Thursday, 24 December 2009

Not looking in the right place

As I watch entrepreneurs and businesses attempting to offer green products and services or attempting to minimize the environmental impact of their operations, I realize that something is wrong.

We are now on a timeline, a timeline that is not defined by us but by Nature. Nature is acting like a landlord that is not receiving rent payment. It is taking action to kick us out. It will do so by making our conditions of life impossible, by starving us, by contaminating us, by destroying our habitats, by making the ongoing operation of our lives impossible. And it will do so faster than we think.

Yet we remain focused on our economic system. This is wrong. We need to turn the economic system’s concept on its head and use it as a means to an end. The goal now is to insure our survival as a species because we’re worth it. So what we need to do is use our economic system to insure our survival, not to meet our needs. And the only way to do this is to use the wealth generated by the economic system as a means to finance our ability to rebuild ecosystems.

The need is simple: we have ecosystems, which we rely on to sustain life, in an advanced state of degradation. Things are worst than I thought. Methane hydrate has already begun escaping from the Ocean underneath the Arctic (1). As far as I was aware, that was not supposed to happen until we reached 6 degrees of global warming (2) and there's enough methane under the Ocean to generate an explosion equivalent to 10,000 times the world's stockpile of nuclear weapons. According to James Lovelock, the melting that occurred in the Arctic in 2007 was not predicted to occur by any climate model until 2050 (3). Methane is escaping from the thawing of the permafrost in the Arctic Circle and peat bogs worldwide are drying up and releasing significant quantities of methane in the atmosphere (4). Forest fires are on the rise and more devastating than they have ever been. (5) Combined, the degredation of all these ecosystems, and the accentuation of that degredation will cause an increase in temperatures at a faster pace than before. Both ecosystem degreadation and temperature increases are dependent variables, the occurance of one causes the occurance of the other. Thus temperatures will just keep on rising possibly causing the death of the whole Planet.

We are now in a situation where Nature has turned against us. But I do believe that we have the resources, the creative potential and manpower necessary to turn things round. The problem is that we are not looking in the right direction. We need to find a way to rebuild rather than just mitigate. I have already proposed two geo-engineering solutions in the business ideas section of the Ecochanges website (6). There are more simple solutions: biochar (7), preserving the Rainforest (8). Only it is a combination of all these solutions and a mobilization of the masses on the solutions that we need to insure our survival. So long as ecosystems do not turn against us, we do not have a sense of urgency to act. When they finally do turn against us, the heat becomes unbearable; we have massive crop failures and rising sea levels all at once, that’s checkmate. At that point in time, everyone of us will want to act but it will be too late because every ecosystem will be degrading in a perfect symphony making our efforts at reducing our emissions fruitless. The pace at which ecosystems will be sending carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere will be far faster than what we’re capable of doing ourselves. The time-bomb reservoirs of global warming gases trapped in the Oceans, the soils, forests and permafrost (9) are far greater than the ones we currently cause from the burning of gas, oil and coal.

To have a fighting chance at survival we have to turn the game around. What we need from business is not zero carbon goods and services, it’s negative carbon goods and services. What we need is not carbon capture and storage from usage of energy, it’s carbon capture and storage of what we’ve already put in the atmosphere. It has to be done through a carbon market that aims not at neutralising emissions but at making them negative several times over in a bid to outdo the damage we have already caused. There lies our only hope of redemption: a blind belief from each and everyone of us in our ability to restore.

(1) Science et Vie, 10/2009, p38
(2) Six Degrees by Mark Lynas
(3) The Vanishing Face of Gaia, James Lovelock
(4) Science et Vie, 01/2010, p24-25
(5) Science et Vie, 06/2009, p83-89
(7) More info on biochar:
(8) The best way of preserving the rainforest I’m aware of is to donate money to Cool Earth

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

3.5 billion years of evolution and 9 billion people down the drain

Two years ago when I first started looking into the climate change problem, I had no idea that what I would find out would affect my life so much.

Now with Copenhagen negotiations down the drain, it is time to morn the likely loss of my species and to dogedly persist in finding solutions to our problem.

My research, and particularly the book 6 Degrees by Mark Lynas showed me a world in which there was no future. Later I found an expression coined by Paul Hawken: the death of birth. I can try to explain it but there really is no substitute for reading 6 degrees. We have maybe 7 years left to stabilize temperatures to 2 degrees. To do that, we have to reduce our carbon emissions. This means using less energy at home, eating vegetarian or vegan whenever possible, flying as little as possible, consuming less and using public transport. Not too complicated since it can be summarized in one sentence. But doing this insures our survival as a species. Not doing this insures our extinction as a species. Staline said that one death was a tragedy but a million was a statistic. To imagine our extinction as a species, you have to first think of who you love the most, then picture them dead. Then start thinking about all the people you know dead. Then picture yourself dead. Not from old age but from the consequences of war, famine, poverty, natural disaster or suicide. Not a natural death, not a nice death... The extinction will occur soon and rapidly. By 2050, the world will be unrecognizable (1). By 2100, more than 90% of the human population is likely to be dead. Our children, grand-children and great grand-children will pay the price for our failure to act.

Our problem stems from a fundamental misunderstanding in our culture. And the misunderstanding is that our Planet has limits that we ignore at our own peril. So far as climate change is concerned, the limits stem from the ecosystems we rely on for our survival (oxygen, water and food come from Nature and they're not to be taken for granted). They are in an advanced state of degredation and if we go past 2 degrees of global warming, the degredation will become irreversible. Irreversible degredation means that we will have runaway, unstoppable global warming with temperatures rising gradually but inexorably until we reach our collective death warrant: 6 degrees. In a way, runaway global warming is something we can't possibly imagine. What with all our resources and technology surely there's something we can do about it isn't there? The answer is quite simply no. Once the ice caps melt, the Gulf stream will shut down, the Amazon rainforest will burn down, the permafrost will thaw and every ecosystem that helps to maintain life will start to help destroy life. Rather than being net carbon sinks, oceans, forests and soils will start releasing carbon in massive quantities. More than half of our emissions are currently absorbed by Nature and even with her help temperatures have still risen inexorably over the past two decades. Imagine what will happen when the ecosystems we rely on to absorb our atmospheric pollution no longer store carbon but instead release it in quantities far greater than we can produce ourselves... At 6 degrees; the 10,000 billion tonnes of methane trapped at the bottom of the Ocean will start to be released. An explosion of that methane is equivalent to an explosion of 10,000 times the world's stockpile of nuclear weapons. That's easily enough to destroy every last piece of life on Earth and to turn our wonderful paradise into a burning ball of fire. Expected fireworks date: 2100, just 90 years from now. Time to stop it? 7 years max as of today. More on this here. (2)

When it comes to us as individuals, the cultural misunderstanding is still there. We fail to see that our actions in one part of the world affect people in another part of the world. A simple example is beef consumption. It takes a hundred thousand litres of water to make one kilogram of beef. When I eat at restaurants and see meat on the table I try to picture how much of the restaurant's space would be occupied by the water it took to get that meat to the table. I imagine water up to the sealing with all the hosts drowned and still more water in the parking lot. Cows are fed soya, soya is pure protein it helps the cows grow faster. But feeding them the soya requires to grow it first and that's where the bulk of the water consumption occurs. But we don't think about this when the meat comes on the table. An empty stomach needs to be taken care of whilst the head... remains empty... Meanwhile, in India, the Punjab region, considered to be the breadbasket of India, is running out of water whilst it exports a large proportion of its production to Europe and the US. 15 years down the line, Indians will be starving because right now, we as individuals, did not make the decision to eat a diet requiring a low amount of water, land space and carbon emissions. In 40 years, Bangladesh and millions of the poorest people in the world will lose everything they have as their country is engulfed by sea level rises. Sea levels rises due to carbon emissions, 51% of the world's carbon emissions due to meat consumption (3)! Cause and effect... The Matrix Reloaded... We live an illusion; the illusion of choice without consequence. And if ytou don't want to take a moral responsibility for your consumption choices you can always blame someone else! That's the beauty of freedom of choice afforded by a consumer democracy. Only Nazture's law couldn't care less about democracy. It's coming after your children with every piece of meat sinking in your stomach. Someone always pays. Cause and effect... Meat packaging should carry images of starving somalians on the same token as cigarettes have images of people with cancer. But they don't. Why? It's the economy stupid.

And it is precisely economic growth, our national preoccupation with MORE that means that 9 billion of us will die in the name of greed. It's down to mismanagement. We elect politicans to represent our choices and our choice is that we want more. Politicians don't meet our demands and we elect new ones. We're selfish, opportunistic and greedy. And our culture encourages us to move further in that direction. Switch on the TV to find out how irresistible you could be with the new Givenchy perfume, how much fun you could have with the latest videogames or why you need to have life insurance. All that stuff, the adverts, that's consumption. So whilst you unwrap your Christmas presents consider that every £1.25 you spent on presents for others generated on average one kilogram of carbon emissions. Carbon emissions from consumption that add up over the course of a year to 3.7 tonnes per person in the UK, more or less the same weight as a Range Rover.

But it's not over till it's over. Negotiations in Copenhagen failed, according to Ed Milliband because ... of the Chinese (4)! Ha! Nicely put by a man responsible for fraudulent accounting of our own carbon emissions. Apparently the UK's carbon emissions are around the mark of 634 million tonnes. But these statistics assume that nobody in the UK buys any of the stuff that is taunted to us on television. So no WII consoles at Christmas, no toys for the kids, no crackers... We are all reliant to meet our needs on stuff produced at home. Anything coming into the country, produced for us, to meet our demands, we are not responsible for. BLAME CHINA!!! Because you see, goods produced for us in China account for another 200 million tonnes of carbon (30%+ of the declared total) but it's not our fault; it's the Chinese! We don't care if the stuff we buy is cheap or expensive, it's the Chinese's responsibility to make sure it works. So long as it works, who gives a rat's arse of how it's made. And if the Chinese can't do it cheap enough, sod them, we'll find someone else who can! No wonder they didn't want to lower their carbon emissions. We wouldn't buy their stuff if they did!

I think I'm going to use the same logic as the department of energy and climate change to complete my tax return this year. If the government can suit itself for the accounting of the country's carbon emissions, why shouldn't I suit myself for the accounting of my income. I wonder what they'll say when I deduct my home's rent, gas, electricity and water bills as a business expense. I might even try to talk my landlord into sending me copies of the maintenance expenses. That's a big bill he racked up for refurbishing the bathroom... Ah I forgot, the tax inspectors... Funny how there's no carbon inspectors to check on the department of energy and climate change statistics. But in a world where money is more important than the lives of people in the third world and the lives of our children, should we be even remotely surprised?

Well there's a simple solution to our problem with the Chinese: a carbon tax. Showman French President set one up this year. At least in France, with the media rattling on about climate change all the time, brain dulled French TV viewer Joe Blogg has started worrying a bit about climate change. And with political popularity at stake the French President had to whip out the green credentials didn't he? If we tax everything that's being made in China at around £10 per tonne of carbon emissions, it will cost us £20 billion a year but that's a lot less than the economic losses we'll rack up if the Gulf Stream shuts down and we start having winters at minus 22 degrees. The good news is this: if we reinvest the £20 billion into building renewable energy or nuclear energy power stations in China, we'll soon own a sizeable proportion of the Chinese energy supply and within 10-20 years there'll be no need for a carbon tax because we'll be receiving that much in income from the Chinese who will be producing goods for us that aren't causing climate change. In the long-run, they'll lose out because we'll own their power supply. The fact of the matter is that our basic nature is that we are greedy. And there's no point in trying to change our nature. We might as well use it to our advantage. Sure enough we might lose out a little in the short-term but in the long run, we'll end up wealthier. What the Chinese have failed to act on; we can profit from in the names of the ones we love: our children. This may seem crude but there's oppportunities made available by those who do nothing.

(1) See our blog on the world at 4 degrees
(3) and summary at:

Monday, 19 October 2009

Will we make it?

"We are virtually certain that climate change is occurring, and occurring because of man’s activities. We’re virtually certain the probability distribution curve is all bad. There’s no good things that’s going to come of this. But what’s uncertain is exactly which one of those things are going to occur and in what time frame. In the probability distribution curve is about a 50 percent probability that about half of all species will become extinct or be subject to extinction over this period of time. What we will never know on an ex ante basis is whether or not man be one of those casualties or not." J. Wayne Leonard, the Chairman and CEO of Entergy Corporation, the utility giant based in New Orleans

Friday, 25 September 2009

Energy Efficiency in the home: a mortgage valuation problem

Our homes may well become energy and water efficient much faster if mortgage valuers start taking into account the energy & water performance of a house in their valuations. I find it difficult to believe that both here and in the US, this is not already being done.

With the rising cost of energy, the average UK gas and electric bill is around £1300 according to Uswitch. According to the Energy Saving Trust, this can be easily reduced by 30% saving £390. By plugging back the savings into other energy saving measures, over a few years' time, the home's energy consumption could be cut by 50-60%.

A 50% saving on energy consumption and water consumption would result in an annual saving of £806 which should be enough to make one monthly mortgage payment a year. Surely that's worth something to a bank. Over the 25 years of a mortgage, the saving would amount to £20,150. Taking into account inflation of energy prices at an average of 5% a year*, the saving would be around £38,500. It is difficult to say how this embedded saving should be factored in to the value of a property. The easiest way to measure it is to look at similar trends in the US. A study in California reveals that buyers are willing to pay an extra $20 for every $1 saved on permanent home energy efficiency investments ** (1). This is a far cry from what buyers are willing to pay in the UK. The Energy Saving Trust (EST) have assessed from market studies that buyers are willing to pay on average an extra £3,350, whilst some are willing to pay up to £15,000 for energy efficient homes. They found that 68% of people don't want a highly energy inefficient F or G rated home. Unfortunately, they don't have any info yet on what home improvements buyers value most. This makes it very difficult to determine whether or not home improvements are worth more than what people pay for them as they seem to be in the US.

The fact that some are willing to pay up to £15,000 seems like a reasonable premium but, mathematically, it's odd that they are a minority.

Their valuations certainly makes more sense than the current valuation of properties. At 28 times their annual average rental potential, the prices are far out of touch with reality (3). If a similar valuation were to be used for energy savings (money that stays in your pocket is as good as or better than money that comes into your pocket), taking into account 5% inflation over 25 years, the increment to the property's valuation should be £43,000!!

But we will not advocate such a high valuation. Current property valuations in relation to equities are unsustainable. They indicate that a property crash or a dramatic slow down in the increase of property prices over a number of years must occur to bring them back to reasonable levels in relation to their earnings potential. Of course, markets can stay irrational for extended periods of time so when prices will fall or stop growing could happen in a year or in 20. Nobody has a crystal ball to determine that.

Going back to our valuation problem, I think that a reasonable valuation for the moment would be 7-10 times the amount saved on permanent energy efficiency improvements. This in equity valuations is considered to be a bargain and 10-15 times the earnings (savings in this case) potential is considered to be fair value. Our valuation indicates that energy saving are incredibly undervalued in comparison to the valuations given by people surveyed by the Energy Saving Trust. But then again, average Joe hasn't a clue as to how to value stuff scientifically. The value of something is not just what people are willing to pay for it. This is one area where modern finance has come up with a better alternative: the value of something is equal to the present value of its discounted cash flows plus its value on disposal.

Our yardstick valuation of 7-10 times the energy savings would leave enough margin for the madness that usually takes place when it comes to valuing assets and allow for prices to get out of hand and valuations to climb up to 20 or 25 times the amount saved***. Energy saving investments will one day become fashionable. Everything in the press and on telly points to this. The latest round of EST adverts coupled with the government's adverts are going to have an impact and property buyers are going to become savvy to the presence of energy saving installations on properties. Once energy saving investments become fashionable, it is possible that their valuation will get out of hand, just as property valuations got out of hand as a result of greater availability of credit.

Looking back at the Californian valuations, we are not surprised at all that permanent energy efficiency improvements are valued at 20 times each $1 saved and that they effectively beat stock market returns and other investments. Indeed they should. It isn't rocket science: valuing energy savings is easy and straight forward. Once your cavity walls are filled, the work will last for the life of the property. Same for loft insulation and a host of other measures. Compare that to trying to value the future earnings stream of Intel, Dell, Dow Chemical, Shell or British Airways. Even pension fund manager who are supposed to be experts aren't very good at their jobs due to its complexity (90% of fund managers can't beat the performance of indexes). Take into account the recent stock market crash and you'll get it: stock market investments are insecure because they assume linear valuations and are vulnerable to 'Black Swanns' which makes valuations approximate and vulnerable to fear and greed. Property prices too are difficult to value. They are vulnerable to bank's willingness to lend, lending terms and the health of the economy. Now look at energy saving investments: what are they vulnerable to? Nothing. Their only caveat is that they decay. I have a boiler in my home that is 25 years old. It is woefully inefficient and the landlord won't replace it until it completely stops working. A new condensing boiler would save us £170 a year according to the Energy Saving Trust and around £200 according to my calculations. If it lasted as long as the old clunker we have, it would save us £4250-5000 over its lifetime, paying for itself twice over. Where else can you get such a straight forward easy to value return on investment? Permanent energy saving investments should be worth a lot just because of the security of the cash flow stream they provides in the form of savings.

The main reason why people invest in energy saving measures at the moment is because they can save money by implementing the measures. But not everyone believes the energy savings are possible and some people seem to be paralyzed or in no hurry when it comes to spending money on this. They're happy spending money on trivialities, things 'they like' but not on dull old energy saving stuff. And there maybe a good reason for that: take 2 fridges that look exactly the same, one is priced at £300 and the other at £500. The only difference is that one is more energy efficient. Which one is the buyer most likely to go for? The £300 one of course, because they see the extra £200 as an indulgence, even if it saves them money. People think short-term not long-term. The fact the £500 fridge is worth £300-600 as a fitting because it saves £30 a year isn't understood and the fact that it will pay for the extra cost in less than 7 years is not taken into account enough. With this kind of psychological blockage, it's no surprise that enthusiasm for energy efficiency isn't picking up speed faster. We prefer cheap, not running cheaply.

We've noticed from experience that the people who invest in energy saving measures tend to be quite savvy. The rest are perfectly happy to pay the utility bill when it comes in the post and look at forking out £250 for cavity wall insulation as something that means spending money now with no real assurance they'll get it back in the form of savings. That's probably why you hear politicians saying: "people won't invest in energy investments" whilst in the same breath mentioning the necessity to build incinerators. There's a very simple way to deal with the problem:

1) Get mortgage valuers to value the property's energy performance into the cost of the properties. The government should be ruthlessly lobbied about this by FOE, Greenpeace, EST and any other organization who understands that the reduction of our carbon emissions is intimately linked to the attractiveness of energy saving investments. If energy saving investments improve a property's value and save money: that makes them far more appealing than if they just save money.

2) Securitize energy saving investments (we've already posted on this topic) and enable people to pay for their energy efficiency investments through their bills. Utility companies could estimate the savings on each bill and bill the difference to people who've had improvements made. That will deal once and for all with the problem of a large proportion of the population who won't invest in energy savings.

There is one thing that flies in the face of government with regards the whole energy efficiency issue: people don't do it because it's boring and they don't believe in it. Our values are against conservation. It may have been easier to sell energy savings in the 30s or the 50s but not now because of the comfort and convenience culture. We don't have time and we don't really care about saving a few hundred. There's only one way to get the message through: by appealing to our greed. The day that people understand that they can take equity out of their homes through energy efficiency investments is the day that demand for that type of improvement will soar and that property speculation on that type of improvement will also kick in. Waiting for fuel prices to go up to motivate people to make improvements in energy efficiency will take too long.

Sources and notes:
* Energy prices have increased dramatically in the last few years however prior to that they were relatively stable. With world population growing and getting richer it is quite reasonable to assume energy prices will grow at a faster pace than inflation which historically has grow at 2.5-3%. Oil reserves are decreasing and so we should see an increase in demand for replacement technology. It is expected electricity demand will increase dramatically as a result. Gas prices which are correlated with the oil price should also increase as a result of increased oil scarcity.
The growth in energy prices could be countered by improvements in renewable energy technology but new technology may also increase demand for energy. An example in point is electric cars.
** We believe this "aberration" is due to Californian culture. California has been the cradle place of renewable energy technology for the past 40 years. The Governor is pro anything that has to do with green measures and Silicon Valley is becoming a major intellectual pole for the development of clean tech. Why Californians have historically been so interested in everything green, we don't know but one thing's for sure: with the threat of uncontrolable global warming looming the rest of the world is catching up quickly. If anything, what happens in California right now is the best crystal ball we can use to determine what to expect in the future.
*** It should be noted here that the best energy efficiency investments are invisible. For example, you cannot see cavity wall insulation but it is far cheaper and more cost-effective than solar panels. Yet people will attach more value to poor performing, 20 year old solar panels than to the existence of cavity wall insulation. This is just amazing! People have a tendency to overvalue what they can see and undervalue what they can't see. That's how property developers get away with making huge profits from implementing quite simple measures.
When looking at energy savings, people will attach disproportionate importance to what they can see such as the condition of the double glazing or the state of the boiler. They'll bearily notice that the toilet has been converted to a highly water efficient version or that the running cost of the house is half the national average. We are dealing here with a public transfixed by aesthitics. Selling a house has become an artful exercise in the manipulation of people's perception.

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

How much would it cost to end deforestation?


The rate of loss of primary forest as last measured between 2000-2005 was 6 million hectares. That's equivalent to 60,000 km2, an area the size of Ireland. And this is only for primary forest, that is ancient rainforest.

Stating that the rainforest is permanently lost in this case however is incorrect. The forest is not necessarily being clearcut or converted to other land use, it is reclassified from primary to modified natural rainforest due to the fact the forest have been subject to logging or another disturbance. (This is according to the Forest Assessment and Reporting Service)
The actual global deforestation rate is estimated at 13 million ha. per year.

The total forest cover is 4 billion ha. It is estimated that 1% of that, an area equal to 40 million ha is burnt down each year. This area is equal to 6.5 times the area of deforested primary forest and 3 times the area of total deforested area each year.

It has been estimated by the IPCC that deforestation accounts for 17-20% of global carbon dioxide emissions.


It seems to me that whilst all the publicity is on deforestation, very little publicity goes into forest fires mitigation. When I was a boy, the mountain next to where I lived was set alight. Hundreds of thousands of trees burned. The fire was spectacular. 20 years later and the forest is managed appropriately: it has been reforested, the land is grazed by feedstock and large strips of grassland divide the forest so that if it is set alight again, the fire's progress will be put in check when it reaches the grassland border. Forest fires really are a vitally important area of forest management we need to focus on because when a forest burns, we don't just lose a carbon sink, the carbon stored in the forest over decades of growth is released into the atmosphere all at once.

We are lucky in that respect that most of the forest fires occur in developed countries where we have enough money to protect our forests. The main forest fires I have heard of over the past few years were in California, Australia, Portugal, France and Spain. Most of the fires occurred in countries that are particularly dry in summer and occasionally windy. If the forest located in these areas were managed properly, a vitally important carbon sink would be preserved.


Primary forest
is located mainly in the tropics. Deforestation for logging is one of the causes of deforestation but another more important reason is natural resource extraction which is also very polluting.

One way to stop deforestation is to ensure the forest is worth more standing up than logged. By giving money to locals to protect the rainforest instead of selling their land, it is possible to avoid a substantial amount of logging. For larger scale projects, the idea has the potential to be extended to paying governments from developing countries but there is a lot of potential for corruption in that respect and for the money to go astray.

One of the charities trying to encourage the protection of the rainforest by ensuring it is worth more standing up than logged is Cool Earth. Based on the costings provided by Cool Earth to protect an acre of rainforest, the annual cost of protecting the rainforest could be between £891 million and £1.5 billion. Of course, this is a purely theoretical figure, there's only so much mileage in the work they can do.

If we take into account the fact that to protect the rainforest, the main job involves protecting the border most vulnerable to deforestation rather than the whole area at risk of deforestation, the cost could be considerably less. It may well be that the true cost is £445 to £750 million, it depends on whether deforestation only occurs at the borders of the forest or if areas deforested cut deeper into the forest.

Saturday, 12 September 2009

Birth Control

The cheapest way to cut down carbon emissions would be for us all to have less children. It's an easy equation: the average person living in the UK has a carbon footprint of 12.5 tonnes. Over a lifetime, that equates to more than 981 tonnes of CO2 per person. The lifetime environmental impact of a single individual is thus huge.

I remember an illustration from the Ecology of Commerce comparing us to algae. When algae grows in a lake, it can continue growing to take over the whole lake. However, if it does that, it will asphyxiate itself. Algae sucks up the oxygen in the water in order to grow and if there's no oxygen left in the water it dies. Algae grows so quickly that it is capable of doubling in size each day. However something odd happens when it reaches a life threatening level of growth. When algae takes over a lake, it stops growing once it reaches half of the lake's size. Paul Hawken seemed to hint to the idea that even algae is cleverer than us! Have a look at a boring video on the topic on our website (be patient with it, it takes some time to get interesting):
Arithmetic, Population and Energy

Several centuries ago, Malthus determined that our population should stop growing once it reached 1 billion. He thought that if it continued growing above that number, the Planet's resources would be over-stretched. He was right, scientists have calculated that our exploitation of the Planet's resources right now is 20% above what the Planet can cope with meaning that every year that goes by, we are accumulating ecological debt whilst our population is still growing.

On September 10 2009, the Sun published an article with an odd title: "Carbon mating, use a condom to err... cut down emissions" on page 31 (it's rare that environmental issues make front page news in the Sun, football was more important that day). It reported that contraception would be five times cheaper than any other method of tackling the world's greenhouse gases. The report came from the optimum population trust, a charity we recommend donating to.

The Study was compiled by the London School of Economics who found that every £4 extra spent on family planning for the next 40 years would reduce global CO2 emissions by a tonne. It would cost £19 to achieve the same result with low carbon technologies. The Trust recommended giving free condoms to women worldwide who wanted them and the Sun noted that the United Nations estimated 40% of all pregnancies were unintended. The total saving from making condoms freely available could be 34 gigatonnes of CO2!

I was discussing this with my wife when she came up with a very interesting idea. She said that we could learn from China's single child policy, whilst not repeating its mistakes. I insisted we couldn't: you can't stop women from having children if they want them, what we need is a complete cultural overhaul.

Well you made me think about having a second child, my individual responsibility and the importance of the small decisions we make, she said. I was impressed, I never remotely entertain the idea that my rants can make a thread of a difference. And birth control is far easier than cultural overhaul. When you have a problem, the simplest solution is often the best. My wife had a far better solution than I.

She pointed out that it is not necessary to impose birth control on the general public. I always thought there was no other way. The Chinese apparently forced women to have abortions and there was no end to the list of human rights infringements perpetrated for the application of the policy. No wonder most people find the thought of single child policy chilling.

There's no need for controversy about birth control. It's a plain fact that we cause pollution however much we would like to avoid it just by being alive. James Lovelock put it in a nice way: he said that the 7 billion of us just by breathing, were putting out 4 times as much CO2 in the air as all the airlines of the world and 10 times as much if we take into account our livestock. He said that if we really wanted to improve our carbon footprint, we could just hold our breath!

Since even the staunchest environmentalists have an ounce of survival instinct, we must look for more convenient solutions...

There are millions of educated couples having children and not realizing what the impact on future generations will be. As I listened to my wife, I envisioned the government running advertising campaigns on how much it could help if couples decided to limit themselves to a single child.

I remembered the taxi driver who took me to hospital after my daughter was born. His theory was that you always needed to have an extra child to keep company to the latest one. He was certain I would have another. He had 8 children and had resolved to keep adding to his family to insure that the last one wasn't lonely. I dared not tell him about my views on the topic...

It is a plain fact that in the developing world, large families are seen as insurance policies to look after the parents in old age. The logic is that the more children you have, the more likely it is that one of them will hit the big time and be able to look after the family when they can no longer look after themselves. So when we think about population growth, we turn our sights to the developing world. Here in the UK however, given that people are richer and more able to consume, consumption has overshot the Planet's ability to regenerate. Our lifestyle has become unsustainable due to population growth. If there weren't so many people on the Planet, there would be nothing wrong with it. The reality is that there's 7 billion of us and we only have one Planet to share. The Planet can tolerate 3 tonnes of CO2 per person at the most. This indicates that in terms of CO2 emissions, every child born in the UK requires 4 times the Planet's resources to meet their needs. Thus, when a child is born in the UK, it is equivalent to 4 children being born in the developing world. This is controversial but it is a fact. And that's why it's so important that we do something fast about our carbon emissions otherwise epidemics, famine and war; the consequences described by Malthus await us.

It would be worthwhile conducting further research on the psychology of people who decide to have small to medium size families so that appropriate advertising could be implemented to raise the level of awareness about the consequences of these choices.

One of the best ways you can support the fight against global warming is by supporting the main charity dealing with the Optimum Population Trust. They don't need much. Click here to donate.

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Don't despair

I was touched by Monbiot's latest post. I've only been interested in the environment for a recent period of time but in that time, I've been able to read about and get a sense for the despair of the environmental movement. I remember an article published by the Ecologist a few months ago about an environmentalist who'd finally reached the end of his tether, this seemed to be an article also reflecting the writers of the Ecologist magazine's stance. That was touching too. Being an environmentalist is a combination of irresistible optimism and fighter spirit. Invariably, it is challenged by the grim reality: on one side there are the interests bankrolled by consumers full of cash and causing massive environmental havoc, on the other, there are the democrats and social activists, those who seek to weigh on government decisions and make a difference in society. The voice and will of the people sometimes looks like a weak counter weight to powerful economic interests especially when the fate of these economic interests is interlinked with the fate of the voice and will of the people.

Paulo Coelho once said in the Alchemist that when you really want something, all the Universe conspires in helping you to achieve it. Every billionaire intuitively knows that and so does every activist. Paulo Coelho also said that every search begins with beginner's luck and ends with the victor's being severely tested. So I thought I'd write something to cheer myself up and other people who's energies have been severely tested.

The energy we put in fighting and defending the planet doesn't come from our training or knowledge. It is a leftover from the energy of our youth. Emotions in child, teenage and early adult life are much stronger than they are in adult life. They're like a ship's rudder that guides us through our lives as adults.

I think that every new generation is an opportunity for a new beginning, they are the carriers of change. So whilst things might look grim with the current generation, imagine what they would look like if every new adult realized that they could be agents of change, if that was inbuilt in the culture. Only in the last 5 years has environmental culture gone mainstream but it is still in its infancy. It is maturing but not yet in full swing. Technology may be a burden to the environment but it is a friend of culture. When the media, internet and other tools we have take up the environmental agenda fully as they are already doing in some countries, change will occur at a much faster rate. We may be running out of time, but the culture is catching up.

If corporations can cause damage on a massive scale in a relatively short period of time, restoration should also be able to occur in a relatively short period of time. As environmentalists, we have to be patient despite the fact we have no time left. Being an environmentalist in these times is a matter of faith. The fact that no one can see God or have proof of it hasn't stopped billions of people from believing in it or believing in miracles. This faith was built over centuries with missionaries. It was subjective and difficult to believe in. Environmental faith on the other hand is objective and scientific. It's main obstacle is human psychology. There are a host of interests, behavioral and psychological biases that stand in the way of our ability to appreciate the full magnitude of the catastrophic situation we are in. But I don't see why these obstacles shouldn't be eventually overcome and vanquished.

We need faith in the problem: us. We are a magnificent species endowed with wonderful qualities but like the rest of nature, we are yin and yang. We have imagination, we have number power, we have intelligence, we have advanced technology, we have creativity, we have the ability to influence and mold our world. We have will power. What was once the privilege of God, the ability to destroy the Planet is now in our hands and we need the wisdom and determination to change our fate.

It may seem impossible to overcome the problems we face but environmentalists should brace themselves for a surprise. What has happened in a short time, in a fast paced world can be undone in an even shorter period of time. Hope and faith is what we need however irrational these emotions and values may seem to a scientifically minded movement.

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

The World at 4 degrees of global warming

"In 2010, 50 million people will be trying to escape the effects of environmental deterioration" (The Planet Documentary)

On the 25th of February 2009, New Scientist published a map of the world at 4 degrees of global warming. This map can be found here:

It is shocking as it shows the bulk of the inhabitable world becomes uninhabitable due to droughts, flooding and extreme weather. I suppose that in order to create the map, they used Mark Lynas's excellent book 6 degrees which describes the impact of each degree of global warming on the world's ecosystems and land. Although the book seemed to emphasize the bulk of the changes would take place in the second half of the century. The idea that the world could be 4 degrees warmer as soon as 2050 didn't seem to be included.

Last week, I finally got round to simplifying the map to show the areas that were inhabitable and those that weren't. Then I added up the populations currently living in the uninhabitable areas and factored in a 35% growth rate corresponding to the expectation that the world population will grow from 6.7 to 9 billion people by 2050 (calculations available here). The total number of people living in uninhabitable areas adds up to a little over 8 billion people, 95% of the 2050 human population. I'm making the map public domain and it can be used for commercial purposes. Email me at if you want a map with no comments.

MAP 1: Geographical area affected

Map 2: Impact on populations

One fact that has long bothered me is James Lovelock's assessment that 8 billion people will die by 2100 ( watch: too little too late?). He believes it is already too late. I long wondered how he got to his 8 billion figure as I had not found it anywhere else. The answer's in the map: if 8 billion people live in uninhabitable areas, James Lovelock assumes that they will die. That's not an unreasonable assumption. It is reminiscent of a quote from The Planet Documentary: "An environmental refugee has to leave, has no options whatsoever to remain in the area where he or she is coming from because of a lack of opportunities, lack of a viable environment, lack of ecological services" James Bogardi, United Nations University.

What would be the consequences of 8 billion people being displaced? I can only picture flows of refugees to inhabitable areas. I have often heard people complaining that they lost their job to a polish immigrant and that they felt like voting for the BNP. A flow of immigrants will likely cause those countries accepting refugees to close their borders but that won't stop refugees from trying to get in. Eventually the refugee's frustration will be reflected in their governments who will have no choice but to go to war to secure a livelihood for their inhabitants. What will happen then? What's already happened in the past and is described in the book Collapse by Jared Diamond. The best example was Easter Island. The population peaked at 7000 people around 1300. When they'd finished deforesting and could no longer build boats to fish, they ate and killed each other. A few centuries later, less than a thousand people remained. Nuclear bomb technology wasn't available at that time. Unfortunately, the countries that will become uninhabitable have it.


I found the map visually striking and it stuck with me. I was however surprised by the fact that instead of trying to establish the populations affected the map focuses on how the new lifeless areas can be exploited for renewable energy. This view it seems, is the one that got us in trouble in the first place. By over-exploiting our ecosystems, we've brought them to the brink of the limits they can tolerate.

I found the idea that we had a future in a globally warmed world disturbing. New Scientist and Mark Lynas didn't explore the consequences of the world warming beyond 4 or 6 degrees. There is no doubt that it will. Mark Lynas was content with his assessment that if the world does indeed warm by 6 degrees, it is unlikely that mankind will survive. Nobody knows how much the world could warm by but it has warmed by up to 20 degrees in the past. With all the world's ecosystems as a whole capable of creating far larger amounts of global warming than us humans can, it's not the impact caused by humans we need to be concerned about beyond 2 degrees, it's the impact caused by the world's ecosystems. Two degrees is the point of no return. Once we move past it, we're doomed.

The greatest concern of our time is the fact that we live at a time when we may still be able to avoid disaster yet the world's culture hasn't caught up with this truth. Evidence of this is most easily seen on television where the topic isn't covered enough, the programming is still mainly focused on trivial entertainment and news bulletins focus on the return to growth. I saw one news bulletin at the week-end where a presenter interviewing a French government representative appeared to praise her for their good management and the return of their country to growth. The mood was focused on assessing when our country would return to the "rosy path". Growth in economies 80% dependent on fossil fuel for energy is catastrophic. It's not something to look forwards to.

It seems at this point in time, that the only thing that will make us wake up to the threat of global warming, is the world warming beyond 2 degrees, at which point it will be impossible to avoid runaway global warming.

You can do something to avoid this: visit to find out how to reduce your own carbon footprint, how to set up a green business or charity, how to volunteer and how to sign petitions to ask for change.

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Finding a green laptop

My computer recently broke. According to the repairmen, the mother board is often the element that causes the computer to die an early death. It is broken by handling the computer horizontally rather than vertically. When you move your computer around, if you grab it by one side without giving the other side support, you are causing the weight to be disproportionately heavier on one side than on the other and if repeated enough, this can cause enough pressure on the mother board for it to break.
Considering a laptop generates 4000 times its own weight in waste, it's worth spending money on one that will last longer or getting yours repaired. Based on my knowledge of laptops (which is not extensive), I would say that the IBM thinkpad from the perspective of screen and mother card protection is the most likely to last long.
It costs £200, most likely £300 to send your laptop back to the manufacturer and for them to repair the mother board. On the other hand, some companies specialize in dealing with this particular repair. Laptop repair in Cambridge will collect and deliver laptops free anywhere in the UK and if the mother card is broken, is able to repair it for roughly £155 ( 01223852777).
On the other hand, if you live in Colchester and your laptop's broken, I would recommend my repair man The Computer Doctor because he's successfully repaired my laptop a number of times and he's very cheap since he operates from home and his turnover is below the VAT threshold. His number is 01206520174.

Tree Hugger has just published an article about an upgradeable laptop that's 10 years old. That's pretty amazing for a laptop. They don't make them like that anymore. I've dreamed of something like that before and published it as a business idea here. I am convinced that there is a huge extraordinarily lucrative market for niche operators who know how to build laptops to create computers that are durable. Since all the main brands are decidedly positioned on short-term throw-away crap, there's another Michael Dell out there just waiting to happen. If that sounds like you, the world needs you urgently.

Friday, 24 July 2009

Is money saving expert Martin Lewis an environmental scourge?

I emailed Mr Lewis to ask him to stop recommending cheap flights on his website offering him to take him off my list of key people irresponsible enough to cause global warming. He responded on his blog. This is my response to his assessment:

Dear Mr Lewis,

A whopping 3,000,000 people receive your weekly newsletter. Let's try to estimate the take up on your cheap flight offers (correct me if you have better data, this is just a back of the envelope calculation). If 10% are using your newsletter tips to board one flight a year to a European destination, the annual carbon footprint of that (see footnote 1) is 210,000 tonnes. In order to make your recommendations you are using, like many other businesses, a subsidy from Nature to the tune of £7,350,000 (see footnote 2). That's not a negligible amount.

To illustrate the size of the estimated carbon emissions generated through your newsletter, it is equivalent to insulating just short of 350,000 homes a year with cavity wall insulation. A large town’s effort to become energy efficient is canceled out by your readers. As you know, the government subsidizes the cost of cavity wall insulation and in this case, it costs the taxpayer a little over £86,000,000 to insulate these homes. Of course, there are other reasons outside of CO2 cuts why insulation is subsidized but I simply want to highlight some of the taxpayer and environmental costs caused by people taking advantage of cheap flight offers.

Another estimate is that the carbon footprint generated through your newsletter is equivalent to the annual carbon footprint of more than 27,500 Brits (see footnote 3). I understand you don't want to offset your readers flights and hope that they will be wise enough to offset through the savings you’ve helped them achieve. The reality however is different as I will demonstrate, most of your readers will not offset.

I find these carbon emission estimates quite alarming, disturbing and unacceptable. You may well have the most polluting newsletter in the world.

Most of the time you'd expect polluters to be involved in big business but you're not, you're involved in ethical business which makes your particular case unique in the UK. I cannot understand how you have managed to take an ethical standpoint fighting the consumer’s side for years and failed to give some serious consideration to the considerable environmental impact your newsletter has had.

I have reviewed the points you made in your blog extensively and the content of the transport section of your site and tried to the very best of my ability to understand your values, beliefs and motivations. I’ve come to the conclusion that cheap flights actually do have their rightful place on your site so I don't think you should stop trying to save people money on them altogether.

What bothers me is the fact that you are not just providing advice on cheap flights; you are actively encouraging people to take advantage of cheap flight offers. In respect of flights, you may well be defending the less well off but I want to vividly attract your attention to the fact that you are simultaneously delivering a poison pill to your readers children, grand-children, great-grand children and right at this moment in time, to the poorest citizens of the developing world, the ones who live on less than $2 a day and who are damned if they can’t extract their food supply from the soil. A few consecutive droughts and they’re dead. Surely you must be sensitive, perhaps sad when you contemplate the dreadful consequences of your cheap flight recommendations? I'd like you to do something about it.

As an eager recipient of your newsletter, I can’t help but notice every time I get it that you’ve insured through the positioning of the text, the font, size and design that I absolutely cannot miss the flight bargains you want to attract my attention to since whenever they are available they're right at the top.

It seems that your website is severely lacking in a responsible environmental policy. I have a suggestion for you, something deadly simple that you can do that may affect the site’s income, but I’m sure it won’t break the piggy bank and since you’re a person of ethical standing, I expect that you are willing to make an effort and if it comes to it, pay the price when it comes to ethical matters. My suggestion is this:

You could stop attracting your visitor’s attention to cheap flights on your homepage and stop putting them at the top of your newsletter. If you do that, you'll stop people who aren't actively looking for cheap flights to take advantage of the information and you will be discouraging what might be termed as opportunistic flying. If people want to save money on their flights, they can still use all the tools on the website but at least the people using your tools will be ones who have already decided to go on holiday, not the ones you've incentivised to go on holiday.

I have surveyed 32 of your newsletters from the past few months and found that at the top of each of these newsletters, cheap flights are recommended 50% of the time. I suspect that matches the timing of the offers from the airlines rather than an ethical concern you may have about incentivising too many people to board planes too often.

I was concerned in your response by your hopes about voluntary carbon emission offsets and your assumptions about people’s ability to make responsible decisions when it comes to flying so I did some more research.

The WORLDWIDE voluntary carbon offset market is worth a paltry £55 million a year according to Wikipedia. Humans emit 32 billion tonnes of CO2 a year, 10% of that is said to be due to the airline industry (this includes CO2 and other greenhouse gases that are quite difficult to quantify) so the annual emissions from airlines is 3.2 billion tonnes. The voluntary carbon offset market would need to be worth £112 billion a year to offset airline emissions. This means that only 0.05% of the emissions from airlines are actually being offset. In the case of the estimated £7 million you expect to be offset, the reality is that probably only £3600 of that actually does get offset! If you had to foot the bill for the environmental cost of your recommendations, I suspect it would cause you to have to take your own online advice about solving your debt problems!

Your hope that people will fly more cheaply but not necessarily more often is not realistic. With bargain basement flights so easily available, there’s nothing stopping people from flying for any and whatever occasion they fancy. If I’m looking for a romantic week-end with my wife, nothing stops me from nipping into Rome on Saturday and coming back on Sunday. Going to Rome beats going to a local posh restaurant. But how is the person making the flight decision expected to know that the carbon footprint of going to Rome is probably 70 times higher than going to the restaurant and that it represents 23% of an individual’s ANNUAL sustainable carbon footprint allocation? Most of the time, people won’t know or ignore it. One other problem is that we are not yet affected by the consequences of climate change in the UK. If people could see the problem, they'd probably act but since it's going to take another few decades before things start getting seriously ugly, they are still sheltered from the damage they are causing. When they finally wake up to it and want to do something about it, it will be too late. Once temperatures exceed two degrees, that's it, we're finished, we will have runaway global warming and it will be impossible to stop it.

We only have a five year window, maybe less to start making some drastic changes to our lifestyles. This is URGENT.

You hope that people will use your site responsibly. How can you expect a poorly informed public to make responsible decisions? You quoted yourself a survey showing 53% of your visitors don’t think or aren’t sure there’s a problem with global warming. If they don’t think it’s a problem and they can fly cheaply, why should they fly responsibly?

I’ve searched for more information on consumer attitudes to flying and understanding of global warming and found the following: according to an HSBC survey from 2007, only 19% of UK consumers state that they are making a significant effort to reduce climate change through how they live their daily lives. Only 6% believe that we can stop climate change. 56% agree to the fact that many leading experts still question if human activity is contributing to climate change. Further, according to a British Air Travel Association survey, only 12% state that they are very concerned about the effects of air travel. According to that same survey, only 3% state that they no longer travel by air due to their concerns. (Source) And you expect people to fly responsibly?

You also highlighted that people are being educated by the media in environmental matters but there is an awful lot of misinformation about our problem in the media which could well explain why so many doubt global warming is occurring and we are the cause. In An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore highlighted that “a study reviewed a sample of 928 articles in the scientific, peer reviewed press. Out of those 928 articles, none were in disagreement as to the fact that global warming was a serious problem and that mankind was the cause. Another study of the articles in the popular press found that out of 636 articles, 53% were in doubt as to the cause of global warming.” Not a week goes by where I open a paper and read another inaccurate and flawed analysis on global warming. They are so frequent that I’ve given up black listing journalists where you're listed because there’d be just too many for me to keep count of. People are as informed as they are misinformed by the media, which is exactly what needs to be done to foster doubt and inaction.

I'll make one final point about government (I apologize for taking so long). I don't think it is your job to cut down carbon emissions, it should be the government's. However the government, as you probably know has contradictory policies on global warming action plans. These contradictions have enraged some of the more knowledgeable commentators such as George Monbiot (see footnote 4).

How can the government announce it wants to cut down emissions by 90% by 2030 and not restrain the growth of the aviation industry? Aviation accounts for 13.4% of the country's emissions and is forecast to grow to 30% by 2030. This is just another reason why you should be concerned about your cheap flight recommendations. As far as government goes, I'm afraid we the individuals are going to have to show the way so that the government follows. I wouldn't place too much hope on the government doing too much to restrict the amount of flying we do be that through taxes or allocating flying limits, that is if past policy so far can serve as a guide to future policy expectations. Mr Monbiot's views on this in footnote 4 are worthwhile reading. And I also refer you to a Daily Politics poll that shows that despite only 3% of the population giving up flying altogether, it appears that they support taxation of airlines for the pollution they are responsible for. The poll shows that 52% of respondents support David Cameron’s plan to increase taxes on air travel and would be happy to fly less in order to reduce carbon emissions. (Source)

I’ve pointed out to you that you rely on an estimated subsidy from Nature to the tune of £7 million to provide the recommendations you do. You’re almost on benefits Mr Lewis. I find it annoying that the host of economic benefits provided by your service are somewhat canceled out by taxpayer funded efforts to reduce carbon emissions. To me that seems counterproductive and reminiscent of the expression coined by sustainable architect Macdonough of "intergenerational tyranny". It can be paraphrased as an attitude of "it's not my problem, it's the next generation's". Implicitly, you are "passing the buck" to the next generation.

I agree that flying has tremendous benefits and that it has indeed democratized society, but in a world where it is vital that we make some choices on the areas in which to cut our carbon emissions, reducing our amount of flying is simply a no-brainer. Better have a less democratic society than total chaos a few decades from now don’t you think? Unfortunately, when it comes to environmental decisions, we are often faced with a "least bad" set of alternatives and we are already handicapped by the pollution of previous generations.

Your free subsidy would not be a problem if carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere were not 30% higher than they were prior to the industrial revolution and human population had not grown exponentially to the current level of 7 billion people. The world is over populated and this is resulting in a strain on the Planet’s ability to cope with the environmental impact. Right now, our consumption is already 22% above what the Planet can cope with. This is alarming. We have to reduce our carbon emissions by 90% in the developing world by 2030 otherwise the science tells us global temperatures will rise above 2 degrees and mankind may well become extinct as a consequence. The greatest UK scientist, Stephen Hawkins said the following about runaway global warming: "We don’t know where the global warming will stop but the worst-case scenario is that Earth would become like its sister planet, Venus, with a temperature of 250 degrees centigrade, and raining sulfuric acid. The human race could not survive in those conditions."

In the UK, to switch to a sustainable lifestyle, we have to reduce the average carbon emissions per individual from 12.5 tonnes to 3 tonnes. By encouraging people to fly, you are encouraging them to live an unsustainable lifestyle and tragically, they don't know better. The average lifestyle in the UK is already four times more carbon intensive than what is considered to be sustainable. Flying less is the only difficult lifestyle adjustment we are required to complete. Are you going to help with that or are you going to be a hindrance?

Leonardo da Vinci once said that he who does not punish evil commands it to be done. This is a philosophy you seem to apply across your website at the exception of your cheap flight recommendations. I sincerely hope Mr Lewis that you reflect on your views, find the strength to change your mind and do your bit to pass on the gift that was passed on to you to future generations: life.


(1) Assuming CO2 emissions of 700 kilos per passenger per flight, the equivalent of a London to Rome trip.

(2) Based on the current price per tonne of carbon using Atmosfair's prices of roughly £35 (read the carbon offset section of my website to see why I recommend them)

(3) Based on Chris Goodall's, how to live a low carbon life's book estimate of 12.5 tonnes of CO2 emissions per person per year.

(4) More info here:


The Planet documentary

Chris Goodall, How To Live a low carbon life, p218

The 11th Hour


Had I managed to convince Martin Lewis to stop advertising cheap flights on his newsletter, it would have saved me and my team from having to visit 60-90,000 homes. The only change made on the money saving expert site was: "We hope this helps you fly cheaper, but not necessarily more often. Remember the environment" on the flight checker tool. My wife thought that was a result. I note it's at the bottom of the flight checker tool in small characters. If you're not looking for it, you won't notice it. This campaign has been a waste of time. Mr Lewis's lack of understanding is symptomatic of our society's story and attitude. Unless we see a problem, we don't know it's there. By the time we see the global warming problem, it will be too late. We are where we are now because of our lack of mindfulness and we will get where we are going because of that. It is best summarized by the quote from the film La Haine:

"It's the story of a man falling from a skyscraper. As he passes each floor he repeats to himself: up to now all is well, up to now all is well. But it's not how you fall that matters, it's how you land."

We will not realize what we've done until we land. Once a 200,000 year journey ends, by the end of the century, there will be no new beginning for us. Hope is now but hope is already gone.

Thursday, 16 July 2009


And the winner is.... EDF

Every time I see an advert from a major Blue Chip trying to shmooze me on their green credential I put on my suspicion cloak.

Look at Shell and BP, both companies were trying to advertise their green credentials, both companies are amongst the world's biggest polluters and now both have moved out of their green investments and to add insult to injury, they're getting involved in extraction of oil in the Canadian Tar Sands, extraction that is the most polluting form of oil extraction on Earth. Liars.

The problem with being green is that you want to believe polluters when they make their promises to pollute less but almost everytime that those promises are made, it's purely based on financial reasons and because of that, the promises aren't credible. No one in the corporate world will try going green out of ideology but they will sell it to the general public that way. It's no wonder authors like Chris Goodall note that the British general public is cynical about the "going green" thing. When you're being lied to and deceived by corporate interests all the time you start thinking twice on who you really want to trust.

I must say that I am impressed by M&S efforts, the Coop and Tesco's. Not all blue chips are out to lie to their customers. But one certainly is: EDF AND WE ARE ADDING THEIR CEO TO OUR KEY PEOPLE IRRESPONSIBLE ENOUGH TO CAUSE GLOBAL WARMING LIST.

You've no doubt seen their schmoozy patriotic, we can do it, we did it before advert on being green for one day and polluters the rest of the year. Well... Read our section on Green Electricity to see what we think about the Big 6 energy suppliers:

The point of the matter is that these companies are phenomenal polluters and that we should not trust them to supply us our energy. If it were not for the government imposing renewable energy sourcing on them, they would gladly pollute the Earth until it was no more. Their save today, save tomorrow website is laughable. I could do a better website than that and I have, for less than a hundred quid and they've got millions.

But what really gets me is the fact that they are HUGE POLLUTERS marketing themselves as a "WE CARE ABOUT THE PLANET" company. GREENWASH!!!
Check their energy mix here:
33.5% of the electricity we use in the UK comes from coal according to a coal industry website, 35.2% according to the above website. Note that the proportion of energy coming from coal from EDF is 49% (Source), 16% above average. Out of the Big 6, only Scottish Power uses more coal than EDF do as a proportion of their energy mix. THEY ARE THE SECOND MOST POLLUTING ENERGY SUPPLIER IN THE UNITED KINGDOM AND THEY'VE GOT THE NERVE TO ADVERTISE THEMSELVES AS CARING ABOUT GREEN ISSUES. THEY'RE LIARS AND HYPOCRITS.

What's more they don't even invest in renewables, it's all well and good them advertising that they're going to do it but the point is right now, they're not. Check the amount they invest in renewables per customer here.

They are currently being sued and rightly so by Ecotricity for misuse of the green flag (Source). And I'll add that they are a French company with considerable investment in nuclear. Nothing wrong with that, it might have been a good source of energy to use in the 70s, better than coal at least but not today, not with wind energy cheap and able to serve the almost 90% of the UK's needs. Yet EDF, alongside E.ON have bought plots to build Nuclear power plant and are lobbying the Government to persuade them that Wind Energy is unreliable (Source 1, Source 2, Source 3, Source 4). Now Nuclear is both uneconomical and highly polluting. It's not because it doesn't create CO2 that it qualifies as clean. Nuclear waste lasts 200,000 years and if you read George Monbiot's book Heat prepare yourself for a heart attack when you find out where that Nuclear Waste has ended up in the past.

A letter sent to me by my local MP on the lib-dems energy plans emphasized that Nuclear had so far cost us well over 50 billion pounds and that the costs of course will keep adding up for the next 200,000 years because you have to pay to insure that the waste is properly looked after. That's why no private company in their right mind is willing to purchase a nuclear power plant without government subsidies and guarantees that they won't have to pay for the costs of disposal. Who ends up paying for it? US MUGS!

That's my bit about Nuclear power but going back to EDF, the real reason for this post is the outrageous article I received in a Greenpeace newsletter with this morning mail. The article reproduced from Greenpeace's website :


Paris, France — Electricit√© de France (EDF) has been spying on Greenpeace since 2004 according to a report this morning on the French news website Mediapart, which cites evidence from official investigation files. According to the files EDF was also seeking intelligence on Greenpeace activities in the United Kingdom, Belgium and Spain, where it has substantial business interests.

On March 31, Greenpeace France discovered that its former campaign director's computer was hacked in 2006, and that the organisation had been targeted by the private investigation company Kargus Consultants under instruction from EDF. It is possible that the whole of the Greenpeace network was penetrated.

At least two contracts were signed between EDF and Kargus, in 2004 and 2007, for the provision of 'operational support for the ongoing strategic surveillance of environmental organisations and their activities and practices'. This 'operational support' suggests regular reports from Kargus to EDF on Greenpeace's activities. Kargus used various surveillance techniques and may even have infiltrated Greenpeace. In 2004, Kargus invoiced EDF for more than EUR 13,000 per month.

Regarding the 2007 contract it appears that EDF was aware of the use of illegal hacking.

"How can we trust a public company that devotes resources to spying on its critics?" asks Pascal Husting, Director of Greenpeace France. "How many contracts are we talking about here anyway? Are other agencies monitoring the activities of other environmental organisations?"

Following today's revelations, Greenpeace is calling for the suspension of EDF CEO, Mr. Gadonneix, and demands that the Government establishes an independent assessment of the nuclear industry as well as an open and democratic debate on nuclear power in France.

"The role of nuclear power in France, and its international business interests need to be thoroughly investigated," said Dr Rianne Teule, Greenpeace International Nuclear Campaigner. "Globally we need energy resources that maintain energy security and protect the climate, not ones that create more security issues and detract from the real solutions to climate change."

Greenpeace France, which is party to the case against EDF, will this afternoon present its evidence to the investigating judge.

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

The Carbon Standard

"Tout est pour le mieux dans le meilleur des mondes." Candide, Voltaire

I'm pretty convinced that basing a currency on gold as a standard is pretty meaningless when you have a global economy that has grown beyond available reserves of gold. In 17 years, gold is gone, what are we going to do then, rely on existing reserves? Sure enough there is no cap on how far the price of gold can go but there is an issue with the fact that the higher the price of gold, the more difficult it is to share wealth. This insures the powerful who have gold stay in power and creates circumstances ripe for war and civil rebellion. Maybe this is a poor point but I don't like the idea of gold being used as a standard to govern commercial exchanges. The only reason why we use gold is that it is scarce, durable, easily divisible and that we universally agree on its' value.

Money is essentially an abstraction. It is just an idea. But unfortunately, it is also more than that. Essentially, money is what we think has value. It should not be an impediment to human potential and to human development. Yet money always gets in the way. Because money is scarce, we are constrained to purchase less goods than what we might want. Because of this constraint, we tend to be price takers meaning that all things equal, it is natural for us to prefer the cheapest priced goods. Worst, in order to create more value in the economy, we need to renew goods frequently so that people stay employed. This creates more wealth and more disposable income to produce more crap we will eventually end up throwing away.

In our society, the cheapest priced goods are systematically the ones with the highest carbon footprint. To produce cheap, you have to use the freebies from the Earth. What freebies do we have? Take coal for example; coal is abundant, there's at least 150 years of reserves available and it's easy to mine. This makes coal cheap and as a form of energy, it makes it very desirable. In the UK, 33.5% of our electricity comes from coal. This is a disgrace: we're a so called developed economy yet we rely on the most polluting form of energy to meet our needs. For every kilowatt of energy produced from coal, almost a kilo of carbon is emitted. The tragedy is that both nuclear and gas only produce a fraction of the emissions of coal but we chose coal because it's CHEAP. Our society, because of scarcity, has produced an abundance of absurdities and because the environment is not valued, it has lead to its over exploitation and to a tipping point where we risk losing everything we have.

Allow me to bring this point home to you. Suppose a friend of yours spent
£300,000 on a house and then knocked it all down piece by piece until it eventually fell apart. You ask him why he did that and he answers: I wanted to see what it would look like torn apart.
"How are you going to pay your mortgage back?"
"I don't know, I'll worry about it later."

The same friend now plants a large trunk in the ground in the middle of the rubble. Climbing at the top of it, he attaches himself to the trunk in such a way that no one can take him away from it. You stand at the bottom of the trunk and ask your friend "but why have you done that?" To which your friend replies: "I've decided to go on a diet. I'm not going to eat for 10 days."
"Are you suicidal?" you ask. No, the friend replies, I'm too fat.
A little cold in the middle of the night, your friend puts a plastic bag on his head and accidentally suffocates himself to death.

The following morning, you discover your friend dead with a plastic bag around his head and you conclude he was suicidal. A medium comes along and assures you your friend is communicating with her from the grave, he wants to let you know that he had no idea that depriving himself from air would result in his death. What would you say then? Like me, I suppose you would argue your friend was deeply and profoundly disturbed.

Unwittingly, at this point you would have the same point of view as an environmentalist observing the Western way of life. The Western way of life is a collective aberration where we exploit resources to extinction with no consideration for future generations, we pollute without restraint, we pay no attention to the future consequences of draughts, water shortage and climate change and we gradually eliminate our oxygen and food supplies. We're exclusively focused on the short-term and we couldn't care less about long-term planning. As a culture, we've had the arrogance to imagine we were able to transcend the basic limitations of organic existence: the fact that we need food, air and an environment to survive. Like the friend who thought a plastic bag would warm him up and forgot it would suffocate him, we've forgotten that we were organic creatures at the top of the food chain. We take the kind deeds of Nature for granted and since they are not novel, we assign no value to them but we assign value to everything that's of our own making at the expense of Nature. As a result, we must conclude that Western culture is deeply and profoundly insane.

When an economist tried to price the value of Nature's services some years ago, he found that they were roughly equal to twice the global GDP. When your firm discloses its annual turnover, remember that if it weren't for Nature, this turnover wouldn't even exist, never mind the small profit margin. Yet we assign no value whatsoever to Nature's resources, we reproduce with no consideration as to whether the Planet can sustain our astronomic population and we promote our waste and energy intensive way of life abroad as the best model to follow. The worst possible name you could be called in this day and age is communist. If you doubt for one minute the supremacy of capitalism, you're labelled as an idealist and dreamer. And the cynics argue that the only thing that is going to get us to realize the extent of our collective stupidity is a disaster of biblical proportion. Supreme relativists, they are.

When we consider the biggest threat to the sustainability of Nature's services, the first word that comes to mind is carbon. Carbon, as it was put in a pro pollution advert in America is life. They were very right and because carbon is the currency on which all life depends, carbon is far more valuable than Gold.

Let me explain how the Gold-backed currency is in fact an illusion. Prior to the Second World War, most of the World's stockpile of Gold was owned by European nations. As they fought one another, most of the Gold was spent on warfare and transferred to the United States. At the end of the Second World War, the US was effectively the wealthiest nation on Earth in terms of Gold. All the State's Gold was detained in the legendary Fort Knox. In the 70s, the US debased its currency meaning it was no longer indexed on Gold. Since the Second World War, the US has become the most indebted Nation in the World and that was before the credit crunch. Since the era of Eisenower (1953), not a single independent auditor has been allowed to verify the Gold Reserves in Fort Knox (Source). Even if there was still gold left in the most secure facility in the world does it even belong to the US? The fact that no one has been allowed to check the Gold in Fort Knox for more than 50 years speaks volume. What speaks even more volumes is that when France and Switzerland, concerned about the cost of the Vietnam war, attempted to redeem their dollar holdings for gold, the US bought an end to the Gold standard. Since the 70s, the dollar is effectively a currency based on paper. The fact the US is the biggest military power in the world, the fact that it supposedly has $137 billion in gold reserves and that petrol is only quoted in dollars (Saddam wanted it quoted in Euros, but they made sure that didn't happen) has been enough to insure the dollar was the strongest currency in the world and 35 years of unparalleled growth.

You now understand that the strongest and most emblematic currency in the world is defacto worthless yet if you check its current value against other currencies, you will be surprised by the fact that there has not been any kind of major run on the dollar for the past 50 years. So long as no one officially knows that there is no Gold in Fort Knox, the deception can continue. This deception has not in any way prevented the US from becoming the richest country in the world. This lends credit to my assertion that money is just an idea, although keeping it that way requires a lot of political engineering.

It is thus not so far fetched to propose that currencies be based on thin air. Since the dollar is just paper, what's to stop us from assigning an imaginary value to it? So long as everyone agrees on it, trade can continue.

What I propose next is a little complicated and it assumes no manipulations which is unlikely but let's assume for a minute we can get a grip over politician's trickery. The Carbon Standard would be based on the carbon levels necessary to keep temperatures below two degrees ie less than 400ppm. Each tonne of carbon could be assigned a nominal value and the currency would be based on that.

Ever heard the expression money rules the world? What if money was an illusion, what rules the world then? Whatever we want it to be. Now let me sell you on the Carbon Standard.

Carbon is easily dividable, durable (it lasts more than 1000 years in the atmosphere) and it is scarce. Those who argue that carbon is not scarce need to understand there are two kinds of carbon: there's the carbon that keeps us alive, the carbon that has enabled us to evolve to where we are now, the carbon that allows a natural greenhouse effect and then there's the excess carbon, the additional 30% we've added to the atmosphere since pre- industrial levels. This carbon comes directly from stored sunlight. Over the past 60 million years, plants and vegetation on earth have been absorbing sunlight. As time has passed, this vegetation has died and thanks to some wonderful natural processes that happened over millions of years, we now have reserves of coal, gas and oil. This is all stored sunlight and this is precisely what our economies rely on worldwide to function. If we continue burning it just because it's free and still abundant, we're going to kill ourselves. Stored sunlight is carbon; the climate and the planet are only stable and facilitating life because there is just the right mix of carbon in the atmosphere and just the right ecosystems in place to regenerate the Planet. There is an active Yin and Yang process on this Planet that is just stable enough to enable life.

Since the Natural imperative is survival of the species and since we've been gifted by Nature with intelligence, we should use this to our advantage. Intelligence, and for that matter common sense dictate that we should do what we can to sustain life. How?

The Carbon Standard is a currency that we would use to overturn the negative effects from excessive carbon emissions to curb their growth.

If goods are priced in terms of carbon value as well as economic value, the environmental cost of production is reflected in the price. The outcome is a non-subsidized price that assigns a value to what we take away from Nature and what we add to it. This is the best way to insure that, through market forces, the price of every product accurately takes into account its environmental cost. Note that this is going a step further than the normal function we assign to currency which is exchange. In the process of exchanging we assume that the only thing that matters is the value of the good produced. In the Carbon Standard, that's taken into account but another dimension that is taken into account is the goods' ability to preserve or destroy life through the amount of carbon emissions it generates. And we know that above 400ppm, there's a 75% chance of irreversible climate change. This is the clever bit so pay attention: 400ppm is the scarcity target assigned to carbon, once reached, carbon is defacto no longer acceptable: you can either have goods and services that produce zero carbon or goods and services that produce carbon but that offset the production. AND THIS IS HOW YOU SWITCH TO A ZERO CARBON ECONOMY WITHOUT ANY AGGRAVATION, because carbon is automatically priced in everything. You don't need it traded on an exchange, you don't need all the wasted money on corporate lobbying, you don't need the bureaucracy of permits, you don't need the full weight of the legislation, carbon is plainly and simply priced in everything.

Implementing this should result in products with a high environmental impact being highly priced in comparison to products with a low environmental impact or both being priced the same or a narrow price gap between them.
As Chris Goodall notes: in a modern economy in which competition is working actively, no company can chose to make decisions that raise its cost compared to its peers. But Paul Hawken adds that competition should not be based between a company trashing the environment and one trying to save it. Since one is subsidized by Nature's freebies and the other isn't, the competition just isn't fair. In fact, I am surprised that, to my knowledge, no polluter has been sued under the unfair competition legislation by a company supplying the same product at a higher cost because it took into account its environmental impact. Maybe environmentally friendly companies have a duty of care towards nature to sue the competitors who are trashing it.

Note that the whole point of pricing carbon into everything is to provide a price incentive for carbon intensive products and services to be priced out of the market in favour of products with low environmental footprints, much the same as in the carbon permits system. If carbon intensive products aren't priced out of the market through the first incentive, you need a second incentive of the type "rob Paul to pay Peter". You add in a tax penalty for carbon intensive products and you use the proceeds to subsidize products environmentally friendly products. The final outcome is a shift from a dirty to a clean economy where polluters either go broke or adapt.