Save the World – Wear a Onesie

167 - OnesieHave you ever lost anything through a hole in your pocket ?

Imagine you knew you’d loose a quarter of any money you put in your pocket, it would get pretty annoying pretty quickly wouldn’t it? You’d have a couple of obvious options – put an extra 25% into your pocket every morning, so when you needed money you’d still have enough left, or alternatively, (drum roll) you could fix the hole.

What if you had a computer that that crashed 25% of the time, taking your recent work and files down with it . . . you could either spend more time redoing the work, or fix the computer.

Or what if you had a dishwasher that broke 25% of your plates . . . you could either keep buying replacement plates, or fix the dishwasher.

You get the idea.

What if you lived in a badly insulated home, so that 25% of the energy used to heat it almost instantly disappeared via draughts, or through the walls and roof, as waste heat ?

Sometimes I think that if heat was perhaps a luminous red colour, rather than being invisible, and we could see it wastefully escaping from our homes and workplaces, we’d probably be much better at conserving it (of course if you go draught hunting around your house with a thermal camera, that’s exactly how it’ll look).

We read almost constantly about the energy crisis the country, and indeed the whole world, is facing. There’s plenty of disagreement about where the extra energy we need should come from, but whether we import more gas, decide to build nuclear power stations, turn to fracking, or try our very best to expand renewables, there’s one thing no one seems to be disagreeing about – whatever we do, we’re very likely to be paying a lot more for our energy in the future. This isn’t news. We’ve all noticed our bills rising for some time, along with the rising cost of fuel and the knock on effects on the cost of all transported goods.

It’s not all about economics of course – there are also climate consequences, safety and pollution concerns, visual impacts and land and water resource implications. Clearly some possible sources of energy are worse than others, but they all have some downside.

But there is another alternative open to us.

We could use less !

It’s almost always easier to use less energy than produce more, and pound for pound it’s far more cost effective – even over quite short time frames. Buying another £1,000 of energy heats your house for a year or so. Spending £1,000 on energy efficiency measures, will mean your house uses less energy every year thereafter, and without generating any radioactive waste, upsetting anti-wind farm types, or contributing (much) to climate change.

In a typically confused environmental way, the current UK Government has policies that both support and work against energy efficiency at the same time. The Green Deal and the new national Green Bank are now both helping to support the public and businesses improve their energy efficiency. While at the same time energy efficiency regulations have been relaxed for a range of construction projects – a decision which looks set to land the government with a judicial review !

We tend to think of energy efficiency mainly in terms of low energy light bulbs, loft insulation and snake shaped draught excluders, as well as all kinds of other improved technologies from better car engines to smarter and more efficient power networks.

But improving efficiency isn’t just down to the technology

If we want low carbon affordable energy, we’re also going to have to change our behaviour, and make sure we’re using energy as efficiently as we can.

Most of us will already be doing all the easy stuff – switching off lights in empty rooms, turning things off properly – not just putting them on standby, not overfilling the kettle etc. All very sensible of course, but surely we all know it’s going to take a lot more.

Are we ready to give up our holiday flights ? Reorganize our lives and jobs so we need to drive much less ? Start repairing our things rather than constantly replacing and upgrading them ? Perhaps, perhaps not.

Another option for many of us could be to try getting used to having our homes a little colder. Thanks to central heating, our homes are now an average of 5 degrees warmer than they were thirty years ago.

If your thermostat is set at between 18-20 degrees or so, try dialing it back a little.

And if you’re cold, try wearing a onesie around the house to keep warm . . . you know it makes sense.

 

Photo by JBLM MWR Marketing via Flickr

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7 Tips for Keeping Warm this Winter

If you’re currently reading this in San Diego, or somewhere equally warm, then you might want to skip this post, but if you’re in a somewhat cooler climate, December is a good time to start thinking about keeping warm. Particularly if some of the longer range predictions about this being an especially cold winter turn out to be true.

If you’re sat at home, how warm is your room ?

If you don’t know, consider spending £5 to get yourself a room thermometer this Christmas.

Room temperature is normally taken to be 20C , with typically quoted values ranging from 18 – 21C, the range in which most of us will feel fairly comfortable. Below this increased health risks begin to occur, below 18C most people will begin to experience some discomfort, while below 16C there is an increased risk of respiratory disease. Below 12C there is an increased risk of stroke and heart attack, and below an ambient living temperature of 9C hypothermia is a possibility. An extra 27,000 deaths occur over the winter in the UK, mostly of the elderly.

So it’s vitally important for both our health and our comfort to keep ourselves warm during the cold weather, but on the other hand we might be concerned about wasting both energy and money. Whether we’re motivated by reducing our carbon footprint or our energy bill (in my case it’s both) it’s important we manage to keep warm as efficiently as possible.

Here are a few tips – you might want to share them with more elderly family, friends or neighbours.

1 – ONLY HEAT THE ROOMS YOU USE

It seems obvious, but a if you have a central heating system controlled by just a single thermostat, that’s probably what you’re doing. Fitting room thermostats or radiator thermostat valves will let you heat just the rooms you use most – ie: not the spare bedroom, front room, conservatory etc.

2 – ONLY HEAT YOUR HOME WHEN YOU’RE THERE

Again, another ‘no-brainer’, but a surprising number of homes with central heating systems don’t have effective timer controls. Check your controls to make sure the heating is only on when you’re there.

3 – TRACK DOWN AND DEAL WITH DRAUGHTS

A draught is ventilation in the wrong place (and vice-versa). Go draught hunting and use draught excluders, letterbox and keyhole covers, insulation strips, thick curtains and similar to deal with them. It your home is particularly draughty you might want to consider using a thermal camera to identify them (though it might be a good idea to get advice before hiring one). Remember though that it’s best to leave at least some ventilation somewhere in the house, to allow exchange of air.

4 – KEEP YOUR HOME DRY

Some ‘how to keep warm lists’ suggest letting warm bath water cool in the bath etc as a good idea to help heat your home. Generally speaking this isn’t a good idea, for two reasons. Firstly, moist air takes more energy to heat than dry air does – so the more water vapour you have in your home, the colder it will be (for a given amount of heating). Secondly, the water vapour doesn’t magically disapear – it just condenses on cold surfaces, like exterior walls and windows, often giving rise to black mould, which can become a significant health hazard. Avoid drying wet clothes on radiators without adequate ventilation, and make sure steam from cooking is properly vented.

5 – CONTROL NATURAL HEATING AS BEST YOU CAN

Opening the curtains during the day to let in sunlight, and closing them as it starts to go dark, in order to retain heat might not make a huge difference in most homes, but it will help, and could be quite beneficial if your home has a conservatory, or other large expanse of exterior glass. Obviously the better insulated your curtains are the more effective they will be.

6 – WEAR WARM CLOTHES

We wrap up warm when we go out in the cold, most of us could do a lot better at wearing warmer clothes inside as well. There are all sorts of suitable, comfortable ‘lounge-ware’, from jogging trousers and jumpers, to socks, thermals and even hats. I can confirm the currently popular onesies are very effective for keeping warm (though far too embarrassing to answer the door in) ! Sitting under a blanket to watch TV is also a good idea.

7 – LOOK AFTER YOUR SELF

Your body keeps warm by using the food you’ve eaten, so if your home is cold it’s especially important to make sure you’re eating well, preferably with plenty of hot meals and hot drinks, while alcohol tends to lower core body temperature. A spot of exercise might also be a good way to help keep warm.

Photo by Ruben Laguna via Flickr

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The Future of Energy

Before sitting down to write this post I made myself a cup of tea and a couple of slices of toast, and now I’m sat on the sofa with the lights on, my TV recorder whirring and my laptop plugged in.

Elsewhere in the house the kids are listening to their fully charged mp3 players, the fridge is humming, the dishwasher is taking care of the washing up and various plugged in electrical things are happily flashing their blue and red lights. A couple of months ago my gas central heating would also have been on, and tomorrow I’ll drive to work in my car.

As well as remembering where all the energy is going, it’s also worth considering that virtually all our energy is originally solar in origin. We should be grateful to the plants and algae of a few million years ago for chemically locking this energy up for us like some huge biological battery – after all these tiny organisms have built our modern civilisation.

Use of fossil fuels has always caused localised problems – from London’s pea soupers to LA’s smogs, along with acid rain, oil slicks, and the appalling moonscapes, so often the legacy of coal mining. But we’re now also well aware there are another two, far more serious, concerns caused by our reliance on fossil fuels: climate change and peak oil.

Perhaps back in the 1970s we could be forgiven for not seeing the first one coming, but it’s difficult to understand how we didn’t prepare for the second!

It’s almost forty years since Wally Broecker published his paper ‘Are we on the brink of a pronounced global warming?‘ in Nature, often cited as the first concern that rising atmospheric carbon dioxide from fossil fuel combustion could add to the greenhouse effect and result in global warming. Despite the best attempts of a small group of skeptics, most of the world now accepts the scientific assessment that continuing to use fossil fuels risks will increase the rate of man made climate change.

The problem is that we’re addicted !

Our entire civilisation is reliant on cheap energy – to grow and transport our food, take us to our jobs, produce our material goods and power all our services. Many commentators have pointed out the massive shifts to our economy and indeed way of life that will occur when fossil fuels run out. Of course, it’s not exactly a question of running out – there’s quite a lot left in the ground, but its becoming increasingly expensive and difficult to obtain. All the easy to get at oil is long gone, leading to ever more novel and expensive sources being exploited: such as shale gas frackingdeep seabed oil extraction (as with Deepwater Horizon) and drilling the Arctic.

That we’re running out of fossil fuels is a fundamental point often overlooked by climate skeptics and those opposing windfarms. There might be enough uranium for a few hundred years at current usage rates, but it will only last a fraction of that if nuclear widely replaces fossil fuels.

What should we do ?

It doesn’t need Sherlock Holmes to deduce that the only reliable long term option is renewable energy – the clue’s in the name. If it isn’t renewable it will eventually run out, and with seven billion of us and rising, and everyone wanting to live like a New Yorker, that’s likely to be much sooner than we’d like.

The only truly renewable energy is that delivered every day by the sun – solar, wind, biomass, or by the moon in the case of tidal. The longstanding, but as yet unobtainable, dream of nuclear fusion (the same energy that powers the sun) would use seawater as fuel, and is therefore probably close enough to renewable to also qualify.

So how do we get from where we are now to a renewable future ?

We’re living in a time of transition, and it seems increasingly likely it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

We’re going to need to strike all kinds of balances:

- Doing what we can to manage the inevitable rise in the cost of energy to minimise the effects on  the most vulnerable in our society and around the world. At the same time we also need to discourage profligate energy use,

- Finding the money to invest in renewable infrastructure in a time of austerity, without further burdening the most vulnerable,

- Making difficult decisions in a pragmatic way about transition technologies, like shale gas fracking and nuclear power – both of which have significant risks and costs,

- Doing everything we can to reduce our energy usage; from increasing insulation and efficiency, to reducing travel and consumption,

- Investing heavily in scientific and technological development of sustainable technologies,

- Preparing possible plan Bs and even plan Cs in case we don’t manage to get to sustainable in time – such as carbon capture or geo-engineering,

- and perhaps most importantly avoiding a potentially devastating military grab for the dwindling energy supplies that are left

If we’re to stand any chance at all we’ll need to raise both the level of awareness and honesty in the current debate. As with any period of change, some people feel threatened, are in denial or have a vested interest in the status quo . . . those of us interested in a brighter future should try to ‘shine some real light into the debate’ wherever possible.

I know many of my readers have strong emotions on issues like fracking and nuclear power, but my own view is that unfortunately we’ve probably left it too late to manage a smooth transition to sustainable without both more nuclear and more shale gas fracking in the short term.

I’d love to be wrong, but I’m not alone in this assessment. It’s not that I’m some kind of a big nuclear or fracking fan, quite the opposite, but I don’t want affordable energy to just be the preserve of the wealthy or powerful either – with thousands more people dying from the cold every winter in the UK, not to mention millions more forced further into poverty and struggling to eat around the world as a result.

In the meantime it seems blindingly obvious to me that every rich country should be investing far more in sustainable infrastructure and measures to reduce demand.

If you haven’t yet done your good deed for the day, why not email your friendly neighbourhood politician and encourage them to do just that.

And then perhaps unplug some of your stuff.

 

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Photo by Charles Cook, via Flickr

Saving Tomorrow, Today

It sounds a little like the script of a bad science fiction or James Bond film doesn’t it:

” . . . and so all the nations of the Earth came together to try to agree limits to the climate changing gases they were releasing into the atmosphere, trapping solar radiation and threatening to melt the ice caps, cause widespread droughts and floods, and potentially change the world as we know it forever.”

Flash Gordon, Thunderbirds, Doctor Who, or perhaps Bruce Willis in a spacesuit, would arrive in the final few minutes and utter a few cliched, yet heart-spun words, before saving the Earth. Hurrah !

Unfortunately, there was never much prospect of a superhero saving the day at the recent climate talks in Durban, and indeed the nations of the world were left to their own devices.

What appears to have emerged is neither as bad as many had feared, nor as good as some had hoped.

If you’re interested on whether the world has been saved from impending doom, then pick your headline:

UN Climate Conference Approves Landmark Deal – Al Jazeera

Durban Deal Will Not Avert Catastrophic Climate Change Say Scientists – Guardian

Climate Talks End: New Global Climate Change Regime from 2020 – The Times of India

Too Little, Too Slow from World’s Unambitious Leaders – WWF

Durban Deal Prevents Next Decade Emission Chaos – Russia Today

Last Minute Talks Produce ‘Historic Deal to Save the Planet’ – The Telegraph

A Deal in Durban – The Economist

Huhn Hails UN Climate Deal that will Cost UK Taxpayers £20 Billion by 2020 - The Mail

Three Sleepless Nights in a Global Emergency – ABC News

Climate Deal Fails Poor People – Oxfam

The good news is that  all countries (including the US, China and India) have agreed to negotiate a new round of emission cuts by 2015 resulting in a protocol with legal force (not quite ‘legally binding’). This protocol would come into force in 2020.

This is also the bad news – in a nutshell the plan to save the world is for everyone to meet again in four years and try to negotiate something then.

Whether you think this is ultimately good news or a bad news is going to depend not only on what result you wanted from Durban, but also on what you thought was achievable.

So where does this leave us ?

The models are projecting substantial increases in warming by the end of the century. If this is indeed the case, then it will be the world’s islands states, Africa and the poor and vulnerable worldwide that will suffer most – from increased frequency of extreme weather events, increasing food prices and changes to local conditions that will be difficult for people to adapt to. The Durban agreement, with little prospect of real action before 2020, seems to make this unpalatable scenario more likely.

It can be tempting to blame the increasingly vocal climate skeptic lobbying for the failure to reach a more ambitious agreement, with many citing the rise in climate skepticism among the US public, being behind the unwillingness of the current administration to sign-up for anything more ambitious. I’m not convinced by this. However vocal, the climate skeptics had no voice or influence among the delegates in the hall, all the countries present accepting the central reality of the science . . . . it seems everyone who mattered at Durban does seem to acknowledge ‘the pie’ is going to get smaller.

The real problem, it seems to me anyway, is the same as it’s ever been – human nature . . . nobody is willing to voluntarily give-up a slice of ‘their pie’ !

If we want more chance of meaningful success in controlling carbon emissions and limiting climate change at the next set of talks, then make the most of the next four years – write to everyone you can to help convince them there is a large part of the public that wants to see significant progress on climate change.

I’ve wrapped-up with a couple of impressive videos showing the beauty and fragility of the Earth . . . seemed appropriate.

 

Photo by NASA

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Cold Cold Wind

This Autumn was one of the warmest and driest on record in the UK. As a result reservoirs are low, harvests were impacted and wildlife became confused.

But as the weather begins to change and winter finally arrives, a different concern returns, one that doesn’t always get the coverage it deserves: the 4 million UK households in fuel poverty.

Fuel poverty is defined as existing when a household needs to spend more than 10% of its income on heating, in order to keep adequately warm. Due to rising fuel prices and the economic downturn the number of households in fuel poverty has been increasing rapidly, and shows every indication of continuing to do so. An amazing one in five UK households is now classed as being in fuel poverty, with almost half of those affected aged 60 or over.

The result of people being unable to keep adequately warm is an additional 26,000 deaths in which the cold weather pays a part over the winter. These deaths arise from respiratory problems and also from heart attacks and strokes resulting from the thickening of the blood and associated rise in blood pressure that occurs when we are cold.

Our energy policies are not only failing future generations due to climate change, but also failing many struggling households in our current generation too !

The problem is that these issues are often played off against each other.

Many of the critics of wind farms and feed in tariffs etc argue that they ‘further add to the fuel bills of those in hardship’, and while I sometimes question how genuinely these concerns are felt by those voicing them, there’s no denying it is a issue that needs addressing.

Unfortunately those seeking to defend subsidies for renewable energy sometimes appear unsympathetic to the plight of those in fuel poverty – simply pointing out that the additional cost of these schemes to average energy bills are in fact very low (which indeed they are). This risks missing the real point – that it’s difficult to make a just case why cold pensioners, fearful of turning on their heating over the winter, should pay more for their energy bills – regardless of the amount involved.

Environmentalists who only talk about melting ice sheets and polar bears, can easily appear dismissive of those facing real hardship. Framing the debate as either green energy or warm pensioners avoids the critical issue – both problems are real and urgently require a solution.

What is needed is a system that achieves the necessary decarbonisation of the economy, while allowing vulnerable people to keep warm in their own homes. Environmental issues are almost always social justice issues too.

Of course things are complex.

Real world solutions will need be a mix of price protection and support for those in most hardship, cost incentives to reduce the energy use of those with the ability to pay, grants for insulation, subsidies or tax benefits for energy companies to become more efficient, and, of course, subsidies and incentives to encourage the development of more renewable energy sources.

Government is at least engaging with some of these issues via its proposed Green Deal.

We’ll all have to wait and see if the detail of what’s being proposed lives up to expectations.

 

Photo by Clearly Ambiguous via Flickr

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