Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Built To Last

So the government are trying to boost the car industry and reduce emissions. The new frontier in car manufacture seems to be electric or hybrid vehicles. Such as the Volt from GM. Great idea? The Volt is using a petrol engine to serve an electric motor. So it still produces exhaust gasses and how much CO2 did it take to manufacture? We talk about retrofitting houses, could we do the same for cars?

It is claimed that 15% of the total energy associated with a car is in its manufacture - what's called the "embodied energy" - and when you scrap the car before its useful life has ended, that energy is thrown away. It is also claimed that doubling a car's life reduces its lifetime energy-use by 42% compared with scrapping it and building a new one, because repair and maintenance are more energy-efficient than new manufacture.
Mmmmm.... interesting. Makes me feel better about driving a ten year old Skoda. And I also feel good about the local mechanics taking a percentage of my wages on a regular basis.

Friday, 24 April 2009

Don't Be Afraid of The Dark (or the bus)

There is general cheer for Ed Miliband's announcement (BBC story here) that all new coal plants must be fitted with carbon capture and storage technology. He's given the go-ahead for four new plants on the provision that they will capture the carbon dioxide and store it under ground.

Nobody is sure if this technology is viable however. Greenpeace give the news a cautious welcome then retreat to a more sceptical wait and see position, pointing out potential pitfalls in the proposal.

On BBC Radio Four's Today programme the coal policy was reported as a move necessary to avoid black outs. Have a look at this for more.

All of this, in my opinion illustrates a central flaw in how we are responding to climate change, peak oil and the other causes of sleepless nights - we are trying to protect our current way of life.

The real inconvenient truth is that our current way of life is completely unsustainable. Why are we burning coal and relying on unproven technology to avoid blackouts? Because we are scared of the dark? Will darkness bring lawlessness, chaos and murder? It might but there is no a priori causal link between darkness and acts of evil. The New York blackout of 1977 resulted in widespread looting but the blackout in 2003 saw people helping each other - citizens directing traffic, bars serving free food, block parties and The Indigo Girls performing in Central Park using power from diesel generators. Why the difference? In 77, there was recession and a lot of social tension. The New York of 2003 was a very different place.

And that in a nutshell folks is sustainable development. If we manage to create a socially just, equitable and affluent society then we will be able to handle regular blackouts. If we built strong cohesive societies where people look out for each other and the strong take care of the weak then we have nothing to fear from the dark. Lets stop kidding ourselves that there is any way we can maintain this energy addicted insatiable society and start building the society that doesn't need coal, that can survive happily without oil.

Another illustration of our folly is the lengths we will go to cling on to our mobility. In order to meet demand for transport fuel we are gleefully embracing biofuels as the answer to our problems.

To grow biofuel we are cutting down primary biomass and using land that could grow food. Systems thinking see...

Friends of The Earth are trying to point out that there's no such thing as a free lunch or free journey for that matter - here

Once again this is an illustration of the folly of trying to maintain our unsustainable lifestyle. There is an alternative and no doubt subsequent blogs will explore this but for now we have to start adjusting our values and aspirations and realise there is nothing to fear from the dark or from leaving the car at home.

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Fat Flares, Slim Hips, Low Carbon?

A study at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine makes a link between diet and carbon emissions - read the BBC report here

Apparently we are using 19% more food than we were in the 1970s and this could equate to an extra 60 mega-tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions a year. The calculations include the extra fuel related emissions needed to transport the generously proportioned Britons of the twenty first century.

Professor Alan Maryon-Davis, president of the Faculty of Public Health said "In the 1970s we had bigger portions of vegetables and smaller portions of meat and there's been a shift in the amount of exercise we do."

Eating less and walking or cycling more is of course good for the environment and our own and society's chances of survival but making links to the 1970s as the report and the BBC story do is rather misleading.

The British population was slimmer in the 1970s because it was poorer, smoked more, worked longer hours and most of the work was hard manual labour associated with heavy industries that pumped tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

The incidence of obesity in children is higher than it was in the 1880s but you wouldn't want to send them down mines or up chimneys to work off the flab.

Systems thinking, as I am always keen to point out, reveals that a gain in one part of the system is always paid for by a loss in another part. While I'd welcome a reduction in food consumption and hence average weight, I wouldn't want to go back to wearing flares and tank tops even though I am an avid fan of prog rock.

Monday, 20 April 2009

Prosperity Without Growth

The Sustainable Development Commission have published a report by Prof. Tim Jackson entitled Prosperity Without Growth. This is well worth reading and you can find it here

Jackson considers the mechanisms in the economy and how they might be adjusted to a zero growth scenario. His frank conclusion is that there is no macro-economic model for sustainability but that one is possible.

I find the most useful and stimulating parts of the report to be the chapter where he articulates the nature of the philosophical and psychological changes needed to arrive at a sustainable human society. Put simply, the growth paradigm is dead. Basing our economic and spiritual well being on the consumption of ever more stuff is a strategy for the extinction of modern human society. Why? Because we live on a planet of finite resources. There is no celestial conveyor belt from planet Argos. The old analogy of "space ship earth" could do with being revived. Everything we need we carry with us, the only external source of energy is the sun and all our waste has to be stored on board or recycled into something useful.

If we can accept that economic growth as defined by the last 100 years can not continue, then we can shift the debate to where it really matters: on what basis do we calculate value? How we do satisfy basic human needs such as a requirement for status and respect?

Some might argue that there is no need for this kind of existentialist self examination because technology will provide us with alternatives for oil, with greater efficiency of production and with a closed loop manufacturing process that minimises reliance on primary non renewable resources. This amounts to a gradual greening of the existing economy.

If nature operated by a process of gradual, incremental change then we could all carry on striving for the mansion, the SUV and the three overseas holidays a year confident that technology would deliver a sustainable consumerist society but nature has a tendency to do nothing much for a very long time then change very suddenly and very dramatically. Human societies usually follow the same pattern.

We don't have to repeat history or be caught out by nature: for once we are fore-warned and this time we have the depth of scientific, technological, sociological, spiritual, medical and psychological knowledge to side step the coming apocalypse like Shane avoiding a South African prop.

Prosperity Without Growth is an important step in the right direction but a lot more thinking by a lot more people is needed urgently if we are to transcend the death of consumerism.