has the technology moved on since then, or did we just stop paying attention to it?

Saturday, 16 August 2008

Renewable energy doesn't count in carbon reporting

The UK government plans to change reporting criteria for businesses so that they will no longer be able to claim carbon savings gained by using renewable energy. As a result, many organisations which currently claim to be "carbon neutral" could find themselves with a large carbon deficit to deal with. Several large companies are lobbying against the move, including BT which has been using the carbon contribution from buying renewable energy to help towards its ambitious target to cut carbon by 80% by 2020.

Currently about 5% of UK grid electricity is generated from clean hydroelectric and wind sources, and in 2005 the government said companies buying such renewable electricity tariffs could report them as producing zero emissions. However, environmental campaigners and energy experts have called into question the benefits of green tariffs. The Carbon Trust has indicated that concerns over green tariffs are similar to those over carbon offsets: transparency, double counting and additionality – ie whether they cut carbon emissions over and above what would have happened anyway.

Hence the move by Defra, which could prove costly for larger businesses, which from 2010 will have to participate in the Carbon Reduction Commitment. The cap and trade scheme will not just impose levies on companies with above-average carbon emissions, it will also rank them in a league table, causing potential embarrassment for organisations which have previously earned a reputation for carbon busting.

A consultation will now take place on this subject, but it's likely the controversy will continue for some time. In the meantime, organisations which are serious about cutting carbon should focus on reducing energy use rather than relying on the potential carbon benefit of renewables.

Friday, 15 August 2008

Junk the junk mail

Junk mail in the US is causing carbon emissions of 51,548,000 metric tons annually, according to pressure group Forest Ethics. That's equivalent to 9 million cars or 11 coal-fired power plants. Their report, Climate Change Enclosed: Junk Mail’s Effect on Global Warming, claims that almost half of the carbon impact of junk mail comes from deforestation and 1% comes from emissions during printing. There is a small carbon benefit – burning waste paper to create energy returns 1% of the total, because it's more carbon efficient than fossil-fuel based energy. It's worth noting here that the term "junk mail" defines items sent through the mail that the recipient doesn't want or need - the numbers quoted above are bound to include both wanted and unwanted items.

So, what do you do with your junk mail? Dump it in the recycling bin (or, worse still, the waste bin) - or unsubscribe? The easiest way to avoid receiving direct mail which is personally addressed to you is to register with the Mailing Preference Service. And since March this year, the Direct Marketing Association has also offered the Your Choice scheme to opt out of unaddressed mail. It will only protect you from mail drops by DMA association members, but it's a start.

If senders persist, you need to let the sender know that you don't want to receive future mailings. Preparing self-adhesive labels to attach to packages and return them to sender with an explanation is probably the least labour-intensive method. Yes, I know the transport impact of the returned package needs to be taken into account but if it’s sent via the normal mail system this is negligible and at least it will prevent further impact from unwanted mailings. There are more useful tips at

Thursday, 14 August 2008

Waterways revival

As a river and canal enthusiast, I've always wondered why they fell out of favour as a means of transport. So I'm delighted by news that Britain's waterways are emjpoying a renaissance as some of the UK's biggest transport firms migrate from tarmac to water. Many of our major towns and cities are located on rivers or canals - indeed the canals were created to link major industrial centres during the industrial revolution - so there's a readymade infrastructure there. And thanks to the efforts of volunteers and enthusiasts, most of the canals that had fallen into neglect and decay have already been restored to a navigable state. Companies already moving some goods by water include Sainsbury, Tesco, DHL and even the nation's favourite trucker Eddie Stobart. Tesco expects to to have saved an estimated 3,500 lorry movements by the end of 2008.

However, the rejuventation of water freight won't all be plain sailing. A proposal to build a commercial wharf near Heathrow, which would have saved tens of thousands of lorry journeys around the M25 or through central London, was recently shelved. Meanwhile, former wharves are being sold off for waterfront homes. In fact, so many of London's wharves have been sold off to developers that those that do remain have protected status; a plan to extend this protection to the rest of the country is awaiting government's response. The regulatory body which oversees the canal network, British Waterways, was founded to support their use for leisure and heritage use and a revival of their use as a transport network would require a major change of its focus and remit. In short, whilst the freight companies recognise the opportunity to cut their carbon - and their costs - by moving goods on water, the government and regulatory bodies are not rising to the challenge. Whilst we continue to subsidise the road network, the potential to revive the waterways as a transport network will probably never be realised.

Wednesday, 13 August 2008

Shell rapped for greenwashing

The Advertising Standards Authority has ruled that Anglo-Dutch energy giant Shell misled the public about the green credentials of an oil project in Canada. A complaint against an advertisement in the Financial times was lodged by the WWF (formerly Worldwide Fund for Nature). It's unclear whether any other complaints were received. Shell was criticised for using the word "sustainable" for its controversial tar sands project and a second scheme to build an oil refinery. The ASA ruled that the adhad breached rules on substantiation, truthfulness and environmental claims, since both projects would lead to the emission of more greenhouse gases. You can read the full story here.

It's interesting to note that before any radio advertisement can be aired in the UK, it has to be submitted for clearance and any any claims must be substantiated to the satisfaction of the relevant authority. Yet press advertising is not usually scrutinised until somebody complains. I'd like to see the radio system adopted for all types of advertising, then consumers could be more confident that advertisers' claims are "legal, decent, honest and truthful". In fact, it would also benefit conscientious advertisers, who already perform this kind of due diligence only to find their position undermined by the less scrupulous organisations.

Tuesday, 12 August 2008

Carbon-neutral credibility

As Dell becomes the latest corporation to trumpet its carbon neutral status, I'm wondering whether they've shot themselves in the foot. Until now, I've been impressed with Dell's sustainability efforts - they seem sincere and they've made some good improvements. But in order to claim carbon neutral status requires carbon offsetting - and that, for me, is where the rot sets in. The theory that you can compensate for your own emissions by paying somebody else to reduce theirs just doesn't stand up - for an illustration of this visit

I'm not against carbon offsetting per se - take air travel as an example. Even if you do your best to avoid flying to meetings, sometimes in a global ecomomy there's no alternative. When you've exhausted all the other options, incurring a specific carbon impact and then offsetting it is OK. But that doesn't make the activity carbon neutral. What offsetting does is neutralise both the negative carbon impact of the act you wish to offset and the positive carbon impact of the action taken to offset it. At best, it gets us back to square one (although that depends on the effectiveness of the offsetting project - and that's a whole new can of worms). It's just a gesture.

Personally, I find it more credible when a company claims to be low carbon. This acknowledges the fact that the vast majority of businesses have a detrimental carbon impact, and that the best we can hope to achieve is to reduce it. By all means take some steps to help mitigate these impacts by investing in carbon-positive projects - and even pick some individual impacts to offset. But to claim that any of this makes your business carbon-neutral is just disingenuous.

Monday, 11 August 2008

Small wind turbines "net emitters of carbon" says The Carbon Trust

According to a recent paper by The Carbon Trust, most urban small-scale wind turbine are net emitters of carbon. The report, entitled Small-scale wind energy is based on research carried out with the assistance of the Met Office and consulting engineers Arup. It claims that the most commonly used UK windspeed database is highly optimistic in the case of urban areas and suggests that one should be wary of believing any figures offered by the wind-turbine industry.

The report's projections suggest that the potential contribution to a household's energy consumption that could be achieved with a turbine is so low that electricity prices would have to rise eight-fold before it became even remotely viable financially. Worse, over 50 per cent of installations have a carbon payback period of more than 20 years, which is beyond the expected life of most turbines.

Despite this damning evidence, the UK government is still prepared to give grants or tax breaks for a roof turbine. The Low Carbon Buildings Programme, Permitted Development Rights (PDRs) for domestic installations and the Code for Sustainable Homes. all encourage the adoption of small-scale wind energy. Perhaps in future such schemes should require actual carbon saving projections to be taken into account.

Friday, 8 August 2008

Biofuels fail eco standards

According to a report in The Guardian, more than 80% of the biofuels used under the Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation (RTFO) fail environmental standards. the RTFO calls for biofuels to be mixed into all petrol and diesel supplies, in a government-led bid to tackle climate crisis. A report by The Renewable Fuels Agency says just 19% of the biofuel supplied under the scheme met its green standard. For the remaining 81%, suppliers could not say where it came from, or could not prove that it had been produced in a sustainable way.

The project began in April, and biofuel accounted for 2.1% of UK road fuel for the first month of the scheme, against a target for the year of 2.5%. 865 was biodiesel, the rest bioethanol. Scientists and campaigners have warned that biofuels could cause more problems than they solve, with concerns over the destruction of tropical forests and impact on global food supplies.
The RFA's environmental standard is intended to address those concerns and covers issues from child labour to water and soil conservation, although it doesn't take into account the impact of changes in land use, which experts have warned could cancel out the environmental benefits of biofuels.

Under the RTFO, suppliers are supposed to ensure that 30% of the biofuel used meets the voluntary standard. Data shows most biofuels were imported, with the majority of identified supplies coming from the US. However, at least 6m litres came from palm oil, a highly controversial crop that has been linked to severe deforestation and threats to orang-utan populations in south-east Asia. This could be an under-estimate because half the biodiesel used was untraceable.

Thursday, 7 August 2008

Fuel poverty news

With fuel poverty becoming an increasingly serious problem in the UK, news today that we could be subsidising French energy consumers from now on. Energy company EDF, which supplies customers in both countries, has been ordered to cap price rises in France - increases will be limited to 2% for electricity and 5% for gas. Commentators are suggesting that if bulk energy prices continue to rise, EDF may be forced to recover from British consumers any revenue shortfall in France. However EDF argues that the two operations are entirely separate and the 11% price advantage French customers already enjoy is due to the fact that 80% of electricity produced there is nuclear. France also has up to four times the amount of gas storage as Britain, allowing it to buy gas in bulk at low prices during the summer for use during high winter demand.

Whilst we should all be encouraged to reduce our energy consumption, it's a basic neccessity of life. Many MPs feel that energy prices should not be left to market forces and highlighted the lack of controls in Britain’s liberalised energy market in a parliamentary report last month. Some are calling for the UK to adopt the French government's approach and restrict energy price rises to the inflation rate. Certainly this would help vulnerable households which this winter could find themselves unable to afford heat and light.

For expert advice on how to find the cheapest energy providers, sign up to Martin Lewis' excellent - regular alerts will advise you on when and how to act to cut your energy bills. Tips on how to cut energy consumption are available from the Energy Saving Trust. And if you're committed to cutting your carbon, compares tariffs from renewable energy suppliers which can save an average of 2 tonnes of CO2 per household per year.

Wednesday, 6 August 2008

Why not walk it?

Sometimes the greenest ideas don't come from a desire to improve sustainability. Take, the UK's first walking route planner. According to a profile in BT's customer magazine, founder Jamie Wallace was driven more by the desire to save time. He wanted to prove to his colleagues that walking to meetings in central London could be quicker than using any other form of transport. Of course, he caught the zeitgeist (and the London congestion charge!) and is now popular with those who want to cut the carbon - it even calculates how much carbon you've saved.

He's busy adding new cities to the site but while you're waiting from walkit to get round to including your own city, you might find that adding the Co-Pilot application to your PDA is a worthwhile alternative. It has a walking mode as well as the normal route planning and driver's satnav features and can even be used to avoid buying printed maps for countryside walks.
Finally, if you do decide to walk it, tell Green Thing. Walking was its first ever green thing, in October 2007.

Rebranding global warming

Overheard on the radio this morning, another member of the public expressing the view that "this global warming stuff must be nonsense, all we're getting is rain". As the need for climate action becomes ever more urgent, there's a strong chance that a misconception about the manifestations of global warming might convince many that the threat isn't real. Of course as anybody who has watched Al Gore's magnificent movie knows, the result of global warming is disruption weather patterns rather than warmer weather as such. The poles may become warmer - and thus sea levels rise - but in fact the UK could face a mini ice age if our warming Gulf Stream changes its route. Extreme weather like floods and droughts, typhoons and hurricanes will become more common, too.

As a marketer I understand the power of labels to shape people's perceptions and I think adopting the term global warming undermined early efforts to promote awareness. It's just not threatening enough. Ask any bunch of Brits over 40 what it means to them and a good proportion will smile as they recall the long, hot summer of 1976 and murmur "bring it on". The term climate change is less friendly, with fewer positive connotations, but still rather too neutral to describe a process which could ultimately mean the end of civilisation as we know it. I'd like to propose that we all adopt the term "climate crisis" as a more accurate representation of the situation - then perhaps more people would understand the enormity of the challenge that we face together.

Tuesday, 5 August 2008

In-car versus mains charging

I've been pondering today - is it better to charge my mobile phone in my car, or to plug it into the mains at home? I know I have to unplug it when it's fully charged, as it will otherwise continue to draw power, but is there a difference between the carbon impact of electricity drawn from the national grid and from my car? I feel that somehow the electricity drawn from my car is "free" - but does it affect fuel consumption? And is the effect significant enough to make a difference?

A mischevious colleague has just suggested that I should charge it in my car and, if necessary, take the car for a drive just to provide a charging opportunity. Thanks, Steve, but of course I mean when I'm using the car anyway. In fact, if the impact of charging my phone in the car is lower, maybe it can even help mitigate the carbon impact of driving in the first place. And because I'm bound to be there in the car to hear it beep when the battery is full, I'm likely to unplug it sooner than if it beeped at home when I'm in another room. So which is greener?

Anybody know? I'd love to find out!

Monday, 4 August 2008

Love for Water

More on the subject of water; in my inbox this afternoon is an invitation to join a survey sponsored by Waterwise and the Oxford-based Centre for Water Research. The aim is to determine whether incentivising householders to reduce their water use would have a positive impact. If you would like to take part in the survey, which closes on 8th August, you can do so at

Should we boycott bottled water?

In my own small way, I've been making a stand recently by ordering tap water in restaurants instead of bottled water. So I was delighted to see that Thames Water and the Mayor of London have teamed up to launch London On Tap, an initiative to encourage the drinking of tap water in the capital. According to their website, London’s tap water is rated top in the UK, making it one of the best in the world, and consistently beats more expensive, bottled alternatives in taste tests. Thames Water Chief Executive David Owens claims London's water is 500 times cheaper than bottled water and emits 300 times less CO2 to process than bottled alternatives. Yet many people feel that to order tap water in a restaurant looks "cheap". To address this stigma, London On Tap has commissioned a competition to design an iconic carafe which can be used to dispense tap water in restaurants.

CIWEM calculate that 22 million tonnes of bottled water are transferred between countries every year - ludicrous when you think about it. And, according to the Bottled Water Information Office, the average briton drinks 37.6 litres of bottled water per annum. It may seem like a small gesture to ask for tap water, but if enough of us do it - just like anything else - it really can make a difference.

Friday, 1 August 2008

Top 10 environmental bugbears

Harris Interactive has recently carried out a survey on over 1,500 respondents that revealed the Top 10 environmental bugbears in the office.

They were as follows:
1. Mindless printing resulting in increased paper waste (40%)
2. Leaving lights on (37%)
3. Lack of recycling bins (33%)
4. Excessive air conditioning in summer and heat in winter (29%)
5. Excessive use of paper products, like cups, plates, etc. (27%)
6. Co-workers not recycling (27%)
7. Co-workers not printing double-sided when they can (24%)
8. Too many cover sheets when faxing or printing (24%)
9. Having to store paper copies of existing, electronic files (24%)
10. Leaving computer on and not powering down when going home (23%)

Go on, be honest, how many of these are you guilty of?

Thursday, 31 July 2008

Low carbon cars

Most people are aware by now that hybrids aren't necessarily the most carbon-efficient cars on the market, but just how do you go about choosing a low emission car? The Department for Transport offers some advice on its website, not just about choosing a car but also about how to drive it efficiently. The driving tips are a tad obvious, but good advice nonetheless, and there's more of the same here.

The question of choosing a car is a little more tricky. For a start, only new cars are included in the rankings - indeed, only new cars rated "top 10" by What Car? magazine. Because there's a second hand market for cars, we can console ourselves that the one we discard will be re-used, however there's a good chance that further down the food chain somebody will replace a car that has no market value and will end up as scrap. Keeping our car for longer could therefore be a more sustainable option than trading up to a fuel efficient one, as long as it's not a real gas-guzzler, but I haven't yet managed to find a source of comparisons that includes previous models.

New Vehicle Excise Duty bands to be introduced next April will ensure that the most polluting cars pay more tax. The current 7 tax bands (A to G) will be expanded to 13 (A to M). Owners of cars in Band A do not pay anything. From April 2009, owners of cars in Band M will pay £440, increasing to £455 in 2010 - and there a also new "showroom tax" on new cars which pushes a Band M car's tax up to £950 in the first year.

Only two cars on the What Car? list fall into band A and attract zero tax: the Volkswagen Polo 1.4 Tdi and the Seat Ibiza 1.4 Tdi (which uses the same engine). Both have emissions of 99g CO2/km. But they aren't the cheapest to run: for example the Ford Focus 1.6 Duratorq TDCi has better fuel economy which more than offsets its Band B tax liability, although its emissions are 114g/km. There's a useful article on economical motoring here.

Wednesday, 30 July 2008

Plastic bags - a rant

I love home delivery for groceries - it's very convenient, and a well-planned delivery to multiple customers has a lower transport footprint than personal visits to the store. But I'm becoming seriously frustrated with Tesco, who don't seem to understand the concept of "without bags". Before they introduced this option, whenever I ordered wine with my groceries it was delivered in one of the six-bottle boxes that are used to deliver the wine to the store. Now I can have my groceries delivered without bags, but every time I order wine every bottle is lovingly wrapped in a plastic bag - sometimes two plastic bags!

I emailed Tesco's customer services team but all I got back was a standard-issue apology that I had been disappointed by their service. And my next delivery arrived with the bottles in bags just the same. Come on Tesco, sort it out!

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Responsible print

I received a mailshot today about an initiative called Responsible Print. Offered by Four Corners Print, it provides a way for marketers to communicate the specific impacts of the marketing collateral they have printed, via a unique reference number printed on it. Entering the reference number at Four Corners' website provides access to on the specification of the print job and the materials used, plus the impacts of the factory and delivery fleet.

It's a neat idea, but I was rather disappointed to see a disclaimer at the bottom of the analysis to say that the carbon footprinting methodology used doesn't comply with relevant standards. To me, this undermines its value as an accreditation scheme. I want to like this scheme, I really do, but I'd find it easier to do so if it used publicly-available standards for its calculations.

Sunday, 20 July 2008

An elegant solution to water poverty

I'm impressed by the true sustainability of the Pump Aid project, which provides water pumps costing just $500 each for rural communities in Zimbabwe. Developed by Ian Thorpe, the elephant pump (so-called because its spillway looks like an elephants trunk, and the two people working it like its ears) can be maintained using materials available locally - unlike more expensive piston pumps which require imported parts.

The simple design, based on an ancient Chinese water-lifting device, uses a bicycle system to raise water through a pipe using washers knotted to a loop of rope. The Chinese used leather, but the Pump Aid version uses recycled plastic. A mould can be made from clay using an original washer and then when one breaks, a replacement can be made by melting down in a tin can any waste plastic available locally and pouring it into the mould. Rope is also easy to find, or can be substituted by locally-made tree bark twine.

A billion people around the world lack access to clean water. According to Ian Thorpe, a child dies every 15 seconds from unsafe water - the equivalent to 15 jumbo jets full of children crashing every day. Pump Aid is already supported by Aquaid and Thirsty Planet but requires additional sponsors to ensure that this shocking statistic is reduced, both in Zimbabwe and beyond.

The elephant pump won the St Andrews Prize for the Environment in 2005 and the World Bank Development Marketplace Prize in 2006. More info at

Friday, 18 July 2008

Greening Government ICT Strategy launched

Yesterday, the Cabinet Office released the Greening Government ICT Strategy report. According to Computer Weekly, the government has set its central department CIOs with the challenge of reducing the carbon emissions their departments produce. The target is for central departments to be carbon neutral by 2012.

The strategy outlines 18 steps that CIOs should take. These range from activity as simple as making sure staff turn off PCs after work to carrying out more complicated audits of the energy use of datacentres. The plan is to focus first on the quick wins, by encouraging behaviour change to reduce waste and save money. Eventually the programme will evolve to recommend the use of energy-efficient technology such as energy re-use systems, virtualisation technology and the introduction of thin client computing.

The government also called on private companies and individuals to follow its example, claiming that turning off computers outside work time will reduce annual CO2 emissions by the same amount as if 40,000 cars were taken off the road.

There is additional advice on carbon-saving actions here.

Tuesday, 15 July 2008

Go by rail!

I've just discovered, a fantastic site for those who would like to avoid air travel and go by rail instead. Full of inspiration, practical advice and useful links - well worth a visit!

There's a great article about its founder here, too.

Code of Conduct for Carbon Offsetting

I found out from that there's now a code of conduct for carbon offsetting published by DEFRA. This is something that has been challenging me for a while - I accept that offsetting can be worthwhile once you've done all you can to reduce your carbon impact but how do you choose a scheme that's credible and sustainable?

It may not have all the answers, but DEFRA's website might be a good place to start.

Friday, 11 July 2008

Charge your iPod while you dance!

A lovely new invention by curiously named greentech company Gotwind uses kinetic energy to charge electrical devices. No, seriously. Check it out here.

Car companies to be forced to show emissions data on posters

The Department for Transport has ruled that posters advertising cars must give CO2 and fuel information equal prominence with the main text, including length of warranty and price. They have had to do this in press advertising for some time, but it will be a particular challenge in outdoor media which requires text to be much briefer in order to communicate to readers on the move.

Marketing magazine claims that the car industry spent £76.4m on outdoor ads in 2007, up 32% on the previous year - possibly due to the introduction of the CO2 reporting rule for press ads.

Monday, 30 June 2008

The new Carbon Trust Standard

Spent a very informative day at the Low Carbon Innovation Exchange last Thursday, but was dismayed to hear that the Carbon Reduction Commitment only applies to companies whose energy consumption is 6,000 MWH or above - ours is way below that, so we needed something else. Luckily a meeting later that day with the Carbon Trust uncovered the new Carbon Trust Standard, which is ideal for companies below the Carbon Reduction Commitment threshhold. We'll be signing up for that, becoming one of their early adopters.

Sunday, 22 June 2008

Happy Birthday Greenbang!

Went to Greenbang's first birthday party this week. Good to see so many people there supporting Dan. Also found out about a new sustech network.

Spent most of this week trying to assimilate the good stuff I heard at three separate sustainability events. More on those later.

Friday, 13 June 2008

Recycling medicines

Here's a novel take on recycling. Victoria Hale has founded a business called the Institute for OneWorld Health which picks up expired patents on pharmaceuticals and uses them to develop new cures for diseases which devastate developing countries where expensive patented treatments are beyond the reach of most sufferers. The first to be approved is a treatment for Visceral Leishmaniasis, a disease transmitted by sand-flies which kills almost half a million people every year in India, Bangladesh and Nepal. Next she plans to move on to Malaria. All credit to those like Bill Gates and the Lehman Brothers who are funding her work.

Jorre van Ast's Ingenious Jar Tops

I love elegant solutions that re-use items that might otherwise been recycled or, worse still, thrown away. I discovered Jorre van Ast's jar tops in the BA Business Life magazine (yes, I know, what was a doing on a plane? Sometimes it's inevitable, and at least I offset the carbon). Anyway, Jorre makes beautiful screw-on tops which turn empty jars into other useful vessels - like salt cellars, sprinklers, mugs, jugs and storage caddys. I suppose its an extension of the idea of selling chocolate spread in a jar which turns into a drinking glass when it's empty. Anyway, they are quite lovely and you can find them here.

Friday, 6 June 2008

You've got to laugh . . .

The spiralling cost of fuel is causing much hardship and consternation, but also some humour. My favourite from a selection of cartoons recently received is featured here. I suppose we should be grateful that more people are being persuaded to pay attention to their consumption of fossil fuels, even if their motives are entirely financially-based.

I was amused to notice that this particular collection of cartoons originates from America - imagine how they would feel if their fuel prices were at UK levels!

Wednesday, 28 May 2008

Gilding the Lily

Am I the only person making a blacklist of agencies which send me unsolicited and over-packaged promotional items? We’re making strenuous efforts to reduce the environmental impact of our business so why would any supplier consider we were more likely to do business with them if they send us a 32-page credentials presentation in an A3 hardback folder or a tiny rubber brain in a huge box filled with polystyrene? Sometimes these items are received by every single member of our marketing team – what a waste!

Clearly as marketers we depend on making an impact, but in these days of inconvenient truths the medium really is as important as the message. I’m much more impressed by companies who present a compelling message in a simple way than by those who disguise their message with loads of unnecessary embellishments.

The question is, what to do with the unwanted items? So far I have been returning them to the sender with a polite letter suggesting that the item could be re-used since I have no need for it. Does anybody have a better suggestion?

Friday, 23 May 2008

Switch it off to save cash and the planet is reporting today that the OGC has told government departments that if they power down PCs when not in use they can save over £10m as well as cutting CO2 emissions by 55,723 per annum. I was also reminded at this week's Green Card event of Barclays' admission that they saved £1.5m pa by turning of monitors at night instead of leavin them on screensaver. On an enterprise level, you can use Nightwatchman for this but individuals can act too, by using a solution like intellipanel which powers down all connected peripherals when the PC is switched off and quickly pays for iteself in reduced electricity bills.

Friday, 16 May 2008

EC backs tech for green future has reported that the European Commission (EC) is backing the use of technology to cut carbon emissions and improve energy efficiency across Europe's economy.

The Commission feels three areas should be focused on in this work: energy generation and distribution; monitoring of energy consumption in buildings; and moving to more energy efficient 'intelligent' lighting.

It is predicted the EU's energy consumption will rise by as much as 25 per cent by 2012 if no action is taken. The IT sector currently accounts for two per cent of global CO2 emissions. Full story here.