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.

***

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?

A problem of numbers

Now, I of all people know the difficulty that numbers can be, but I was somewhat surprised last night to learn that the Government had apparently mislaid 300,000 foreign nationals working here in the UK.

I don’t want to go into Government-bashing, but the whole issue does raise a few questions in my mind…

Every passport is tagged in and out of the country. The UK has no land borders so it is impossible to enter or exit the country without having your passport examined and its ID number recorded. So how come the Government don’t know how many people are here at any one time?

Yes, we get a whole lot of tourists, but surely the number of those outstaying normal holiday visa periods can be accurately calculated? That alone would let us know how many people are staying here…

And then there is the Inland Revenue (or Her Majesties Revenue & Customs as it is now called). They record tax details of every individual working in the country. A P45 is sent off to them for every individual role on the PAYE scheme. Now surely those numbers can be used to tell us how many jobs there are, and how many non-British nationals are filling them…?

You see, the problem the Government had was that its figures were calculated by a survey, which is a fine way of gathering data. But when these labyrinthine departments routinely gather all this data, why isn’t it possible to mine it for accurate figures?

The Immigration debate is a strange, highly-charged and somewhat artificial one. Yet it always surprises me that no one (and it really is no one) seems to have a clue about the real scale of the problem. How many foreign nationals come into the UK to live and work? We really, really don’t know.

Misrepresentation of the People

 [UPDATE: sign the Downing Street petition to support the bill!]

While waiting for my weekly dose of “Heroes”, I was watching a programme last night called “The Ministry of Truth”. It was a wonderfully provocative documentary about a campaign to institute a new act of parliament to stop our politicians lying to us…

You can read about the Misrepresentation of the People Act” here.

Essentially the premise is this: we the people have the power.
We give that to our elected representative to govern on our behalf.
They are to do this honestly.
Where they don’t govern honestly, we the people have the right to expect consequences.
The act makes it a criminal offence for people in elected office to knowingly deceive the public. The penalty is to be removed from office and prohibited from ever standing for elected office again.

It’s a great idea, and I’m totally in favour. The Government can’t be judge and jury when they are in the dock (all current forms of accountability, such as the Committee for Standards in Public Life report to the Prime Minister, so are essentially self-regulation). Or as today’s Telegraph puts it:

With laws in place prohibiting everyone from estate agents to company directors from lying to clients and shareholders, why is there no statute requiring honesty from our elected representatives?

I’d love to support this, but I really have no idea how! The “Ministry of Truth” website doesn’t exactly give you much idea of how to go forward. I want to rally my MP! I want to get you to rally yours! But to what?

Please let this be more than just a documentary…