Tagged sustainability

Deluge of autumn leaves

In London, I see autumn leaves on a scale you don’t get in Australia. In some places, I walk shin deep in red, orange and brown leaves.

London’s neighbourhoods are beautiful right now. However, I do feel sorry for the street sweepers. During the rest of the year, they’re clearing up litter, dog poop, pavement pizzas and cigarette butts. Now, on top of their usual duties, they fight an unwinnable battle with leaf litter.

The sweepers fill their rubbish carts with red, orange and brown, and the next day, the trees have re-layered the roads and footpaths.

The sweepers’ only respite is winter, when the branches of deciduous trees are exhausted and bare.

There is one other thing about the leaves that makes me worry.

You see, when leaves fall and naturally decay, the nutrients go back into the earth. At the same time, carbon dioxide is released. This doesn’t contribute to climate change because when leaves grow back in spring, the tree re-absorbs the carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

What I worry about is that all those leaves collected by all those street sweepers will go to the rubbish tip. This must happen because the sweepers are still picking up litter. No one is going to separate the leaves from the litter.

In a rubbish tip, the rubbish is stacked in layers and capped every night so that the rats and pigeons don’t make a mess. This means that organic material like leaves have no oxygen. Instead of decaying (aerobically) and releasing carbon dioxide, the leaves will decay (anaerobically) and release methane.

Methane is a more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Over the next two decades, this methane released will trap 72 times more heat than carbon dioxide. Even after a hundred years, methane is still 25 times more potent than the same amount of carbon dioxide.

I wonder if anyone else has been thinking about this.


I got some exciting news in the snail mail today. The Institute of Civil Engineers has awarded me and my MPhil supervisor the James Watt medal for the best paper on the topic of energy published in their journals last year.

I am very happy. There’s nothing like a pat on the back (and a medal!) to motivate me to write more.

Our paper
was based on three months of research I did at the tail end of my masters year at Cambridge. I interviewed eight organisations about what stopped them from building energy efficient houses in the UK. The technology exists and you’ll save money — doesn’t energy efficiency just make sense? After all, the Scandinavians got on with it all years ago.

I ended up writing about the social, organisational and structural barriers and drivers for energy efficiency. My friend, Anna, wrote about the economic barriers. This probably won’t surprise you — the problem is complicated. In fact, everything I have ever looked at with any kind of thoughtfulness is always more complicated (in fact, more complex) than it might appear.

We did not write anything ground breaking or previously unknown so I don’t know why the judging panel chose our paper. The merit was probably in the synthesis (putting it all together), rather than the thesis. Maybe I can ask one of the judges if any are at the awards ceremony in October.


Locating barriers and drivers in the house building system

Figure 2 Locating barriers and drivers in the house building system


My flatmate Aoife is so nice! She came back from her weekend shop with celebratory champagne, chocolate and a card.

Champagne, chocolate and card

Champagne, chocolate and card

Sustainability and rugby

At work, I’ve been working on a project to look at sustainability issues for the Welsh Rugby Union. I’m not a rugby follower but there are plenty of people around me who are. They’re envious that I get paid to tour the Millennium Stadium and study rugby matches so popular that no one can get tickets.

So, a break from the holiday photography — here are some photos from the Millennium Stadium. The full set are in the gallery.

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Walking onto the pitch.

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Lots of resource issues in this picture. Firstly, the pitch has been imported from Holland. You can’t get high performance pitch from just anywhere.

Secondly, see those gantries on wheels? Those are high energy lights that are shining onto the pitch almost every day to help the grass grow. There is too little light reaching the pitch (and in Cardiff generally) to keep the grass lush. Before these lights were used, the grass would get very patchy.

Thirdly, the video screens — obviously, they use a lot of electricity but we were thinking of how they could be used for public service announcements, like ‘Do you know the four signs of a stroke?’ With 70,000 fans packed into the stadium for each game, it’s an opportunity to raise awareness.

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Grounds maintenance crew preparing for the big Wales-Ireland Six Nations match.

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Part of our work will look at the branding risks of particular sponsors, as well as how the Rugby Union can partner up with sponsors on outreach and business programmes.

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It was a nice day.

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Kegs and kegs of beer! Liquor licensing is an issue. I’m told that rugby fans are responsible drinkers compared to the more rowdy football goers. Football matchers are more tense than rugby matches. The fans of the teams need to be segregated because if they’re allowed to mix, there is the risk of punch ups.

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Inside the team change rooms.

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Inside one of the TV broadcasting suites. We’re looking at how the media travels to and from the match, as well as equity issues related to match scheduling. It appears that media demands for prime time scheduling sometimes conflicts with business hours (and how much local businesses can profit from more activity around Cardiff), as well as public transport timetables.

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Joan, sustainability consultant.

The ‘indefensible’ 5% target

Since the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme White Paper was released on Monday, I have been perplexed.

It had all been going so well. Kevin Rudd (my Facebook friend) fulfilled my little heart’s desires when he ratified the Kyoto Protocol. After seeing Penny Wong speak in London, I was so impressed that I adopted her as my hero.

But now this — the unconditional 5% by 2020 greenhouse gas emissions reduction target. Five per cent? Did I hear correctly?

On the face of it, it seems so pitiful, so unambitious. I didn’t understand! And until I understood Kevin and Penny’s rationale, I would withold condemnation.

Today, I read through the executive summary and selected chapters of the White Paper.

Now I understand.

Before anyone protests or supports this scheme and its target, please, please take the time to read at least the executive summary to understand the key details. (In fact, I beseech you to do this for any issue on which you wish to express an opinion.)

5% from what baseline?
My first question was what the baseline year for the 5% reduction was. The Kyoto Protocol and European Union policies (with which which I am most familiar) are based on 1990 emissions. So when the UK says it’s aiming for a 26% reduction by 2020, it’s compared to the 1990 baseline year.

Our 5% target is from a 2000 baseline year. After looking through our greenhouse inventory and the ABS, it turns out that this is not much different to the 1990 year (although the Australian Government have argued that 2000 is a more challenging baseline).

Year Net greenhouse gas emissions
Australian population Net greenhouse gas emissions per capita
1990 552 648 000 17 million 33
2000 552 813 000 19 million 29

tCO2e — tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent. Other greenhouse gases are converted into the same global warming impact as a tonne of carbon dioxide. For example, over 100 years, methane is 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide so one tonne of methane is 25 tCO2e.

Why our 5% is worth their 20%
The Government believes that a 5% cut by Australia represents the same effort as the European Union’s 20% cut because of this key point: Australia’s population will grow by 45% between 1990 and 2020, while the EU’s growth has flatlined during the same period. You can see how it is harder to stabilise (or reduce) emissions while your population grows. Each additional person will produce additional emissions through his or her direct consumption (electricity, heat, food, goods) and employment activitiy.

So the logic is that if Nations A and B set the same target, and Nation A’s population doubles, then Nation A has to work twice as hard as Nation B to achieve the same absolute reduction in emissions.

Table E1 of the White Paper executive summary compares Australia’s total and per capita reduction commitments with those of the EU, the UK and USA. I’ve reproduced it here.

Country 2020 targets 2020 per capita reduction

2050 targets

Australia 5-15% below 2000 levels (4-14 per cent below 1990 levels) 27-34% below 2000 levels (34-41% below 1990 levels) 60% below 2000 levels (60% below 1990 levels)
European Union 20-30% below 1990 levels 24-34% below 1990 levels 60-80% below 1990 levels
United Kingdom 26% below 1990 levels 33% below 1990 levels 80% below 1990 levels
United States (proposal of President-elect Obama) Return to 1990 levels 25% below 1990 levels 80% below 1990 levels

60% by 2050
The White Paper states that the Government is still committed to reducing emissions by 60% by 2050 (presumably from the 2000 baseline). This is in line with the EU and, until recently, the UK (who just this month set itself an 80% target by 2050). I am not sure how the Government expects to ramp up from 5% to 60% reduction over 30 years, and I will be looking at the strategy if/when it is released. However, I believe that getting the emissions trading scheme established is an important structural change to the economy. It could be the thin edge of a giant wedge of change.

20% renewables by 2020
I was worried that the 5% target would not be big enough to transform the energy market to support competitive renewables. Although emissions trading is the Government’s main climate change mitiation measure, I am relieved that there is a separate target for renewable energy — 20% of electricity supply by 2020. This isn’t as ambitious as it could be but at least the commercialisation of renewable energy is recognised as a strategy to be specifically managed.

Credit where credit’s due
I wish to give credit where credit is due. When it is implemented, Australia’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS) will the broadest in the world. Below, I’ve compared it to the world’s first scheme, the European Union Emissions Trading Scheme (EU ETS).

  Australia CPRS EU ETS phase 1 (2005-2007) EU ETS phase 2 (2008-2012)
Coverage of greenhouse gas emissions 75% 40% 46%
Participating sectors Energy activities, transport, leakages/losses, industrial processes, waste and forestry* Energy activities, ferrous metal and mineral industries, pulp, paper and board activities As for phase 1, plus a number of new industries (e.g. aluminium and ammonia producers)
Greenhouse gases included All six Kyoto Protocol gases — carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, sulfur hexafluoride, hydrofluorocarbons, and perfluorocarbons Carbon dioxide Carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and perfluorocarbons

* Excludes agriculture and deforestation (17% and 10% of emissions in 2000, respectively)

It is useful to note that the aim for Phase 3 of the EU ETS (post-2012) is to cover all greenhouse gases and all sectors, including aviation, maritime transport and forestry.

In non-conclusion
My quick review of the White Paper has led me to conclude that the Government’s proposal is defensible in terms of international standards for action on climate change.

However, please note that I have made no comment on:

  • the justness or effectiveness of relying on a (single) market-based approach to reducing greenhouse gas emissions;
  • the adequacy of the targets set by the EU, UK and US (to which Australia claims parity); or
  • the reliability, desirability or controllability of the population projections that have led the Government to its small absolute target.

But I am relieved that there is a logical basis for the 5% target, which I can now explain to those people who are equally perplexed as I was.

Australian Bureau of Statistics (2001), ‘A century of population change in Australia’, Year Book Australia: 2001, catalogue number 1301.0, available online here, accessed on 18 December 2008

Australian Bureau of Statistics (2002), ‘Population size and growth’, Year Book Australia: 2002, catalogue number 1301.0, available online here, accessed on 18 December 2008

Carbon Trust (date not given), ‘The EU Emission Trading Scheme’, last update not given, Carbon Trust website, available online here, accessed on 18 December 2008

Carrington D (2008), ‘Australia pledges to cut emissions by up to 15%’, The Guardian, 15 December 2008, available online here, accessed on 18 December 2008

Department of Climate Change (2006), ‘Australia’s National Greenhouse Accounts’, 2006 inventory year, online emissions database available here, accessed on 18 December 2008

Department of Climate Change (2008a), Carbon pollution reduction scheme: Australia’s low pollution future, White Paper, 15 December 2008, available online here, accessed on 18 December 2008

Department of Climate Change (2008b), ‘Australia’s renewable energy target’, Department of Climate Change website, last updated 17 December 2008, available online here, accessed on 18 December 2008

Dimas S (2005), ‘EU climate change policy’, speech at the Conference of National Parliaments of the EU and the European Parliament, 21 November 2005, available online here, accessed on 18 December 2008

European Commission (2008), ‘Questions and Answers on the Commission’s proposal to revise the EU Emissions Trading System’, press release, 23 January 2008, available online here, accessed on 18 December 2008

Lettuce capture and storage

Recently at work, we put in a bid to do a life cycle assessment of a head of lettuce. This is a serious issue. Lettuce wastage rates are very high. We’ve all experienced having to throw out lettuce because we couldn’t use it all up in time, or because the fridge had frozen it. Now, multiply that wastage to retail and agricultural scale, adding in the risks of fluctuating consumer demand, cold snaps, and malfunctions in storage, transport and retail refrigeration.

During our research, we discovered that there is a ‘voice of the salad industry’ — the British Leafy Salad Association. Who would have thought? You would not be surprised, probably, that while working on this bid I would spontaneously start giggling at my desk.

As I constantly extolled to my team mates, all the wastage problems could be solved by installing ‘lettuce capture and storage’ systems alongside farms and major grocery stores.

Excess lettuce would be stored in the less perishable ‘rabbit’ form. Later, rabbit would be harvested and the useful lettuce nutrients would be returned to the global food cycle.

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).

Advantages Disadvantages
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

What I do for a living

I am often asked what my job is. I don’t really enjoy answering this question because I feel like I’m selling something that I myself don’t understand clearly. I’m not even sure why I feel like I need to ‘sell’ my job as an being interesting or worthwhile. Yet, I do this anyway.

I will try to explain my job here and see if I can at least clear up in my own head what I ‘do for a living’.

My job title is ‘sustainability consultant’. Sustainability is a huge field, covering:

  • international development and poverty alleviation
  • renewable energy
  • community and civil engagement
  • corporate responsibility
  • environmental management
  • efficient manufacturing and other processes
  • ‘green’ buildings
  • environmental and welfare economics
  • climate change and carbon management
  • toxicology and land remediation
  • safe product design
  • public outreach

And so on.

Obviously, no one person can work in all areas of sustainability. My work particularly covers sustainability related to cities and urban systems — buildings, transport, energy supply, water supply, waste treatment, logistics, schooling… I also foray into job creation, habitat management, equity and access… Very peripherally, I also look at questions of public participation in decision making (e.g. voting), literacy, religious inclusion, and so on.

I generally work in developed countries, or at least the wealthier parts of developing countries (e.g. cities in China and the Middle East).

Most of my work is in large multidisciplinary projects. Typically, about 10 or 15 teams around the company (or from outside the company) are working together to design a new town or rebuild part of an existing city. My team’s job involves:

  • Working with the client and the teams to come up with indicators for sustainability;
  • Setting targets for the various indicators (e.g. There must be at least two jobs for every dwelling);
  • Collecting data from teams about their designs;
  • Integrating the data so that we can analyse the sustainability of the entire project (we often use models to do this quantitatively);
  • Giving results back to teams, highlighting problems with their data and alerting teams to opportunities to work together for better strategies;
  • Producing a report to give to the client

My role is often to manage the finances of the project, go to meetings with the project managers, present to the client, and coordinate the report. I don’t often do the modelling — there are others more capable of that than me.

That’s most of my job. Occasionally, I do projects that aren’t multidisciplinary. That’s when a client comes to our team directly and asks for strategic sustainability advice, like helping them develop a climate change policy.

I like my job. I like it because I get to look at the big picture. I like working in teams and meeting new people.

There are things I don’t like. Between teams, there are sometimes personality clashes and political issues about who does what work. Sometimes, I feel frustrated because I doubt our advice will actually be implemented in real life. At my most frustrated times, I wonder if I’m just a paper pusher, generating work for myself. What’s the point in producing a report that no one ever reads?

Now that I think about it, I guess that even if no one pays attention to a particular report I write, because I’ve learned from doing it, it will help me be more effective in the next project I do. That’s a happy thought, isn’t it!