Green Government – Where Do We Stand?

Logo of Conservative Party UK

Green Government? Image via Wikipedia

After winning the 2010 election, the UK’s new government pledged to be the greenest ever.  So a year on where are we?

This week, the larger of the two parties forming the UK’s coalition government, the Conservative Party, held its annual party conference.  It didn’t start well for environmentalists when the Chancellor, George Osborne (the man who in 2009 said “If I become chancellor, the Treasury will become a green ally, not a foe”), revealed his plan that “We’re going to cut our carbon emissions no slower but also no faster than our fellow countries in Europe.”

The Transport Secretary, Philip Hammond, then revealed plans to increase the speed limit on British motorways to 80 miles per hour.  The government acknowledged soon after that this would lead to more pollution and increase the risk of road deaths.  I find this policy completely bonkers – aren’t governments there to protect the people, even from themselves?

Then we had  David Cameron, the Prime Minister, the man in charge with a clear vision for how to take the country forward.  His speech did not use the words ‘environment’, ‘carbon’ or ‘climate’ even once.  He said ‘green’ twice and, according to The Guardian, “both mentions of ‘green’ were in passing.  One was part of a wide-ranging blast by David Cameron at the [previous] Labour [government]’s failings. The other – ‘green engineering’ – also came as part of a list of technologies a new economy would be built on.”

So all in all not very promising.  The Guardian newspaper has been tracking the government’s progress using a Green-o-meter, and following the Conservative Party Conference, they dropped the needle from doing better than ‘middle of the road’ to doing worse, and I tend to agree.

There simply does not seem to be any fresh ideas coming from the government, with the same old rhetoric focussing always on GDP growth and short-sighted protectionism of established industries.  Andrew Simms in The Guardian asked Why protect BAE jobs when you can convert them to the green economy?  He argued against protecting jobs in the arms industry while setting out greater benefits that would arise from spending on houses, public transport and infrastructure.  I also think there must be a lot of talented engineers and other professionals in the arms industry whose skills could be put to more humane uses elsewhere.

And finally I also read this week about Niu Wenyuan, a senior economist and government adviser in China who is trying to promote the use of a ‘quality index’ which measures the economy not just by size, but by sustainability, social equality and ecological impact.  You might say that this would then give a truer sense of costs and benefits than relying on GDP alone as a measure of progress.  This seems like a great idea to me, and it may or may not take off in China, but I can’t see it being adopted in western democracies where our politicians can’t see past the next election and don’t seem to have the vision or courage to stray from the accepted way of doing things.

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David Mitchell’s Soapbox

Comedian David Mitchell is doing a series of videos for the Guardian newspaper about a variety of topical subjects.  Two recent episodes have been on environmental topics.

In this first video, David talks about using market forces to drive sustainability, in focussing on the short shelf life of cheap modern goods and air travel.

In terms of my ‘smart sustainable home’, it has made me give some more thought to the issue of longevity of furniture, fixtures and fittings.

In this second video, David takes on climate change doubters.  He makes the point, in his inimitable style, that in addition to the scientific consensus that man-made climate change is happening, from a precautionary point of view we should tackle climate change because we aren’t sure it isn’t happening.  A very good line of argument indeed.

When confronted with climate change sceptics, I have always sought to broaden the argument to include other problems relating to burning fossil fuels.  For instance, carbon dioxide isn’t the only thing coming out of chimneys and car exhaust pipes.  Nitrogen oxides and particulate matter are proven to cause health problems.  So surely, making more efficient use of fossil fuels and switching to alternatives must be a good thing.

Fossil fuels will one day run out.  Already we are having to go to more remote locations to take advantage of more difficult-to-extract sources.  Some would even say that global politics and wars are ruled by the availability of oil.  This too suggests that making more efficient use of fossil fuels and switching to alternatives must be a good thing.

Finally, fossil fuels are increasingly expensive.  Using less not only is good for the environment, but is good for your pocket too.

The whole series of David Mitchell’s Soapbox videos can be found here.

my current home – sustainability

the flat i live in was built in 2006.  it has a number of features that mean it’s pretty energy efficient by nature of its design.  it has flats above and below and to either side, meaning there are only two surfaces of the ‘cuboid’ through which to lose significant amounts of heat.  it has big windows, but good double glazing.  the windows may well still be responsible for the biggest heat loss, but we get loads of natural light pouring in reducing the need for artificial lighting.  i’ve already mentioned the fantastic waterloo sunsets we get every evening.

http://photozou.jp/photo/show/262775/27916981

a real life waterloo sunset

the one thing i am surprised at is that the block of flats i live in has no natural gas supply for heating, hot water and cooking.  unfortunately this means everything is electric and therefore more carbon intensive.  to mitigate this i have chosen ecotricity as my electricity supplier.  the electricity i get is still just normal ‘grid’ electricity, the same as anyone else, but at least i know that the money i spend gets invested in clean forms of power like wind energy.
so with heating and lighting largely covered, there’s not a huge amount i can do in terms of big ticket energy savings.  our flat came with all white goods supplied, so we had no part in selecting energy and water efficient models.  in fairness, they were all A rated, so without going to great expense, there is no sense in replacing those.

as i’ve mentioned in a previous post, our location, in waterloo, central london, provides great access to public transport, with two tube stations and a multitude of bus routes on our doorstep.  for the five years we’ve lived here we haven’t had a car, nor have we had need of one.  and although we have great access to public transport, most of my journeys are on foot.  i can walk to work in 35 minutes, and the south bank, covent garden and the west end are all within easy walking distance for all my leisure and shopping needs.

looking across the thames to waterloo

looking across the thames to waterloo

my biggest sustainability failing, i have to admit, is recycling.  but i do have to apportion at least some of the blame to my waste collection authority, lambeth council.  when we first moved to this area, i was full of enthusiasm to recycle and even bought a special bin that hid nicely in a cupboard and yet helped us segregate materials.  the trouble was that we filled our council-provided recycling bags within a couple of days.  what then were we supposed to do with them?  according to the council, they were supposed to be put out on the street only every sunday evening, ahead of the collection early on monday morning.  but where is anyone living in a compact flat (as a good proportion of lambeth residents do) supposed to store bags of (recyclable) rubbish for days on end?  with non-recyclables, you just chuck each full bag in the wheelie bin outside as it becomes full but there was no such provision for recyclables.  this was the question i put to lambeth council and over four years later i have yet to get a response.

in perhaps another peculiar design move, my block of flats has a single water meter for all occupants, so we just pay for water prorated on the proportion of floor area wach flat occupies.  therefore there is little incentive to save on water becuase you have such little influence on the bill.  my household with three occupants having daily showers/baths will pay the same as a theoretical single man with an adversity to personal hygiene in the same size flat.  and regardless of financial incentive, apart from the basics such as turning taps off while toothbrushing and not spending overly long in the shower, we are restricted in other potential savings.  we have no direct access to our cistern as it integrated in to the bathroom behind some tiles.  when replacing heating elements in our hot water boiler, the plumber noted that it is possibly oversized for even the three of us.  with limited resources and a potential house move on the horizon that is not something i would consider replacing, even with something more efficient.

in terms of sustainability, i believe that the aspects discussed above are all that i have within my direct control for my current home.  there are others down the supply chain, particularly in areas such as food, clothing and technology, where i might be able to exert some choice or even influence, and that is undoubtedly an area i will be exploring in more detail in future posts, but my influence there is limted as an individual consumer.  other aspects are completely outside my scope.  biodiversity, for example, because i neither own nor have any sort of stake in any outdoor space.  but outdoor space is a requirement for my future home, so this, and other aspects will form part of the agenda!