Carbon 60 starts at home

Published:  09 April, 2005

Thermograph
Thermal imaging exposes over-heating and under-insulation in the Government’s own house — the Houses of Parliament. [Photo IRT Surveys. © British Gas]

There is one unbeatable way of learning how to tackle the issue of Carbon 60, says Dave Hampton. Just try.

In the newspapers of 16 February 2005, K-Day (Kyoto Day) was reported ‘a good day for the world’.

It was also a day on which very large numbers of concerned individuals had fun and elected to wear purple to show support for any government that tackles global warming and to express their view that climate change is our business. (If you thought you were imagining things seeing more purple that was the innocent explanation!)

Exposed and shamed

Several leading papers carried front-page pictures of prominent over-heated and under-insulated buildings, such as The Houses of Parliament), exposed and shamed by thermal-imaging cameras. These images make waste heat visible. They also happen to portray cold sky as purple. By quirk of fate, that is the colour the sky would be if carbon dioxide were purple, and not invisible!

If we could but see it, we would have witnessed the sky change colour during our lifetime. Staggeringly, there is 10% more carbon dioxide in the air than there was 20 years ago, and 20% more than when I was born 45 years ago. This is air-fill, like our landfill problems at ground level, on a massive scale. If carbon dioxide were visible, the issue could no longer be swept under the carpet.

Lead by example

If Tony Blair means business, he must know that Britain must lead by example. If we truly believe carbon dioxide is a problem (it is) that we can do well by doing good (we can) and that we can prosper by leading the world into the low-carbon economy (we can), each of us must be the change we wish to see in the world. We must live each day as if carbon dioxide is a matter of life and death; it will be soon enough.

In the opening months of 2005, it seems as if a universal truth is dawning, and beckoning us all. Change begins with us — or it does not begin at all.

After hearing about all the big plans for G8 leadership, Kyoto, EU presidency and the low-carbon economy, I recently asked a Government minister how the Cabinet’s plans were progressing for putting their own houses in order so they will be in a strong position to lead from the front on climate change mitigation. The answer was hugely alarming; they do not seem to know yet.

This is not incompetence or lack of will. The answer was eloquent, sensible, truthful — compassionate even. The point was graciously accepted about the importance of practising what is preached. But that was not the sole point of the question. It is not just about politics, it is about practical physical action. By our deeds we are judged.

Putting our own house in order may seem a minor technical distraction to some. It is not! It will be pivotal — for all of us. There is no good reason why we should not implement the first stages of long-term technical plans for all Whitehall buildings to be zero carbon. That may sound crazy now, but we know we have to get there.

The UK spends around £150 million a day on energy. The external and social costs of fossil fuel use have been estimated by DEFRA to be three or four times the price we pay for the energy. So it could be argued that the UK is currently doing itself £450 to £600 million worth of damage every day.

Fabulous opportunity

The big truth is that the UK has a fabulous opportunity to lead from the front. We urgently need to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions by at least 60% by 2050, which is only 45 years away. Time is short, we need to crack on.

Scratch beneath all the strategies, consultations, reports and paperwork, and very little is actually happening. The light has yet to dawn — and the lights are largely still left on. Whitehall staff are impressively beavering away, knocking quite a few percent off energy use and carbon dioxide emissions over recent years — but missing are the aspirational longer-term targets.

All other things being equal, all buildings — on average — need to slash their fossil fuel dependency by two thirds. That will be tricky, but not unthinkable -— unless we think it is.

Where to start

The truth that many of us will not admit to ourselves is that we are not sure where to start. In theory we know how to do it, or we think we know an engineer who does. We carp and know exactly what everyone else should be doing, but for our own homes we are frozen into self-righteous indignation and inaction. Even the Chartered Institution of Building Services Engineers is not finding it easy — but is working at the task with its Carbon 60 Competition aimed at delivering 60% carbon savings at its headquarters.

The trick is to get started. Virtuous circles come to the rescue. Fortunately there is a hidden multiplier that works greatly to our advantage. If national energy supply becomes just 20% greener, plus we utilise energy just 20% more efficiently, plus we manage it 20% better, plus we reduce our ‘needs’ by just 20%, the cumulative effect is a 60% reduction. Bingo! (A 20% reduction is a factor of 0.8. 0.84 is 0.4)

But it only works if we actually get started and do it.

This is not rocket science, but it is vital to understand that it is not that easy either — but nor is the alternative, drastic climate disruption. We need to face this demon now and not believe we are a special case such as ‘my house being listed’.

‘The House’ and many Whitehall buildings are heritage architecture. That we preserved every nuance of their aesthetics will be little consolation when the Thames breaches the Embankment and reclaims the land. We should be talking with more of a grasp of the urgency — and the stakes. Even a ‘war footing’ will seem a puny response when people look back at the history we are making now.

There is one unbeatable way of learning. It should be the first resort, not the last. Just try to do it. That, after all, is how we first learn to walk — not by thinking or talking.

Again fortunately, for humanity, there is a magical ‘acceleration’ effect that can work in our favour when we commit. Tiny ripples grow into big waves. Sea change (or C-change!) starts with drops in the ocean. Goethe expressed this in Faust: ‘Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it!’

His famous quote was embellished by W.H. Murray, who wrote in The Scottish Himalaya Expedition (1951): ‘But when I said that nothing had been done I erred in one important matter. We had definitely committed ourselves and were halfway out of our ruts. We had put down our passage money — booked a sailing to Bombay. This may sound too simple, but is great in consequence.

‘Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, the providence moves too. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one's favor all manner of unforeseen incidents, meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamt would have come his way.’

If Whitehall, Westminster, Cabinet Office, DEFRA, DTI and ODPM focused inwards and set in place technically sound strategies for reducing their own emissions (and ideally, for all their own homes, including 10 and 11 Downing Street), they will be infinitely better placed to create and deliver good and popular legislation. Solving the micro, in our own heads, our own hearts, and our own homes, has within it the miraculous power to solve the macro problems.

The tipping point (for climate-change awareness) starts within.

Putting our own houses in order may seem a trivial response to a global problem of such enormity, but it has the potential to make an enormous contribution, and if everyone does it, we have together cracked the big problem too.

Given that 99% of existing buildings need radical improvement, time is short. We must target Carbon 60 reduction now, even if we do not yet have a clear view of the end game. We must implement something ambitious, learn from it, and not wait another minute. We cannot afford to.

Dave Hampton is a member of The Sustainability Forum and a director ABS Consulting.



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