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Bookmark and ShareAndy Wimbush is nef‘s Communications Officer and blogmaster.

David Cameron yesterday described the need to make drastic cuts as “critical” and “urgent”. He said that his predcessors in government had “thought the good times would go on forever”, and that not we must face up to the fact that “we have been living beyond our means”. Profligacy and waste “is the legacy our generation threatens to leave the next.” The current situation is “unsustainable”. Now is the time to “face the music” and stand up to the “most urgent issue facing Britain today”.

Cameron was, of course, talking about cuts to public spending. But wouldn’t it be nice if he used the same language, the same gravitas and urgency to talk about need to cut carbon emissions, in order to address the far more urgent, far more dangerous and far more unjust problem of climate change?

We’re often told that politicians can’t take drastic measures to tackle climate change because they are unpopular, or because it would be electoral suicide to talk about the need to make sacrifices. But this whole discussion of the deficit, and what George Osbourne has called the ‘painful’ cuts to come, shows that our political discourse can cope with talk of unpopular sacrifices. So why, if our Prime Minister can make a grave and serious speech about the deficit,  can’t he do the same with climate change? If he thinks people can cope with hearing that there will be painful cuts to public services, why does he think that they’ll baulk at the idea of painful cuts to their carbon budget?

At nef, we don’t believe that tackling climate change means sacrificing everything we hold dear. In fact, we’re adamant that the Great Transition to a sustainable economy could result in us living happier, more meaningful lives. But we’d be foolish to say that such a transition would be easy. It won’t be. It’ll be the greatest challenge we’ve ever faced. And yet no politician can be honest about it. None of them are talking as frankly about the need to cut climate emissions as they are about the need to cut spending. Something is seriously awry when we make a huge fuss over the deficit, while the climate on which our economic and social stability depends is getting ever nearer to meltdown.

Bookmark and ShareSaamah Abdallah is a researcher at nef‘s Centre for Well-being.

What solution do primary school children propose for the high energy use involved in floodlighting football matches? Simple – stop playing matches at night. Of course, such a change would require greater working flexibility, so that typical working hours don’t get in the way of spectators getting to the match, but we needn’t expect primary school children to get into these details…

Working with three local authorities in Wales (Caerphilly, Torfaen and Carmarthenshire), nef is developing a website for children on how to live good lives that don’t cost the Earth. So as to get a better picture of what makes children happy, Jody Aked and I have been running workshops with children about happiness and sustainability. We’ve discovered a quiet revolution. In schools around the country, children are getting the environmental issues in a way that makes Swampy look like Susan Palin.  They spout facts about recycling, they name and shame energy-guzzling teachers, and – ok – she said carbon ninoxide instead of carbon monoxide, but I still think knowing about either is pretty impressive for a 9 year old.

And do they get the message about well-being?  Do they believe that you can have a good life without costing the Earth.  Here the message is a bit more mixed.  Yes, some children highlighted receiving an iPod or playing on their Playstation as the last moment they felt ‘on top of the world’.  But many mentioned  scoring goals, acting in a play, or simply the snow. And when we asked them to give their top tip for feeling happier whilst saving the planet, they had no difficulty – many bigged up turning off the telly, and doing sport.  But only during the day of course.

Bookmark and ShareAndy Wimbush is nef‘s Communications Assistant and blogmaster.

 

The world's data servers are having an increasingly large carbon footprint | Image via TreeHugger

After my last post, there was a bit of confusion about the number of carbon ration coupons you’d need to set aside for using a computer at work. Admittedly, the ration book isn’t entirely clear about this – there’s only a certain amount of text that you can squeeze into one of those tiny squares – so I’ll clarify.

On the Energy page of the ration book, there are ten coupons, each labelled “PC use 1/2hr /day”. The “/day” means “per day”, so you need to start by working out your average daily computer use. I sit in front of a screen for at least seven hours a day when I’m in the office, but at the weekends I try to have digital detox. So my average use per day, is about five hours. Which means I need between three and four coupons over the course of a month.

If your computer use doesn’t extend beyond spreadsheets and word processors, you can stop there. But if, like me, your work involves the internet, you’ll need yet more coupons. Why? Because the internet doesn’t just rely on your computer, but also on the huge data servers that fling videos, images and text around the world. In 2006, US data centres used the same amount of power as the whole of the UK does in two months.

Since I run nef‘s blog and manage our website, I probably use the internet for maybe five out of my seven hours at work. So let’s say that’s about four hours a day average. Which means four more coupons.

All in all then, to run my computer and use the internet, I need about seven coupons a month, out of my forty allotted carbon rations.

Perhaps that seems like a lot. It’s certainly a hefty chunk out of my overall ration. Perhaps in a low-carbon economy, where we’re all working a little bit less and operating a bit more locally – so that we wouldn’t necessarily need to be in constant communication with the rest of the world – I could use fewer coupons.

But then again, why should high-tech energy usage be the first to be cut? The beauty of the carbon ration book is that it shows us that sometimes, it’s the more mundane or seemingly low-tech activities that are real climate offenders.

Take flushing the toilet. If you’ve looked at the ration book, you’ll see that water usage gets a full two pages of coupons. Why? Because the whole process of treating water – and especially sewage – emits a lot of carbon dioxide. According to Rob Hopkins at Transition Culture, it’s about  177g of CO2 for every 1,000 litres for normal water usage, with and another 322 g per 1,000 litres for sewage processing.

I rent an old and creaky flat in a probably-Georgian house in South London. We definitely don’t have an eco loo of any description. If I estimate about six flushes a day, that’s a total of 186 flushes a month. With a non-efficient loo, that means I need nine coupons.

We don’t need to dwell too much on the specifics to realise just how ridiculous this is. That’s two more rations than I need to power a computer and use the internet. If it came to the crunch and I had to decide between an elaborate system to dispose of human waste on the one hand, and Borgesian library of information, books, images, films and music, which also doubles as a communications system, on the other, I know which one I’d rather lose.

Staff at Wimpole Hall try out straw bale urinals | Photo via National Trust

The fact is that toilets don’t really need flushes. There, I’ve said it. I’m not a Luddite or a back-to-nature obsessive (I’m defending the internet!), it’s just that I’ve seen systems which work perfectly well with no water, and a tiny fraction of the carbon emissions: compost loos.

Unlike the portaloo toilets you get at festivals and outdoor events, compost loos don’t smell, they’re completely hygienic and you can recycle the waste afterwards as fertiliser. Left for a couple of years in a contained place, human waste becomes completely safe, to be used just like normal manure. All the details on how to build and maintain compost toilets can be found in the brilliant and amusingly written Humanure Handbook, by Joseph Jenkins, which has recently been made available to download as a free PDF.

For the more liquid kind of waste, the process is even simpler. Urine is full of nutrients that plants love, and, if your kidneys are healthy, it’s virtually sterile. The Centre for Alternative Technology actually advises diluting it a bit before pouring it on your veg patch, using one parts urine to ten parts water. And if this is starting to sound a bit too radical for you, you might take comfort in the knowledge that the National Trust – surely a beacon of English respectability and etiquette – has just started providing straw bales for its male gardeners to use as urinals. The bales are then added to the compost heap, which increases its efficiency. In your own garden, you can cut out the middle man and pee right onto the heap. Once again, some enterprising soul has written a book about this. Check out Liquid Gold by Carol Stenfield.

All this should completely eliminate the need for flushing the loo, saving you nine wonderful carbon rations for more interesting things. And your garden (even if it’s just plants on a balcony, like mine) will flourish as a result!

Of course, I can’t rip out my landlord’s loo and stick a compost toilet in there instead. But, I will install a Hippo, a very simple water-saving device that works in any toilet. Stick it in your cistern and save three litres of water per flush. It’ll pay for itself in less than four months. Best of all, it’ll mean I can use the “efficient” water coupons in my ration book, shrinking the number of rations needed from nine to four.

Which leaves all the more rations to spend on the internet…

 

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nef employees blog in their personal capacity. The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the new economics foundation.