Monday, 7 December 2009

Christmas unplugged

Having joined the ranks of those laid low by the H1N1 virus, I've been doing some Christmas shopping online. And I've been quite horrified to see the gratuitous use of energy to power the gadgets and gizmos presented as gift ideas.  For example, what exactly is the point of a battery-powered candle? Are heated eyelash curlers really necessary? And just how many people really need a drink warmer plugged into their PC's USB drive?

Surely one of the easiest ways to reduce our energy consumption, and thereby our CO2 emissions, would be to avoid unneccessary electrification. And the next logical step from there is to look at the devices that are already electrified and work out whether they can be powered another way - kinetic energy, maybe, for small personal devices - or even clockwork.

In our consumer society most of us have pretty much everything we need, so the constant re-invention of goods is necessary to part us from our cash. But a recent survey by found that three quarters of us want to limit gift-giving at Christmas. Whether or not you're a christian, Christmas represents a time to cherish our friends and family - yet many of us neglect them for the previous weeks while we pound the pavements searching for gifts they almost certainly don't need. Time for a re-think?

Friday, 6 November 2009

Feed the World

An article in Last Friday’s Times stopped me in my tracks and made me think hard about the role of charities in global welfare. Once again, food aid is being requested for drought-torn regions of Africa and our natural response to pictures of dangerously emaciated children is to reach for the cheque book. But the article argued that this will only make the situation worse. In fact, it claimed that foreign food aid could be the cause of Africa’s current famine.

Even Oxfam now considers food aid to be counter-productive, and cites examples in Kenya and Ethiopia where wars were funded by the money saved by not investing in self-sufficiency – something that was only possible because Western countries sent so much food aid. And these wars tear apart the very land that should be used for agriculture and kill the able-bodied men who would work the land, so the cycle continues.

Of course, Africa has other serious issues to contend with, like disease and lack of access to clean water and education – but the famine appeals get all the headlines. I remember learning as a child “give a man a fish and you’ll feed him for a day; teach him to fish and you’ll feed him for a lifetime”. In our desire for quick fixes, we’ve forgotten that a sustainable population needs to be able to feed itself. The best service we can perform is to provide people with the tools and expertise to create their own brighter future, not make them dependent on handouts.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Vegetarians to save the world?

In today's Times, Lord Stern entreats us all to become vegetarians to combat climate change. That's certainly not going to win him many supporters. After all, humans are omnivores and meat eating is a trait we share with a significant proportion of the creatures on our planet. I accept his point that rearing livestock for meat is hugely resource-inefficient - the same resources would go many times further if directly consumed - although I suspect he may be overstating the contribution of methane from cattle to global warming. But that's really not the point.

As with so many sustainability issues, moderation is the key. I'm sure that the right to eat meat would be fiercely defended if it came under threat, but many would accept the idea that consumption should be reduced. The Meat-free Monday campaign takes exactly this approach. Far better to ask people to consider dropping meat one day a week, or at lunchtime, or eating smaller portions - the impact per person might be relatively modest, but the take-up exponentially larger, almost certainly resulting in a better net reduction.

And, let's face it, we're all fed up with politicians interfering in our lives - especially when their own actions are so often at odds with their advice.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

10:10 motion defeated in Parliament

All credit to the 10:10 team and 38degrees for getting the motion tabled to sign up the UK government to the 10:10 campaign. Sadly the motion was defeated, although by a relatively small margin - 225 for and 297 against. You can check how your MP voted here.

The government estate is only half way to its target of reducing carbon emissions by 12.5% by 2010, so perhaps it saw the 10% target as unachievable. Actually, it's not that hard. The Carbon Trust estimates that office machines account for 15% of the energy consumption of the average organisation, and that this can be reduced by 70% just by turning machines off outside office hours - that alone could deliver the required 10% saving. The business I work for reduced its carbon emissions by 9% last year, and has already signed up for 10:10 to help keep us focused on the next 10%. Year on year, our gas consumption is down 76%, electricity use is down 14% and we're using 37% less paper.

It's undoubtedly true that it's easier to get a small workforce mobilised, but that's why the public sector needs something like 10:10, to break the big, long-term targets into manageable chunks and make it personal. The campaign has already achieved a lot of traction in government. Most of the front bench has signed up, and all three main political parties have pledged their support. My prediction is that a second motion will be passed before the start of 2010. If you want to lend your weight to the campaign, sign up.

Monday, 19 October 2009

Flash Gordon saves the World?

Gordon Brown has come a long way since being accused of blocking environmental legislation as Chancellor. Now, ahead of the Copenhagen Climate Summit, he's warning that negotiators have 50 days to save the world from global warming, claiming that the UK faces a "catastrophe" of floods, droughts and killer heatwaves if world leaders fail to agree a deal on climate change. Whilst a recent report by Kofi Annan's Global Humanitarian Forum found the UK was one of 12 nations least likely to be affected by climate impacts, the impact of climate change on some of the World's poorest people should not be under-estimated.

In December, the United Nations summit in Copenhagen will aim to establish a deal to replace the 1997 Kyoto treaty. This is necessary because its targets for reducing emissions only apply to a small number of countries and expire in 2012. It's generally accepted that once the damage from unchecked emissions growth is done, no retrospective global agreement, in some future period, can undo that choice. However, Rajendra Pachauri, head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, has been reported as saying "the prospects that states will actually agree to anything in Copenhagen are starting to look worse and worse" and in recent days there have been a number of warnings that progress is stalling.

Speaking at the Major Economies Forum in London, which brings together 17 of the world's biggest greenhouse gas-emitting countries, Mr Brown warned that negotiators were not reaching agreement quickly enough. He went on to say that the Copenhagen summit was a "profound moment" for the world involving "momentous choice" and that (in the words of M&S, this time) there was "no plan B".  But can we rely on Flash Gordon to save the World, when he doesn't appear to be able to save himself?

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Scilly Isles switch off

The Scilly Isles receives its entire electricity supply via a single cable feed from the mainland, so it makes the perfect test bed for energy saving projects. Yesterday, all 2,000 or so residents were encouraged to switch off as many non-essential appliances as possible to see how much energy could be saved. The result was only a 1.2% reduction, but over the same period UK electricity consumption went up 1.5%.

The Energy Saving E-Day initiative wasn't helped by rainy and misty weather, which caused all flights off the islands to be grounded, swelling the population somewhat. And the children had an ill-timed cookery class in the morning - baking scones pushed Five Islands School's consumption up by 30% although by midnight this had been converted to an 8.3% reduction in the previous day's electricity use.

This was the first experiment of its kind to provide live measurements of a whole community’s collective effort to cut their electricity use. For a 24-hour period residents were asked switch off electrical items which do not need to be on in their homes, schools and workplaces, and the reduction in electricity use was monitored in real-time across the Internet and compared with the rest of the UK.

In the run-up E-Day the Isles of Scilly hosted a mini 2-day Earth Summit, bringing together islanders from across the world, including speakers from Galapagos and Papua New Guinea's Carteret Islands, the first refugees of climate change.

The E-Day website includes really interesting and useful content, including a real-time estimate of the national electricity bill for the UK, and the CO2 emissions caused by electricity production. It also provides ways for people across the country to get involved, to get advice on how to cut their own energy use.
E-Day is sponsored by the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) and is the work of a team led by Dr Matt Prescott, whose successful worldwide ‘Ban The Bulb’ campaign now has 30 countries phasing out domestic incandescent light bulbs in an effort to reduce electricity use and save CO2 emissions.

Saturday, 3 October 2009


In many developing countries, children walk for miles to collect water - often before and sometimes instead of going to school. What should be play time becomes chore time while they carry out this vital task. Play Pumps International neatly addresses both these problems, with a novel design that combines a playground merry-go-round with a pump to draw water from underground and store it in a water tower where it can be drawn off as required. An added twist is the use of the sides of the water tank for advertising, generating revenue that can be used to fund maintenance of the system.

My son, who's 9, thinks this is the coolest thing - and wants to know whether they can also make one that's a see-saw. I think he has a point.

Friday, 25 September 2009

Ecological Debt Day

Today - 25th September 2009 - is World Ecological Debt Day. It's a moveable feast, which represents the day on which the World's consumption for the year begins to exceed its available resources. That's just one day later than in 2008, despite the effects of global recession. And almost two whole weeks earlier than in 2007, when it fell on October 6th.

Ecological Debt Day is a useful way of demonstrating our failure to achieve "one planet living". However, it doesn't take a account of the massive differences in consumption levels from country to country. According to the Third UK Interdependence Day Report, published today, it took only until 7pm on January 4th to consume the same amount of resources that Tanzania would use in the entire year. The UK entered ecological debt on 12th April 2009, meaning we would need more than 3 planets if the whole World consumed in the same manner as the UK.

In 1995, World Ecological Debt Day fell on November 25, so in just under 15 years we've brought Ecological Debt Day forward by two full months. If global financial meltdown only buys us a day, then what will it take to recover those two months?

Monday, 21 September 2009

Sustainability Dictionary

Found a useful resource today - The Sustainability Dictionary is a project of Presidio Graduate School. It's just a simple alphabetical glossary of terms relevant to sustainability, but for those of us tasked with communicating on sustainability issues, it's a handy reference.

Friday, 18 September 2009

Carbon Offsetting Flights - the true cost

In general, I'm cynical about carbon offsetting but I do offset flights. I try to avoid flying if possible, but when there's no alternative I use the airline's own offsetting service. It's a token gesture, I know, but it still feels better than nothing. However, I'm astonished by the variation in the offsetting fees for similar flights from different airlines.

Booking a return flight to Amsterdam with KLM recently, I was struck by the low cost of offsetting - just 97 Euro cents. To offset the same flight with BA costs £1.80. Both airlines claim to be supporting certified carbon offsetting projects. However, KLM states categorically that only the actual cost of offsetting is claimed from the customer and KLM receives none of the revenue. I couldn't find a similar claim on BA's site.

Taking this further, I used the flight offset calculators on the carbon offset sites certified by Defra and got figures ranging from £1.22 to £2.51. The variation in price was less worrying than the variation in carbon emissions. Carbon Passport considered the emissions would be 0.08 tonnes of CO2 costing £1.22. Pure reckoned the distance was 458 miles, emitting 0.15 tonnes of CO2 costing £2.51 (without Gift Aid - Pure is a charity) and Carbon Retirement makes it 0.13 tonnes costing £2.18.

As for how much CO2 my presence on the flight actually contributes, I looked for clarifiation from Defra. The latest conversion factor is 98.3g per passenger kilometre. That works out to 0.73 tonnes, to which BA adds 9% to account for indirect routing and delays - so Carbon Passport is closest at 0.8 tonnes. So what does all this prove? Well, it certainly doesn't make me feel any more positive about carbon offsetting, that's for sure.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Chocolate-powered car - made from carrots!

A team at Warwick University has developed a Formula 3 racing car made of sustainable materials and powered by biofuel made from chocolate. The team leader, Warwick researcher Dr Kerry Kirwan, has won a British Science Association Isambard Kingdom Brunel Award Lecture.

The Award Lectures are prestigious prizes for talented communicators with an interesting story to tell about their research. Dr Kirwan was selected for his skills in communicating to non-specialist audiences about the racing car which is largely made from plants. He says "it includes a race specification steering wheel derived from carrots and other root vegetables, a flax fibre and soybean oil foam racing seat, a woven flax fibre bib, plant oil based lubricants and a biodiesel engine configured to run on fuel derived from waste chocolate and vegetable oil. It also incorporates a radiator coated in a ground-breaking emission destroying catalyst. “

It is the first Formula 3 racing car to be designed and made from sustainable and renewable materials that could meet Formula 3 racing standards. The snag is that it is configured to run on fuel derived from waste chocolate and vegetable oil. Formula 3 cars are currently not permitted to use biodiesel, but the team is hoping to make its competitive debut later this year.

Friday, 28 August 2009

Mondonation - a survivor's success story

Last week, the BBC published a story on the Marchionness disaster, which occurred 20 years ago. I remember watching the horrific news footage in 1989, when over 50 people celebrating the birthday of a friend were killed in a boat collision on the Thames. The story mentioned Ward Bingham, who was interviewed about his memories of that night. Ward mentioned that his experience had led him to set up a business, Mondonation, so I checked it out.

According to its website, Mondonation is committed to inspiring positive, global change through the development of sustainable, charitable strategies. The first of these are "believe" T-shirts . The theory is that if we all share our beliefs on a daily basis, they will grow in strength. Visitors to the site are encouraged to write their own belief statement, that is printed onto the back of an ethically-made T-shirt. Included in the price is a charitable donation to a charity of their choice.

Mondonation seeks to create a new business model, which combines a for-profit approach with with substantial charitable contributions. In a moving video on the site, Ward Bingham explains how he has been searching for meaning in his life since the Marchionness disaster and how his role as the creative force behind Mondonation is the embodiment of his desire to make a difference.

Inspired by Ward and the Mondonation vision, I ordered my own T-shirt, pink and long-sleeved, bearing the legend "I believe every one of us can be a force for good". So if you spot me wearing it, say hi.

Saturday, 15 August 2009

Book Review - Interviews with Green Gurus

I love to read, but don't get as much time as I would like to do so. So it's always a treat to discover a book that's not only inspiring, but constructed in such a way that it can be read in bite-sized instalments. Conversations with Green Gurus, by Laura Mazur and Louella Miles, dispenses great wisdom in manageable chunks from people who have been influential in the environmental movement. They're a pretty eclectic bunch, from all over the World, some you will have heard of and some you may not have done.

For me, the beauty of this book is that after exploring the professional achievements of the subjects, it delves into the personal experiences that influenced them. I found these intimite insights into the personal history and home life of remarkable people fascinating. Their backgrounds have little in common, and not all of them can identify a"moment of truth" when their future path became clear and inevitable - but they all share a deeply held belief that drives them, a strong intellect and an inquiring mind. Fundamentally, though, they are just like you and me.

For example, I enjoyed learning more about John Grant, whose work is familar and has been a strong influence on my career. He recounts conversations with his young son that bear a spooky similarity to those that take place in our household. Equally, the book introduced me to Professor Wangari Maathai who has been honoured for her work on women's rights and tree planting programmes. She was born in rural Kenya and raised in the United States, but the way she describes her childhold and her thirst for knowledge will be familiar to many of us living in cities in the UK.

The genius of this book is that it presents leading edge thinking on sustainability and social responsibility, but counterpoints it with personal insights that ultimately make the wisdom more accessible. As we consider the challenges of climate change, it's easy to become overwhelmed by the scale of the problem and feel that our own efforts can't make a difference. This book reminds us that all the positive action that has been taken, and is being taken, is driven by people just like us - with familes and jobs, mortgages and bills, doubts and fears. And that's really empowering.

Monday, 3 August 2009

Bolivia's indigenous people gain more autonomy

According to the BBC, President Evo Morales, Bolivia's first indigenous leader, has begun implementing provisions that give indigenous people the chance to govern themselves. The changes are outlined in a new constitution, which enacted a decree setting out the conditions for Indian communities to hold votes on autonomy in referenda that will take place in December. Bolivia's indigenous people were banished to the margins of society for centuries and did not enjoy full voting rights until 1952.

Not surprisingly, the new charter has been bitterly opposed by Bolivia's traditional elite. Many Bolivians of European or mixed-race descent in the fertile eastern lowlands, which hold rich gas deposits and are home to extensive farms. The reforms in the new constitution include a limit of 5,000 hectares on new land ownership and state sovereignty over gas fields.

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

HP - the final frontier?

Captain Kirk (aka William Shatner) has declared war on HP over its continued use of toxic chemicals in IT products. In an action backed by Greenpeace, Shatner's voice was used in a recorded message that greeted HP staff arriving at their desks at its Palo Alto HQ. Greenpeace claims HP has gone back on a commitment to stop using brominated flame retardants and PVC in its products by 2009, and that its environmental record is poor compared to competitors like Acer, Apple, Dell and Lenovo.

Activists also painted the words "Hazardous Products" in (non-toxic finger) paint on the roof of HP's HQ.

Thursday, 16 July 2009

The Big Lunch

A great idea from the Eden Project - The Big Lunch takes place this Sunday. The brainchild of Tim Smit and Paul Twivy, the idea is to help restore a sense of community in our neighbourhoods, despite the pace of life and increasingly fragmented social structures. So, on 19th July each year, The Big Lunch plans to bring together strangers and turn them into, if not friends, then at least acquaintances.

I really like The Big Lunch website - it has a comfortable style and offers guidance without being preachy. You can search for Big Lunches in you own area, and join in online. There are even great recipes from chefs like Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.

We found out about it by visiting the Eden Project - and I'm not sure it has had time to gather enough momentum yet so suspect that this year it will be quite a small affair. But I'm already thinking about organising one next year, and I'm sure it has the potential to gather space year by year. And anything that brings communities together and reminds us of what we share, rather than what divides us, can only be a good thing.

Thursday, 25 June 2009

Recycle week - make your pledge now!

The lovely people at WRAP have launched Recycle Week to encourage more recycling. We're invited to make a pledge, set ourselves a forfeit and nominate a friend to check up on us. Suggested pledges are listed on the site, acting as a useful prompt about things we should all be doing as a matter of course.
The Recycle Now website is bright and visually appealing, with engaging graphics and all the usual social media connections. On the practical side, there are tips for recycling at home, in the garden and at school, and a separate section for home composting. There's also a useful guide to what can be recycled and how, and a search for recycling activities in your postcode area. So no excuses for not getting involved!

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Back to the future

A 1950s revival is apparently sweeping the nation as an escape from the ubiquitous virtual world of the internet, Wi and iPod. Old-fashioned pastimes such as knitting and baking are regaining popularity as an antidote to the mass production of industry that has all but wiped out craft skills. Although a modern twist has been added to knitting with the advent of yarn bombing, where taggers create knitted items and then display them prominently - for example as "bollard cosies". There are even knitting circles with attitude, called Stitch 'N' Bitch.

Elsewhere, thirty-somethings disenchanted with a world where technology has overtaken everything are attending tea dances and retro evenings where the entertainment is provided by swing bands and burlesque. Advocates claim this return to the simpler pleasures is meditative and calming, a view that's supported by Dr Colin Gill of the British Psychological Society who considers the over-worked and under-appreciated are seeking solace in tradition.

Unplugged activity is a great way to reduce energy consumption, and in my house the board game is undergoing something of a renaissance. This one one trend I'm happy to follow.

Thursday, 4 June 2009

Happy World Environment Day

World Environment Day (WED) - June 5th - was established by the UN General Assembly in 1972 to mark the opening of the Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment. It's one of the UN's key activities to promote worldwide awareness of the environment and enhance political attention and action. It has four key aims:

  • Give a human face to environmental issues;
  • Empower people to become active agents of sustainable and equitable development;
  • Promote an understanding that communities are pivotal to changing attitudes towards environmental issues;
  • Advocate partnership which will ensure all nations and peoples enjoy a safer and more prosperous future.

This year's theme is 'Your Planet Needs You-UNite to Combat Climate Change', to reflect the urgency for nations to agree on a new deal at the crucial climate convention meeting in Copenhagen this December.

The World Environment Day site has some lovely features: There's a daily "Do something" tip on the front page - and a link to a list of other useful actions - and a Twitter for Trees campaign where UNEP will plant one tree for every follower it has by 5th June. Plus there's an inspiring profile of Climate Heroes which should encourage us all.

Thursday, 28 May 2009

Greenpeace Cool IT Challenge

A new campaign by Greenpeace builds on the experience of the Greenpeace Guide to Greener Electronics by seeking to engage public pressure - and a little humour - to move IT industry giants towards action on climate change. Greenpeace wants the IT industry movers and shakers to adopt a leadership role in the run-up to Copenhagen. According to the Smart2020 report, although the IT industry is responsible for 2% of global emissions, it has the technology to enable 15% cuts across the industry, buildings, transport and power sectors. And it's this potential that Greenpeace wants to harness with its new Cool IT campaign.

It has a Green CEO league table and a scorecard showing the progress of the twelve chosen organisations towards three key objectives:
  • Providing IT solutions and accurately measuring the impacts these solutions provide for the rest of the economy (in areas such as grid transmission, transport and building efficiency);
  • Lobbying for a strong climate deal in Copenhagen that would stimulate an increase in demand for IT-driven climate solutions by the rest of the economy; and
  • Reducing their own emissions and increasing their use of renewable energy.

Visitors to the site are encouraged to join up, choose 5 CEOs to follow, invite their friends and follow the campaign via Twitter and blogs. Greenpeace says it will update the campaign regularly in the run-up to Copenhagen.

It's an interesting idea, and it's good that Greenpeace are trying to extend their reach into the maintream, but the idea seems a little simplistic and the rating system relies too heavily on what companies say, rather than what they do. there's a danger here that it's the greenwashers that emerge the heroes, and that won't benefit either Greenpeace's credibility or the climate change debate.

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

UK worst at recycling

A study by Dell, published on the BBC website, suggests Britons are the worst in Europe when it comes to recycling electrical equipment. The survey found that fewer than half of UK residents regularly recycled old hardware, compared with more than 80% of Germans. Within the UK, the Welsh are the worst when it comes to recycling technology products; almost 20% have never done so.

The results are similar to the findings of Kyocera in a survey last year, which found that only 56% of respondents recycled end-of-life IT equipment. By industry sector, retail/media/leisure were worst at 50% and manufacturing/construction/utilities best at 61%.

It is thought the UK creates enough electrical waste each year to fill Wembley Stadium six times over. Under WEEE legislation, suppliers of electrical and electronic equipment have a legal obligation to take back end of life equipment when a new item is purchased, and dispose of it in an environmentally responsible manner.

Friday, 15 May 2009

In praise of low-fi theatre

With CGI and other digital techniques making increasing inroads into entertainment media, it sometimes feels like the story is lost behind the special effects. But Nic Rawling has devised a new concept that harks back to a simpler time when storytelling was a central element of human culture, rather than a multi-million pound industry.

The Paper Cinema combines live animation with live music to create an experience which is almost like watching a film being made in your living room. The elements are simple - black ink line drawings, cut out and mounted onto recycled card to create sets and characters, which are animated live via an antiquated video camera and projected onto a screen. The tiny original drawings are enlarged on the screen, but still retain a compelling intimacy. The action is accompanied by a musical score played primarily on guitar and violin by a single musician. And that's all. The entire show fits in three small cases, making it portable enough to play at music festivals and other makeshift venues. A large part of its charm is the fact that the animation takes place in plain view so that you can see how the illusion is created, and the performance we attended was preceded by a workshop where we could try the techniques for ourselves.

The current repertoire includes two pieces. King Pest, based on a short story by Edgar Allan Poe, is a dark tale of pestilence and plague, scary enough to see off some of the more timid children in the audience. Night Flyer is an original story of a young man's quest to find and rescue a flying girl, still rather dark and gothic but with a touch of romance.

It's not entirely unplugged, but The Paper Cinema is still sufficiently low-fi to qualify as low-carbon entertainment. And with no technological barrier between the audience and the artists, the result is a show that is as authentic as it is entertaining. You can find out more at

Thursday, 7 May 2009

Round the World without flying

Hats off to Tom Fewins and Lara Lockwood who recently returned from a round-the-world trip during which they didn't take a single flight. Instead, they travelled a total of 44,609 miles on 78 buses, 61 trains, 34 cars, 18 boats, three bicycles, two mopeds and an elephant. You can read a great interview about their journey here.

Tom proposed to Lara on a container ship in the middle of the Pacific, and she said yes. I wonder what sort of honeymoon they'll have?

Friday, 1 May 2009

HRH Prince Charles at the Mayday Summit 2009

HRH Prince Charles' Mayday Network is in its third year, and this year's London event at Old Billingsgate Market saw a new format, in line with His Royal Highness' exortation to make climate change fresh and new so that we don't flag in our efforts to address it.

He acknowledged that the current economic situation makes life much harder for business leaders, whose plate must seem very full already without having to consider climate change as well. But the network's name was chosen with care - mayday (m'aider) being the most urgent international distress call. Despite the efforts of the network and others, this call has gone largely unanswered.

Expert opinion - including Lord Stern and the Pottsdam institute - concur that a 4 to 5 degree rise in global temperatures is now looking more likely unless urgent action is taken. This will mean war, famine, flood and hurricane plus the displacement of billions of people. Two months ago it was calculated that we had just 100 months to take the necessary action to prevent this outcome. The doomsday clock, symbolised by the network's dandelion logo, is ticking.

According to His Royal Highness, if we strain every sinew we could still arrest the worst effects of climate change. But only by acting across sectors and ever increasing numbers will we make it clear to the World leaders that urgent action must be taken at the Copenhagen sumnmit. It is crucial that they enter into the Copenhagen negotiations with the demands of business leaders ringing in their ears, because the effects of climate change are more wide ranging and long lasting than the current economic crisis.

More optimistically, Prince Charles acknowledged some of the successes of the May Day Network. For example, the launch of the May Day Journey, a website that provides a first port of call for any business, large or small, that wants to act on climate change. The initial step is to measure, report and work to reduce carbon emissions, and the creation of sector initiatives is accelerating this vital work. In addition, the Marketing Society Alliance is seeking to establish a common language for the communication of climate change issues.

Finally, His Royal Highness stated that collaboration and leadership are at the heart of the May Day Network, and it's vital that we grow the network, especially to include small businesses and non-profit organisations. He exorted us all to recruit 10 more members each, at least, encouraging others to sign up and get started on their own May Day journey. With a marketplace of over 50 businesses, round tables and even a theatrical production, the event provided plenty of inspiration to do just that.

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Earth Day 2009

Earth Day was founded in 1970, and is seen as the birth of the modern environmental movement in America. On 22nd April 1970, 20 million Americans took to the streets to demonstrate for a healthy, sustainable environment. By 1990, 200 million people in 141 countries were involved in a movement that claims to have helped pave the way for the 1992 United Nations Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. In 2000, 5,000 environmental groups around the world took part, reaching millions of people in 184 countries.

Earth Day was devised by Gaylord Nelson, a U.S. Senator from Wisconsin, "to shake up the political establishment and force this issue onto the national agenda. " - at a time when environmental legislation was almost non-existent and air pollution was almost considered a measure of prosperity. The first Earth Day is credited with provoking the creation of the United States Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species acts. For his role as Earth Day founder, Senator Nelson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom - the highest civilian honour in the United States.

Earth Day is gearing up to celebrate its 40th anniversary with programme of domestic and global activities; perhaps in the Obama era Nelson's objective will finally be realised in the country where it all began.

Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Free eco-show

If you want to know how easy greener living can be, consider a visit to UK AWARE 09 in Olympia, London on Friday 17 and Saturday 18 April. UK AWARE is the UK’s only green lifestyle exhibition for people who want to learn how to reduce their carbon emissions - and probably save some cash, too.

Exhibitors will be showcasing hundreds of products and services ranging from cars to computers, from fashion to food and from travel to advice services. An extensive range of free and interactive expert speaker panels will enlighten, engage and inspire visitors.

Additional features include a clothes swapping party, the Green Screen Cinema and a Chillout lounge. You can get the code for a free ticket from BeMoreEco.

Sunday, 29 March 2009

Earth Hour retrospective

So, all over the World, lights were dimmed to demonstrate to our various governments that we want them to act, urgently and decisively, on climate change. It's pretty humbling when you consider it as an act of global consciousness. This video really brings that home.

Thursday, 19 March 2009

Shame on Shell

Greenbang reports today that Royal Dutch Shell is pulling the plug on its renewable energy investments to focus on its core strengths of oil and gas. According to Reuters, Shell spent around $1.25 billion on green-energy investments between 1999 and 2006. Shell has around 550 megawatts of wind power capacity but last year withdrew from Europe to focus its wind energy generation activities in the US. All investment in hydrogen, solar and wind energy will now cease, with any future renewables investment limited to biofuels.

The decision will further provoke environmental groups who are already concerned over Shell's investments in energy- and water-intensive oil sands projects. The company is featured unfavourably in the new climate change movie, The Age of Stupid, which premiered last week. While Shell's advertising focuses on its involvement in renewable energy, only around 1 percent of its investments actually go to these energy sources.

Choose cans

Analysis by the Carbon Trust has confirmed that soft drinks in aluminium cans generate about half the amount of carbon emissions of the same drink supplied in a glass bottle. A lifecycle assessment project by Coca-Cola UK found that a canned drink generates about 170 grams of greenhouse gases, reduced to 85g if the can is later recycled.

The exercise showed the largest slice of the drinks' carbon footprint comes from packaging: anywhere from 30 percent to 70 percent, depending on the container.

The precise figures may vary from one manufacturer to another, depending on how much recycled content is in its packaging material, how the product is shipped, etc., but as a rule of thumb it's reasonable to assume that an aluminium can is more sustainable than a glass bottle. This report doesn't mention plastic bottles, though.

Sunday, 15 March 2009

Pete Postlethwaite at the Not Stupid launch

Following the People's Premiere of The Age of Stupid, director Franny Armstrong and producer Lizzie Gillett launched the Not Stupid campaign. The aim is to convince the UK government - and hopefully those of other nations - to create a treaty at Copenhagen that will serve as the humanity's passport to salvation rather than its suicide pact. Pete Postlethwaite, who stars as the archivist who provides the movie's narrative strand, was unequivocal in his support of the campaign. Asked to make the first pledge of the campaign, he vowed to return his OBE if Copenhagen fails to gain commitment to significant and immediate decarbonisation measures.

Friday, 13 March 2009

Carbon Reduction Commitment User Guide issued

Defra has today released a user guide for the Carbon Reduction Commitment, which will operate from April 2010. The Carbon Reduction Commitment is designed to tackle CO2 emissions not already covered by Climate Change Agreements and the EU Emissions Trading System. It aims to help reduce the country’s carbon footprint to deliver the ambitious emissions reduction targets set in the Government’s Climate Change Act. It is a domestic cap-and-trade scheme for public and private sector organisations that use more that 6,000MWH of energy per year – equivalent to an energy bill of about £500k – and have half hourly metering.

Originally it was stated that only 5,000 or so organisations would be impacted, but this has now been revised to 20,000 – so many who considered themselves to be exempt could now fall into the programme when it begins in April 2010.Under the scheme, companies must purchase allowances depending on how much carbon they intend to emit – initially at a fixed price predicted to be £12 per tonne. Eventually the total number of allowances available to purchase will be capped, to provide a mechanism to drive down energy consumption, and the carbon price will float. Savings of £1bn in energy costs by 2020 are projected for the participants, but those who don’t curb their emissions will be hit by penalties including monetary fines and a poor ranking in the scheme’s league table. Those who top the league tables will receive financial incentives.

The Carbon Reduction Commitment will be phased in between 2010 and 2013 and although capping will not apply until allowance auctioning starts in 2013 it is widely accepted that adapting early to the legislation offers both financial and reputation benefits. You can opt-in to updates from Defra here.

Thursday, 12 March 2009

The Age of Stupid - The People's Premiere

The Age of Stupid is a new film about climate change and on Sunday 15th March it hits our screens with the World's first INclusive premiere. Unlike those stuffy carbon-heavy red-carpet affairs that stars fly to from all over the world, The Age Of Stupid will be screened in a solar powered tent in Leicester Square and linked via satellite with over 60 cinemas across the UK including The Eden Project. 16,000 people are expected to attend - making it officially the largest ever premiere. Pete Postlethwaite, who stars as the narrator of the film, will arrive by solar car and will be joined on the green carpet by a glittering array of British talent all lending their support to the film and the new climate campaign, Not Stupid, supported by Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and Stop Climate Chaos.

According to the official synopsis, The Age Of Stupid is a documentary-drama-animation hybrid from Director Franny Armstrong (McLibel, Drowned Out) and Oscar-winning Producer John Battsek (One Day In September, Live Forever, In the Shadow of the Moon). Pete Postlethwaite (In The Name of the Father, Brassed Off, The Usual Suspects) stars as an old man living in the devastated world of 2055 who watches 'archive' footage from 2008 and asks: Why didn't we stop climate change when we had the chance?

The movie focuses on six human stories:
- Alvin DuVernay, is a paleontogolist helping Shell find more oil off the coast of New Orleans. He also rescued more than 100 people after Hurricane Katrina, which, by 2055, is well known as one of the first “major climate change events”.
- Jeh Wadia in Mumbai aims to start-up a new low-cost airline and gets a million Indians flying.
- Layefa Malemi lives in absolute poverty in a small village in Nigeria from which Shell extracts tens of millions of dollars worth of oil every week. She dreams of becoming a doctor, but must fish in the oil-infested waters for four years to raise the funds.
- Jamila Bayyoud, aged 8, is an Iraqi refugee living on the streets of Jordan after her home was destroyed - and father killed - during the US-led invasion of 2003. She’s trying to help her elder brother make it across the border to safety.
- Piers Guy is a windfarm developer from Cornwall fighting the NIMBYs of Middle England.
- Fernand Pareau, an 82-year-old French mountain guide, has witnessed his beloved Alpine glaciers melt by 150 metres.

The climax of the evening will be the official launch of the Not Stupid campaign, when Pete Postlethwaite will start a giant countdown to the Copenhagen Climate Summit in December. Copenhagen is being called “the most important meeting in human history”, where the successor to the Kyoto Treaty must be finalised. Not Stupid is an epic mission to turn 250 million viewers into climate activists, all focused on making sure the deal agreed at Copenhagen is both just and truly as strong as the science demands. More information on taking part from the official website.

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Beautiful vintage jewellery reborn

As a follower of the "more stilettos than sandals" school of sustainability, I was delighted to discover the bespoke jewellery collection of Magpie Vintage. The principle is re-use - take jewellery from the first half of the 20th century, restore it and incorporate it into a contemporary design. The resulting pieces are absolutely breathtaking; I have just treated myself to a necklace very much like the one in the photo.

Don't be put off by the first impression of their website, which focuses primarily on bridal jewellery and accessories - most of their pieces would look equally at home worn with a little black dress for a formal occasion or with a white linen shirt for a casual event. The bespoke pieces aren't cheap, but they are totally unique and Magpie Vintage will even rework your own cherished pieces to give them a new lease of life.

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Earth Hour - spread the word!

Just under two years ago in Sydney, Australia, a global movement was born. By switching off its lights for one hour to draw attention to the issue of climate crisis, Sydney created Earth Hour. Now adopted by the WWF, Earth Hour had grown by 2008 to include 370 cities and an estimated 50 million people Worldwide; in Australia, it is claimed that 58% of adults took part. Now support is being gathered for Earth Hour 2009, which in the UK will take place from 8.30 to 9.30 pm on Saturday 28th March.

Last year my household took part, having stumbled across it thanks to Google's black screen. It was easy, it was fun, and we're planning to do it again. The WWF wants to encourage as many individuals and businesses as possible to join in and already over 680 cities from 75 countries have signed up, including my home town of Reading.

There's loads of good stuff on WWF's website, including an inspiring video and a toolkit. All you have to do is switch off your lights for an hour - but businesses that close for the weekend can make an even bigger statement by switching off from Friday to Monday. A quick look at the photos here will demonstrate just how beneficial that could be.

Thursday, 19 February 2009

Single charger breakthrough for mobiles

Most of us have a drawer full of obsolete chargers at home, but this needless waste could soon be a thing of the past because in future it will be possible for manufacturers to ship new phones without chargers. The major mobile phone operators have jointly agreed on a micro USB standard for all mobile phone chargers. The scheme includes Orange, Telefonica, Vodafone, 3, AT&T, mobilkom Austria, T-Mobile, Telenor Telstra, Nokia, Samsung, Motorola, LG and Sony Ericsson.

The scheme was announced with week by Rob Conway of the GSM Association. He didn’t say when the certified compatible charger will appear but the GSMA has set a target to ship 50 per cent of phones with this charger by 2012.

Some commentators are concerned that applications like high definition video will need a better connector than micro USB. But even if a second connector is needed for these, any kind of standardisation is a step forward.

Thursday, 12 February 2009

New green marketing standard

The new PAS2020 standard, developed by the BSI with input from the Direct Marketing Association, Royal Mail and Acxiom, provides an independently-accredited standard of best environmental practice in direct marketing. There are three levels to compliance, with the first level designed to be easily attained and level three likely to require changes to the way applicants do business.

The PAS2020 standard applies to all forms of direct mail, not just direct marketing, although clearly "junk mail" is an easy target. DMA members can obtain the specification free of charge; it costs £80 to non-members via the BSI website. There's also an online campaign management calculator, to test planned campaigns for environmental impact.

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Darwin on decarbonisation

Watching a documentary about Darwin last night, I was left pondering whether there are parallels to be drawn between his theory of evolution and the need to adapt to the challenges of decarbonisation. Darwin was prone to look for parallels in unrelated areas such as economics, so it's perhaps not so big a stretch as it might be. Maybe the ability of human beings to thrive and prosper in the coming decades will be determined by their ability to adapt to low-carbon living. Those physically adapted to walking and cycling, reading in lower lux conditions etc. would be favoured by natural selection and could evolve to become the humans of tomorrow.

In most animal populations, a group which grows beyond the capacity of its habitat to sustain it tends to fall prey to a drastic reductions in numbers, as competition for food and water weeds out those who are less robust. Sometimes the response is more dramatic, like the mass suicide of lemmings. And indeed, some are preducting that food and energy wars will be the inevitable outcome of the unbridled expansion of the human race.

Darwin, whilst a devoted husband and father, never forgot that he and his family were just mammals, and that their behaviour followed the same immutable laws that apply in the rest of nature. Something we would all do well to remember as we respond to the twin challenges of population growth and climate change.

Sunday, 1 February 2009

Beauty Queens of Green

I'm not sure what to think about Miss Earth UK: the first eco beauty pageant, organised by Its heart may be in the right place, but the 60 girls from across the UK who gathered in Leamington Spa to compete for the chance to become an international ambassador for environmental awareness didn't all seem to have grasped the point.

We're used to beauty queens professing their desire for World peace and harmony, but these ladies are expected to prove they are "strong and effective advocates for Mother Nature". Some of them undoubtedly have a deep and abiding interest in ecological issues but others seem to think that wearing last season's River Island dress counts as recycling. In the end, though, Caroline Duffy who was crowned Miss Earth England proved to be a member of Friends of the Earth who volunteers in allotments.

Actually, I feel that a "more stilettos than sandals" approach is required to make environmental issues more appealing and that somehow we need to glam-up green. Maybe pageants like this can help. But I couldn't help a wry smile when I read that the essential piece of kit for contestants is a tub of good old petroleum jelly to make your legs shine and stop your lips sticking to your teeth when you smile. Now there's one product that needs a sustainable alternative if green beauty queens are really going to strut their stuff with sincerity.

Friday, 30 January 2009

Greg Barker MP at The Carbon Trust

Speaking in a debate at the Carbon Trust's stakeholders meeting, Greg Barker MP gave a spirited call to arms for the low carbon industry. He posited that with falling energy prices and a lack of finance, we need a radical rethink, as tinkering will never meet the targets.

Obama's administration is performing a policy U turn that will impact the UK. The USA will drive a new business agenda based on cleantech and if we don't respond in a radical and ambitious way we will be stuck in recession. We need greater partnership between the private and public sectors. The government needs to remove the risk and provide seedcorn to create a new paradigm in energy; an "electricity internet". The aim is to remove the burdens that prevent innovation, invest in incubators that will leverage intellectual property and shift taxation to favour low-carbon innovation. The movement will be led by entrepreneurs but the government must enable it.

It's essential not to focus on carbon alone, because a collapse in oil prices will mean we cannot achieve a realistic carbon price. In fact, we need a sophisticated range of instruments offering a choice of levers. The Conservatives are recommending feed-in tariffs, £6.5k to improve the energy efficiency of every single house and a low carbon heat tariff.

In Greg Barker's view, energy efficiency will become an indicator of global competitiveness in the same way as productivity was during the 70s. And cleantech could be the catalyst that will re-energise economies and build nations.

Thursday, 29 January 2009

Tesco and the low carbon economy

Hot on the heels of the opening of Tesco's first low-carbon store, its director of government affiairs David North took part in a lively debate at The Carbon Trust's stakeholders' meeting. Tesco last week opened the first store built from its new low-carbon blueprint, which uses energy-efficiency measures to operate with 70% less carbon emissions than traditional stores built only a couple of years ago.

David North argued that there is little incentive for business to focus on low carbon technology when energy prices are falling and there are no tax incentives for making green investments. Customers say that their values don't change in a recession but their ability to exercise them does. They need financial incentives advice and encouragement. For example, when Tesco offered 4 energy efficient lightbulbs for £1, they sold 2.36m.

In order to meet the 2020 target of 15% of energy from renewables, community generation will need to be developed. This requires feed-in tariffs and an overhaul of the planning laws. Tesco is keen to incorporate renewable energy generation into its new stores, and to become a net contributor to the national grid, but the current planning legislation is a barrier.

The birds and the bees

According to the British Trust for Ornithology, Britain's robin population could be halved if a wet summer follows the worst breeding season on record. In 2008, almost one in four chicks died shortly after birth.

And the Co-op is banning eight pesticides from its farms and donating £150k for research to try and halt the decline in bee populations. This follows last week's Government announcement of an extra £4.3m for the protection of bees. Colonies have declined significantly over the past two years.

Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Carnivorous robot lamp

A prototype lamp has been developed which is powered by insects. The idea is that its light attracts insects, which are trapped and fed into a microbial fuel cell which power the lamp. Designers James Auger, Jimmy Loizeau and Aleksander Zivanovic claim that watching the trapped insects adds to the entertainment value. More at

Friday, 16 January 2009

Amazing algae

A humble organism living in our oceans could provide a breakthrough in the battle against climate crisis. Salps eat the algae that absorb greenhouse gases and then lock away the carbon at the bottom of the ocean. An average swarm can absorb 4,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide per night.

These jelly-like creatures, about the size of a finger, eat great quantities of phytoplankton and excrete carbon-rich pellets which sink to the ocean floor. They are effectively a natural carbon capture and sequestration agent, and research indicates that their numbers have increased more than ten-fold in the last 70 years in the coast off south east Australia - perhaps a sign that our planet is addressing the greenhouse gas problem itself. Treehugger has an interesting article here.

Thursday, 8 January 2009

Algae-fuelled jet

The BBC reports that a US airline has completed a 90 minute first test flight of a plane partly powered by biofuel derived from algae. The twin-engine Continental Boeing 737-800 completed a circuit over the Gulf of Mexico with one of its engines powered by a 50-50 blend of biofuel and normal aircraft fuel.

The biofuel used was a blend of two different types of alternative oils - algae and jatropha.
Jatropha is a plant that grows successfully in poor soils and marginal land and yields four times more fuel per hectare than soybean. However, algae is viewed by many as a key fuel for the future because it is fast growing, does not compete with food crops for arable land, and yields up to 30 times more fuel than standard energy crops.

Saturday, 3 January 2009

Japan re-instates solar subsidy

Having withdrawn all solar subsidies in March 2006, Japan rushed through legislation in the final days of 2008 to provide funding of 70,000 yen per kilowatt of equipment installed in 2009. IT expects 35,000 installations by the end of the tax year on Marcxh 31st. After that, the budget proposal for the next fiscal period includes a further 20 billion yen of subsidies.

Domestic solar demand was curbed drastically by the removal of subsidies, and its solar panel makers struggled to invest in R&D, and to compete with more aggressive purchasers of silicon, leaving them ill-equipped to cope with even remaining demand. As a result, Sanyo has been overtaken as number 1 producer in the World by Germany's Q-Cells AG, while China's Suntech Power Holdings Co Ltd has pushed out Kyocera Corp for third place in the market.
Japan is the World's fifth biggest emitter of greenhouse gases and has set a goal of 60-80% reduction by 2050, and aims to have more than 70 percent of newly built houses equipped with solar panels by 2020. Japan's emissions hit a record high in the year ended March 2008, putting it at risk of missing its Kyoto Protocol target over the next four years of cutting emissions to 6 percent below 1990 levels.

Whether this move is enough to kick-start Japan's ailing solar industry remains to be seen - with the price of panels predicted to fall by up to 50% in the next 3-5 years while energy to power ratios rise, people may be reluctant to invest now in a technology that still carries a lengthy pay back period.

Friday, 2 January 2009

Coral growth declining

The Australian Institute of Marine Science has today reported that coral growth in Australia's Great Barrier Reef is at its slowest for 400 years. The decline is thought to be due to global warming and the increasing acidity of seawater.

Dr Glenn De'ath and colleagues investigated over 300 colonies of massive Porites corals - which are several hundred years old - and found that calcification has declined by 13.3% since 1990. They conclude that this is is likely to reduce the diversity of species the reef supports.

Thursday, 1 January 2009

Green New Year

I've long been an admirer of, Martin Lewis' site dedicated to reducing costs without impacting your lifestyle. Its readers have contributed some useful ideas about re-use and recycling of Christmas items, from re-gifting to arts and crafts projects - and how to keep your christmas tree alive for another year. You can find it all here - and do considering signing up to the newsletter, it's full of useful tips to save you money (just remember: if you don't need it then it's not really a bargain! I've totally avoided the New Year sales this year to avoid buying things I don't need).