Thursday, July 23, 2009

Green Guide

New Zealand lambs

With so much greenwash filling the media, we need a definitive guide to help us cut our carbon production


Research shows almost all of us want to be green - to try and do the right thing by the planet. But in many cases, it seems you're damned if you do, and damned if you do the opposite.

The confusion between good and bad can be overwhelming: we see what seems to be a green light, which then becomes orange - or even red.

For example, we'd all say it must be better to buy local food than have it flown in: because (as Team Britain confirm) if you consume just 15 bags of Californian spinach in the UK, you'll create more carbon than an Afghan does in his lifetime.

On the other hand, the University of Lincoln calculates that because of the way New Zealand produces lamb, apples and dairy foods, even flying them 11,000 miles to us here produces four times less carbon than buying British. That's Lincoln, New Zealand, by the way.

Surely buying local farm shop produce is preferable to food from a supermarket? Not necessarily. On average, one huge lorry transporting mass deliveries to a supermarket chain produces 3lbs of atmospheric carbon. The same delivery size picked up by individuals from farm shops would produce 3.4lbs. And in case you imagine this research was carried out by Tesco, let me tell you it was conducted by the government's Department for Business, Enterprise & Regulatory reform.

If we plant trees, they'll absorb CO2 and pump out oxygen - everyone knows that. But trees also absorb light - and more importantly heat. In subarctic regions such as northern Scandinavia, the earth benefits from a cooling effect caused by snow reflecting heat from the sun back into space. This 'albedo effect' means planting trees in these areas is worse than doing nothing - a point made by, would you believe,

I may go to an office and hoover up electrical power every day, but I try to ensure the PC goes to screensaver. However, says screensavers use more electrical energy than just leaving the appliance on. And doing that uses more heat energy, making the air conditioning go into overdrive.

On and on it goes. There are 6.2 million pages devoted to green misconceptions on Google - and every piece of apparently conflicting information or scientific disagreement hands the initiative to climate change deniers.

The main problem is that the media tend to oversimplify issues. For instance, focussing on 'green miles', when one should look at every aspect of every item individually: how and where it was produced and transported, how much energy it uses, how long it lasts and whether it works well enough.

(UCDAVIS has produced a carbon diet guide)

Solar garden lights made in China offer a classic example of this dilemma for wannabe greens. They use clean solar power, have high transportation output, conk out with irritating frequency, save electricity, but require lots of them to make an appreciable difference to the darkness. In short, they're a sort of clean, dirty, efficient, inefficient, small, major recycling nuisance.

Trees in the subarctic aren't as green as you think
Boreal forest

However, there is a way for greens to make their case more consistently - and a simple parallel makes the point. While different dieticians disagree about methods for losing weight, nobody thinks that a regime of big meals combining high fat and complex carbohydrate will achieve that. That's because every known combination of fat points, Glycemic index scores, carbohydrate levels and daily allowance is available as clear guidance (health issues aside) to anyone.

The climate change lobby needs just such an oracular guide. At the moment, simplistic carbon measurements allow climate change deniers to point up the contradictions and make a mockery of the green case.

The production of such a guide will, of course, mean chopping down trees in order to print books, and creating websites which themselves produce further CO2 output via the electric power which runs them.

But if we chop down the trees in Sweden - and use its hydro-electric power to drive the websites - then such a solution would be about as near as any of us will ever get to a carbon-neutral guide to carbon neutrality.

FIRST POSTED JULY 20, 2009,news,green-facts-climate-change-deniers-environment-myths-carbon-food-miles


  1. This cleverness is crazy-making. I'm sticking with local organic produce, as little meat as possible (including NO lamb from anywhere) back-yard composting and (I suppose) awaiting Kuntsler's long emergency as best I can. We've somehow lost the ability to work together as a nation -- everybody trying to outdo everybody else. Whatever else Mr. Ward may chose to do, slowing down his propeller occasionally might be helpful.

  2. I couldn't agree more with the anonymous comment posted above.

  3. Coming from NZ and being a foodie/chef who spends most of the time in other countries having to eat other countries lamb... none compares to NZ lamb.. It is the BEST!!! but what really kills me is that I can buy a frozen leg of NZ lamb in France for half the price that I can if I was in NZ... go figure??. I have Ukrainian guests who if they are not eating fresh seafood are eating lamb... and I am serving NZ lamb that they are loving... of course.
    I know that we do have to be careful of all the 'miles' and 'carbon' that food produces but also maybe we have to look at the lively hood of people who are reliant on exporting their produce to survive.
    By Tarina from NZ who is currently in Sardinia, Italy and cant figure out how not to do an anonymous comment