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October 2007 - Terra Infirma

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31 October 2007

New Course: Sustainable Development for Local Authorities

We are proud to announce that we have created a special version of our Introduction to Sustainable Development course for Local Authorities.

The new one-day course has all the technical content of our standard Sustainable Development course, but the case studies and exercises are concerned with local government practice. It is suitable for council officers across all departments and functions and, indeed, councillors. Topics include:

- What is Sustainable Development?
- Environmental Sustainability
- Socio-economic Sustainability
- Planning & Delivering Sustainability

We guarantee that you will not be disappointed!

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29 October 2007

Whose Carbon Is It Anyway? Part II

When carbon footprinting, the allocation of carbon between different companies is a tricky issue as we've discussed before. Does the carbon produced by a gas-fired power station 'belong' to the power generator, or the power consumer?

Well, the British Standard Institute (BSi) has just released a draft of their forthcoming PAS 2050 carbon footprinting standard and it is interesting to see how they approach the problem. The standard is based roughly on the Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) methodology to estimating the environmental impact of products, rather than taking a company by company approach. This means that if your company is part of a supply chain, your products' embodied carbon will count against you and your customers' products, rather than being divvied up between you. So in the example above, carbon emissions from the power station would count against the generator and the consumer. This is a sensible approach as long as everyone understands there is double counting involved - and no-one adds them together to get a 'total'.

Many of the criticisms I've levelled at LCA apply here too. In particular, it will be interesting to see how rival companies' footprints compare and what assumptions they use to get there. I'm sure there will be some robust debates!

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25 October 2007


Those free eco-design sessions in Gateshead are today & tomorrow.

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24 October 2007

1 in 6 SMEs know their carbon footprint?

The 2007 SME Climate Change Survey found that 1 in 6 Small & Medium Size Enterprises (<250 employees) have measured their carbon footprint, but that 40% intend to do it rather soon. I must say I'm slightly suspicious of these figures, not just because I had some trouble tracking down a website for Explomarket, the PR company that carried out the research (these surveys are often done for marketing purposes rather than scientific endeavour). Few, if any, SMEs I have visited in the last couple of years could quote you their energy bill, never mind a carbon footprint. I recently did a footprint for Leaf Hairdressing, an independent salon, which gave some interesting results and lead to some employees changing their mode of transport. Katie, the owner, is both committed to the environment and sees being an "eco-salon" as a business differentiator. Certainly I struggled to find any other hairdressing salon or chain, including all the big names, who even mentioned the environment on their websites. It will be interesting to see if it makes a difference over the coming months.

Today I'm talking at the Environmental Technology Transfer Club (ETTC) at the University of Teesside about this and other carbon footprinting projects we have been involved with. If footprinting is as big as the survey suggests, I fully expect to be inundated with offers of lucrative work...

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22 October 2007

I'm now "The Carbon Coach"

One of the more interesting projects I'm involved with at the minute is 'acting' as "The Carbon Coach" for two Tyneside teenagers for a DVD on climate change for schools. The DVD is being produced by Digital Voices for Communities, a Tyneside based Social Enterprise. I like to think I'm the Trinny & Susanna of the low carbon economy, but in truth my performance is hardly going to trouble the BAFTA judges.

What is remarkable is the enthusiasm of Grace and Ryan, the two youngsters. They're ordinary kids, not stage school overachievers, yet their understanding outstrips that of most adults.

My role is to set them two challenges: to look at where their food comes from and to collect their food packaging for a week. I'll keep you up to date with how we get on.

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19 October 2007

Green Washers and Green Winners Survey

The Chatsworth FOOTSIE 100 Green Washers and Green Winners survey has found that UK big business puts image and consumer pressure ahead of genuine concern for the environment. The survey asked more than 1200 "opinion formers" from including included journalists and commentators from the UK national print and broadcast press, the environmental and business trade media, political groups and sustainability experts. The results were:

  • The main motivation for UK companies to adopt green policies is to protect their reputation (27%) followed by consumer pressure (20%) and good business sense (18%)
  • Only 1% believe genuine concern for the environment is the key driver for UK companies to adopt green policies
  • Marks & Spencer (45%) and HSBC voted the top green winners – the companies making the most genuine green effort
  • BP, Tesco and British Airways considered to be most guilty of ‘greenwash’ by respondents
  • BP, Tesco and Marks & Spencer have the highest profile and most effective green publicity campaigns in terms of coverage
  • Majority of respondents (75%) believe it is better for big business to own up where they are not green and show willing to make any changes

BP and Tesco must be a bit gutted, spending all that money on publicity and getting branded "Greenwashers". I'm sure they'll be taking a close look at how M&S; have converted their cash into credibility. The simple answer is "Walk the Walk AND Talk the Talk" - earlier this week they got voted joint greenest supermarket.

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17 October 2007

Supermarkets Start Putting Words into Practice

Six months ago, you couldn't open a newspaper without one supermarket supremo or another launching a programme to make their chain more sustainable. Well the National Consumer Council (NCC)'s annual study of supermarkets' environmental performance has found that many of the UK's top food retailers have improved their environmental performance in the past year.

Sainsbury's and Marks and Spencer moved up a grade to join Waitrose at the head of the league table with a B rating. Asda and Tesco have both moved from a D in last year's table to a C, while Morrisons and Somerfield improved their scores from an E to a D. The Co-op retained its D rating. None of the eight top food retailers achieved an A, or excellent, rating. The full report can be found here.

So why is this sector so important? Well the food we eat is responsible for one third of our impact on climate change. It's not just air miles either - in the UK, supermarket lorries travel the equivalent distance of going to the moon and back every day.

But what is encouraging is the shift from plans to action. Maybe next year one of the big sheds will hit the 'A' grade.

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15 October 2007

A Trillion Pages of Waste A Day

Despite having spent ten years working in the environment and sustainability field, the sheer volume of our consumption of natural resources still has the capacity to leave me speechless. And it happened again yesterday as I read the Sundays. The Observer had a piece on the world's consumption of printer paper - 2.5 and 2.8 trillion worldwide of which 45% is binned within the day - a cool trillion pages of unwanted e-mails, cover sheets, drafts, accidental prints etc. Of course the economic cost of this is not just disposal, but the whole cost of ordering, purchase cost, storage, distribution, loading the printer, maintaining the printer (more printing = more wear & tear), emptying the bins and then finally disposal.

Some solutions to this are easy - use 2-sided (duplex) printing, don't print cover sheets (you should really know what paper is yours) and don't print e-mails unless there is a commercial/legal imperative etc. I also find, provided your eyesight is OK, drafts and some large documents can be printed 2 pages to each side of A4 - so you get 4 'pages' to one piece of paper. The main difficulty I have is I still like to scribble over draft reports with a red pen, so I now try to restrict myself to printing a draft every other time I get the urge to!

In the wider organisation, information, directories etc can be stored on an intranet, inessential handouts can be banned from meetings and individual departments can be given paper/printing cost reduction targets.

Unfortunately, despite this, we seem further from the 'paperless office' than where we were 32 years ago when the term was coined.

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12 October 2007

Oil price at record high - is this the beginning of the end?

With the BBC reporting that oil prices are staying near the record high set in September, the 'peak oil' debate has started again.

'Peak Oil' is the theory that we are nearing the economic limit of oil exploration and extraction, beyond which the cost of extracting the fuel will soar. Estimates of when the peak will occur range from now (Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas) to 2037 (US Govt advisors). Others reject the idea that peak oil is happening at all, such as Deborah White, senior energy analyst at Societe Generale in Paris (quoted by the BBC) who said "We don't endorse the idea at all."

The difficulty is that the oil & gas supply is a function of many different factors: politics (see Russia switching off Ukraine's gas supply in 2005), economics, geology (where the gas & oil is and in what quantities) and technology (what was uneconomic last year could be economic today). Apart from the geology, these factors are interrelated, unpredictable and may combine in unexpected and sudden ways.

If it is happening, we will be forced to decarbonise our economies swiftly. The only problem is, we won't probably know until long after it has started. If it isn't, then we should do it anyway for climate change and security of supply reasons.

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10 October 2007

What makes a product green?

One of my pet subjects is making products greener (don't forget about my free workshops at Dott this month), and the key question is "What makes a product green?".

The short answer is one that, across its life cycle:

1. Uses less stuff


2. Uses 'better' stuff

"Stuff" is a highly technical term covering materials, water and energy.

"Less stuff" appears straightforward, but can be compromised by the rebound effect. Techniques include lightweighting, reducing friction, reducing leaks, reducing electrical resistance and miniaturisation.

"Better stuff" is harder to conceptualise, but materials should be non-toxic and of low embodied energy (eg recycled or natural), energy should be from renewable sources. The main problem with this approach is finding a sustainable supply of material, water or energy, for example the biodiesel/rainforest controversy.

Of course there's a bit more to it than this, but these two principles underpin all the more complicated techniques and technologies.

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8 October 2007

On the Rebound?

Last week I made reference to the 'rebound effect'. I like to illustrate this concept with a little story. Back in December 2003, I wrote off my Ford Ka in a smallish prang. I replaced it with a Golf TDi, for two reasons:

a. I want to have the option of using biodiesel (but that's another story...).

b. It did 55mpg compared with the Ka's 40mpg.

Brilliant - cut my fuel consumption by 28% and saved £250 each year.


1. Statistics show that I'm likely to lose about a fifth of that saving by driving more because it has become cheaper. This is the 'direct rebound effect'.

2. £250 is exactly the cost of a return flight from Newcastle to New York. Given my love of travel, this is a real option. If I take it, then I've just doubled the annual carbon emissions I had in the Ka. This is the 'indirect-' or 'respend-' rebound effect (or, as energy economists call it, the Khazzoom-Brookes Postulate). If we save money through efficiency, we can easily wipe out the eco-benefits by choosing to buy or do something even more environmentally damaging with the windfall.

So what effect does this have in practice? The Khazzoom-Brookes Postulate is hotly debated in academic circles - certainly the prominent energy guru Amory Lovins once told me rather tersely that there was no empirical evidence for its existence.

In my opinion this is down to changing consumption patterns. Some time ago I immersed myself in consumer data and found that the fastest growing areas of expenditure were on telecommunications and home entertainment which are less carbon intensive (per pound/euro/dollar) than, say, road or air travel. A back of the fag packet calculation suggested that the rebound effect would not result in environmental damage getting worse, but that only about 50% of expected efficiency benefits would be delivered in practice.

The title of Lovins' own famous book, "Factor 4: doubling wealth, halving resource use", backs this up - a factor 4 improvement in resource efficiency will only result in a factor 2 reduction in resource use - the rest we enjoy in increased quality of life. I haven't seen him since to run this by him!

The bottom line is: with resource efficiency you never quite get the environmental benefits you expect, but it's still worth doing.

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5 October 2007

SME awareness of legislation still poor, but improving

This year's NetRegs survey of UK Small and Medium Enterprises has shown a sudden jump in awareness of environmental issues and legislation - but the overall result is still poor. Only one in four small business owners can name one piece of environmental legislation that applies to them - despite the fact that all businesses have a duty of care for their waste and all are expected to recycle their Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE). The only good news is that this is up from one in seven last year.

Something I have come across this year is unscrupulous companies trying use this lack of awareness to scare people into accepting their services. One lady, who ran a jewellers' shop, had been told by a waste company that the Landfill Directive now meant that all waste had to be pre-treated before it is landfilled - the implication being only this company could provide a legal landfill service. Pre-treatment is indeed required, but the Environment Agency expects the waste management industry to deal with this requirement - not small businesses and retailers.

So there is a double imperative to understand environmental legislation - to make sure your business is neither hauled up in court by the Environment Agency nor ripped off by the sharks.

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3 October 2007

Environment Agency will require Resource Efficiency data from IPPC sites

The ENDS Report is, well, reporting that the Environment Agency in England and Wales is planning to make the reporting of Resource Efficiency data mandatory as part of Integrated Pollution Prevention and Control (IPPC) reporting. Only a lack of funds is stopping them doing it sooner.

Resource efficiency* is about getting the most out of every unit of physical input (eg materials, energy, water) into a system. Car fuel consumption in miles per gallon is an everyday example of a resource efficiency measure - miles travelled (output) for every unit of input (gallon of fuel).

The UK Government is extremely keen on resource efficiency as it is very business friendly - increased efficiency will lead to a reduction in operating costs. They have created the Business Resource Efficiency and Waste (BREW) fund which recycles money from landfill tax into schemes that improve the resource efficiency of, well you guessed it, UK business. The schemes include Envirowise (waste minimisation), the Carbon Trust (energy efficiency), WRAP (recycling) and the National Industrial Symbiosis Programme - NISP (industrial symbiosis). The model is quite neat - industry pays for its sins (landfill) and gets 'free' advice on how to stop sinning as a result.

However, there are concerns about how far Resource Efficiency can take us towards sustainability. The high targets required (a Factor 10 improvement over 1990 is the best guess) are extremely challenging on technical grounds, and then there's the dreaded 'rebound effect' which I will discuss at a later date. In the meantime, with it being flavour of the month, British business had better get its head around resource efficiency PDQ and the organisations above are a pretty good place to start.

* Resource efficiency is also known as eco-efficiency

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1 October 2007

Free Eco-design Sessions

Over the last year Terra Infirma has provided technical input and training sessions to the Dott07 programme, or Design of the Time 2007 to give it its full title. Dott 07 is "a year of community projects, events and exhibitions based in North East England that explore what life in a sustainable region could be like – and how design can help us get there". This month Dott is cumulating in a large design festival on the Gateshead Quayside by the famous Baltic 'art factory' and the Millennium Bridge. The festival runs from 16-28 October and highlights the various projects undertaken from the School's Eco-design Challenge to the Community Food project.

On 25th and 26th October, I'll be running some free eco-design workshops for novices, children (13+) and families. There will be two workshops on each day, starting at 10:30am and 1:30pm. The sessions will be fun and light hearted, but informative. If you are interested, simply drop in and take part.

More details of this and other Dott07 Festival highlights can be seen here. The location of the festival can be seen here.

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