Tag: environment

Making things clear

I was in the fifth floor kitchenette at work, watching Dave fill up his plastic cup of water. When he finished he turned to me, expectant and uncertain. Clearly, he sensed the ‘I want to say something to you’ vibe of my loitering.

Indeed, there was something I wanted to ask. I have spent the past year watching people fill up plastic cups of water in the kitchen. People would take a plastic cup, fill it, drink from it, then very conscientiously place it into the plastic recycling bin. Meanwhile, two shelves of perfectly reusable ceramic mugs hovered above the filtered water tap.

My company is full of environmentally friendly people, yet despite recurring requests, the stacked column of plastic cups continues to be replenished.

I wanted to ask someone about this. Today was my lucky day because Dave is a nice Englishman and probably wouldn’t be offended.

‘Dave,’ I said. ‘Is there some reason you use a plastic cup instead of a mug? Is it…’ I paused, ‘…a cultural thing?’

Dave looked surprised, then lifted up his cup of water and gazed at it for five seconds.

‘I don’t know,’ he began. ‘I guess I wouldn’t drink water from a mug. I never thought about it.’

So he thought about it. ‘I think it is a cultural thing. I feel like I need to drink water from a clear cup.’

Now this was something that hadn’t occurred to me! I had speculated to myself that there was something wrong with having a handle on the cup, or that mugs were too big for water.

‘Oh! Thank you for that,’ I said.

Later, I tried to corroborate my findings with Chris, another Englishman.

‘I use a mug for water,’ Chris said. ‘But I can see why others might not want to. I think it’s because mugs are sometimes stained. When you have tea or coffee, then you don’t mind because you can’t see. But because water is transparent, the staining probably puts people off.’

Peak banana

Somehow, a while back, I found out that banana plants were actually giant herbs. I told this to some people and they ridiculed me.

‘Giant herbs?’ they said. ‘You’re making stuff up.’

‘It’s true!’ I cried. ‘I’ll show you. Let’s look it up on Wikipedia.’

Wikipedia is, of course, the fount of all knowledge. Imagine my distress, then, when there was no mention of ‘herb’ in Wikipedia’s banana article.*

‘But it’s true…’ I said plaintively.

‘Yeah, yeah,’ they said.

I started doubting my previous conviction.

Unexpectedly, while visiting the Palm House at Kew Gardens, I received long overdue vindication.

‘I told them so! I told them!’ I shouted.

Yap passed on some more interesting banana facts.

He said, ‘There is a disease killing all the bananas, you know. It’s gradually reducing the worldwide banana production.’

‘Really?’ I said. ‘I didn’t know that! It must be because all the bananas are clones of each other.’

Yap nodded. ‘In fact, due to this disease, some experts have announced that we have reached peak production.’ He paused. ‘It’s peak banana**.’

* The Wikipedia article on bananas now does have a reference to it growing from ‘herbaceous plants’ in the first line. I swear this wasn’t there when looked.

** I thought Yap was joking and I laughed hysterically. But I just now looked it up on Google and found that there are indeed people writing about peak banana.


From Made in China in The Age.

Yu says [Chinese] policymakers are beginning work on a new five-year plan beginning from 2011 that will intensify the country’s current energy, pollution and climate-change efforts. But he says China is sticking to the levers of administrative edict rather than considering a domestic carbon-trading scheme.

“In my view, if there’s a huge polluting factory next door, then the best option is to shut it down, rather than allow it to buy credits so it can keep polluting and then pass the higher costs on to consumers,” says Yu.

Brilliant. None of this mucking about with this ‘market solutions’, ‘flexible mechanisms’ or ‘public consultation’ stuff, just the all-powerful arm of big government.

Biofuels in 400 words or less

One of the questions I really struggled with in the IEMA exam last week was this one:

“Biofuels are the sustainable future for transport fuel.”

Define what a biofuel is; discuss the advantages/disadvantages of biofuels; and provide an opinion, supported with reasons, on whether you agree or not with the above statement.

The production and use of biofuels are an extremely complex sustainability issue. This question was accompanied with the instruction to candidates:

Each answer per whole question (not for each part of each question) must be between 250 and 400 words (including words within diagrams) – candidates who exceed the 400 word limit will fail that question

Yikes! In 400 words or less, solve the world’s energy security/food/climate change/habitat destruction/rural displacement/biodiversity problems!

Here is my response. It took me a whole day to write this so that I could be within the word limit. It’s times like these that I’m quite glad I’m not an expert in biofuels! People who know more (Yap, I mean you) might find this response necessarily simplistic

Biofuels are made from biomass, most commonly plant material (DFT, 2005). There is worldwide focus on the potential for liquid biofuels to substitute petrol and diesel in meeting future transport needs (OECD/ITF, 2007).



Greenhouse gas (GHG) abatement – Biofuels produce less GHGs compared to fossil fuels; emissions are offset by the carbon that plants absorb while growing.

Emissions arise across all lifecycle stages – Fossil fuels are used to operate biofuels infrastructure, in cultivation, conversion, distribution and use. Compared to fossil fuels, grain-based biofuels reduce GHG emissions by as little as 10-30% (OECD/ITF 2007, Royal Society 2008)

Energy security – By displacing fossil fuels with biofuels (which are renewable), countries can reduce reliance on increasingly costly imported oil.

Limited land – The UK will be unlikely to achieve significant levels of fuel security by growing biofuels on its own land (Royal Society 2008).

Rural development – Biofuels industry can generate income for rural communities in both developed and developing countries.

Driving deforestation – Biofuels demand can drive deforestation, as farmers seek to generate income from as much arable land as they can control.

Other impacts of intensified agriculture – Biofuels cultivation is likely to increase water use, soil erosion, fertiliser use, convert ecosystems to monocultures, and impact visual amenity of uncultivated land.

Waste as feedstock – Second generation biofuels can use waste feedstocks (e.g. vegetable waste and cooking oils). This can lead to GHG savings of around 70% (OECD/ITF 2007, NNFCC 2007).

Food shortages – First generation biofuels use conventional food crops (e.g. wheat, maize, sugar and palm oil) (Royal Society 2008). Demand for biofuels could divert both crops and land from food production.

Are biofuels the sustainable future for transport fuel? In the case of first generation biofuels, the answer is ‘no’. Their relatively low GHG abatement does not justify the high risk of driving food shortages. However, looking to the future, a sustainable transport system should incorporate biofuels that:

  • Are based on dedicated high yield energy crops, co-products from food production, and organic wastes (Royal Society 2008);
  • Wherever possible, make use of marginal land of low agricultural or biodiversity value;
  • Are cultivated on sustainably managed cropland (integrated management of biodiversity, water, soil erosion, chemicals use, etc.);
  • Run efficiently in vehicles designed to use biofuels; and
  • Are priced to reflect environmental and social costs.

Advanced biofuels can then form part of a sustainable transport system, one that promotes biofuels alongside energy efficiency and reducing the demand and need for motorised transport.

Word count

Cited references
DFT – Department for Transport (2005), Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation (RTFO) feasibility report, available at link, accessed on 22 June 2008

NNFCC – National Non-Food Crops Centre (2007), ‘Liquid fuels’, website, available at link , accessed on 22 June 2008

OECD/ITF – Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and International Transport Forum (2007), ‘Biofuels: Linking Support to Performance’, Summary and conclusions from the Transport Research Centre, round table 7-8 June 2007, Paris, available at link, accessed on 22 June 2008

Royal Society (2008), Sustainable biofuels: prospects and challenges, policy document 01/08, The Royal Society, London, available at link, accessed on 22 June 2008


Janice let the couple progress through the hallway, the study and the living room. Soon enough, they had reached the kitchen, the heart of every house. The woman glided her hand over the granite bench top, nodding approvingly. The man gazed up the skylight, then pulled open the German-engineered oven.

‘Good morning,’ Janice said. ‘My name’s Janice. How do you like the house?’

‘It’s nice,’ the man noncommittally. ‘A new paint job in the hallway, I see.’

‘Yes,’ Janice replied. She was glad he had noticed. She had told the Cranfields it was an easy way to add £1500 to the asking price so they had it done three weeks ago. The paint smell was gone in time for house inspections. The Cranfields had also taken their agent’s advice and removed personal photos so that prospective buyers could more easily imagine themselves living here. There were fresh flowers in the house, too. Janice was a good agent. She knew what the punters wanted.

‘I like the natural light,’ the woman buyer said.

‘The skylight really does open up the space, doesn’t it?’ Janice enthused. ‘The owners also installed dimmable halogens. This really is a great lifestyle house. There’s a heated conservatory, and the media room, of course. And it’s close to shops.’ Janice recited this all with the perfect illusion of spontaneity.

‘I’m not sure about the halogens, Dean,’ the woman said, turning to the man. ‘Or the other lights. Halogens use up a lot of energy.’

Dean nodded. ‘Janice, are the lights the energy efficient types? What’s the SAP rating on the house?’

‘SAP rating…’ Janice felt her control of the situation begin to fray at the edges.

‘Yes, the energy rating of the house? The insulation are in the walls? What are the owners spending on energy? Is there a heat recovery system?’

‘Erm.’ Janice started shuffling through the promotional material, scanning for something about the ‘SAP rating’ or heat recovery.

‘Dean, can you ask about the heating controls too? We’ll want to keep the kids’ rooms warmer at night but turn down the temp in the study and guest room.’

Janice was rifling through the brochures a second time. ‘Ah, I’m sorry sir, madam. I don’t seem to have the information here but I’ll call the office now and see if I can get it. Could you hold on?’

The agent darted into the study to use her mobile phone.

‘Troy, what on earth is a SAP rating?… Build regs? You mean people care about that? … Sheesh, I can’t believe it. I’m sure Cass and Jim got asked the same thing last weekend… No, the lifestyle angle isn’t working, you’ll have to send the energy info… That’s three days away! …Oh, fine! Nothing we can do about it now. Bloody marketing. Gotta sell houses like cars these days.’

When Janice returned to the kitchen, the couple had opened up the boiler.

‘Forty kilowatts is a bit excessive for this size house but at least it’s a condensing boiler. More efficient than the electrics. I know this manufacturer, had some warranty issues five years ago but they seem to have sorted it out…’

‘Sorry for making you wait,’ said Janice. ‘We do have the energy information at head office. It’ll be here on Friday. Ah, if you leave me your details, I can post it to you or you could come back…’

The couple exchanged looks. ‘All right. Maybe we come back in a bit. We’ll look around a bit more, see a couple of houses.’

In the face of failure, Janice put on her most genuine smile. ‘Of course! And here’s my card. Give me a call if you think of anything.’

The big WEEE Man

This sculpture was in the Outside Biome of the Eden Project. I really like it. It’s called ‘The WEEE Man‘. WEEE stands for ‘Waste Electrical & Electronic Equipment’, one of the more amusing acronyms in the sustainability field. It comes from the European Union WEEE Directive, which puts the responsibility of collecting and disposing of WEEE on the manufacturers.

The WEEE Man is made up of the amound and types of waste electrical and electronic products that an average UK citizen throws away in his or her lifetime. The sculpture is seven metres tall and quite impressive ‘in person’.

I was pleased with the explantory notes on the car bonnet next to the WEEE man. The writer had correctly identified that the greatest environmental impact in the lifecycle of a car is when it is being driven around. The manufacturing and disposal impacts are relatively minor. If you have an old bomb, you would be doing the environment a favour by getting rid of it and buying a more efficient new car.

This gives rise to the counter-intuitive notion that car manufacturers should design for performance, and limit a car’s durability. We don’t really want to let people drive around a ten or twelve year old car.


A snapshot into the mess that is Joan’s brain.

The final version (after four major revisions).

For one of my assignments, I chose to look at glass recycling in the UK. The UK has an interesting problem — namely, it exports too much whiskey and imports too much wine! Whiskey comes in clear glass bottles, while wine generally comes in green glass. This means that UK glass recyclers have to deal with mounds of unwanted green glass, while UK industry is clamouring for the clear type.

The imbalance is made worse by mixed recycling systems. Councils in the UK have been putting lots of money into kerbside recycling to help UK meet its EU recycling targets (60% of glass packaging to be recycled by 2008). However, to ratchet up the recycling rate, households want the convenience of not having to sort through different coloured glass or having to provide space for bins for each colour. Colour contamination can muck up a batch of clear recycled glass.

What are the solutions? If you look at the relationships that I’ve drawn in the causal loop diagrams, you might find the right points in the system to poke. These are the options I’ve come up with:

  • Separate colour glass collections;
  • Developing other markets for yucky coloured glass (like crushing the glass up for use in roads);
  • Exporting green and mixed glass to other EU nations for reuse in containers;
  • Persuading importers to use clear glass containers or lightweight coloured glass (to reduce the amount of coloured glass being thrown out);
  • Increasing UK consumer acceptance of coloured glass containers; and
  • Increasing the collection of clear and amber glass (e.g. by encouraging recycling of jars).

I’m using this systems dynamics framework in my MPhil dissertation. It’s an interesting way to analyse cause-and-effect, feedback loops, and stocks and flows. At the moment, the title of my dissertation is, “A systems view of government policies to promote environmentally conscious housing design: comparison of The Netherlands, UK and China”. It’s a little unwieldy, I know. Coming up with a sexy dissertation title is not easy.

CheatNeutral — a funny but limited analogy

My friend, Dan M, sent me a very funny link. CheatNeutral pokes fun at the carbon offset industry by comparing it to people paying to offset their cheating.

I wrote back to Dan. This below is a slightly edited version of what I sent.

This is very funny. I’ve sent it onwards to five of my classmates. We’re working with an architecture firm on the legal/technical/social/economic/environmental management of carbon offset projects for renewables in building projects around the world.

The analogy between carbon offset and cheat offset is a tad questionable, though. Cheat offsetting is clearly a ridiculous concept and it’s meant to highlight the problems with carbon offsetting, namely that relying on offsetting does not provide incentives for reducing the source of the problem. However, some of the ‘outrage’ from cheat offsetting is that cheating is a moral issue. More and more, pollution has become a moral issue (‘It’s evil or irresponsible to pollute at any level’) but the morality of pollution is by no means universally accepted.

There are still large sectors of society that believes that there may be an optimal level of pollution and appropriate compensation for pollution. This is completely different to, say, if a Chief of Police comes out and says that their crime fighting budget has been allocated based on a risk assessment that has determined the optimal number of child molestations. That’s because child molestations (and cheating) are moral issues.

It’s kind of like the difference between the Australian government views drug use (‘Just say no’) and the Netherlands treatment of drug use as a health and social problem. Or the way medical researchers say that the costs of some animal suffering are justified by the benefits from testing on animals, while to animal rights activists, there is no ‘optimal’ amount of animal suffering.

So the key difference between carbon offsetting and cheat offsetting is that carbon offsetting can work. It does suck carbon out of the air. It could help mitigate global warming.

(Note that in Europe and other places, carbon offset projects include replacing fossil fuels with renewables or more efficient appliances. It doesn’t just cover sequestration by growing trees or pumping CO2 into the ground).

Of course, we can’t rely on carbon offsetting because the fundamental problem is that we live in a world that encourages (even mandates) increasing consumption and growth. Even if we were to eliminate CO2 emissions, current CO2 generating activities have other environmental impacts that cause problems, like resource depletion, toxic pollution, habitat destruction and so on. Offsetting can’t address these problems. Even eco-efficiency can’t address these problems (see Jevons Paradox). I have come to believe that cold nuclear fusion (clean limitless energy) will just allow us to destroy the earth even faster.

To me, it would have been more correct to have compared carbon offsetting with, say, a reliance on chemotherapy. Chemotherapy doesn’t generally have a moral dimension. It’s effective in many situations but there are plenty of negative side effects — and surely it is ‘better’ to address cancer triggers.

Of course, that wouldn’t have made as funny a website as CheatNeutral.