Big Ideas

OK, I said weeks ago that I was going to blog on the whole environment thing. I haven’t, but then I haven’t seriously blogged about anything in recent weeks… How remiss of me.

So, making some vain hope to stay true to my word, here are a few brief outlines of some ‘big ideas’ on the green front. These are all potential, radical, initiatives the government could take a lead with:

Reform the building code
In the UK we are particularly good at building leaky, shoddy buildings with dire thermal efficiencies. One of the biggest things the government could do to reduce the nation’s carbon emissions is to draw up a strong building code. A high thermal efficiency building standard such as the German passivhaus standard would massively reduce the amount of energy we use heating (and cooling) our buildings. If that were coupled with standards encouraging (or even requiring!) microgeneration, we wouldn’t need to worry about the fact that our nuclear power plants are all about to require replacing…
High standards would need to be applied to commercial as well as residential buildings, and accompanied with a strong system of assessment (by people with teeth). One of the most anti-green things this Labour government has done is privatise the building inspectors, so they are now employed by the construction industry. Mmmm… conflict of interest there, perhaps?

Stricter Product Standards
We’ve all heard about the standby button issue, and it really is about time the government moved on that, but there are lots of similar bits of legislation that could be passed. Like a standard for portable device chargers so that they didn’t draw current when disconnected from the device (but still connected to the mains). [You could even use the opportunity to standardise such items by using standards like USB, so people didn’t need 4 different types of charger for their mobile devices]. Stricter energy efficiency requirements for electrical and electronic items would make a vast difference over time.

Change the tax code.
This is my favourite one (but admittedly the harder to implement). Abolish VAT, and instead create a ‘Carbon Footprint’ tax for all products (including food). Use the ISO 9001 process standard as a basis for insisting on a record of a products environmental impact, from production to packaging to distribution. Then tax that item based on its ‘greenness’.
Here’s an example: Crisps. The carbon footprint of a product like crisps (potato chips) would depend on the impact of growing the potatoes; transporting them from farm to factory; cleaning, chipping, frying them etc; packaging them; and then distributing them to the shop. The ‘tax’ added (as a % of the price) would depend on how environmentally friendly that whole process was. A company like Tyrrells, that grows the potatoes and makes the crisps on the same farm, may well be charged less tax than a large producer like Walkers.
This is a big, involved idea; it would take a lot of work. The audit process would have to be firm, and open to inspection. The assessment criteria would have to be agreed and independent (not open to the ‘influence’ of large producers or distributors). The end results would need to be clearly displayed and the detail available to consumers…
But imagine, you would know whether the apple from Herefordshire or South Africa was the more environmentally friendly (you may be surprised!). The relative merits of long distance transportation and intensive UK farming would be independently calculated and easily visible. And, best of all, it would be a huge boon for small cooperatives of UK producers, grouping together to grow, clean, package and distribute in small localities. It might even revive the whole UK farming industry…

OK, that’s enough for now. If you have any comment, I’d be interested to know them. I haven’t written much detail here, so I don’t expect you all to be convinced by my arguments on first hearing! More another time…

Taking the Lead

As I sat round a dinner table with a bunch of wonderful close friends the other night, and conversation meandered comfortably as it always does in these situations, the question of the environment was raised: Did we think that the issues of global warming and environmental sustainability were important for Christians?

I’m paraphrasing, and it’s a conversation that is beginning/ongoing for us, as it is for many, but I bring it up as it’s an issue that has been on my mind for some time…

Today the BBC News website has two articles on the issue, which are really worth the read. The first is a comment piece on the opening up of the North-West Passage; the second a summary of the recent UN report on Global Environment Outlook. Both of these articles highlight the issue in stark terms: humankind is having profound affects on our environment; we are changing our planet in detrimental, and possibly permanent, ways.

In some ways the question is redundant. If the issues are as big as the UN seem to be suggesting, then this is something that affects us all, regardless of creed. But it does have merit. This is something that must be addressed by us both as individuals and as a faith.

In the last 40 years, as humankind’s impact on the environment has become more and more apparent, there has been call after call to do things differently. This UN report is the 4th of its kind, arriving 20 years after the first banner the national governments rallied around, yet shouting loudly that intergovernmental efforts have failed. The very human failings of greed and apathy have meant that all but the most impassioned individuals have carried on regardless, and national and international efforts have been far, far too little to bring change.

I have hesitated to comment or make pronouncements on this issue so far because I am acutely aware of the reality of those vices in me. Even as I have become more and more convinced of the reality of environmental change due to human endeavour, and of our need to actively reduce our detrimental impact, my lifestyle has not radically changed. I recycle (to the extent that Southwark council enable me to), but do little else.

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Perhaps it is because of this reticence on my own part that I have come to think that we need to act co-operatively. Groups of individuals acting together can encourage each other and unite around particular projects or solutions. Economies of scale can mean that activities unfeasible for the individual can become realistic when done as collectives. I like the idea of growing your own food, and if I had a garden this is something I would try; but a community growing food together in allotments… suddenly ideas that seem at first impractical can become much more realistic.

In reality though, it seems to me that the lead needs to come from Government. Individuals can turn off their plugs, clad their houses, buy energy saving light bulbs and compost their waste, but only governments can change the building code or require manufacturers to produce electronic goods without standby buttons (for example).

It seems to me that we need really radical solutions to curb our greedy, resource intensive lifestyles. We need solutions that permeate the whole of our society, not ones that can only realistically be implemented by middle-class home owners. In reality if left to us, or if left to ‘the market’, normal human failings will mean we fall far short of the goals we need to hit. The Government needs to make some really tough decisions; it needs to ignore the moaning of business and take a strong lead. Without that we are in trouble.

I’m thinking of using this post as the start of a new category; to try and write on this subject regularly. I’m conscious of, a) being too preachy, and b) the whole ‘best intensions’ thing… Well, we’ll see. I have a few ideas that have been rattling round my head, and if I can’t write about them here, where can I?

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It’s easy to read things like the UN report and to become very pessimistic. Is it possible for us to change our behaviour when we have had so little success so far? I think it is, but what the world needs is an example to follow. The West needs to know that it is possible to dramatically alter a nation’s consumption without impoverishing its citizens and the rest of the world need to be shown ways of building wealth that don’t involve the raping of natural resources. The world needs an example.

I think Britain could provide that example. We are a nation of innovators and entrepreneurs. We are used to adapting and even thriving under new forms of regulation. We have an agriculture industry to revive… It will take some hard choices, and a lot of initial sacrifice, but I think we can become an example of how to build a sustainable future. We need some tough leadership. Anyone think the current lot of have it in them?