27 Feb 2007

Green Willy Syndrome

I spent the day at Earl’s Court, in London, visiting the Innovations for the Built Environment exhibition. It was surprisingly lively and none too big, which meant that you can get around it in two or three hours. It was nominally five separate exhibitions called 1) Ecobuild 2) Futurebuild 3) Regenex 4) Cityscape and 5) Building for Health, but in fact these were all just arranged as zones so that you can slip seamlessly between them. There was also a surprisingly comprehensive seminar programme with lots of well known industry names giving their time to talk about their work. Rather too many in fact because there were no less than nine free seminar theatres and four paid-for conference theatres, which meant that the casual visitor (i.e.me) was rather overwhelmed by the choice.

What was really noticeable was just how much the green agenda has taken over the mainstream construction industry. At an event like this four or five years ago, the world and their aunt would have been going on about modern-this and innovative-that, in the time honoured way. But now it seems it’s all carbon-carbon-carbon. The names and the businesses are still substantially the same, but there is now a mission to somehow save the planet, as well as being modern and innovative.

And perhaps not surprisingly, it has all become pretty competitive. The organisers had thoughtfully placed the stand belonging to the UK Timber Frame Association adjacent to the one run by the Modern Masonry Alliance. These two have been locking horns since….well, I am not sure since when, but it’s a decades old and rather tedious argument. But now they have a new variant to bash each other with. Which is the greener? Embodied energy v thermal mass. Biff, biff.

So I am walking around the exhibition thinking two contradictory thoughts at the same time. On the one hand: “My time has come, this is what I have been interested in for the past twenty five years and now everyone can see how important it all is.” And on the other? “The world has gone mad. This seems like some insane game about seeing who has got the greenest willy. This wasn’t what it was supposed to be about at all.”

At 3pm, I left, having had enough of all this green contradiction. I hit the Piccadilly Line with a copy of the Evening Standard. There was a two-page spread on the mayor’s latest plans for London. Now if anyone out there has Green Willy syndrome, it’s Ken Livingstone, the mayor. Today, he launched a call to reduce London’s carbon emissions by 60% by 2025, much sooner than the Kyoto agreement calls for. So far so good. But what measures is he actually suggesting? According to the article, which I have no way of verifying, Ken wants to tax aviation fuel to bring it in line with car fuel taxation: at the present time, aviation fuel is not taxed at all anywhere in the world, due to a 1947 United Nations convention. He’s far from the first person to call for this, but I am at a loss to know just how the Mayor of London could bring it about anymore than I could. It just not something that is in his remit. In fact, he knows damn well he can’t do it, so this amounts to a meaningless bit of green posturing on his part.

There are things that London’s mayor could arguably do though. If every light bulb in London was changed to a low energy one, it would save 575,000 tonnes of CO2 annually. Australia’s just done it: why not London? If all household appliances in London were 'A' rated ones, and standby buttons eliminated, it would save an additional 620,000 tonnes.

Large numbers for sure. But not when measured against the 44 million tonnes of CO2 London produces annually. And that’s not including aircraft movements into and out of the city, which are thought to account for an additional 23 million tonnes. These two measures combined would account for a saving of less than 3% when compared to the total output. Add in all the other measures he could conceivably introduce, like buses running on biodiesel, cavity wall insulation and cycling initiatives, and you still struggle to get much past a 7% or 8% saving on today’s figures. How do you square that with a projected saving of 60% within 18 years? Stick a few renewables on London’s roofs? You’re having a larf, Ken.

The things that would really drive down London’s carbon emissions (and the same goes for just about everywhere else in the Western world) are so painful that no one really dare face them. We are talking about stuff like the cessation of all economic growth, in fact a severe economic contraction, a “one child per family” policy, a ban on immigration, strict carbon rationing and something close to martial law in order to bring this all about. In order to have the carbon emissions of a third world city, London would have to become a third world city.

Does Ken Livingstone really want that? Does anybody? It’s all very well saying that unless we get our act together, we will shortly cook the planet to a crisp, but there remains this niggling little feeling inside me that we derive huge benefits from our carbon-rich lifestyle and that a future without burning carbon might just be worse than a future without ice caps.

That was my uneasy thought process as I caught the Cambridge Cruiser at 15.45 from King’s Cross. As it whizzed through Hertfordshire at 90mph, I reckoned that Ken Livingstone would have been pleased with me because I hadn’t taken the car down to London. In Green Willy world, I would have scored a point. I would shortly score another point as I disembarked at Cambridge and got on another train taking me one stop along the Ipswich branch line so that my trip home by car was only five miles, not fifteen. But taking the train instead of the car is another one of these marginal actions, like changing light bulbs. To really cut carbon emissions by a meaningful amount, I shouldn’t have gone to London at all. And I shouldn’t be sitting here at 21.30 with the computer on in a room bathed in light. We should simply not use electric lights or appliances of any description, except in emergencies. That is what a 60% carbon reduction would be like.

To be fair, it’s a dilemma we all seem to be caught up in. It’s easy for me to have a pop at Red Ken, but he’s only human and he is subject to the same stressors as everyone else. The construction industry is exactly the same, labouring under this illusion that there are two kinds of buildings, ordinary ones (bad ones) and sustainable ones (good ones), and that if they only build sustainable ones then everything in the garden will be rosy and our grandchildren will be dancing happily around on this lovely Blue Planet which we so thoughtfully bequeathed them. Whereas, what 60% carbon reductions actually translates at is…..STOP BUILDING NOW.

So am I getting terminally depressed by all this? Not quite, not yet, although I am feeling a little wobbly. There is of course the vague hope that the cavalry will come riding to the rescue and that we will come up with lots of carbon-free electricity in years to come and that we can forget about having to be careful with using the fossilised version. Or that some climate geeks will work out how to farm the atmosphere so that it starts working with us rather than against us. But this is all a bit too much like science fiction. There’s probably far more likelihood that we don’t manage to work out how to do anything clever like this, but will muddle on regardless.

In them meantime, I am beginning to feel like a British soldier in Iraq. I feel obliged to keep on fighting for greener, more elegant solutions in the built environment but at the same time a little voice inside me says I am wasting my time, that this is a battle we have already lost, and that we have to find another way out of this morass.

I wonder if I am alone?


  1. You aren't alone - I often feel the same way as I see the band-wagon jumping and meaningless statements. I fight a daily inner argument between my natural inner pessimism that only impossibly massive behavioural change will make a difference, and my belief that there are practical measures that will help.

    However regarding the London climate change plan, as you probably know the Evening Standard absolutely hates Ken so will try to portray anything he does in the worst possible light - I suggest you read the GLA's own press release here to make your own mind up...

  2. Didn't you find it depressing that for a sustainability conference it was run without the slightest concession to sustainability? - people picking up plastic bagfulls of handouts they will bin as soon as they get home, plasma screens blaring out looped DVDs all day that no one in particular was watching, no recycling bins for all the disposable cups and sandwich cartons? That all being before you get to the issue of how much carbon was emitting creating and transporting all the elaborate stands.

    My organisation was guilty of all these crimes (apart from the elaborate stand) though, so who am I to complain?

  3. Most definitely you are not alone.

    Several years ago, I attended an environmental seminar hosted by a UK minister who held a senior position in DGXI (Environment) in Brussels. Unusually, he was an environmentalist first and a politician second. He had a genuine interest (and cv to back it up) in environmental and social issues before he flew the flag for the government. He gave an interesting talk on then current EU environmental initiatives In any event, I asked him if EU environmental policy, based as it is on achieving sustainability in the context of (economic) development, was fundamentally flawed. My point was that the two elements of the definition of sustainable development are opposed. If our current stage of "development" entailes using more than our fair share of the earths resources (and is not sustainable) and, enshrined in EU policy was the objective of still more development, how can we ever make that sustainable? We can be more efficient in our non-sustainable consumption, but this does not make it sustainable.

    He looked away and then bent down to whisper "yes, you are right...but we don't like to talk about that".

    Depressing but confirms the obvious. Shaving off the edges of our individual environmental footprints (whether voluntarily or pursuant to well meaning environmental legislation) just won't do it as long as we are committed to economic growth (which we are).

    Trouble is, it's not easy to opt out - every man (and therefore planet) for himself.