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December 2007 - Terra Infirma

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17 December 2007

Merry Christmas to you all!

The Terra Infirma office will be going into hibernation mode tomorrow, so can I take this opportunity to wish all our readers, clients, project partners and other friends the very best for Xmas and the New Year.


Gareth & the Terra Infirma team

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14 December 2007

You'll never see this picture on this website...

...oops, you just have!

We're planning an overhaul of the Terra Infirma website in the New Year, so I've been spending 'idle' moments (I say "idle" - this week's been one of the busiest since the company started) browsing our competitors' websites to see what the, er, competition is doing.

One of the things I've noticed is the preponderance of cupped hands holding saplings. And I hate them! To me there's something incredibly naff and twee about the whole 'nature's safe in our hands' image that it projects*.

I'm glad I've got that off my chest, but if you want to share your favourite least favourite eco-cliches, post 'em in the comments.

*And that's from a man who's just signed dozens of Xmas cards showing a polar bear cub rolling in the snow...

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12 December 2007

RSC calls for more green product development

While most environmentalists are focussing on the big issue du jour, climate change and the talks in Bali, the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) has flagged up the fact that we still need to take care on more parochial issues such as not poisoning our water supply. The study takes in a wide range of pollutants, although the PR has focussed on personal hygiene products to stay media friendly (when did you last see the RSC quoted in the Mirror?).

One of the recommendations of the report is for more eco-design of products to eradicate the problem in the first place. I love the following quote from Bill McDonough and Michael Braungart:

"we've got to take the filters out of the pipes and put them where they belong - in the designers' minds"

Wise words - if we don't use such materials in the first place, it simplifies everything that goes after. It is particularly pertinent for dissipative products such as cosmetics, cleaning products and personal hygiene products as these, by definition, are left to the environment to deal with.

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10 December 2007

Bleak News from Bali

UK political orthodoxy has two main tenets when it comes to climate change: "yes, we can fix it, if only the Americans/Chinese/this month's scapegoat do their bit" and "technology will be the answer". The first of these has been holed below the water by two eminent sources:

1. At the Bali conference, the UK's Chief Scientific Advisor David King saying that some climate change is inevitable as we have acted too late.

2. A study has shown that the UK's Carbon footprint is much bigger and rising faster than the Government has claimed. This is because much of our footprint is from overseas sources providing for our lifestyles which the Government doesn't count.

Neither of these should be a shock. Almost every national climate change strategy recognises that adaptation (to the effects) is as important as mitigation (stopping the next lot happening). Issues such as flood defences/drainage, health provision and emergency response plans come under the adaptation banner. On the second point, I've been banging on about this for a long time - just because we've offshored most of our dirty industries and much of our leisure industry, doesn't mean we can neglect their carbon emissions. I've personally made this point to a number of top politicians including David Milliband (when he was Environment Sec), Chris Huhne and John Gummer.

As for technology, we need some immediate step changes in take up to make any difference.

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7 December 2007

Don't sweat the little stuff

I've just been on the phone with someone in the commercial sector fretting over the use of paper plates in their canteen outside main meals and whether they should switch to ceramic plates. Look at the big picture, I advised, the cooling/heating of your building, business travel and electricity use by IT will easily swamp the impact of a few paper plates. Sort that lot out and you deserve a cup of tea in a paper cup.

This a general principle I teach to my clients - go for the big wins first - if you find it difficult to choose between two options on environmental grounds then the choice is probably not worth worrying about. We need a lot more 80:20 thinking in the environmental sphere and a little less analysis.


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5 December 2007

Waste heat "will be zero carbon"

Another positive from the Local Government Association Climate Change conference. I asked the Audit Commission's carbon gurus about the use of heat from electricity generation and was told that it is almost certainly to be counted as zero carbon against Local Authority targets. In other words the carbon will be counted 100% against the electricity user rather than divvied up between the two.

This will provide a huge incentive for councils to use waste heat energy in social housing and municipal buildings when the new Comprehensive Area Assessment (CAA) reporting and the Carbon Reduction Commitment hit in 2009 and 2010 respectively. The CAA will also measure emissions from non-social housing and commercial properties.

Maybe we will see district heating rise again, rather than squandering this easy source of energy.

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4 December 2007

Blears: "Merton Rule Not Under Threat", but...

I'm at the Local Government Association Climate Change conference today and the Government's Communities Secretary Hazel Blears stated quite categorically that the Merton Rule was not under threat despite rumours she'd been backtracking on it under pressure from developers.

The Merton Rule, developed by the titular London Borough, requires all new developments over a certain size to source a certain amount of their energy on site, say 10%. This has the double whammy of driving down energy consumption first so the 10% renewable figure becomes technically viable.

However, Blears added a couple of vague caveats about 'one size fits all' and ducked a request from an audience member to clarify whether the rule would be applied site by site or not. We will have to wait and see how it comes out in the wash...

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3 December 2007

Why don't we do district heating in the UK?

I was giving a presentation on Sustainable Construction on Friday to a group of Local Authority energy managers. I mentioned Kalundborg in Denmark where the entire town is heated using 'waste' heat from the local coal fired power station. From the conversation afterwards it turned out that many towns in the North East of England used to have district heating, but that most had be ripped out, not because of cost or performance, but because people just preferred to have their own central heating system. This is a real shame as the heat lost from our electricity generation almost exactly matches the heat demand from domestic homes, which in turn is responsible for a whopping 28% of the country's carbon footprint.

This prejudice seems to be continuing. I've just been commissioned to do a scoping study for using waste heat, but the client has specified that I exclude domestic developments because they've drawn a complete blank so far. Only in Southampton does a district heating system using a combination of geothermal energy and combined heat and power seem to have taken off in recent years.

I can only assume the prejudice is based on security of supply. But, hold on, in my house there's only one gas connection and combi boiler - if that goes down we're cold. In district heating systems there's a back-up boiler, and if that fails, we'd no worse off than with the gas. Plus hot water arriving in our house would always be safer than gas. Given the opportunity, I'd sign up in a flash!

So why don't we do district heating?

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