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Yesterday myself and a few colleagues headed down to the Design Museum, London for the launch of Sustainable Futures – Can Design Save the World? a new exhibition that:
presents key examples of how design can deliver a more sustainable future. The exhibition examines not only the objects themselves but also the infrastructure in which objects are produced and exist. At a time when designers and architects are under pressure to ‘think green’ and education establishments are placing greater emphasis on sustainability in the curriculum, this exhibition highlights how design can, literally, help save the world.
And, the exhibition features our very own Ration Me Up monthly carbon ration book.
And yet another group of big business chief executives have signed up to the Conservatives’ policy to reverse Labour’s proposed 1% increase in National Insurance. Should anyone really be surprised that businesses would rather not have to contribute to reducing the public deficit? No, the interesting thing about this media furore is how few alternative suggestions are being promoted by any of the major parties in the run up to the election. The tax debate remains stuck in the ‘old economics’.
Critics of Labour’s policy are right that it is a tax on labour or ‘jobs’. But what is less clear is that government ‘efficiency savings’ are not equally a tax on jobs in the public sector. Anyone who thinks public agencies can achieve the kind of cuts the Conservatives are proposing without major redundancies is living in cloud cuckoo land. And given there are proportionately many more jobs in the public sector in the poorer areas of the UK one could also argue that cutting public sector budgets is more regressive than taxing business.
But it doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game. The ‘new economics’ is about replacing taxes on what we do want – productive jobs, investment in high quality public services – with taxes on what we don’t want.
And everyone’s pretty clear on what we don’t want. We don’t want fossil-fuel intensive production or transport. We don’t want another housing boom. We don’t want massive windfall profits for energy suppliers because its been a cold winter. We don’t want huge bonuses for bankers who have made speculative short-term profits by playing with our pensions or retail deposits.
If we tax these areas we not only raise revenue to meet the budget deficit, but we also steer our economy in the right direction and provide incentives for more productive investment. A land value tax, for example, would act as automatic brake on speculative booms in the housing market and might encourage us to invest our savings in industry rather than non-productive property. A carbon tax or rationing system would incentivise investment in renewable energy schemes and encourage more sustainable consumption. A financial transaction tax (FTT) would slow down and shrink the ‘socially useless’ finance sector.
Plus, these schemes would also be progressive, a land tax stopping the widening wealth gap between home owners and tenants, a carbon tax redistributing from rich to poor in most cases (as demonstrated in the recent report by the Green Fiscal Commission) and an FTT would bring city pay back down to earth.
This is not rocket science. And its not simply a call for more ‘green taxes’, although even that seems to have dropped off the political radar. It’s a call for a taxation system that promotes ‘economic goods’ and punishes ‘economic bads’. A new economics of tax can be win-win for the economy, society and the environment as well as improving the public finances. Lets hope the party (or parties) that come in to power in May feel able to turn over a new leaf in the tax debate.
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.
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…
Someone fairly prolific in the radical green movement – I forget who exactly – once said that the refrigerator was the sign of a truly decadent society.
At first, this strikes me as remarkably unfair to the fridge. If anything, the poor old fridge seems like the most thrifty and considerate of kitchen appliances. It stretches out the lifetime of our food, thus cutting down our wastage and preventing us from taking daily trips to the shop. Freezing food is especially useful in this regard. I recently stumbled across a handy list of fifty tips for reducing food waste, and a good proportion of them suggest freezing bits of food that you might otherwise throw away. Day-old bread can be frozen for when you need breadcrumbs. Fresh herbs can be frozen in ice-cubes and then tossed into soups. Even the tops of carrots, peppers and onions can be frozen for creating vegetable stock later on.
But last week, I started using the Ration Me Up Carbon Ration Book, produced by the Ministry of Trying to Do Something About It for nef‘s event, The Bigger Picture: Festival of Interdependence. Running a fridge 24/7 takes up a greedy 15% of my monthly ration: 6 out of 39 coupons. That’s the same as travelling 200 miles on a train. The fridge no longer looks like such a sensible idea.
There is, apparently, a small contingent of very dedicated green activists who’ve cut out their fridge entirely. An alternative solution might be to only use the fridge in the summer, and simply store perishable food outside during the winter.
More ingenious is the “zeer pot” clay fridge, a very simple technology increasingly being used by people in India and sub-Saharan Africa to preserve food. It consists of a two clay bowls, one inside the other. The gap between the bowls is filled sand and food is put into the inner bowl. The idea is that you then pour water over the sand, the water evapourates slowly and thus cools the food. According to development organisation Practical Action, a zeer pot can extend the shelf-life of vegetables from a matter of days to as much as three or four weeks. All without any electricity. They have an excellent guide to making your own zeer pot, if any of you decide you’d rather spend your carbon rations on watching TV or travelling around.
Of course, the simplest solution is to share the damned thing. A fridge which is empty uses more power than one which is full, so it makes sense to have your fridge stocked with other people’s food. (Apparently, you can even save energy by padding out your fridge with carrier bags full of newspaper!) By sharing my fridge usage with the three other people I live with, I only need to stick one and a half coupons onto my ration book.
The same principle goes for heating, lighting, cooking and buying new stuff. If we’re prepared to share, we can live within our carbon rations without having to sacrifice too many creature comforts.
Writer and filmmaker Ann Danylkiw was at The Bigger Picture: Festival of Interdependence on Saturday, camera in hand. In this video, Ann gets the low down about Ration Me Up and the Ministry of Trying to Do Something About It from artist Clare Patey.
Vodpod videos no longer available.
Remember, if you picked up a ration book at The Bigger Picture, you can join me in an attempt at one planet living next month, when I’ll be trying to stick to carbon budget.
Inside, it’s more or less an empty room. Bare brick walls. No curtains at the windows. A drab patterned rug has been placed in the middle of the floor. And the only furniture to speak of is a kind of desk knocked together from three old suitcases.
Behind the desk stands a woman wearing a vintage blue woollen suit. On her head, is a matching hat, with the words “RATION ME UP” embroidered just above the brim. This is Clare Patey, an artist whose previous work has included Feast on the Bridge – a sit-down dinner for hundreds of people on London’s Southwark Bridge.
There’s a crowd of us standing in the room now. And Clare has started handing out little books, each one a different colour. I look down at the green one which is now in my hands: Ration Me Up. Carbon Ration Book. One Month.
Flicking through the book, I find coupons for almost every activity in my life: taking a bath, running a fridge, eating vegetables, boiling a kettle, taking a bus, even buying a pair of socks. On the back of the book is a grid of forty squares.
These forty squares, I’m told, represent my carbon ration for one month. That’s based on the knowledge that in order to avoid catastrophic climate change, each person in the world must limit their yearly output of greenhouse gases to 1.15 tonnes of CO₂e. For some people, such as those in developing countries, that will be more than they currently emit, allowing them to raise their material standard of living. But for someone like me in the UK, where the average annual emission is around 11 tonnes of CO₂e, that’s going to mean a fairly hefty carbon detox.
I’m already a vegetarian who doesn’t fly and who cycles to work, but apparently it’ll take even greater levels of dedication to the cause to get me down to one-planet living. Next month I’ll be trying to stay within my carbon ration. If you picked up a ration book at The Bigger Picture on Saturday, you can join me and my much obliging other half, Belinda, on a low carbon adventure here at the nef blog. Post your comments, share your photos and let us know how you get on.
We may or may not have a high-profile guest quietly joining in too, in bizarre twist of fate blurring one fake Ministry with another genuine one. At a rally last week, nef policy director Andrew Simms managed to press one of these little ration books into the hands of the Rt Hon Ed Miliband MP, otherwise known as the Minister for Energy and Climate Change. It turned out that Ed was so taken by the idea that he was busy mentally totting up his rations and paid precious little attention to Andrew’s speech. So, who knows, maybe Ed’s out there busy trying to work out how many pairs of underpants he can afford this month, just like the rest of us.
Ration Me Up is part of a series of new work around art and the new economics, commissioned by nef, supported by Platform and funded by Arts Council England.
One day renewable energy looks like a sunrise industry, the next, tumbleweeds are blowing around a setting solar panel. What has changed? The price of emitting carbon dioxide.
In 2005 the European Union created the world’s first proper carbon market, the EU Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS), which compels highly polluting industries to buy permits to emit CO2. The number of permits is limited, so the idea is that supply and demand set a price that encourages the development of a low-carbon economy. A rising price with no wild fluctuations sends an economic signal to invest in clean energy. But it’s not working.
The price of a tonne of CO2 on the ETS has had a roller-coaster ride – soaring one minute, plummeting the next. In the past year it has lurched from over €30 to €8, and now languishes at around €10. Disastrously, such low and unpredictable prices for CO2 remove the economic incentive to decarbonise economies.
This is the partly the result of the economic downturn. As heavy industries mothball factories, energy use drops and demand for permits goes down. At the same time businesses try to raise cash by selling their unused permits, flooding the market and further depressing prices. French energy company EDF recently complained that carbon markets were failing just like the market for subprime mortgages. As a result, all kinds of green energy schemes are grinding to a halt.
So how do you set a meaningful price for carbon? The reality is more complicated than the ETS might suggest, which is a problem for those who advocate using market forces to reduce emissions. As NASA climate scientist James Hansen points out, getting it right or wrong could determine whether or not we can avert irreversible climate change.
Apart from the ETS, there are many ways to put a value on carbon. You can, for example, work out what it costs per tonne to reduce emissions. But calculating this “marginal abatement cost” is complicated by doubts over the effectiveness of carbon offsetting and the true impact of some supposedly green technologies.
Another method is the “social cost of carbon”, which estimates the cost of the damage from emitting a tonne of carbon over its whole lifetime in the atmosphere. This has been used by the UK treasury, and the Dutch government and the World Bank have experimented with it. But with so many variables to account for, estimates range from £35 to £140 per tonne. The UK has now dropped it for a new “shadow price of carbon”, an approach supported by the French government and some members of the European Commission.
The shadow price is similar to the social cost but includes “other factors that may affect willingness to pay for reductions”, to use the UK government’s own words. It is “a more versatile concept”. In other words, it gives politicians some scope to rig the price. Although well intentioned, it is vulnerable to abuse.
Each of these methods has its advantages and disadvantages, but there is one problem that none can solve. I’ll call it the paradox of environmental economics, in which worthy attempts to value natural resources hit a wall.
The paradox is this. All these methods of pricing carbon permit the creation of a carbon market that will allow us to pollute beyond a catastrophic tipping point. In other words, they require us to put a price on the final “killing” tonne of CO2 which, once emitted, tips the balance and triggers runaway global warming. How can we set such a price? It’s like saying, how much is civilisation worth? Or, if you needed a camel to cross a desert alive, what is a fair value for the straw that breaks its back?
The paradox reveals the fatal shortcoming of market solutions to environmental problems. Unless the parameters for carbon markets are set tightly in line with what science tells us is necessary to preventing runaway warming, they cannot work. That palpably did not happen with the ETS, which initially issued more permits to pollute than there were emissions and now, in the recession, is trading emissions that don’t exist – so-called hot air.
Carbon markets cannot save us unless they operate within a global carbon cap sufficient to prevent a rise of more than 2 °C above pre-industrial temperatures.
Governments are there to compensate for market failure but seem to have a blind spot about carbon markets. They could counteract the impact of low carbon prices by spending on renewable energy as part of their economic stimulus packages, yet they have not done so. The UK, for example, has spent nearly 20 per cent of its GDP to prop up the financial sector, but just 0.0083 per cent in new money on green economic stimulus.
Price mechanisms alone are unable to do the vital job of reducing carbon emissions. They are too vague, imperfect, and frequently socially unjust. To prevent over-consumption of key resources such as fuel during the second world war, the UK government rejected taxation in favour of rationing because taxation unfairly hit the poor and was too slow to change behaviour. Rationing was the quicker, more equitable option. Carbon rations calculated in line with a safe cap on overall emissions provide a more certain way of hitting emissions targets.
Is there an answer to the paradox of environmental economics that could make the market approach workable? I can’t imagine one, but am open to suggestions. Even if you could price the killing tonne, it is a transaction that should never be allowed. Economics becomes redundant if it can rationalise an exchange that sells the future of humankind.
This article was first published in the New Scientist, April 2009.