Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Earth Hour

Last Saturday saw the second Earth Hour, whereby the whole world switches off the lights for one hour, as part of a call for action on climate change. Whilst many Greens were keen to support this I have to say that I had mixed feelings. It seems like a gesture to make people feel they are doing something whilst Governments and business carry on as normal. After all, domestic lighting makes a relatively small contribution to climate change compared with many other things.
As it happens I did take part, whilst I was with relatives on a weekend away in the North York Moors. What struck me about the hour however was nothing along the lines of ‘oh, isn’t this a noble thing to do’ but the fact that having a candle as the only source of light made the conversation flow more freely. It seemed a shame to put the lighting back on afterwards.
Greens are often accused of wanting to make people sit in the dark, but this hour struck me as an example of how reduced energy use can actually improve quality of life not reduce it. On a similar note, one of the many good sessions I encountered at the recent Green Party Spring conference in Blackpool, featured the ‘Happy Planet Index’, backed by research from the New Economics Foundation
Incidentally I gather that Manchester rather let the side down as a city (at least according to the Manchester Evening News). Perhaps the sneering comments of a particular MEN commentator a couple of days earlier didn't help...

Monday, 16 March 2009

Multi-track climate campaigning

One thing we are never short of in this fair City is a choice of climate change related campaigns. As I speak a number of activists, including several Green Party members, are engaged in writing a response to Manchester City Council's 'Call to Action' on climate change; this will be a hopefully much stronger 'Call to Real Action'

At the same time a campaign has started to make Manchester a Transition city, along the lines of transition towns such as Totnes and Kinsale but on a bigger sale; Manchester SERA (Socialist Environment and Resource Association - although despite the word Socialist it is still heavily linked to the Labour Party) seem to be focusing on this particular venture.

Sunday evening saw the launch of the 'Not Stupid' campaign in Manchester, when one of the Vue cinema screens at Salford's Lowry Retail Centre gave one of the Premiere showings of film 'Age of Stupid' (completely with live satellite link with the main Premiere in London. Manchester Friends of the Earth and Action for Sustainable Living were very prominent at this (along with myself and some other Green party folk).

The confluence of the threat of climate change and the economic crisis have given rise to more than one Green New Deal document for Manchester. Two I am aware of:

- 'Green New Deal for Manchester' produced by Green Party members Michael Prior and Steve Durrant, and presented to the Convention of the Left Renewal meeing in January

- a Bioregional approach produced by Mark Burton (also linked to Convention of the Left), which raises some interesting and unconventional ideas.

Also currently active are SEMA and Northern Climate Rush, whilst the almost indefatigable Marc Hudson runs occasional Manchester Cimate Forum events and produces the regular Manchester Climate Fortnightly ('McFly').

So something for everyone's tastes, from chaining yourself to a gate to writing to your MP.

Friday, 13 March 2009

A Brief Geography of Time

Whilst the attention of many fellow Greens was drawn to proposals for a major new business development at Manchester Airport this week, there were also headlines around a new high-speed link between Manchester and Leeds, which promised a reduction in travel time between the two cities of 25 minutes. This was much to the enthusiasm of local politicians and businesses, long frustrated by the relative neglect of surface public transport in the North compared to pampered London.

I most definitely do not share their enthusiasm. As long ago as 1993 Green transport guru Professor John Whitelegg referred to the concept of time pollution whereby fast travel doesn't actually save time, as people compensate by travelling greater distances and travelling them more frequently. I do not believe anyone really needs to travel between Manchester and Leeds in 25 minutes, as opposed to the hour that a reliable conventional train would take. Apart from the carbon cost of constructing a new special line from scratch, there is a general rule that the faster the journey, the greater the energy consumption. Also such a line would do nothing for commuters in either Greater Manchester or Yorkshire, as a train travelling at such a speed would not be stopping at places like Stalybridge and Dewsbury for their more modest requirements.

To the extent that we need better intercity transport links in the North, the money would be better spent on extending electrification of the lines between Manchester and Leeds and Liverpool, and reopening the Woodhead line (see Woodhead Tunnel campaign here) to provide a decent Manchester - South Yorkshire service. Any surplus should go into improved cycling and local public transport as part of an essential move away from the long-distance commuting model.

Regarding the proposed high-speed rail link from London northwards (whether or not it gets as far as Manchester), the pragmatist in me sees a desire to provide an alternative to air travel for the same journey. However the same arguments apply. Government, business and indeed all of us need to consider the likely growing impact of climate change and fossil fuel depletion, and challenge this growing time pollution.
I will refer those who say 'people will always need to travel faster and you can't stop progress' back to Manchester Airport - not to the terminals and runways but a nearby hangar. There you will see the supersonic museum piece that is concorde.

Sunday, 8 March 2009


No, not a Stevie Wonder song, but a noun derived from 'counter-intuitive' which may or not be a real word. I am using it here to cover that range of comments and research pieces which come to conclusions which are counter-intuitive to the normal Green view.

Two oft-quoted examples are the claim that 'a dishwasher uses less energy than washing up by hand' and 'cloth nappies are less eco-friendly than using disposables'. More on these later.

The Independent has been having a field day on this recently, following on from its spurious claim that the green movement is now pro-nuclear,on the basis that 4 people have made a statement in its favour. I am deliberately not linking to the Indie here, nor am I going to say much about Chris Goodall, one of the gang of four just mentioned, except that when the Indie broke the nuclear story I researched the guy and found that he has "form" in this area; see here As you will see if you follow the link The Times has obligingly provided a number of other 'counter-intuitive' claims.

So how should a Green respond? The first thing to consider is that statistics can be used to prove pretty much anything. To take the walking versus car driving argument; this falls flat if the walker in question ate the same amount before using his car and just put on weight instead, a more likely scenario in our culture. To return to the 2 examples in the first paragraph: in the dishwasher exercise, most people did the hand-washing whilst running a separate hot tap continuously for rinsing, a very wasteful practice. The minority who took the trouble to hand-wash in a low wastage way outperformed the dishwashing machine. In the nappy comparison, it was assumed that cloth nappies would be boiled at 100 C and tumble dried; again the high-wastage option.

So clearly these 'Counter-intuitives' should be received with caution; there are manufacturers prepared to bend statistics as far as they need to promote particular products, and there are others out there who relish the chance to throw those earnest hairshirt greenies into confusion. But having said all that those of us who are concerned about our carbon (and general environmental) impact do need to check these things out and beware of simple assumptions. A shared car will use much less carbon than an empty bus, whilst the impact of eating habits is often underestimated, or even ignored completely.