Monday, November 21, 2011

No one raindrop thinks it's responsible for the flood

Over the last couple of weeks there have been some worrying headlines in the environmental ghettos sections of the various newspapers. For those of us paying attention it has been fascinating. Most of these are appearing now because Durban and the climate change talks are coming up. I’ll link to these shortly but first I want to talk about attitudes and ways of thinking.

The headline that had me thinking was not about ‘the end of the world as we know it’, as so many seem to be, but on a much more prosaic topic, local air quality. The headline in the Guardian is ‘UK government puts thousands of lives at risk over air pollution failures’. It’s an interesting article, one in a long line of news items I’ve seen over the years that have warned that lives are being shortened due to local air pollution, mainly caused by traffic congestion.

What this highlights is a problem of perception and power. It isn’t members of the government who are causing the pollution, although each will play their part, but all of us. It is all of us who drive, particularly in busy cities, who are putting thousands of lives at risk. None of us would intentionally harm anyone but our cumulative actions are doing this. There is a disconnect between our day to day decisions and the effects these have and it is difficult to see how the government, in our democratic country, can make us change. In fact, one of the interesting things to come out of this article is that under the localism bill central government will be passing the responsibility for paying the fines imposed by the EU to the local authorities. In effect our council taxes will pay the fines imposed in an effort to stop air pollution harming us. This doesn’t seem to be the best way of protecting us. The suggestions made by the environmental audit committee are ‘a new national framework of low-emissions zones and a public awareness campaign.’ Both of these are, of course, good suggestions but I’m fairly sure that most of us are aware that we contribute to air pollution by our driving and don’t change our behaviour despite that knowledge.

If we can’t deal with local air pollution where the evidence is obvious and the damage happening to people here and now the effect of trying to get people to take responsibility for their contribution for climate change is even more difficult. There have been concerted ‘marketing’ efforts to discredit the science behind climate change and it has become a divisive and polarised debate. To see this just look in the comments section following any environmental story. It tends to the level of playground ‘debate’. We continue to bicker about whether it is happening, who is to blame and who should deal with it.

The following stories have appeared in the last couple of weeks:
The small island states, whose land will be inundated by the sea, watch with a mixture of despair and anger as countries with higher land seek to put off coming to an agreement on what to do until 2018 or later. Perhaps Norway and Australia can take the refugees when it comes time.

Recent readings of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere have jumped by a record amount. ‘The figures for 2010 mean that levels of greenhouse gases are higher than the worst case scenario outlined by climate experts just four years ago.’

The International Energy Agency (IEA) warns that the world is likely to build so many fossil-fuelled power stations, energy-guzzling factories and inefficient buildings in the next five years that it will become impossible to hold global warming to safe levels, and the last chance of combating dangerous climate change will be ‘lost forever’. What gives this further power is that the IEA has always been a very conservative organization.

I am not totally despairing. I spend a lot of time speaking to companies and organisations that are working very hard to minimise their energy use and their waste production, not because of a green sensibility, although they have that too, but because cutting energy use and waste cuts costs and makes them more competitive. With the advent of BS EN 16001 and ISO50001, the energy management standards, the BSi did a survey and discovered that almost a quarter of businesses they asked did not know what their energy costs were as a proportion of their total costs. The government has recently consulted on a proposed requirement for more organisations to report on their energy use/carbon emissions. I hope that this will play a small part in improving our energy efficiency. As it is small repeated thoughtless actions that are causing the problems I am hopeful that many small positive actions will start to make a difference.

In the meantime, my personal actions are the only ones I can fully control and I do my utmost to minimise my carbon footprint, not least because it saves me money too. 

Friday, October 28, 2011

What a waste!

I’ve written about this before but I think it bears repeating because things have changed somewhat. I’m talking about junk mail. I would suggest that it is worth reviewing you junk load at least once a year. Why? I’ll come back to that.

First, I’ll redefine what I think junk mail is. It is mail that arrives unasked for that gets stripped of its plastic wrapper and goes straight into the recycling bin. The wrapper goes into general waste. Very, very, very occasionally something turns up that turns out to be useful but generally, not.

So, what’s the problem? It’s two seconds work to strip and bin.

The problem, of course, is that you are then paying to have that waste disposed of. Think of it as legalised flytipping. You might think that it doesn’t cost so much but in an office of twenty you will often find that a good part of the recycling bin is full of unwanted adverts, unread magazines and the stuff that comes tucked inside them. And from an environmental point of view, tree have died, been processed into paper, printed and then gone straight into the bin. Much of the stuff isn’t even good for composting due to the gloss and colour.

The other thing is, important stuff can get lost in among the junk. I found my voter registration form this morning whilst I was picking up piles of junk mail to photograph. (I’m working from home and therefore don’t have access to the recycling bins dotted around the office.)

In fact the stuff in the photograph bears looking at. Some of it is addressed to the former occupant of my house – four years gone. When I remember I send these ads back with ‘No longer at this address’ scrawled across them. I have been doing this for four years. I’m still getting stuff. This is complete junk and a total waste for the sender too.

Then there are take away menus. This is inevitable. I live in a student area. Students live on takeaways. Leafletting my street every other month is cost effective because the student have probably lost the menus in that time. My method with these is to immediately throw away anything not in ten minutes walking distance. I used to keep the local ones. Now I don’t. I throw away all the local ones too and look the menu up online. If they don’t have a website they don’t get any business from me. (It must be said that the Bilash (red (meat) and green (vegetarian) menus) is an excellent take away but I do resent the number of leaflets I get from them.)

There is the Natural Collection catalogue. I’ve bought stuff from them, on and off, for years. I thought I asked them to stop sending me catalogues last year when I did a concerted campaign to stop my junk but I can’t find my email so maybe not. An amail has gone today. The send me regular alerts on at least two of the email addresses anyway. I don’t need the paper copy.

And then there is Christian Aid. This was the charity I donated my sponsor money to when I lived on £1 a day earlier this year. Now they email me regularly and send me lots of paper. I get the emails. I don’t need the paper. I hadn’t even opened them. They were just sitting on the junk pile. Now I’ve taken them apart, put the freepost envelopes for reuse and binned the rest. I know that any charity wants more supporters and more money from their current supporters but I would actually prefer them to spend the money I donate on helping people in need, not printing and posting stuff to me. I get the emails! In the past I made a one-off donation to a charity that I suspect spent all my money on sending me letters asking for more cash. They didn’t get any more cash. An email has gone out to Christian Aid.

The point is, in a year a business will have contact with a great number of new organisations. A good number of those will take the opportunity to send their marketing to you in paper form. Those need to be culled. Also, we asked a number of membership organisations to only send one magazine. We are a small office. We can share. At one point I think we were getting six copies of The Environmentalist. The problem here, I guess, is perhaps adverisers need a certain number of paper copies to go out before they are willing to buy space. Whatever. You are probably going to have to remind some organisations to which you subscribe that you really meant, ‘Only one please.’

Times are difficult and the one thing that doesn’t go down in a recession is the marketing budget but that doesn’t mean that any organisation wants to pay for getting rid of junk paper. So, to add to the improvement log:

  • Rather than just bin the rubbish, spend a day asking people not to send paper marketing – you can offer your email address as an alternative
  • Revisit the organisations that are sending you magazines. Ask them to keep it to one for the whole organisation or none at all and read it on line.
  • Talk to the people who send you catalogues. In some cases the paper catalogue is useful but often it is much easier to search and buy on line. Again, cut the number of catalogues received from each supplier to one or none at all.
  • Make sure that the residual paper is recycled.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Climate change again

Climate change has been in the news again recently.  The Express notes that La Nina is in force in the Pacific and will gradually strengthen as the year ends leading to another potentially bitterly cold winter. The Telegraph reported in June that there may be a “little ice age’ in store based on astronomers’ belief that the next sun spot cycle will be less intensive than normal or fail to happen.

I remember reading about this in the New Scientist quite some time ago now. One of their conclusions seemed to be that this would give us some breathing space to sort out our carbon emissions. Reading comments on any climate related story however, causes me to despair for that scientific and logical hope. The main sentiment seems to be that warming is a government plot but, if not, this gives us more opportunity to ignore the issue.
Joanna Haigh professor of atmospheric physics at Imperial College London, cautions that "Even if the predictions are correct, the effect of global warming will outstrip the sun’s ability to cool even in the coldest scenario. And in any case, the cooling effect is only ever temporary. When the sun’s activity returns to normal, the greenhouse gases won't have gone away."

Whilst on the subject of skeptics, the results from the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature (BEST) project are out. This was set up by climate skeptic, physicist Richard Muller following the email hacking scandal. As Real Climate reports the intention was to, ‘create a new, independent compilation and assessment of global land surface temperature trends using new statistical methods and a wider range of source data. Expectations that the work would put teeth in accusations against CRU and GISTEMP led to a lot of early press, and an invitation to Muller to testify before Congress.’ The BBC reports that, ‘The project received funds from sources that back organisations lobbying against action on climate change.’
The big news from this study is that actually the earth is getting warmer or, as Mother Jones reports, ‘But Muller's congressional testimony last March didn't go according to plan. He told them a preliminary analysis suggested that the three main climate models in use today—each of which uses a different estimating technique, and each of which has potential flaws—are all pretty accurate: Global temperatures have gone up considerably over the past century, and the increase has accelerated over the past few decades. Yesterday, BEST confirmed these results and others in its first set of published papers about land temperatures.’ The graph below shows how well the figures match:
And yet, the comments don't change. There's a lot I might blame the government for but imagining climate change is not one of them. Sigh.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Woodbrooke - a truly sustainable place

Last week I led an EMS Implementation course on behalf of the Environmental Association of Universities and Colleges (EAUC). It was a very interesting course with some thoughtful and hardworking delegates. It’s always exciting to lead a course like this, hearing of people’s experiences, problems and achievements. What made this course rather special was the location. We ran it as a residential course based at the Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre in Selly Oak, Birmingham. It was formerly the family home of George Cadbury, the chocolate maker.

The Quaker ethics are embedded in the service provided so the place was both friendly and welcoming and very beautiful. We all ate together in the communal dining room overlooking the grounds. The food was wholesome and tasty and catered for meat eaters, vegetarians, and those with food intolerances. I’ve rarely eaten so well and so healthily. At the end of each meal we took our plates and stacked them ready for washing, emptying food waste into a bin, none recyclable material (butter wrappers) into a separate (small) box and put our cutlery into a container of hot soapy water which would make the cleaning process more efficient. There was minimum waste, not least because you were welcome to keep returning for seconds and didn’t, therefore, take more than you turned out to need.

During the breaks in the training day not only was coffee and tea available but herb and fruit teas together with home baked biscuits and cakes. Yum. The water was not commercially bottled but filtered tap water in reusable glass bottles, again a much more sustainable option.

Our training room, the Eva Koch Room, was lovely. We had comfortable armchairs rather then cold plastic chairs and tables. It made for a very relaxing experience with a view through the sash windows of the glorious autumn garden.

I don’t know what everyone else’s rooms were like. Mine was small but very cosy and they left my towels alone. I can’t count the number of hotels I’ve stayed out where I’ve followed instructions so that they shouldn’t wash my towels and they’ve taken them anyway. It was so nice to have a room that was not messed with, other then the coffee and tea being refreshed.

Much of the activity at the centre is Quaker based but wider education and accommodation is very much welcomed. When we arrived there was a class of children learning to work together and we were not the only outside adult training course they have.

They work hard to be sustainable and invest in sustainable refurbishment. At present they have a box where you can donate to cover the carbon footprint of your travel. The money raised will contribute to installing solar water heaters. This together with the egg timers in the showers (my showers were always over before the sand ran out) will reduce their impact again. All but one of us arrived by train/taxi because this is a very accessible place, within walking distance of Selly Oak station, unless you are carrying a laptop, clothes for three days and a lot of course paperwork. The grounds are wildlife sanctuary and a haven of peace for the residents. Who knew there was such beauty just off the A38? Certainly my taxi driver didn’t.

I think training facilities, conference centres and hotels could all learn a lot from Woodbrooke. I’d certainly like to work there again. (Hint).

Friday, September 30, 2011

Environmental grumbling

There has been a flurry of Linkedin emails in my Yahoo! inbox recently and so this morning I checked to see which of my former colleagues I am now linked to. It’s rather exciting, finding connections that I thought had been broken as people have moved on. And it’s fascinating wondering how Linkedin knows I know some people.

This morning there was nothing other than people updating their profiles, which I skimmed quickly, and then wandered back to the front page and looked at the Yahoo! news headlines displayed for my delectation and generally ignored unless I’m particularly bored.

This morning’s crop were as uninspiring as ever but two of them stood out as very worrisome. It was announced that the government is proposing to fund a return to once a week bin collections and that they are intending to raise the speed limit on motorways to 80mph.

The reason given for the speed limit rise is the economic benefits from shorter journey times. I don’t drive very much these days but when I do it is generally during rush hour and I frequently find, on the M1 and M62, that 70mph is just a dream.

I have a number of concerns about this proposal. One is that with the speed limit set at 70mph people generally drive at 90mph. Raise it to 80mph coupled with a weird aversion to the use of speed cameras and people will tend to drive at 100mph. This increases the fuel used, the carbon dioxide emissions and the chance of an accident, which stops traffic dead for an appreciable amount of time.

I have, over the years, spent many unproductive hours sitting in a car waiting for the accident in front of me to be cleared. The most recent of these was on the Snake Pass on 17th September. Whilst we sat there two fire engines, two ambulances and a police car drove past. As it happens the Snake is an A road so we were able to turn round and find an alternate route. This is obviously not possible on a motorway so an accident results in stationary traffic, sometimes for hours, whilst the wreckage is cleared away and the bodies helicoptered out.

The Transport Secretary noted also ‘the benefit of bringing millions of ordinary motorists, who are otherwise law abiding, back on the right side of the law.’
This seems to me to be, frankly, ludicrous. In no other area would we change the law for the benefit of the law breaker.

Wonderfully the head of the RAC Foundation Professor Stephen Glaister seems to have similar thoughts to mine. He commented, ‘Drivers travelling that 10mph quicker might reach their destination sooner, but will use about 20% more fuel and emit 20% more CO2. There is also likely to be a slight increase in road casualties.’ He continued, ‘Before you change a speed limit, you have to know whether you are doing it for safety, economic or environmental reasons. Unfortunately not all of these are compatible.’

So, that’s the first unsettling news from ‘The Greenest Government Ever’. The next is the idea that the government should pay councils to restore weekly bin collections. This is a fascinating one given that we are supposed to be reducing the amount of waste we produce.

Why should we want to reduce waste? Three main reasons. One is that biodegradable waste buried in landfill site releases methane. This is both dangerously explosive if it builds up and a potent greenhouse gas, around 23% worse than carbon dioxide. One is that resource is becoming more expensive – plastic is made from oil and as the price of that rises the cost of plastic increases. And the final one is that we have limited landfill space left in the UK and no-one is terribly keen on having new ones excavated and filled near them. And then, of course, there is the hidden cost of managing waste. We are not aware of the cost of all that packaging but we pay for it in our grocery bills. And then we pay for it again in our council tax bills as the local authority’s bin men magic it away for us.

There are some fascinating waste facts here.

In Sheffield we still have weekly collections of general waste and fortnightly collections of recyclables. The fact that we are ‘lucky’ makes no difference to me. I usually put my general waste bin out monthly (I don’t eat meat and I compost my vegetable waste) and my recycling bin quarterly. I’d like to be able to rent out bin space to my neighbours. I might sound holier than thou. It’s not because my soul is pure but that I’m watching the pennies with two kids at university. Having my milk delivered, making food from scratch and taking packed lunches to work greatly reduces the amount of packaging waste and I don’t drink pop so no bulky PET bottles in the bin.

I could do a lot more to reduce my waste and I’d be more than happy to take a council tax reduction to do so. Or, more to the point, save some of the jobs and services that are being cut under the government austerity measures. One of the comments (by Stephen) on the news story went like this:

We’re going to make you unemployed.
We’re going to make you lose your home
We’re going to charge you £9000 for university
We’re going to sack servicemen
We’re going to get rid of Aircraft and ships.
We’re going tor raise VAT
We’re going to let the banks off the hook
We’re are going to stay in Europe
We’re going to keep raising fuel prices
We’re going to alter political boundaries
We’re going to cut NHS Spending
We’re going to cut education spending
We’re going to increase foreign aid
We’re going to involve us all in conflicts that don’t concern us
But we’re going to collect your dustbins weekly, aren't we clever?’

(Apostrophes added)

I don’t agree with all of his criticisms but I do agree that the government should perhaps think more carefully about what best to spend its (our) money on. We could all do a bit more, waste less (and that means wasting less money) and retain more essential services. Mr Pickles believes that every household in England has a basic right to have their rubbish collected every week. I think there are some basic rights that are more important.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Open for debate...

Alison has been reading again. This time it's government policy, a thing we should all keep our eyes on. Here is her response:

So the Communities and Local Government Department have recently issued a Draft National Planning Policy Framework. They state that it is a “key part of our reforms to make the planning system less complex and more accessible, and to promote sustainable growth”. All good so far.

There definitely seems room for improvement in the planning system and the ability of it to react to a changing economic, social and environmental landscape.

We use the existing Planning Policy Guidance and Statements (PPG/PPS) considerably as part of our work. For example, we carry out Environmental Impact Assessments of large scale developments and renewable developments (e.g. onshore wind), and the PPGs/PPSs provide information on the requirements that the developments have to meet in order to be agreed. Further to this we do a lot of work with clients at the pre-planning stage, such as carrying out ecological and contaminated land surveys and putting together sustainability statements.

So any updates and changes to policy seem important to keep up with the times. However, although this is only a draft framework, some concerns are already being raised. The report starts off by clearly defining sustainable development to include the economic, social and environmental impacts on society. But it quickly moves on to start talking solely about ‘sustainable economic growth’. It also states “There is no necessary contradiction between increased levels of development and protecting and enhancing the environment, as long as development is planned and undertaken responsibly.” Some critics have highlighted the final part of this sentence to be the most worrying. They feel, that the problem is that it is often NOT undertaken responsibly.

Whilst we are remaining neutral on our judgment a quick search of the 65 page report highlights that the words ‘climate change’ and ‘natural environment’ only appear 7 times each in the main text. It will be interesting to see how influential this document will be to the planning system once it has been through consultation. I think the consultation responses will make good reading over a glass of red wine….

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Keep the customer satisfied...

I had an interesting week last week which culminated in me catching the train into work on Thursday morning rather than cycling. I had my iPhone with me and was sending emails backwards and forwards to someone who wanted my opinions on the efficacy of the waste legislation in England. Whilst carrying on this conversation I paid for my ticket by card at the ticket machine in Sheffield station; not only does it not give change but it refuses to issue a ticket if you don’t put in the exact money.
It’s only a short trip to Meadowhall so I finished my emails, dashed off and walked briskly to work. It was only when I sat down with a coffee and the intention of booking a train ticket to Leighton Buzzard on the internet, that I realised I didn’t have my purse. As you can imagine I flapped around, looking in all the places I might have put it down. And then I looked again, in the same places. No dice. It was a little after 8am when I called Northern Rail, with fairly low expectations of their response. To say I was pleasantly surprised is an understatement.
I spoke to Ann in customer service. She was very sympathetic and didn’t point out that I was an idiot to leave my purse on the train. She took the details very efficiently and told me she would call the conductor on the train. I called back a little while later, worried that I should get on with cancelling the cards. Ann apologised about the delay in replying and explained that the conductor wasn’t answering his phone for whatever reason. The train would shortly be arriving into Goole and Ann had arranged for the woman in the ticket office to meet the train and talk to the conductor. A few minutes later she called me back and confirmed that the conductor had my purse safe and would give it in to Lost Property in Hull. Phew.
An hour or so later I got a call from Hull. Alan Dixon asked me if I’d lost anything. Oh yes! Apparently Ian Baxter, the conductor, had just handed it in and Alan was letting me know as soon as possible that he had my purse. I asked him to have a look and he confirmed that none of the money or cards had gone missing. I arranged for my colleague, Catherine, who was in Hull anyway, to pick it up. A happy ending all round, given that I’d just taken £100 out of the hole in the wall in the station and my train tickets for my holiday at the Edinburgh Fringe (non-refundable) were in my purse.
Obviously two of the people involved were just doing their job, although they were doing it very well and with quiet good humour. The conductor and particularly the woman at Goole were going out of their way for me. There are two lessons I take form this. One is that I am completely useless. The other is how much positive feeling I now have for Northern Rail, to the extent that where I can I will choose their services over competitors. I have dealt with rail company customer services departments before and have never come away feeling very positive about them. This is how customer loyalty is generated.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

More on carbon

I do not apologise for being a little obsessive about carbon. I tend to think of myself as being a little ahead of a trend that everyone will, sooner or later, have to accept.

I use the word ‘carbon’ as shorthand for two linked issues. When we look at environmental issues there are usually linked problems, resource and pollution. Resource is to do with the tendency to take so much of a commodity that it is driven into scarcity. Pollution is the effect on the wider environment caused by the waste products of this overuse. When we look at ‘carbon’ the resource issue centres on the fact that we are using astonishing amounts of a finite resource, fossil fuel, to maintain our lifestyles. The pollution issue is the vast amount of greenhouse gases we are releasing into the atmosphere as a result of this.

In my job I talk to lots of people about environmental concerns. Everyone is aware of climate change but awareness of the fossil fuel depletion is almost non-existent. Last week I spoke to a group of a dozen young men in the construction industry, a sector that must be fundamentally involved in the movement towards a lower carbon society. They were bright and focused on doing the right thing environmentally but both completely unaware of the fossil fuel issue and suspicious of the reality of climate change. This week, unprompted, fossil fuel depletion was nominated by a delegate as the single most important sustainability issue at a workshop I was involved in and I was more than a little surprised. I’ve spent quite a lot of time wondering why people seem to be unaware of our predicament. People are naturally aware of the high petrol prices at the pump and increasing energy prices and yet seem not to connect this to a fundamental supply difficulty. George Monbiot recently pointed out that despite being very aware of the issue the last government was not publicizing it at all. The original document is also well worth a look bearing in mind that the IEA have since suggested that peak oil occurred in 2006. I haven’t seen a major change in emphasis with the coalition.

I wonder whether the government is also grouping the two issues as ‘carbon’. There is, potentially, a major resource crisis looming. Our energy security in the UK is falling. Last year we imported over 40% of our natural gas having been very comfortably self-sufficient until recently. This information can be found on the DECC website but is certainly not ‘in your face.’ In addition, making money from commodities has increased over recent years as the financial industry has pushed for and obtained (dangerous) levels of deregulation, so any increase in public awareness could escalate the problem – fossil fuels taken out of circulation to be used as money substitutes resulting in higher prices resulting in even more fuel taken out of circulation.

The results of the reluctance to talk about ‘peak oil’ and the public’s perception that climate change is a government scam perpetrated to justify taxing us at higher rates is that these linked emergencies don’t seem to be being addressed openly. Conspiracy theories abound on the internet but I do suspect that the government is trying to do the right thing (tackle the linked carbon issues) by introducing seemingly random pieces of a jigsaw of legislation. The reason conspiracy theories are so popular is that we all hope that there is someone somewhere who is competent and knows what they are doing. This is what I am hoping for here.

I recently wrote about the government’s Green Deal, which is a glimmer of hope, and this week I would like to mention the Defra consultation on measuring and reporting GHG emissions by UK companies, closing on 5th July. In the report, ‘The contribution that reporting of greenhouse gas emissions makes to the UK meeting its climate change objectives: A review of the current evidence’ the authors note that the ‘reporting of GHG emissions is considered an important part of the GHG management cycle and a tool for embedding sustainability into a company’. I think that the hope is that a clear awareness of their emissions will remind organizations that, in a time of escalating prices, they are throwing away money on inefficiencies in their energy use and that should translate into a desire to minimize those costs with the desirable knock-on effect of a conservation of resource and a minimization of pollution.

If this is to be an effective measure the best of the four reporting options on the table would be the one that captures the largest number of organizations. For this reason alone I will be ‘voting’ for Option 3: Mandate under Companies Act for all large companies, as it will capture information on between 17,000 and 31,000 public and private companies. Option 2, Mandate under Companies Act for all Quoted companies, would pick up around 1,100 companies but not large private companies and Option 4: Mandate under Companies Act for all companies whose UK electricity consumption exceeds a threshold, would capture 4,000 or up to 15,000 with a lowered threshold. Option 1, Enhanced Voluntary Reporting, would have the disadvantage of all voluntary schemes; there is no level playing field and those who need to do it most will be most reluctant. In addition, if we appear to be taking the softly, softly approach to the issue there will be no apparent urgency to reporting.

My preference, when discussing anything at all, is to get as close to reality as possible. Philosophically, we cannot ever know what reality is. We attempt to understand what is actually real by building models, telling stories or, as they say these days, framing. Given that absolute reality is unknowable I still prefer not to have the ‘facts’ obscured. I don’t want anyone to reassure me that everything will be fine when it won’t. I want to be treated like an adult, someone who will recognise her responsibilities and act on these. Trying to make decisions based on incomplete information is part of life but having information ‘hidden’ from me does not reassure me at all and makes me distrust those who are supposed to be representing me. It would work far better for me to have our government say something along the lines of, ‘We have put too much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, we are having to use more and more expensive (in terms of money, pollution and energy input) fuel which is in increasingly short supply and we must cut back on our use of fossil fuels hard and urgently.’ Of course this would probably be political suicide and so I suppose I support what any government will be prepared to do, the slow piecing together of the carbon control jigsaw. If only it were more comprehensive and quicker coming into force.

Friday, June 10, 2011

The good news, the bad news...

Yet again, sorry for the hiatus in publishing. There seems to have been an awful lot going on here, mostly training, mostly about waste. This is great. Waste is one of our biggest issues as a society. It costs a lot of money to waste as much as we do.

But, what I want to write about today, whilst related to waste, comes at it from a different angle. I want to look at carbon in construction and, in particular, the influence the government’s proposed Green Deal might have to help both the construction industry and society’s need to transition to a lower carbon economy.

This is not new stuff, but I have been presenting at the EcoShowcase events for the last couple of weeks instead of Alison, and had to read up about them. Having done that I thought I’d take the opportunity to blog about them before they leak out of my brain again.

First of all a brief reiteration. Climate change is happening and we all contribute to it in our daily activities. At the same time, fossil fuel is depleting. There is only so much oil, natural gas and coal in the world and we’ve used the easy to extract stuff already. The rest of it is in deep water (Deep Water Horizon wasn’t drilling at the very edge of technical expertise for fun), countries that don’t like us much (and need their resources for their own burgeoning populations) or accessible only using hugely polluting and/or dangerous methods (gas fracking, tar sands etc). The UK, having been energy self-sufficient for years, now has to import gas. Over 40%. That’s a big fall from maximum production as recently as 2004.

So we have two predicaments. We are contributing to climate change and we consider our right to pollute non-negotiable. We are moving into an era where energy will be costly and prices will be increasingly volatile. The strategy the government seems to be pursuing is to try to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, which should also cut our emissions of greenhouse gases. This does not seem to be a wholehearted policy or to be terribly effective at the moment but it’s better than nothing.*

On the positive side there are a lot of competent people working on the Government’s behalf. They keep coming up with great ideas. A lot of these focus on the construction industry. Why?

Construction, as the government’s Innovation & Growth Team (IGT) point out, is a large and complex industry, ranging from huge construction groups undertaking design and highly technical operations to more than a million individual tradesmen working alone. Together the industry contributes around 9% to UK GDP and employs 2.6 million people. More importantly it influenced almost half of our total carbon dioxide equivalents in 2007 and around 10% of our national energy consumption is used in the production and transport of construction products.

Two major strategies that have been influential in promoting sustainable construction are the 2008 Strategy for Sustainable Construction and The UK Low Carbon Transition Plan, produced in 2009 by the last government. Paul Morrell of the IGT comments that, ‘Over the next 40 years the Low Carbon Transition Plan is virtually a business plan for the construction industry’. It’s an opportunity, just as long as the industry looks at it that way and doesn’t lobby (again) to have the requirements watered down.

The IGT, on the behalf of the government, looked at the readiness of the construction industry to deliver a low carbon future and produced their final report last year. There are three overarching actions identified:

  • Decarbonise the business throughout the supply chain
  • Provide new and refurbished buildings allowing energy efficiency
  • Provide infrastructure to enable the supply of clean energy

They also identified a number of barriers:

  • Information overload
  • Industry structure
  • The need for up-skilling
  • The gap between the design spec and the actual performance of buildings
  • The continued focus on initial capital costs rather than lower operational costs
  • The need for workable methodologies for carbon accounting**
  • Providing drivers to increase customer demand
  • A need to address the current old and draughty building stock

The report is fascinating (and long) and is well worth a look, if only at the excellent Executive Summary.

So one of the clever ideas that has emerged is the government’s Green Deal. Work on energy efficiency for new builds is pretty much covered by increasingly tight Building Regulations, planning and, often, funding requirements through Code for Sustainable Homes and BREEAM, but in the UK we have large quantities of older properties. How do we encourage homeowners, landlords and business owners to improve their properties? Given that no-one has huge quantities of available cash at the moment, the upfront costs can constitute a major barrier together with long payback periods. The government has also identified lack of awareness, information overload and lack of confidence in information and a fear of being taken for a ride. There is an abiding fear of small contractors who will ride into town, bodge a job and disappear without trace.

The Green Deal, which is only available in proposal form at the moment, will be designed to deal with this. It is defined as ‘a framework to enable private firms to offer consumers energy efficiency improvements to their homes …and businesses at no up-front cost and recoup payments through a charge in instalments on the energy bill.’

The Deal is based on eight key principles. The first is the Golden Rule; the expected financial savings must be equal to or greater than the costs attached to the energy bill – i.e. it has to be at least financially neutral to the consumer. Then, the measures must be approved, advisors and installers must both be accredited, the provider must give appropriate advice within the terms of the consumer credit act and take account of the individual circumstances of the applicant, and the consent of all parties, particularly the bill payer, must be obtained. The debt generated by the work stays with the property so that the person benefiting from the work, if the property changes hands, is the person who pays the instalments but this must be disclosed to the new owner/leaser. Finally there will be a requirement to protect vulnerable consumers.

Further work will be needed before this idea is put into practice and potential shortcomings addressed. For example, those living in energy poverty at the moment are unlikely to be able to benefit from the clever funding method. Also, those (like me and one in four homes) living in properties with solid walls are unlikely to be able to pay off the high insulation costs (up to £15,000) using savings from their energy bills. Other options through new Energy Company Obligations are being considered.

The first Green Deals should hit the market in autumn 2012, all being well. That’s great although we might want to speed that along a bit. Just before presenting this at Reading I Googled the current concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. You may know that the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change was based on the assumption that at 450 parts per million (ppm) we’d probably be uncomfortable but alright. James Hansen of NASA has since presented the opinion that 350ppm is the maximum that we should allow without long-term detrimental effects. The historical level, before the industrial revolution, seems to have been 280ppm. I was really shocked to see that the figure for May 2011 was 394.35ppm. I’ve since come across an article in the Guardian about this but it was in the environment section. Surely this sort of thing should be front page news.

*One of the major problems the gvt have with tackling climate change and resource depletion is that the economic model they (we all) use requires growth to provide us with prosperity. This means that the treasury and the environmental sections of the government are psychotically permanently at odds. They need to see a psychiatrist or, at the very least, a marriage guidance counsellor. And this is even before we look at the other issues embedded in the very idea of coalition.

** There is a consultation out at present looking at how to best report carbon for UK businesses. It can be found on the Defra pages here.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

What a waste

Amanda and I were out and about this week. We presented to the construction industry at Ecoshowcase in Reading. It is a rewarding thing to do and I love chatting to the delegates after the presentations. It's also nice to be staying somewhere with a colleague instead of being in my lonely hotel room on my own. We stayed at the Travelodge at Reading Services (Eastbound). As we checked in our receptionist asked us when our breakfast bags should be delivered to our rooms. Oh.
I'm not a fan of breakfast bags. I know it is probably good for the hotel but it can't be good either for the environment or for society at large. It meant that Amanda and I sat in our rooms separately and ate our almost-but-not-quite-food instead of having a sociable breakfast and discussing our day ahead. It also means that not so many people need to be employed which isn't good for the local economy. And, goodness! How much waste?

Friday, May 13, 2011

Settling in

We’ve been in the new office for almost two months now We’re well settled in. One of the most exciting things about the new office is that it is open plan and all the departments sit together. It has given me a real insight into the workload of the ecologists at this, their most hectic time of the year. The late night newt surveys, in particular, leave them exhausted by the weekend. Yet again I failed to have time to join in as I’d hoped but Catherine and Amanda have helped out. It makes a great difference from our normal work of legal compliance audits, training and EMS assistance but they seem to have enjoyed it.

We hear much more of what is going on outside work as well. I bullied everyone into sponsoring me to ‘Live Below the Line’ and we all spent the first ten minutes of every morning discussing what I had brought in as part of my food for a pound a day. I’m very glad to be back to being able to have my morning mug of coffee (Tom is running the new coffee club as well as the office lottery) and waking up to my favourite caffeine jolt. The same week that I was eating frugally Amanda and Rob were preparing for the Sheffield half marathon. Amanda achieved her best ever time and Rob raised £570 for Dreamflight to take terminally ill children on an exciting holiday. For some reason he ran dressed as a nun. He hasn’t given us a clear explanation for this which can only have added to the pain of the run.

The current subject for discussion is how we all make it in to work. A majority of us lived on the other side of the city, most of us within walking distance of the old office. tells me it would take two hours at a fast pace to walk to the new place from home, and somewhat longer back. Amanda can run it, and is doing so regularly to train for her next marathon. I contend that I am too old and, as my father always said, built for comfort not speed. The solution to those of us who take being low carbon seriously turns out to be a combination of public transport (we chose the office near to the Meadowhall Interchange for its PT connections) and bicycle. Alison, Amanda and I all cycle the complete distance there and back most days as do Claire Browne, our principal landscape architect, and Andrew Lake, our new geoscientist. Rob, our half marathon running graduate ecologist has bought a bike but he’s spending so much time newt bothering surveying at the moment that it’s locked away. We compare notes about the latest short cuts we’ve found and what time we set out to avoid the last-minute-idiot-drivers who fail to notice our high visibility vests. My preference is to cycle in along the canal path, which is delightfully quiet if bumpy. It also gives me a remarkable opportunity to see the backsides of the industrial units lining the canal and their activities. I cycle back along the Five Weirs walk, which is much smoother but crosses a fair number of roads.

We’re currently debating what to do if everyone who cycles turns up on the same day, potentially seven of us including Paul, our FD, fighting for four bike spaces. I’ll let you now

Friday, April 15, 2011

The irony of improved building fabric performance

Alison contributes the following (I am always too hot in the new office):

As Yvonne recently mentioned, we have just moved offices. The move has been interesting and has involved all kinds of changes in office behavior, commuting principles and how we interact we each other.

However, most obvious to me (as someone who is always a bit cold) is the change in temperature. I now no longer have to spend 10 months of the year in my ECUS fleece as our new office is well insulated and generally not drafty (unlike our very leaky and old-fashioned Victorian office building we moved from). This is a GOOD thing in general for people at ECUS like me who are always a bit cold! Others who are more warm-blooded are not necessarily so pleased.

However, today, for the first time in my ECUS career, I am too hot. The windows are open, but it is a wind-less day and the air conditioning unit is not working. I can only assume that it has something to do with good building insulation, 14 people in the office and lots of electrical equipment giving out heat as it is not sunny or particularly hot outside.

I am therefore left pondering the ironies of improved building fabric – fantastic in principle, but potentially an issue if we don’t have the right heating, cooling and ventilation facilities in place. And how will climate change affect this? The fact the air-con is not working is good for the environment, but not good for employee satisfaction and contentment…yet another sustainability dilemma!

Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Waste (England and Wales) Regulations 2011

The following is a legal update from Catherine:

The Waste (England and Wales) Regulations 2011 (finally!) came into force at the end of March, and implement changes to waste legislation made by the Revised Waste Framework Directive, as well as making long-awaited changes to the waste carriers and brokers regime. If you have any sort of dealings with waste as a producer, carrier or treatment/disposal facility (so pretty much everyone!), then read on, and make yourself aware of the changes:

The waste hierarchy has now been given legal effect, rather than merely being a principle. From October 2011 there will be a declaration on WTNs and HWCNs that companies have applied the waste hierarchy.

SIC codes will have to be included on WTNs as well as HWCNs – again, this won’t take effect until October 2011.

For new environmental permits, they will contain conditions which state that operators will have to apply the waste management hierarchy (such conditions will be added to existing permits when they are reviewed).

New category of waste “dealer” = those who use an agent to buy and sell waste

New 2 tier system of registration for carriers, brokers and dealers:

Upper tier carrier or broker:

If you carry/broker/deal in other people’s controlled waste (unless you fall under a lower tier)

If you carry/broker/deal in your own construction and demolition waste

Existing carriers and brokers won’t have to do anything (and dealer will be automatically added to existing registration)

Lasts for 3 years as existing registration does

Fee for registration

Lower tier (referred to in the Regs as “specified persons”:

If you carry/broker/deal in animal by-products, waste from a mine or a quarry or waste from premises used for agriculture

If you carry/broker/deal in other people’s controlled waste and you are a waste collection, disposal or regulation authority or a charity or voluntary organisation (i.e. charities are no longer exempt) – those that are currently registered as exempt will automatically be transferred to the lower tier

If you normally and regularly carry controlled waste produced by your own business (other than construction or demolition waste) by end of December 2013

Registration lasts indefinitely

Free registration

A single registration will cover carrier/broker/dealer. In order to simplify the transition, the EA will automatically consider all registered carriers as carriers and dealers and all registered brokers as brokers and dealers.

Some changes to hazardous waste = a new category, H13 Sensitizing, will be added to the list of properties defining waste as hazardous (the former category H13 now becomes H15). This means that some previously non-hazardous wastes may be reclassified as hazardous wastes e.g. ecotoxicity added to the properties that can define a leachate as hazardous.

The Regs explicitly state that transfer notes can be provided electronically.

From January 2015, a duty is placed on anyone collecting waste paper, metal, plastic or glass must ensure that where these waste streams have been separately collected, they are not mixed with other waste or other material with different properties.

Friday, March 25, 2011


I’ve just spent the last three days presenting the IEMA approved Internal Auditor course to seven delightful delegates from various sectors. I love presenting in-house courses where everyone knows each other and they have lots of experience and requirements in common but courses based in ECUS with randomly selected delegates can be wonderfully enlightening. They may sometimes be more difficult because you may be trying to meet the needs of a delegate from a major manufacturing company whilst not neglecting the needs of a delegate from an office based company but the synergies you get can be marvellous. On this course we had some real experts in their fields who were very generous in sharing their knowledge and not only was it enlightening, it was fun.

I’m often surprised by how much people already know but I’m also occasionally disconcerted about what they are not aware of. On most of our courses we link waste and resource use, and sometimes quality as poor quality management can lead to a lot of waste.

On this particular course we talk about major resource issues that we are or will soon be facing. Some resources are, of course, renewable, but only if we manage them sustainably. Examples might be timber, soil, fish and so on. Some things are not renewable except in geological time scales, for example, metals and minerals. Some are not renewable at all and will eventually be exhausted, for example helium, oil and coal. All of these things, to one extent or another, are essential to our way of life. Rare earth metals, for example, are used in tablet computers, hybrid cars, wind turbines, catalytic converters and the more efficient solar PV panels.

Many of the resource issues are exacerbated by where the deposits of the materials are and the environmental impact of their exploitation. The vast majority (~97%) of rare earths are now sourced from China and with this effective monopoly comes increasing concerns for availability. Every time I have googled ‘China, rare earth’ in news over the last several months there have been stories about this issue. Today the news is of a huge increase in taxes making the cost per tonne more than $100,000. The availability and price of oil is also very much affected by the location of most oil reserves.56% of world oil reserves are in the Middle East, currently suffering from a period of unrest.

My big surprise was that when I asked my training group who was aware of the idea of peak oil no-one said yes. Resource depletion is a massively important issue that will affect us all in many different ways and peak oil is one of the most urgent and important. With reference back to my resilience post of a few weeks ago, imagine how we would live without cheap fossil fuels. Our whole complex society depends on each complicated component being sourced from wherever it can be made most cheaply and delivered Just In Time to wherever it is needed. This can only work in an era of cheap oil. Currently oil is not as cheap as it was, bouncing around $100 per barrel.

At the same time that there is a global problem with oil, there is a national problem. The UK was, for a good amount of time, energy self sufficient thanks to the North Sea oil and gas fields. This is no longer the case. Last year we had to import more than 40% of our gas. 40%!! No wonder the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) produced The UK Low Carbon Transition Plan in 2009. It wasn’t just about climate change. To a large extent it was about keeping the lights on for all of us.

I spend a fair amount of time keeping up with what is happening with resource issues and I occasionally read through the comment threads as well. When I’m feeling strong. More often than I care to remember there are major skirmishes about how best to deal with these, whether governments should try to legislate to bring down consumption and hence protect out current comfortable lives for longer or whether the market should be allowed to operate without control. The argument is that as prices increase due to scarcity the almighty market will step in and cause the production of more of the important commodity. This only works if there is more of the commodity available to be extracted within a workable timescale. With oil it takes around ten years from discovery of a resource for an oil well to become fully productive. Oil wells are also no longer being drilled in easily accessible places where the return on investment is high so prices have to be consistently high for a long time for new well to be worth developing. If this does not work then the market is supposed to rush out and produce hyper-efficient vehicles, power supplies and the associated infrastructure. Also, presumably, people will be induced, by the cost, to look at minimising their own energy usage.

This is a wonderful idea as was the idea of taxing pollution sources with a tax escalator on fuel prices. The recent UK budget has, again, dealt a blow to the theory. Oil prices are rising so the chancellor has stepped in and instead of raising tax by the expected 3p/litre has reduced it by 1p/litre. I know that all drivers and transport companies are struggling at the moment with high prices but how is the omnipotent market supposed to save us all if the government steps in whenever we reach a level where it should start to work?