Monday, July 23, 2007

Careless Words - an aside

As I hope you're aware, one of my taglines is "Will climate change your life?" - it's even the title of my book. Bit disappointing then to realise is that "change your life" is a phrase that triggers many spam filters. So if I sent you this by email you probably wouldn't ever get it!

Happily, "Will climate change your business?" is where I am now concentrating my efforts, and I've also registered in anticipation of market developments. Still, it just shows you can't be too careful!

Have a good week!

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Let’s go carbon neutral!

Channel 4 was severely criticized for its programme about the "Great Global Warming Swindle" and last night turned its attention to carbon offsetting. This was an altogether more balanced documentary and demonstrated that the ideas of carbon offsetting and carbon neutrality need to be approached with scepticism.

Many big names on the high street, including HSBC, Barclays, Sky and Marks and Spencer either claim to be carbon neutral or to be on the way to achieving that state. What does this mean? Every individual, household or organization causes a certain amount of carbon dioxide, the principal greenhouse gas, to be emitted. The major trigger is energy; we all use energy and most of it is created from the combustion of fossil fuels – oil, gas or coal.

Organizations that want to be carbon neutral try and reduce their use of energy as far as possible. For the energy that they cannot avoid using, they deal with the emissions caused by buying offsets. For example, if a lorry travelling the length of the country day in and day out creates ten tons of carbon dioxide, planting a specified number of trees will cause that CO2 to be absorbed. The programme showed other offsetting projects: the pig farm where methane from the pig manure was trapped and prevented from escaping into the atmosphere; the hydroelectric power station in Eastern Europe which emits no CO2 at all. If an organisation buys enough offsets it can claim that the net effect is neutral - overall it is adding no CO2 to the global atmosphere.

The problem is that there are inconsistencies and imprecision at every stage of the process. To start with, you need to define exactly how much carbon dioxide is being emitted before you know how much you have to offset. There are no universally agreed standards and this can lead to farcical situations. If you want to offset the emissions created by your air travel, British Airways will sell you offsets provided by Climate Care. However, if you approach Climate Care directly to offset your flights, they will charge you more because they use a different method of calculation from British Airways and they believe that the emissions caused by flights are greater.

Suppose we have agreed on how much carbon dioxide needs to be offset. How effective are the proposed solutions? There is no doubt that trees absorb CO2 as they grow. It will, however, take several decades to absorb the CO2 that your flight emits in an afternoon. Some of the trees shown on the programme were far more heavily subsidized by the Forestry Commission than by the purchasers of offsets. If the trees would have been planted anyway, they cannot be considered as truly offsetting a particular purchaser’s emissions. There is also the problem that trees do not live for ever and while they may a lock up the carbon dioxide for a time, it will be released when the tree eventually dies and rots or is burnt. In any case, when you think of the hundreds of thousands of people in the UK who make flights every day, it is clear that trees cannot be the whole solution.

What about the hydroelectric power station in the Eastern Europe? Suppose the developer has the choice between a fossil fuel power station emitting CO2 and a hydro station which emits none. If this is a new development, building the hydro station avoids a certain amount of CO2 emissions, but it does not reduce emissions unless a fossil fuel station of the same size is closed down. There was no suggestion in the film that this was the case, (and by the way it seemed unlikely that the carbon offset payments made by Sky to the project had had any effect on whether it was going to be built or not.) The scheme does not appear to have reduced the global CO2 burden so it cannot be considered as an offset. Sky’s claim to be a carbon neutral organization is difficult to support.

As I said at the start, there is no clear universal definition of carbon footprints or carbon neutrality. Organizations can define them as they wish and can, in their own terms, claim to be carbon neutral. This is good marketing and attractive to responsible consumers. The problem is that it is doing practically nothing to reduce the CO2 in the atmosphere or to have any effect on climate change.

It is very much like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. It may make people feel more comfortable and make them believe that something is being done about the dangers ahead. In fact there are icebergs ahead – only this time the problem is that they’re melting!

Monday, July 16, 2007

Taking Precautions?

Have a look at the video on this link. It’s called “The Most Terrifying Video You’ll Ever See”. What it sets out to do is to simplify the climate change issues so that the solution becomes obvious.
Dangerous Climate Change will either happen or not happen: two possibilities. We can either take action or take no action: two strategies. This is then resolved into a simple 2x2 matrix:

Plan A
Plan A is Take Action. If climate change is NOT real, this strategy brings negative consequences. We cut back on carbon emissions by suppressing economic activity and we end up with a severe depression and then we find that it was all a waste of time.
However if climate change IS real this strategy helps us adapt and survive. Although we will have changed lifestyles and business models our actions will help us cope with the consequences of climate change.

Plan B
Plan B is Take NO Action. If climate change is NOT real and we take no action then things go on as they are, just getting better all the time.
However, if it IS real and we have done nothing about it, we are in serious trouble. We will see economic collapse, famine, flood, starvation, epidemics war and refugees. This is the worst case scenario.

As you will see from the video, the presenter says our course of action is a no-brainer. If Plan B could lead to the worst case scenario then the prudent course of action is to follow Plan A, because the worst case scenario will then be avoided.

No contest?

Well if we adopt Plan A and eliminate the worst case scenario we also eliminate the best case scenario – no action, no problem, no change. If we adopt Plan A things are going to get worse whether climate change is real or not. Even if climate change is real and Plan A helps us deal with it, our lives will be very different and will be seen by many to be worse. Never mind that they might have been far worse if we had done nothing; people will not have experienced that situation, only the relatively comfortable situation that existed before we started taking action. Many will refuse to accept that action was the right thing.

If dangerous climate change is as likely as no climate change, people will be more likely to accept the status quo and do nothing. If they think that climate change is less likely than no climate change then they will certainly do nothing. After all, two weeks ago a survey revealed that 56% of people in the UK believe (wrongly) that scientists are still in doubt as to whether human activity plays any part in global warming. And if the scientists can’t agree, who’s going to sell their car, stop the foreign holidays and turn down the central heating? Plan B – do nothing – will be favourite.

Maybe the shock of increased energy prices will make people think again, but until something like that happens no government that wants to get re-elected is going to take sufficient action to have an effect on climate change.

Footprints in the sky

Private air travel is growing dramatically. Charter passengers, including those using private jets, have risen from 3.5 million to 34 million in the 10 years from 1996 to 2006.

A private jet is attractive to those who can afford it because it saves time. You don’t need to head for a major hub like Manchester, Birmingham, Heathrow or Gatwick – you can leave from your local airfield. You can arrive 15 minutes before departure and embark without all those hours of security checks. At the destination your driver can meet you on the tarmac. It may be more expensive than business class, but for some people it’s worth it. London’s position as the leading financial centre in the world means that there are many wealthy people who will spend their money to save their precious time. Not just for business trips either: private jets make it perfectly possible to have weekends at the villa or on the ski slopes.

And what about the carbon footprint? The whole idea of one family jetting off in a private plane seems reckless, irresponsible, profligate. On the other hand, to paraphrase a well-known saying, the rich are always with us. And the rich would say that they create an enormous amount of the wealth of the UK that keeps people in jobs, funds the infrastructure through taxes and allows others to afford their own holidays in the sun. What these people don’t have is much time, so they spend their money to get the most out of it.

The wealthy people who take these flights can do so precisely because they are successful. They are the people who get things done and they are the people who will be crucial to taking the actions that will address climate change. We cannot afford to meet them head on. All we can do is present the evidence, suggest alternatives, map out the consequences. We all need to work together on this.

I hope we can reach consensus in time.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Save it!

We all know that we need to save energy to save the planet. What most people don’t realize is that everything we eat, use or wear involves the use of energy and indirectly causes carbon dioxide emissions. One of the things we take least notice of is water, particularly in the UK where many households still pay a fixed fee for their water, regardless of how much they use. Of course, commercial premises and more and more homes are on metered supplies, but the cost of water, at least at present, is ignored by most people.

One cubic metre of water requires 1kWh of electricity or other energy to pump it, filter it, purify it, and deliver it to the consumer. Every cubic metre of water therefore has a carbon footprint. Although Britain has been suffering from floods in recent weeks, droughts and hose pipe bans are becoming more and more common in the summer and if we do experience the weather extremes as predicted, water shortages can only get worse.

With this in mind I was interested to see the Interflush device at a conference at York University. This is a simple way of varying the amount of water which is used to flush the lavatory. Although there are some dual-flush units, most flushing systems deliver a full cistern of water every time. The same amount of water is used whether liquids or solids need to be flushed away. The Interflush adapts the traditional flushing siphon so that the flow stops as soon as the handle is released. At the level of the individual household, the savings are relatively small. However, we know that if each household fitted a single compact fluorescent lamp (CFL) electricity demand would fall by the equivalent of the output of a whole power station. Similarly, if every household adopted an Interflush the carbon footprint of the water industry would be cut by 250,000 tons of CO2 . The cost of water would be reduced for all consumers and the existing infrastructure would be able to cope with an increase in the number of consumers without upgrading.

Have a look at the website and see what you think!

Spot the Difference

The Great Global Warming Swindle, the Channel Four programme which claimed that carbon dioxide was not the cause of global warming, suggested that sunspots and solar activity were major force. The theory is that solar winds drive away the particles that cause clouds to form and the reduced cloud cover means that the surface of the earth warms. In fact, while this is a respected theory, the actual observations show that there was little solar wind at the time the global warming was observed.

Dr Michael Lockwood of the Rutherford Appleton Laboratories in Oxford has published a paper in the Proceedings of the Royal Society complaining that the programme was selective in the use of his research findings. The graphs that were displayed were cut short at the point at which global warming and solar activity clearly diverged. As Dr Lockwood said, the sceptics were “..taking perfectly good science and bringing it into disrepute.”

It looks as though man-made carbon dioxide is still firmly in the frame as a major cause of global warming.

Public opinion, however, still wants to believe that everything can go on as normal.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Mac mileage

So McDonalds are going to use waste cooking oil to power their vehicle fleet. This is a company we all seem to love to hate, and at first sight we could be critical and point out that biofuels are certainly not carbon neutral and that growing crops for biofuel is already having an effect on the price of wheat. Nevertheless, McDonalds deserve congratulation for this initiative because they are using waste cooking oil to create the fuel; oil that would otherwise have to be disposed of carefully to avoid creating pollution.

A plant already exists in Scotland which creates biodiesel from organic waste. It’s pure recycling. It’s getting a useful product from material which otherwise would be dumped.

In the north east of England two major plants are under construction for the production of biofuel. These will use specially grown – and imported – raw materials and there is already much doubt and debate about the effects that growing these crops will have on rainforest clearance and on food production in poorer countries. I also wonder how long the producer countries will be prepared to export the raw materials. If they harvest and process the biodiesel at home, they have a much higher value product to sell, and surely it makes more sense to export finished goods than vast quantities of bulky primary goods.

Biofuel from waste is truly green – so three cheers for Ronald McDonald!

Monday, July 02, 2007

Talking of Climate Change…

I spent this weekend at the Professional Speakers Association. We’re a group of experts who speak on our specialist subjects. My main activity is communicating the issues on energy and climate change to business audiences. As an expert on the topic it is essential that my communication skills are as good as they can be. Nothing is ever achieved if a message is sent but not properly received or understood. As a speaker I’m a member of Toastmasters International, which means that nearly every week I’m speaking in front of an audience – prepared speeches or impromptu – and getting feedback from the audience in a structured way. I know what I mean to tell them; often it’s very instructive to find out what they actually heard! Change of emphasis, change of pace, change of structure can all have a radical effect on the message received.

The Professional Speakers Association is for speakers making a business of speaking. Friday was a Board meeting and Chapter Leadership forum, but Saturday was one of our National Events. These events are designed for members but invited guests are welcome too. Our first session, which raised a lot of discussion, was given by Nick Oulton on the use of PowerPoint. Many people believe that slides have no place in a keynote speech because we are giving a speech, not making a presentation. Our speaker (presenter?) showed how badly PowerPoint can be used, and how dramatically different a well-designed presentation can be. Generally I’m with the purists: if it’s a slide show it’s not a speech. On the other hand, some of the statistics involved in energy and climate change are difficult to get across without a graph, and a flip-chart looks amateur. I can’t think of a prop I could use instead, but any suggestions gratefully received.

Our second speaker was Fergus McClelland, expert in all things vocal. He explained the different characteristics of all the microphones we are likely to come across. Each has different advantages and disadvantages and each must be tuned to your voice, so it’s important to make friends with the sound man who is likely to be working long hours and getting paid far less than the speaker. Fergus told us about recording equipment, mixing software and how to make our own CDs and podcasts.

Our third speaker was Terry Brock, stopping over on his world tour on his way back to Florida. Terry is into all things technical. He’s an entertaining and accomplished speaker and he was showing us how the latest technology can help us develop products and promote ourselves. It’s difficult to do him justice on the page, so I suggest you visit his website for yourself and find out the sort of things he’s recommending. I shall be adopting some of them myself, and you can be sure that I’ll let you know all about them.

As you know, I’m an expert who speaks about energy and climate change. I’m convinced that these are the greatest challenges that businesses and individuals currently face. The PSA helps me get that message across. Our Annual Convention will be at the Radisson Heathrow in November. Come and find out what Professional Speakers can do for you.