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.