Friday, 27 November 2009

UK’s Unaccounted Carbon

We hear in the media that China is now building about two power stations every week. The Chinese are increasing emissions at the rate of 2.8% annually.[1] This is when you begin to wonder whether Britons, who officially emit only 2% of global emissions, should even bother with living in 'zero carbon' homes, giving up their cars and avoiding foreign holidays in order to reduce their carbon footprint.

Ignored embodied carbon
The truth is that there is a fault in the current carbon accounting methodology. The carbon emissions accounting does not factor in the manufacturing of foreign goods consumed by Britons. Over the last few decades a large part of UK’s manufacturing moved offshore to countries such as China and India.

My rough calculation on per capita carbon emissions based on a recent report by the International Institute for Sustainable Development[2] indicates that UK’s per capita emissions which is currently stated as 9.2tCO2/person will actually be closer to 15.4 tCO2 per person, an increase of 40%.

Another report by the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) implies that once imports, exports and international transport are included the carbon emissions are almost 50% higher than official figures for UK[3]. Dieter Helm, a professor of economics at Oxford University also suggests a similar increase in his report ‘Too Good To Be True? The UK’s Climate Change Record’[4].

Made in China
Indirect carbon emissions stem from manufacturing of goods that you buy, since the materials incorporated in the products require energy for extraction, processing and transportation, which generates carbon emissions. Globally 36% of carbon emissions are attributable to manufacturing industries.
Industrial emissions contribute 14% of the UK’s carbon emissions [20% if the power sector is included][5] compared to China where they are 70%. Even if you discount the fact that a large component will be to serve its growing domestic market, there is little doubt that a large chunk of the Chinese emissions are for export purposes[6].

Taking some responsibility
Under international agreements such as UNFCCC, nations only have influence and responsibility over their direct national carbon emissions. This is mainly because it is easier to count the emissions at source of generation or production. However this presents the problem that movement of commodities are not fairly accounted for.

To make an analogy, the person who consumes the endangered blue fin is partially responsible for eradicating the fish as is the company fishing it as is the restaurant serving the delicacy. Likewise, a building that uses electricity from a coal-fired power station is as [if not more] culpable for emitting carbon as the power station. Your logic will tell you that it is the demand that drives the supply and not the other way around.

Besides better accounting, which needs to be based on consumption rather than production of CO2, the West could do more to help in the following ways:
  • Ensure technology transfer in clean technologies [e.g. capture and storage technology] to reduce carbon intensity of energy generation
  • Investment in low carbon manufacturing plants to reduce footprint of goods [e.g. improvements to motor systems, including variable speed drives and steam systems, including combined heat and power (CHP)]
  • Regulate the level imports based on embodied carbon of goods
  • Increase awareness to reduce consumption
  • Create a market for low carbon goods [e.g. through carbon labeling]

[2] Glen Peters et al, 2009. CO2 Carbon Footprint of Nations: A Global, Trade Link Analysis, American Chemical Society
[4] Dieter Helm et al, 2007. Too Good To Be True? The UK’s Climate Change Record, website:

Sunday, 22 November 2009

The Biomass Myth

As a long-term source of fuel biomass only has a marginal role and yet the UK's Climate Change Plan relies heavily on it.

Biomass for heating home
The technology is limited in its ability to reduce CO2 emissions. Biomass is generally considered to be carbon-neutral, which is fine as long as we are using waste wood from the timber industry or woodcuttings, but it gets more complex when we consider growing biomass as an energy crop.

My calculations suggest that the UK has around 18 million ha of agricultural land, with 5.5 million hectares [ha] given over to arable. If we assume that 1 million ha — 17% — of that land will support biomass crops (as suggested by Biomass Task Force), then my calculations show that this would only yield a carbon saving of 2.3 million tonnes of carbon a year. Current annual emissions from heating UK homes are approximately 22.6 million tonnes of carbon

As bio crops are essentially solar energy, you get four times as much yield in the tropics than in the UK, so tropical and subtropical countries will switch to biomass crops for export — displacing food crops and clearing forest. If the use of biomass and biofuels were to continue unchecked, it could lead to ecological disaster. George Monbiot has highlighted to dangers of offshore deforestation due to demand for energy crops from the Europe.

Biofuel for transport 
The UK Department for Transport expects suppliers of fossil fuel for road transport will be obliged to ensure 5% of total fuel sales are biofuels by 2010. This is set to raise this to 10% by 2020. The political ambition for 10% of transport fuel to be provided by biofuels would need 4 million ha of land. Uk only has 5 million ha of arable land. Where will it grow food? will the people except field after field of bright yellow rapeseed farms

Friday, 20 November 2009

Sustainability consultants need a professional body to maintain quality and credibility

The green industry needs a professional body like the RICS or RIBA to champion quality and consistency. Otherwise, sustainability risked being viewed as an “alternative medicine”, not a mainstream practice.
New effort is required to set and maintain standards within the field of sustainability consultancy. There are many people who call themselves sustainability consultants [or green building specialists]. If the field is going to have credibility, there must be a professional code of conduct. The main concern is whether sustainability consultants are staying true to the principles that underpin the field.
A structural engineer knows that whatever your client asks of you, the building she designs has to “stand up” The question is, If you are a sustainability consultant, are you doing your job properly if you fail to address global environmental issues?
Clients are being charged anything from £200 to £20,000 for similar work, and the price they pay does not always reflect the quality of the output.
To ensure standards are acceptable one would like to see mechanisms introduced and, possibly, an organisation founded, that would work to ensure that the credibility of sustainability consultancy is protected and enhanced. Universities all across UK are churning out students with a raft of sustainability-related qualifications, but there is no consensus on the principles of sustainability and no standardisation of the way sustainability consultancy is practised.

A lot of people believe that in the long term, we must educate the industry so that Sustainability Consultants are no longer needed. Although I agree that this needs to happen, in my view, we may still need the specialization of sustainability services just like the industry needs to appreciate cost in buildings, but still need the services of a quantity surveyor [cost consultant].