The Green Tau: issue 24

5th November 2021

Green Wash or Green Tonic

Half way through the COP26 climate conference and what has been delivered? Green wash or green tonic? Or is it like the mushroom in Alice and Wonderland and it depends from which side you are eating? 

It may be several months before we know whether what we have been given is a green tonic that will invigorate and rapidly promote growth in our transition to a sustainable global lifestyle; or whether it was in fact a green wash of carefully chosen words that don’t actually mean what they say, or don’t actually lead to any action.

Thursday was set aside for discussions and agreements on energy. It should be strikingly clear that fossil fuels in every shape and form can do nothing other than add to the climate crisis. They are termed ‘fossil’ fuels because they are the carbon content of plants and animal remains laid down/ locked away millennia ago. They are stores of carbon intended to be released gradually over not just millennia but eons of time, but which became the miracle power source for the industrial revolution. Carbon dioxide has been released into the atmosphere at a far faster rate than the planet can re-absorb. It is like a bath tub where the overflow is way too small to cope when the taps are open at full bore. Our carbon dioxide bath is all but overflowing and the consequences will be the total loss of icecaps, ice sheets and glaciers that will cause summer water shortages; rising sea levels that will drown not just towns but whole countries; rapidly rising temperatures, expanding deserts, diminishing  agricultural output and the consequential increase in deaths across the globe. Current atmospheric CO2 levels stand at 413.96 ppm compared with the preindustrial level of 280 ppm and predicted maximum, after which climate change becomes uncontrollable, of 440 ppm.

40 countries have pledged to phase out coal-fired power stations by 2030 – or 2040 if they are one of the smaller economies. Note this doesn’t phase out all use of coal, nor does it phase out gas fired power stations, nor the use of oil, petrol, aviation fuel etc. In the UK we have 3 remaining coal fire power stations, which will be phased out by 2025. But we also have 30+ gas fired power stations, and, despite legal challenges, the government has given the go ahead for what will be the largest gas fired power plant at the Drax power station in Yorkshire.

20 countries, including the UK, have agreed to stop providing finance for overseas fossil fuel developments by 2022, and to divert the funds to clean energy projects. However earlier this year the International Energy Association had already announced that the world had already reached the maximum number fossil fuel extracting operations that would be compatible with the 1.5C temperature rise target. Why then provide another year’s worth of funding to develop even more? And why has the UK government given approval for a new coal mine in Cumbria and and oil extraction from the seas around the Hebrides?

Green Tau: issue 23

30th October 2021

Count me in?

This weekend COP26 starts. The coming together of interested parties from all over the world: government leaders, NGOs, scientists, economists, financiers, environmentalists, charities, development agencies – and if not inside the talks, then certainly present, protest groups – with the target of addressing the climate crisis:- 

agreeing and undertaking to implement and finance the action needed to contain the expansion of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere,

to limit further increases in global temperatures, 

to enable countries and communities to undertake adaptations to farming and                                             infrastructure, housing and businesses: 

to enable populations to live with the already built-in effects of climate change (rising sea levels, droughts, floods, wild fires, heat waves and cold snaps, storms and changing seasons)

and to do so in a way that is fair to all nations and all people.

Looking at past achievements, we are expecting a lot of COP26. If we are expecting a lot from the conference delegates then it must be right to expect a lot of ourselves too.

How far will we go? How far will we go in changing our lifestyle to protect the planet? How far will we go in curbing our consumption of limited resources? How far we we go in be willing to pay the true cost of what we buy?

Change has to begin somewhere. If no one takes the first step, then nothing happens, but if someone makes that first step them change can begin.  It can seem really hard to make changes when everyone  around you seems to be ignoring the problem and continuing as if no action is needed. How can we make change easier?

Be confident that you are doing the right thing. 

Be proud to be a trend setter.

Get the support of like minded people. 

Be an encouragement to others.

Raise awareness of why change is needed.

Raise awareness of the consequences of doing nothing.

Find ways in which change becomes satisfying, rewarding, even fun.

Keep focused on why change is necessary. 

See the positives you are achieving – and talk about them to others! 

Be proud to be part of the change.  

The Green Tau: issue 22

22nd October 2021

Green Finance

There is very little in this world that doesn’t somewhere along the line involve money – or as we might more politely phrase it, finance. Our response to the climate crisis is no exception. For whilst there are things we can do that don’t cost a single penny – like walking instead of taking the car, or turning down the thermostat, or not eating meat – there are many more things we need to do that do cost. We need to bring to a halt extraction of oil, coal and gas and instead create jobs and industries around  renewable energy, heat pumps, electrical vehicles and charging points. We need to invest in public transport and reduce considerable the aviation industry – and we need to invest in retraining and creating green jobs. We need to shift the emphasis of agriculture from animal to arable farming. We need to restore and expand the rewilding of land and seas so they can become larger,  more effective carbon sinks. We need to insulate our homes, offices, public buildings – even places of worship. We need improve provision for floods, droughts, wild fires, storms, heat waves and cold snaps, so that people, properties and ecosystems are protected. The list goes on and so does the need for finance.

However much these measures may cost, we must keep in mind what would be the cost of doing nothing: ie the cost of even more infrastructure to cope with ever increasing temperatures, and extreme weather conditions; the cost of relocating homes, businesses and whole communities as sea levels rise; the rising cost of food as all important pollinating and pest destroying insects are lost; the rising cost of food and water as water shortages rise; the loss of life from extreme weather events and the rising number of excess deaths from heat waves and cold snaps; the growing need to relocate whole communities as rising temperatures make large areas of land uninhabitable. 

And on the other hand we should keep in mind all the positive spin offs from investing in a greener world: better health as people walk and cycle more, eat less meat and dairy products, enjoy more green spaces that enhance mental well being, live in warmer, dryer homes, breathe less polluted air. 

So what is happening about finance to tackle the climate crisis? Here are some examples and policy statements for the global to the individual level.

*UN Climate Finance: ‘The Convention, the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement call for financial assistance from Parties with more financial resources to those that are less endowed and more vulnerable. This recognises that the contribution of countries to climate change and their capacity to prevent it and cope with its consequences vary enormously.’

‘According to October 2019 data from the World Bank , the world will need to make significant investment in infrastructure over the next 15 years –around US$90 trillion by 2030.  But it can recoup those investments. Transitioning to a green economy, it found, can unlock new economic opportunities and jobs. An investment of US$1, on average, yields US$4 in benefits.

‘In addition to reducing emissions, making infrastructure more resilient avoids costly repairs and minimises the wide-ranging consequences of natural disasters on the livelihoods and well-being of people, particularly the most vulnerable, as well as on businesses and economies.  And a shift  to low-carbon, resilient economies could create over 65 million net new jobs globally out to 2030.

‘Reaching net zero requires making good on the $100 billion annual climate finance commitment’ – at the time of writing it is hoped that developed nations will make good on their promise to supply this funding.  https://unfccc.int/topics/climate-finance/the-big-picture/introduction-to-climate-finance

  • International Monetary Fund: ‘Long term institutional investors can help with rebalancing and redistributing of climate related risks and maintaining financial stability. Hedging instruments (e.g., catastrophe bonds, indexed insurance) help insure against increasing natural disaster risk, and other financial instruments (e.g., green stock indices, green bonds, voluntary de-carbonisation initiatives) can help re-allocate investment to “green” sectors.’ https://www.imf.org/en/Topics/climate-change/green-finance

* World Economic Forum: Green finance is blossoming. Globally, the green bond market could be worth $2.36 trillion by 2023. It is regarded as a way of meeting the needs of environmentalism and capitalism simultaneously – but what is green finance and how does it work? Typical projects that fall under the green finance umbrella include:

  • Renewable energy and energy efficiency
  • Pollution prevention and control
  • Biodiversity conservation
  • Circular economy initiatives
  • Sustainable use of natural resources and land

https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/11/what-is-green-finance/

* The Bank of England: ‘Climate change affects our planet, our economy and our financial system. As such, climate change is relevant to the Bank of England’s central mission to promote the good of the people of the United Kingdom by maintaining monetary and financial stability.’

* All banks are likely to offer customers finances for green projects subject to their normal risks assessment. However some banks – green/ ethical banks – make finance such projects the main stay of their work and at the same time consciously choose not to invest in projects that are harmful to the environment. For example Triodos Bank claims to be ‘one of the most sustainable banks in the world. We make money work for positive social, environmental and cultural change.’

Good with Money notes that: ‘channelling money into companies and initiatives that solve big global problems may be a win-win scenario. For instance, well-run businesses fighting climate change are benefitting from public and private commitments to clean infrastructure. Some are even starting to outperform their badly-managed, polluting rivals, which means bigger profits for investors to put towards meaningful long-term goals.’ https://good-with-money.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/08/The-Good-Guide-to-First-Time-Investing-FINAL.pdf

*Pension providers, insurance companies, mortgage providers, investment and savings companies, all invest money for the benefit of their customers.  As consumers we can ask whether these funds are invested so as to benefit the environment or whether they are investing in companies that are damaging the environment, such as those in the fossil fuel industries. 

Make My Money Matter says: ‘Your pension is powerful. There’s £2.6 trillion in UK pensions – and that’s your money. But it’s being invested on your behalf, without your say. That means your hard-earned savings are likely driving deforestation and funding fossil fuels. As a result, your money has a carbon footprint – just like you.We’ve looked at how big that footprint is, and the answer is pretty scary. The carbon footprint of the average pension is 26 tonnes…’ https://makemymoneymatter.co.uk/21x/

* Personal spending: we, as consumers, can be seen as investors. When we choose what to spend our money on, we are expressing our preference, our support for that product or service, that market or industry. Whether we are buying petrol or a bus ticket, whether we are buying an air ticket or train ticket, whether we are buying locally grown apples or imported grapes, dairy milk or oat milk, we are influencing the way money will be invested and its impact on our environment. 

Green Tau: issue 21

15th October 2021

Biodiversity and regenerative agriculture

Last week we looked at the tendency for agriculture to a) expand into virgin territory at the expense of flora and fauna biodiversity, and b) to be concentrated around a narrow number of crops and animal species. Agricultural practices are the source of further challenges.  

In a drive to be more productive and more economic, many agricultural businesses have gone for the large scale – large farms, large fields, large machinery – creating landscapes that devoid of trees and hedges and instead are vast tracts of identical crops. Monoculture does not support biodiversity. Fields of rape may provide near endless quantities of flowers that are attractive to pollinators, but once they have flowered there is a dearth of food sources for those pollinators. With their demise, comes the demise of other birds and animals that rely on them as part of the food chain. 

Monoculture also provides a good environment for the spread of plant diseases and the proliferation of weeds – the latter might be suppressed by a diversity of plants, some overshadowing the weeds, or by insects and larvae that might feed on them. The net result is that to sustain monoculture, crops must be sprayed with pesticides and herbicides, neither of which is good for biodiversity. For the soil this can be a particular problem. Soils rely on insects, beetles, and many micro-organisms to keep the soil rich with nutrients and to maintain a good soil structure.  Soils that become damaged or depleted  of nutrients become reliant on the addition of chemical fertilisers to maintain their productivity. However these can be damaging to biodiversity, especially when nitrates are washed through the soil into local water ways where they form algae blooms and damage both flora and fauna. 

Whilst agriculture can be part of the biodiversity problem, it can also be part of the solution. 

Regenerative Agriculture 

Whilst the term ‘regenerative agriculture’ was first used in the early 1980s as concept that aimed to make agriculture not just sustainable, but positively beneficial for the environment. However it has only more recently gained popularity.

There is as yet to fixed definition of what regenerative agriculture is, nor how it is to be practiced.  Terra Genesis International working in Thailand has determined its principles as:- 

  • Progressively improve whole agroecosystems (soil, water and biodiversity)”
  • “Create context-specific designs and make holistic decisions that express the essence of each farm”
  • “Ensure and develop just and reciprocal relationships amongst all stakeholders”
  • “Continually grow and evolve individuals, farms, and communities to express their innate potential”

What I think is interesting here is the inclusion of the people involved in farming and their communities.

The UK’s Regenerative Food and Farming (https://regenerativefoodandfarming.co.uk/) recommends the following farming practices:-

  • No or low tillage, ie not ploughing the soil or removing the remnants of the previous before sowing, and maintaining some form of vegetative cover at all times. This helps to keep both CO2 and water in the soil, rather than it escaping into the atmosphere.
  • Diversifying what is grown using mixed planting, intercropping (including sylvan agriculture which grows crops in between trees), and relay cropping. There is a focus on growing more of what is needed locally which minimises the distance food has to be transported.
  • Using animals as part of crop rotation.
  • Not over grazing fields.
  • Stimulating micro-organisms in the soil by maintaining living roots in the soil at all times and by adding organic compost.
  • Avoiding the use of chemicals on the land and minimising antibiotics given to animals – sometimes these are used to stimulate growth rather than for treating diseases.
  • Adding tree, perennials and wild flowers to the landscape.
  • Rewilding areas of landing and creating corridors between them.

Such agricultural practices not only benefits biodiversity, they also improved get capacity of the soil to sequester carbon, reduce the carbon emissions of the farming industry, assist with flood prevention and reduce the water needed by farms.

If you are interested in regeneratively farmed produce, google to see what’s available locally. On a larger scale companies such as Ben and Jerry, Nestle and McDonalds are seeking to source their ingredients from regenerative farmers. 

The Green Tau: issue 20

Biodiversity and food production 

Last week’s Green Tau weekly began a mini series looking at biodiversity. We noted that despite the relative smallness of humanity in terms of global biomass, we humans are dramatically and drastically altering the planet’s biodiversity. This week I want to look at the impact food production has on biodiversity. 

Over the millennia humans have domesticated both animals and plants, selecting and breeding species, and developed farming practices that would best provide food. In the process, humans extended their control over land that had previously been wild, which in turn has limited the land available for wild animals and plants. 1000 years ago, less than 4% of habitable land was farmed. This increased over the centuries, and particularly so from the mid 1800, when the area of farmed increased from under 25%  to the current 50%. (Habitable land is land not covered by glaciers, 10%, nor barren land such as deserts, sand dunes, bare rock, salt flats etc, 19%). In Europe the area of farmed land is now declining slightly, whereas it is continuing to expand in Africa, Asia, China and parts of South America.

Currently there is much media coverage about the clearance of the rain forests in Brazil to create new agricultural land plus accompanying access roads. This process destroys unique habitats with the loss of many plants, animals, birds and insects etc. It also destroys the millennia old way of life of indigenous people.  It is easy to see how such expansion of farming land exacerbates biodiversity loss. The same problem also arises in Africa, Asia and China. Mangroves have also been cleared to make way for shrimp farms, palm oil plantations and rice fields. 

A perhaps previously ignored consequence of expanding farming into previous areas of wilderness, is the increased contact between wild and domesticated animals. This allows diseases to spread more rapidly between the different species. What might be an insignificant virus infecting a wild animal can become a highly infectious virus in domestic animals. These virus can then spread to humans. Such zoonotic diseases include the Ebola virus, SARS and the current Covid 19.

Over the millennia, much of the UK has also been deforested to make way for farm land. Tree coverage  in the UK stands at about 12% which is much lower than most other countries in Europe. Top of the league is Finland with over 50% tree cover; Spain and Portugal are around 35%; France, Germany and Switzerland around 30%. As trees provide a great many habitats for other plants, birds, animals and insects, as well being good stores of carbon, the government’s climate advisers now recommend  tree cover should be increased to 17-19%. As well as planting new trees, it is also important that existing trees are protected: it takes many years for a tree to reach maturity and whilst they are still saplings they do not provide much habitat for other wild life. 

It is not only trees that have been cleared to make way for farming in the UK. Wetland areas such as marshes and bogs, have been drained. This destroyed the unique habitats of many different plants, insects and animals. In the same way, clearing hedgerows has had a detrimental affect on biodiversity. There is now a growing awareness of the importance of restoring and maintaining a diverse range of habitats to support different plants and creatures. Where the area of a particular habitat becomes too small, it may fail to maintain populations of plants and creatures at a viable level. However creating a corridors between habitats enables larger populations to be supported. Hedgerows perform this task on a small scale, as can railway lines and road verges.

Not only has farmland been expanding over the centuries, but what is farmed has changed. Increasing global trade, colonialism and the intensification of farming, has produced a agricultural system that now grows a very limited number of plant species. Two thirds of the world’s food comes from just nine plants: sugar cane, maize, rice, wheat, potatoes, soybeans, oil-palm fruit, sugar beet and cassava. 

Such a concentration makes our food supply vulnerable to the effects of climate change and diseases. This year’s durum wheat crop has been much reduced because of  exceptionally dry conditions in Canada (the harvest is down by a third) and wet ones in Europe. Nearly half of all the bananas grown in the world are one variety, Cavendish, even though there are approximately 999 other varieties. The Cavendish banana is now threatened by a fungus which could wipe it out.  

This over concentration on a limited number of species has meant that many local and older plant varieties have been marginalised – another form of biodiversity loss. However the value of such plants is now being recognised. They can provide alternative crops better suited to local growing conditions and/or changing climatic conditions. Such species include quinoa, which  can be grown at high altitudes, teff which like quinoa can be grown at high altitudes and where water supplies are limited, millet which can tolerate high temperatures, and einkorn which needs less nitrogen – ie can grow in less fertile soils – than wheat.

The same pattern of concentration occurs in animal farming too. Nearly all the world’s diary cows are based on one single breed, the Holstein. As with arable crops, there are advantages of protecting and promoting rare and ancients breeds of farm animals. But in terms of biodiversity what is more incredible is the sheer biomass of farm animals. They account for 60% of all mammals on the planet (of which cattle and buffalo  account for 40%); we humans account for 36% whilst the remaining wild mammals a mere 4%.

Globally 77% of agricultural land is used to raise livestock. This includes land used to grow animal feed. Yet this 77% produces less than  20% of the world’s calories. Land used for livestock could be better used to produce plant based food that would feed a greater number of people and/ or rewilded to increase biodiversity. Factoring in the carbon footprint of livestock, especially cattle, there are even more benefits to be gained from reducing livestock levels. 

The Green Tau: issue 19

Biodiversity part 1

What do we mean by ‘biodiversity’? 

The WWF defines it as ‘all the different kinds of life you’ll find in one area—the variety of animals, plants, fungi, and even microorganisms like bacteria that make up our natural world. Each of these species and organisms work together in ecosystems, like an intricate web, to maintain balance and support life. Biodiversity supports everything in nature that we need to survive: food, clean water, medicine, and shelter.’ 

The pictogram shows the relative proportions of different life forms (in shades of green on the left) and from within that the relative proportions of animals (in shades of orange on the right). All these  life forms have been measured in terms of their carbon mass, otherwise known as biomass.  It creates a surprising image! Humankind appears to be almost insignificant. Yet we are increasingly aware that this is not so. Humans are highly significant because they are dramatically and drastically altering life on earth. 

What is the issue?

The WWF estimates that since 1970 there has been a 60% decline in the number of animal species on the planet. Mass extinction on this scale has not been seen since the age of the dinosaurs. Almost all the causes are man-made: destruction of natural habitats; forests clearances for agriculture and industrial use; road and rail building programmes; overfishing; pollution of air, water and soils; degradation and erosion of soils; over extraction of water and loss of rivers and lakes; tourism; introduction of invasive alien species; mining operations;  climate change etc.

 It is not just large creatures such as polar beers, tigers and rhinos that are threatened with extinction – only two white northern rhino still exist and they are other female – but smaller ones too. In Australia the Bramble Cay Melomys, a small rodent, is the first mammal whose extinction is due to climate change. Here in the UK creatures at risk of extinction include the Scottish wildcat, a cicada native to the New Forest (no sightings have been recorded since 2000), the natterjack toad, the turtle dove, dormice, the Cosnard net-winged beetle, and 30 or more species of solitary bee (13 are now already extinct). Each species lost is in itself a loss of biodiversity but also diminishes the eco system of which it was apart and potentially puts other creatures that prey or otherwise rely on it, at risk. That risk extends to humans too. Many of our food crops (apples, strawberries, tomatoes, green beans, coffee and cocoa, kiwi fruits, avocado, cashew nuts, to name but a few) rely on bees and other insects to pollinate them.  In the UK there has been a 30% decline in pollinating insects since 1980. 

A recent report, The State of the World’s Trees, concludes that 30% of trees are at risk of extinction. With each species that is lost, there is a knock-on threat to other plants and creatures that rely on its unique ecosystem. The biggest threat for trees is deforestation for agricultural purposes. Disease also plays a role and here in the UK ash trees are under threat from ‘ash die back’. This fungus originates from Asia where indigenous ash trees have a natural resistance to it. It is likely it was inadvertently introduced here with imported saplings, but now it is could destroy up to 80 or 90% of our native ash trees. 

Why is biodiversity important?

  • Protection of food supplies (as mentioned above)
  • Protection of ecosystems: loss of one species can radically change or destroy an ecosystem, so the effect can be cumulative
  • Many species are key contributors maintaining the well being of the planet:

keeping soils fertile – eg earth worms

controlling pests – eg ladybirds and wasps

keeping water clean – eg oxygenating plants

removing decaying material – eg slugs and snails, crows and vultures 

keeping the air clean – eg trees

keeping oceans healthy – eg sea grass which absorbs CO2 and provides food for fish etc 

  • Source of medicines, many of which have perhaps yet to be discovered
  • Green and blue spaces – ie nature – is good for mental health and well being
  • Aesthetic and cultural values – eg oak trees are symbolic of England, tigers are culturally significant in India, as are reindeer for the Sami. Even here in London biodiversity is embedded geographically: eels must once have swum through Eel Brook Common, beavers once lived along Beverly Brook and presumably nightingales once sang in Berkeley Square.
  • And above all, because it’s out there, it’s amazing and it’s God-given.

Slowly work is being undertaken to restore and protect the world’s biodiversity. It will feature as part of the forth coming COP26 climate change conference as well as being the subject of its own COP15 conference which should take place April 2022 in China. More immediately here in the UK the Government’s Environment Bill which will set binding targets for the recovery of biodiversity. After it’s third reading in the House of Lords on 13th October it will return to the House of Commons for a final reading. Do write to your MP and ask them to vote down any amendments that attempt to water down this Bill.

The Green Tau: issue 18

Changing the Face of Business 

B Corps – Benefit Corporations – are the fair trade equivalent for businesses. Whilst remaining profit making concerns these are businesses that also undertake to meet certain in social and environmental standards. Their bottom line is threefold: profit, people and planet. 

To attain B Corp status companies are assessed against five categories:

  • Governance – the way their business is run internally
  • Workers – how they are treated and paid
  • Social sustainability – how they support or contribute to society, including charitable donations
  • Environmental – how they contribute to environmental sustainability 
  • Product – the social and environmental benefit of what they produce

Provided they meet the minimum standard, they are awarded B Corp certification. This is reviewed on a three yearly basis.

The benefit for the business is an enhanced brand image, and improved ability to recruit staff  and investors. The downside is the cost of obtaining certification which might exclude some small but ethical businesses.

There are 2778 B Corps world wide and 193 based in the UK. They include OddBox and Riverford veg boxes, Innocent and Danone drinks etc, Triodos and Coutts banks, Judes icecream, Lilly’s pet food, Volcano coffee roasters, Camden Town brewers, Vibro Barefoot shoes, and various media, marketing, and management companies. A full listing can be found here: https://bcorporation.uk/directory?search=&industry=&country=United%20Kingdom&state=&city=&page=5 

Social enterprises also aim to make a profit, which they then use to create positive social change through providing training and employment opportunities, supporting businesses in marginal areas, helping end homelessness, making donations to support communities in need etc. Increasingly social enterprises are focusing on environmental outcomes too. They tend to be small concerns, including repair workshops, bakeries, cafes, arts venues, grocery stores, gardening units, local energy generation, recycling units etc. Social Enterprise UK lists how you support these enterprises through what you buy: https://www.socialenterprise.org.uk/buysocial/where-can-i-buy-social/

The money in our pockets, like (or perhaps better than) our vote in an election, can change the world we live in.

The Green Tau: issue 17

17th September 2021

The Carbon Footprint of Things

Over the last few weeks Green Tau has looked at various aspects of our

 The Carbon Trust has a carbon footprint labelling scheme which it is hoped will grow in popularity

individual/ household carbon footprint and how we might reduce it as part of the overall global target of achieving net zero by 2050. 

The things we buy all have their own carbon footprint, whether that’s a pair of socks or a new car or a newspaper. The carbon footprint of things includes growing or producing the raw materials, be that iron, cotton, timber etc. Then there is the processing of those materials – turning iron into steel, spinning the cotton into yarn, timber into paper. And a further series of processes will transform those elements into the final product. Then there is the carbon footprint involved in transportation between the various stages of production and onwards to the warehouse and shop. 

It is a complex chain with lots of variables which may explain why it is hard, as consumers, to establish the carbon footprint of most consumer goods. But here are a few:-

  • A newspaper 0.3 – 0.8kg CO2
  • A pair of poly cotton pants (underwear) 0.6kg CO2
  • A paperback book 1 kg CO2
  • A cotton T shirt 2-3 kg CO2
  • A pair of trainers 10-15 kg CO2
  • A  pair of jeans 20 kg CO2
  • A smart phone 55 kg CO2
  • A lap top 119 kg CO2
  • A land rover 35 tonnes CO2

Can we reduce our carbon footprint when buying things? Yes. 

We can do some research and find out which products might have a lower carbon footprint. For example organic cotton has a lower footprint than non organic cotton because it doesn’t use pesticides and fertilisers. Polyester items have double the carbon footprint of cotton ones, but  some polyester fabrics are made from recycled plastic which is better than that made from oil. Synthetic fabrics such as viscose and rayon are made from cellulose  – eg from wood or bamboo – but require a high chemical input which adds to their carbon footprint. Tencel on the other hand uses a process with a much smaller footprint.

We can consider the life span of the product. A lap top that only lasts 2 years is less environmentally friendly than one with a lifespan of 10 years as the initial carbon cost is spread over 10 rather than 2 years. We might at this point also consider how easily the product can be repaired. Some laptops are more readily repairable. Maybe the product is something we can repair ourselves such as darning a pair of socks or replacing a zip on a pair of trousers. 

We can consider the running costs involved with the product. How much energy will it take to recharge different smart phones? How much energy will different flat screen TVs use? What about buying a hand powered alternative such as hand turned coffee grinder or a manual whisk? 

We might consider whether the product has an after life – ie can we pass on to someone else when we have finished with it? Books we have read can be passed onto a friend and donated to a charity shop. The same is true of clothes. Children’s clothes can be passed onto a younger sibling, or you might hold a ‘swishing event’ with friends. 

We should also consider how the product will be recycled at the end of its life. Some clothes manufacturers and retailers will take back old clothes and recycle them. This is easier when the fabric is from a single rather than a blend of materials. Newspaper and books can ultimately be recycled with other paper products. Electrical goods are currently less readily recycled.

Alternatively we could borrow, rent or buy second hand.  Equally we should consider whether we need the thing anyway! If we are to achieve net zero as a world, I am sure it means we will have to consume less, repairing and reusing what we do have. 

The Green Tau: issue 16

10th September 2021

The Appliance of Science

Heating consumes most of our household energy and consequently carbon budget. Of the remainder  some is used for heating water – for baths, showers etc – but most is used in the kitchen: about 60% on average. The typical kitchens contain a cooker, kettle, fridge and washing machine. There may also be a freezer and a tumble dryer. And then any number of smaller appliances which can take up so much space – coffee machine, blender, mixer, toaster, juicer, rice steamer, slow cooker, waffle maker, sandwich maker, bread maker, deep fat fryer, ice-cream maker, coffee grinder, electric whisk, soup maker, griddle … 

Think of an average day in the kitchen. Boil the kettle for a hot drink: approx 25g CO2 per mug of hot water; pop bread in the toaster: 75g; microwave a bowl of porridge: another 25g; run the dishwasher: 275g (70 minute programme); run the washing machine: 400g (100 minute cycle) plus 20 minutes in the tumble dryer: 250g; brew a fresh coffee with the coffee machine: 50g; bake a cake: 750g; half an hour’s ironing: 350g; make supper (eg pasta, sauce and vegetables) using three hot plates 250g; put another load through the dishwasher: 275g; boil the kettle for a bedtime hot drink: 25g. That adds up to  2750g. Meanwhile the fridge is contributing 1250g per day and the freezer 750g, giving a total of 4750g.

If we move around the home, we have the computer and the TV which might each be another 250g CO2 per day, the vacuum cleaner, mobile phone chargers (most homes have more than one), internet hub, Alexa,  hair dryer, pressure shower etc. Plus all the light fittings. 

Perhaps it is not surprising that energy consumption in our homes accounts on average for 22% of the UK’s national carbon footprint. But if we are to achieve the UN’s targeted  45% reduction on CO2 emissions  by 2030 – and net zero by 2050 – we need to find ways of reducing our personal footprint.  We can change the way we use our household appliances and next week’s Eco Tips will look at ways of making efficiency savings. 

We can use more energy efficient appliances – but is buying something new the best answer if that means throwing away equipment that is old but still working? 

Every appliance we buy, large or small, has already produced a carbon footprint  by virtue of its manufacturing, and distribution.  Information on the size of these footprints is not readily forthcoming. This may in part be because often these appliance – or their components – are manufactured elsewhere in the world. Current accounting procedures would allocate these carbon costs to the country of production and not the country of consumption. 

As well as considering the manufacturing carbon footprint of the appliance, we also need to consider the life span of the appliance. A fridge that has a life of 20 years will better repay its carbon footprint, than a fridge that is only used  for 5 years. Sadly many appliances now seem to have a very short life. Whereas a fridge or cooker might have lasted 30+ years, modern day equivalents have an expected lifespan of 10 -13 years. Even then they may not serve their full span as in out throw away society, many are discarded as part of the popular pastime of kitchen refurbishment. 

The UK has one of the highest rates of throwing away electrical appliances. In 2019 this was almost 24kg of waste per head.  Less than 20% of our electrical waste (e waste) is currently recycled  with the rest going to landfill with the potential harm of toxic chemicals leaking out, whilst at the same time failing to salvage valuable metals and other elements that could be reused. E waste will be a future topic for Green Tau. 

NB Recent EU legislation requires that electrical appliances should a, be repairable and b, that manufacturers should provide spare parts for up to ten years after a model has gone out of production. The UK introduced similar legislation in July of this year, although manufacturers have a two year window in which to bring in these changes. 

Green Tau: issue 15

Varodrig took this photo from the Ula platformFirst – gas from the Oselvar module burns on the flare of the BP Ula oil platform in the North Sea on April 14th, 2012

3rd September 2021

Heating homes without carbon?

Domestic energy use, ie for heating, lighting and electrical appliances, generates around 22% of the UK’s carbon footprint. The majority of that 22% comes from heating our homes. This is not surprising when you consider that 90% of homes are heated using gas boilers. Gas, one of the main fossil fuels, is burnt to heat water to warm our homes. As it burns, carbon dioxide is released. A three bedroom house with a 30KW condensing boiler will, for every hour the boiler is running, will emit around 7kg of CO2 or over the course of year around 3.65 tonnes of CO2.

It is obvious that we cannot continue to heat our homes using gas (or oil or coal) if we are to prevent the catastrophic rise in global temperatures. The Paris Agreement signed by parties at the Paris COP in 2015 set as it goal that participants should reduce carbon emissions so as to keep the rise in mean global temperature to below 2 °C , and preferably no more than 1.5 °C. To achieve this Theresa May announced in June 2019 that the UK would set itself the target of cutting its carbon emissions to net zero by 2050. To achieve this Government target the means by which we heat our homes will have to be radically transformed. 

This can happen in surprising ways. In Islington waste heat from the Northern Line is being soused to heat 1350 homes, a primary school and two leisure centres. In addition the heat is also generating electricity that powers lifts and communal lighting in a nearby tower block. Similar district heating solutions are being developed in other parts of the country too, for example heat  extracted from a flooded coal mine in Durham will heat 1500 homes. 

Both these projects use heat pump technology. This is the most promising solution for drastically reducing carbon emission whether heating a large office block or the average house. A heat pump is a scaled up fridge that works in reverse. Its refrigerant liquid absorbs heat from the air – or the ground – outside the building. This is compressed and transfers inside the building  where it is released as heat via warm air or via warm water (for radiators or underfloor heating). The heat pump is powered by electricity. Heat pumps, in terms of energy used and heat produced, are at least 3 times as efficient as gas boilers. In terms of running costs, the carbon footprint of a heat pump will depend on the source of the electricity it uses. Electricity from a wind farm has a carbon footprint of 10-20g/KWh compared with 450g/KWh for electricity from a gas fired power station. 

The Government’s net zero carbon targets anticipates the installing of 600,000 heat pumps a year by 2028. However this target will be hard to meet unless there is an that expansion of both the production capacity of heat pump manufacturers and of the number of qualified heat pump installers.

Surprisingly the cost per KWh for gas is less than that of electricity –  this can impact on the cost of running a heat pump. Part of the higher cost of electricity is due to the government’s carbon tax designed to fund renewable energy developments. Whilst this tax is levied on electricity it is not levied on gas!  

If you would like to petition the government to reverse this situation go to https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/588159/signatures/new

To some extent the cost of running a heat pump can be subsidised by applying for the Renewal Heat Incentive scheme. This makes payments according to how much heat you generate via a renewable source such as a heat pump, but as they say, ‘conditions apply’.

The other approach to reducing the carbon footprint arising from heating our homes, is to insulate them. The better insulated a property is, the less additional heat is needed to achieve a comfortable level of warmth. Thus less energy is needed and one’s carbon footprint is reduced. A well insulated home also reduces draughts and cold spots which makes spaces feel warmer. 

Home insulation options include:

  • cavity wall insulation 
  • External wall insulation suitable for buildings with solid walls
  • Loft insulation 
  • Draught proofing doors and windows 
  • Double – or even triple – glazing windows
  • Underfloor insulation
  • Thermal external doors
  • Fully enclosed porches

Some grants are available for low income households to improve the insulation of their homes through the Energy Company Obligation scheme. Further information can be found here: https://warmauk.com/blog/who-qualifies-for-the-free-insulation-grant/

However the Government’s Green Homes Grant that would have seen an upgrading of the insulation of 600,000 homes has been cancelled. 

Next week’s Eco Tips will feature ways of keeping warm at home.