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Has the EU’s carbon trading system made business greener?

July 21st, 2015

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Has the EU’s carbon trading system made business greener?” was written by Jill Duggan, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 15th July 2015 15.15 UTC

The EU is celebrating 10 years of the world’s largest carbon trading system this year by looking at new reforms to keep it on track. The emissions trading scheme (ETS), which covers half of Europe’s CO2 emissions by limiting the number of carbon permits available to energy generators and industry, has been dogged by low prices and oversupply of allowances.

The problems are largely ones of success – carbon emissions are lower than anticipated. But much of the oversupply was caused by the recession in Europe, so has the trading system been a waste of time or has it changed business attitudes and operations?

To answer these questions the Prince of Wales’ Corporate Leaders Group commissioned a report, 10 years of Carbon Pricing in Europe – a business perspective, which was released last week. The report is based on interviews with a small number of companies from a variety of sectors that are mandated into the ETS to see what impact it has had on them.

For some, the responses were pretty much to be expected. EDF and Shell have long been advocates of the carbon market and higher prices. Energy companies need the price to justify the right investment decisions at the right time – and many of them are able to pass on the cost of carbon allowances to their consumers – so they would be in favour of a high carbon price.

Although they profess the importance of the carbon market, it is clear that other policies, such as those promoting renewables or nuclear energy, have had more impact.

Carbon trading driving emission cuts

But then there are the energy intensives. Often vulnerable to international competition and with limited options to reduce their CO2 emissions, these industries generally have not been enthusiastic advocates of the carbon price. But here the European carbon market does seem to have had a genuine impact. Steel company ArcelorMittel acknowledged the importance of monitoring and reporting emissions to manage them.

Tata Steel Europe said that even in the depths of the recession some of its facilities were taking steps that would have previously been unacceptable or impossible in order to stay afloat, because reducing emissions is synonymous with efficiency. To the same effect, cement company Italcementi uses CO2 intensity as an indicator of efficiency as it “combines most of the key levers to industrial excellence”.
It seems unlikely these companies would have got this far without the ETS.

Next, we should consider the industries that are within the ETS but for which energy is not such a significant cost or where there are other options. What is interesting here is how the most advanced companies have moved beyond compliance to more interesting and creative ways of cutting emissions.

There are plenty of examples of companies using their waste heat or buying heat from their neighbours, thus going the extra mile to improve efficiency. The bottling company O-I Group uses waste heat to pre-heat raw materials and to heat the floor in their plant. Others have created new business models that have provided a lucrative income stream from offering consultancy advice to others. Here the ETS has provided a valuable focus on carbon and underwritten the improvements made.

Finally, there are those companies that probably would not have gone beyond compliance if they had not had leaders with vision. Where senior managers decide to take carbon seriously there can be huge benefits, even where energy is a small proportion of total costs.

Jaguar Land Rover and GlaxoSmithKline have directed new resources to cutting carbon with astonishing success. This has been crowned by a reduced carbon liability. Clearly in these companies the ETS alone has not driven this transformation, but the senior management teams would not have had this on the agenda without the carbon price being discussed at board level. It is noteworthy that these businesses instigated action in 2007 and 2008 when the allowance price was relatively stable in the €20-€25 range.

What needs to happen next? Europe is embarking on reform of the ETS now. Clearly getting prices back up to the lofty levels of 2007 would help but, ironically, the companies that have focused on carbon have found the low hanging fruit of cheap emissions reductions to be almost limitless, which will make it a bigger struggle to raise the price.

Do we need a higher price then? Yes. To tackle the challenging industries that will need technological breakthroughs we will need higher carbon prices to incentivise more reductions and to fund innovation.

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The self-healing concrete that can fix its own cracks

June 29th, 2015

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “The self-healing concrete that can fix its own cracks” was written by Rosie Spinks, for theguardian.com on Monday 29th June 2015 06.00 UTC

Of all the carbon emitters that surround us every day it’s easy to overlook one of the most ubiquitous: concrete.

The material that builds our buildings, paves our roads and spans our bridges is the most widely produced and consumed material on earth apart from water, according to a WBCSD report. By 2030, urban growth in China and India will place global cement output at 5bn metric tons per year, with current output already responsible for 8% of the global emissions total, according to a WWF report.

Although its environmental impact is far from benign, concrete – defined as the mixture of aggregates, water and the hydraulic powder material known as cement – is incredibly useful and widely applicable. Thanks to its durability, easily-sourced raw materials and thermal resistance, it is unlikely that an alternative building material will replace it on a large scale any time soon.

Hendrik Jonkers, a microbiologist at Delft University and a finalist at the recent 10th annual European Inventor Awards, has a plan to increase the lifespan of concrete. His innovation, which embeds self-activating limestone-producing bacteria into building material, is designed to decrease the amount of new concrete produced and lower maintenance and repair costs for city officials, building owners and homeowners.

Jonkers’ self-healing concrete marries two fields: civil engineering and marine biology.

“One of my colleagues, a civil engineer with no knowledge of microbiology, read about applying limestone-producing bacteria to monuments [to preserve them],” Jonkers said. “He asked me: ‘Is it possible for buildings?’ Then my task was to find the right bacteria that could not only survive being mixed into concrete, but also actively start a self healing process.”

When it comes to Jonkers’ concrete, water is both the problem and the catalyst that activates the solution. Bacteria (Bacillus pseudofirmus or Sporosarcina pasteurii) are mixed and distributed evenly throughout the concrete, but can lie dormant for up to 200 years as long as there is food in the form of particles. It is only with the arrival of concrete’s nemesis itself – rainwater or atmospheric moisture seeping into cracks – that the bacteria starts to produce the limestone that eventually repairs the cracks. It’s a similar process to that carried out by osteoplast cells in our body which make bones.

Healing these cracks the old-fashioned way is no small expense. According to HealCON, the project working on the self-healing concrete, annual maintenance cost for bridges, tunnels and other essential infrastructure in the EU reaches €6bn (£4.2bn) a year.

The invention comes in three forms: a spray that can be applied to existing construction for small cracks that need repairing, a repair mortar for structural repair of large damage and self-healing concrete itself, which can be mixed in quantities as needed. While the spray is commercially available, the latter two are currently in field tests. One application that Jonkers predicts will be widely useful for urban planners is highway infrastructure, where the use of de-icing salts is notoriously detrimental to concrete-paved roads.

Encouraging as it sounds, Jonkers’ self-healing concrete can’t cure very wide cracks or potholes on roads just yet; the technology is currently able to mend cracks up to 0.8mm wide. And while making better concrete is a more feasible approach to sustainable building than shifting to an entirely new building material, that doesn’t mean the innovation is a sure bet. The current cost would be prohibitive for many. A standard-priced cubic meter of concrete is €70, according to Jonkers, while the self-healing variety would cost €100.

John Alker, director of policy at the UK Green Building Council, says the success of any new green infrastructure technology relies on innovators like Jonkers being able to demonstrate the particular benefit of a product, whether that’s around cost or enabling a client to meet environmental targets.

“We’ve seen a lot of innovation around concrete as it is a highly impactful product in terms of the energy that goes into producing it and it’s simultaneously a very important construction product globally,” Alker said. But persuading the construction industry to change its behaviour will be tough, he says. “It comes down to innovative clients and developers being willing to experiment with their building and try and test these materials and prove a track record before others will follow.”

Though Jonkers is aware of the challenges of reaching wide adoption of the material, he points out that in particularly vulnerable environments – such as coastal communities or tropical regions that are increasingly experiencing extreme rainfall – some are already seeing the cost-benefit analysis of using this technology from the outset.

“We did a project in Ecuador where we made a concrete canal and irrigation system with self-healing concrete,” Jonkers said. “We are doing tests all over the world in developing countries where they realise that though this is more expensive than current tech, they see the profit because they will have to avoid repair down the line.”

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The streets were paved with algae: a greener material?

June 11th, 2015

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “The streets were paved with algae: a greener material?” was written by Rich McEachran, for theguardian.com on Monday 8th June 2015 12.38 UTC

The process of surfacing a road isn’t complicated. Layers of asphalt, which is composed mostly of bitumen (a byproduct of crude oil distillation), are poured over an aggregate of crushed stone and sand; the asphalt acts as a glue, binding the mixture together to form asphalt concrete.

Maintaining the roads, however, is a costly job. According to the Asphalt Industry Alliance it would cost more than £12bn to restore all road networks in England alone to a reasonable condition.

Simon Hesp, a professor and chemical engineer at Queen’s University in Ontario, believes standard industry asphalt is not sustainable. “The problem with the composition is that it’s poorly controlled … it uses materials with poor performances,” he says. Hesp says the presence of certain oil residues lowers the quality of the concrete and is a key reason why roads are failing and many potholes need to be filled and cracks fixed.

But there’s not just a maintenance cost. Asphalt, dependent as it is on the oil industry, is resource- and energy-intensive, which is why the race is on to develop a greener alternative.

In Sydney an experiment is under way using printer toner waste blended with recycled oil to produce an environmentally friendly asphalt. And in the past few years there have been studies into the development of non-petroleum bioasphalts.

At Washington State University researchers developed asphalt from cooking oil, and last year academics at Wageningen University in the Netherlands found that lignin – a natural substance found in plants and trees – is another suitable replacement for crude oil bitumen. Other investigations have looked into the use of soybean and canola oil (rapeseed oil) and coffee grounds.

The WSU research, led by Haifang Wen and published at the end of 2013, concluded that the introduction of cooking oil can increase bioasphalt’s resistance to cracking . Wenn also claims it’s possible that, if commercialised, such bioasphalts could cost much less per tonne. The price of standard asphalt can fluctuate wildly as it’s dependent on the price of oil.

Hesp isn’t convinced that cooking oil is the way forward. He says, like petroleum, over time it will cause roads to fail because of weak bonds.

Bruno Bujoli, director of research at CNRS (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique), agrees that the use of cooking oil “chemically modified to reach appropriate mechanical properties” could significantly affect quality. He also sounds a note of caution about food security, saying that asphalt based on vegetable oils could, if scaled up, affect food stocks

Bujoli recently played a key role in developing a bioasphalt from microalgae. It uses a process known as hydrothermal liquefaction, which is used to convert waste biomass, including wood and sewage, into biocrude oil. The chemical composition of the microalgae bioasphalt differs from petroleum-derived asphalt, but initial tests have concluded that it also bears similar viscous properties and can bind aggregates together efficiently, as well as being able to cope with loads such as vehicles.

How it will perform over time is yet to be determined. The findings were published in April.

Green roads

Bujoli suggests that microalgae – also known for its use in the production of cosmetic and textile dyes – is a greener and more appropriate solution than agricultural oils. The latter, he says, should be kept for food production.

“The benefits of microalgae over other sources include low competition for arable land, high per hectare biomass yields and large harvesting turnovers. There is also the opportunity to recycle wastewater and carbon dioxide as a way of contributing to sustainable development,” he adds.

It’s a neat idea, with an admirable green mission behind it, but how much of an impact can it really have? Technology such as this is still in its infancy, suggests Heather Dylla, director of sustainable engineering at the National Asphalt Pavement Association, a US trade organisation for the paving industry.

“A lot of interesting work is being done in this area, looking at everything from algae, to swine waste, to byproducts from paper making. It’s worth exploring these alternatives, but we need to be sure they provide equivalent or improved engineering properties. We need to understand how they affect the recyclability of asphalt pavement mixtures,” she says.

She points to the “unique” advantage of asphalt when it comes to recycling. “Not only are the aggregates, which make up about 95% of [asphalt concrete], put back to use, but the bitumen can also be reactivated and used again as the glue that holds a pavement together.”

Microalgae could yet put the paving industry on the road to a greener future. For now though, there are plenty of challenges – from price to scalability – for Bujoli and his team to address if the bioasphalt is to be commercialised.

“This is our research focus for the near future. Our current laboratory equipment works in a batch mode,” explains Bujoli. “Scaling up the process will require the design of a large-volume reactor that can operate under continuous flow conditions.”

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Business leaders prepare for limited UN climate deal in Paris

May 22nd, 2015

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Business leaders prepare for limited UN climate deal in Paris” was written by Tom Levitt, for theguardian.com on Thursday 21st May 2015 21.04 UTC

Business leaders are preparing for a limited agreement on reducing carbon emissions at the crunch UN summit in Paris later this year, despite growing support from them for carbon pricing and a commitment to cut emissions by enough to avoid more than 2C of global warming.

More than 1,000 business leaders, including the CEOs of Carrefour, Statoil, Total and Unilever, turned up at a business summit on tackling climate change in Paris this week in response to calls from the UN for the private sector to take a more active role in tackling climate change.

They called on policymakers to agree on carbon pricing mechanisms, closer collaboration between business and government on climate policies and a joint public and private sector fund for investing in low-carbon technology, particularly in developing countries.

The meeting comes as UN negotiators are trying to pull together enough emissions reduction commitments to prevent more than 2C of global warming, the level political leaders agreed in 2009 as likely to prevent the worst effects of climate change. The final commitments are needed ahead of the summit of world leaders in December this year.

Business claims frustration

However, business leaders did not expect the necessary emissions reductions or their policy requests to be finalised in December.

“We have to be pragmatic,” French oil group Total CEO Patrick Pouyanné told the Guardian. “If we take the sum of commitments made by countries then I am afraid we will not be on the 2C trajectory. There will be a gap.

“But what is important from the UN talks in December is to have a convergence of companies on the one side and governments on the other. At least some commitments by governments and businesses, and a mechanism in place to improve it,” he said, adding that he is in favour of a carbon pricing principle.

A failure to bring enough emission cut commitments to put the world on track for avoiding global warming of more than 2C is likely to frustrate the majority of businesses, says the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP), with more than 30 companies including Ford Motor Company, Unilever, Nissan and H&M having already pledged to set long-term, science-based climate targets. The targets will match the scale needed to meet the goal of limiting global temperature increases to 2C.

“A small minority of companies may be relieved to continue on a business as usual pathway in the short term, but it would lead to a build-up of systemic risk in the economy,” says CDP’s CEO Paul Simpson. “The vast majority of companies want to see a managed transition to a low-carbon future and not costly, last-minute regulation or climate chaos.”

French companies were represented in large numbers at this week’s summit, with Renault saying it would be “totally stupid” not to have the right regulations, framework and price signals in place after the UN talks. “We have made the investments and have the technology ready to implement on a larger scale,” said Claire Martin, director for sustainable development at Renault.

Private sector could help meet targets

While some have doubted the sincerity of energy-intensive businesses in particular in tackling climate change, Unilever CEO Paul Polman suggests the private sector could help close the shortfall in emission commitments made by governments. “It is very likely that all the agreements coming in will not add up to what we need to stay below 2C. [Those commitments] will be around 40% of that in reality. That is why we are mobilising the private sector. If we work together we can close that gap.”

However, Claus Stig Pedersen head of corporate sustainability at Novozymes, said the past five years had shown business could not tackle climate change without a strong political deal.

“We had this reaction after the UN talks in Copenhagen in 2009 of disappointment with politicians and I was part of a movement that said okay, let’s just do it ourselves. A lot of business jumped into this space and took some big steps forward, but after some years business in general realised that we couldn’t do this alone.

“There is no way we can do this without partnering with politicians and making agreements going forward. So if we should end up with a Paris failure, like we’ve had before, then I do think we’ve learnt we can’t do it alone. We have all the solutions needed, it’s just about applying it. And regulation, a carbon price and ambitious goals from the UN climate talks will drive that faster,” he added.

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The UK company turning coffee waste into furniture

May 7th, 2015

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “The UK company turning coffee waste into furniture” was written by Josephine Moulds, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 5th May 2015 15.06 UTC

Britain was falling in love with coffee just as Adam Fairweather was exploring ideas for new products and materials. Ten years ago, Starbucks stores were opening on every corner, followed by the burgeoning industry of artisan coffee roasters.

Fairweather, a designer by training and expert in recycling technologies and materials development, now develops materials from coffee grounds and uses them to design products including furniture, jewellery and coffee machines.

A poll of 2,000 Britons by Douwe Egberts in 2012 found 69% spent between £1 and £5 in coffee shops five days a week. “We use coffee as a moment to take a break, it’s a luxury product,” says Fairweather. “The idea that it already had this high value but we only use a little of it, that was interesting because I felt that there was a way of tapping into this perceived high value the product has intrinsically.”

On average, we use just 18% to 22% of the coffee bean when we make a cup of coffee but Fairweather says that coffee waste is not “the biggest problem”. “There are already massive recycling programmes in the UK that manage organic food waste very well. My interest is that we can use materials that have a perceived value to them, to communicate and get people excited about the idea of sustainability and social change and environmental management.”

Google seats coffee material
An example of Re-Worked furniture: easy chair and unity coffee table made with Çurface boards containing 100% recycled content and ash wood. Photograph: Re-Worked

Fairweather first tackled coffee waste by helping to develop the Greencup scheme, which provides offices around the UK with Fairtrade coffee and then collects their waste coffee to turn it into fertiliser. His new venture, Re-Worked, works with Greencup, so he has a ready supply of waste coffee grounds and a list of potential clients who may be open to the idea of other products made from their coffee waste.

Google uses Greencup’s service and has bought designer furniture from Re-Worked, created with a hybrid material made up of 60% used coffee grounds. “They’re all very quick sales,” says Fairweather. “It’s five or six conversations rather than hundreds, because we already have a relationship with the catering facilities management.”

Re-Worked has also teamed up with Sanremo, which uses a material made of 70% coffee grounds for the decorative housing of its Verde coffee machine. Fairweather says they have sold 300-400 of these each year since it was launched in 2013 and they are currently being installed in Wyevale garden centres around the country. High-end jeweller Rosalie McMillan makes use of another of Re-Worked’s materials, combining it with gold and sterling silver for her Java Ore collection.

Scaling up for profit

Re-Worked is a non-profit and Fairweather says the quest for funding has been one of his biggest challenges. “I’m really under-resourced. Because it’s been pioneering work, it’s made it quite hard to get the buy-in from people. We’ve never had huge amounts of wealth in the background to make things happen quickly.”

Re-Worked does generate revenue from trading, which it invests back into the business but Fairweather says the organisation still relies on grants. “In all honesty it’s not been massively profitable. The way we sustain ourselves is by getting government support.” This funds ongoing research into new materials and better production processes.

Fairweather says the process of making materials from coffee grounds would be economically viable if Re-Worked were to scale up. “Doing the life-cycle analysis of materials, is a very good way of seeing whether or not something stands up. If it’s more environmentally friendly, generally it’s more economically-friendly, because it means that you’re using less of everything.”

Java Rock Bangles
Java rock wrist bangle made by Rosalie McMillan using a custom Çurface material containing 70% recycled content. Photograph: Rosalie McMillan

Fairweather only wants to scale up, however, if he can maintain true to the original aim. He says the company explored the option of developing a low-value product, making fuel pellets out of coffee, to act as a staple to keep the business running. That hit a stumbling block when he realised they would have to take waste coffee from other sources and not just Greencup.

“It’s about promoting the idea of a circular business, if we started to offer the service to Nero, then we add value to their business, but we don’t promote the idea of this circular business model that excites people. It just becomes a service that people use.”

He admits he is not particularly commercially minded and that is, perhaps, why Re-Worked is not a million-pound business. “I’m not a marketer I’m more of an inventor. I like to invent the stuff. I like to work problems out.”

The circular economy hub is funded by Philips. All content is editorially independent except for pieces labelled brought to you by. Find out more here.

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Seven things you need to know about sustainable smart technology

April 21st, 2015

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Seven things you need to know about sustainable smart technology” was written by Marcus Alexander Thompson, for theguardian.com on Friday 17th April 2015 11.41 UTC

1. What is a smart machine?

It’s a cognitive, contextually aware computing system capable of making decisions without human intervention. Smart machines use machine learning and data catchments to perform work traditionally conducted by humans. They are supposed to boost efficiency and productivity, and are being pegged as a major component in building a sustainable future.

2. The range of possibility for sustainability applications of smart machines is endless …

But, like all burgeoning technologies, the limits of sustainability within this future are not yet clear. Much will be based on which smart technologies society adopts. What we do know is the smart tech revolution is the first industrial movement that holds sustainability at the forefront of its development, and that’s a good thing.

3. We don’t need to kill the forest to save a tree

Replacing manual services with smart tech is expected to significantly reduce energy consumption. But the energy required to develop, build, run and service smart technology products must be considered. This video about two men cutting grass demonstrates the redundancy of overcapitalising on technology and the dangers of manufacturing a dependancy on regressive technology.

“While I believe, in general, that we’ll save energy by incorporating these machines into our lives, we have to be mindful that they themselves consume energy”, says Marshall Cox, founder and CEO of Radiator Labs.

4. Will smart technology make us stupid?

The successful integration of smart technology will see the enhancement of creative thought. The workforce will need an increasing skill level as more and more mundane work is overtaken. There are concerns that through automation and algorithm technology, human development could be stunted and lulled into complacency. It’s important to be aware of this threat. That said, there were similar fears heading into the industrial revolution and we work harder now than ever.

Philip van Allen, interaction designer, educator and creative technologist says: “There’s a lot of potential here, smart doesn’t always mean super intelligent. If our systems can understand our context, and have access to a lot of relevant information, they can present us with interesting options.”

5. They took our jobs! What are the implications of smart machines in work?

Reducing the human workforce to subservient drones isn’t in anyone’s interest, but it’s unlikely that progress will spiral out of human control. The aspirational focus is for smart machines to enable us to be more productive and flexible. By using them we can make more efficient, sustainable use of our resources.

“From a workforce point of view, smarter machines make us more productive and this allows us to focus on value-added activities”, says Maria Hernandez from Cisco Systems.

6. Technology makes errors, but so do humans

Performance failure is raised as a frequent concern whenever smart tech is involved, especially when we are looking at self-driving vehicles and other sectors where human life could be directly affected by smart machines. There is an argument that the systems should be intelligent enough to work out areas of poor performance and correct themselves. But nothing is fail-proof and it would be naive to think smart tech will be. There will be bugs in the beginning, but hopefully the collateral eggs in this omelette are minimal.

In the best-case scenario, we’ll combine smart technology with the agility of human decision-making to make sustainable and safe decisions. For example, says Chris Bilton, director of research and technology at BT, “The machine provides you with real-time information and you have the choice as to what action to take. This makes you think actively about your behaviours”.

7. It’s coming. Evolve or move aside

Hate it or love it, be prepared for smart technology to become a much bigger part of your life. It offers unbounded potential to improve our lives and enhance sustainability from all angles – home, health, manufacturing, work, transport, energy and leisure. But we also need to address issues such as IT security, skills and labour market problems. At the forefront we need to ensure that smart machines are enabling devices and not controlling mechanisms.

“The intelligence needs to be implemented in a way that augments our creative thinking rather than replaces it, and we need to consider where those boundaries lie,” says Stephen Barker, head of energy and environmental care at Siemens.

In the end, human capital must always remain dominant. “One might say that our humanity is found in what lies between a 1 and a 0,” says Jeff Wilson, dean of Huston-Tillotson University and “professor dumpster”. “That ‘in between’ is not within a machine’s capability. To me that ‘in between’ space will be ours”.

The technology and innovation hub is funded by BT. All content is editorially independent except for pieces labelled “brought to you by”. Find out more here.

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Climate change is overwhelming – so should we focus on small steps?

March 25th, 2015

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Climate change is overwhelming – so should we focus on small steps?” was written by Sarah LaBrecque, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 25th March 2015 09.42 UTC

The challenges of our time can feel overwhelming: climate change, economic inequality, water scarcity – even the most passionate campaigner might want to pull the covers over and look away. So can single-issue campaigns such as Buy Nothing New Month or Meat Free Week help us divide important causes into manageable chunks? Or do they only distract?

Peter Burr, CEO of Meat Free Week

Peter Burr
Peter Burr.

Single-issue campaigns are most effective when we have an emotional connection linking us directly to the cause – an aunt dying of bowel cancer; work with mistreated animals; or a concern for the world we’re leaving to our children. Emotional connections compel us to support a cause because we hope to prevent others from enduring the same suffering.

We’re thirsty for knowledge, so any campaign that gets a conversation started will have an impact . Even if you take away only a single aspect of the message that positively influences your life, that’s got to be a good thing.

I have no doubt “wear out” means many people will not participate in a campaign for a second year. But with each year, campaigns attract a significant new audience. That coupled with the residual memory of previous years’ campaigns, will start to return greater numbers. It won’t happen overnight, but it will happen. We’re hoping to achieve that result with Meat Free Week – it’s hard to change habits of a lifetime, but they said that about cigarettes.

Tom Crompton, director of Common Cause Foundation

Tom Crompton
Tom Crompton.

Stepping up to the challenges of climate change and biodiversity loss is not easy. Embracing small changes in our everyday lives is one important response – but let’s not kid ourselves that this can be remotely sufficient. In the words of David McKay, chief scientific adviser to the department of energy and climate change in the UK, “Don’t be distracted by the myth that ‘every little helps’. If everyone does a little, we’ll achieve only a little.”

Anyone concerned about climate change could ask: How am I encouraging and supporting others to become more vocal in expressing concern – for example, by joining campaigns or public demonstrations, or making far-reaching changes in the way that they live?

Building this deeper concern need not require work on climate change at all. Work on a wide range of issues can be effective, even where there is no mention of anything obviously related to the environment. What’s needed is a re-connection with the things people say are most important to them: friends and family, our communities, beautiful places, the poor or disadvantaged, freedom and creativity.

Conversely, urging people to reuse their shopping bags, or to switch the TV off standby, can undermine this more important work. Unless they invite re-connection with these deeper values, behaviour-change campaigns can be counter-productive if they don’t invite reconnection with deeper values, and can leave people less inclined to respond in more significant ways.

David Willans, director of Will & Progress

David Willans
David Willans.

Single-issue campaigning is effective if you’re looking for change on a specific issue. It can be incredibly effective for behaviour change if people are aware of a problem, but don’t know what to do about it, as campaigns such as Jamie’s Chicken Run and Hugh’s Fish Fight demonstrate. Traditionally, this type of campaign is akin to taking market share from a competitor. You’re taking people from one behaviour to another. There are mountains of evidence out there demonstrating how to do it (pdf).

If someone’s making a change out of a sense of obligation, as soon as that obligation disappears, all things being equal, so does the change. But thankfully all things are never equal. If the change becomes part of someone’s sense of identity, or gives them a cocktail of personal, social and/or economic benefit that outweighs the effort, there’s a good chance it will last.

Something is effective if it delivers a desired result. If the objective of holistic environmental campaigns is holistic change, which history shows us is never the work of one action, how can you ever decide whether it’s effective? There are two schools of thought about how to drive change at this level. One is intrinsically led change, where we focus on connecting with universally held values and changing societal narratives. The idea is that over time people will shift from one way of living to another. The other is extrinsically led change, where we focus on specifics such as audiences, behaviours and benefits. The idea is that specific changes build up to create more holistic change.

The evidence shows both create positive change. Therefore we need to be doing more and sharing our insights to get better at it. Pitting one against the other is playing the kind of point-scoring game you hear at Prime Minister’s Questions. It’s self-serving and self-defeating and actively puts people off, preventing learning and ultimately wasting precious time.

The sustainable living hub is funded by Unilever. All content is editorially independent except for pieces labelled brought to you by. Find out more here.

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The way we live now: the rise of the energy-producing home

March 20th, 2015

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “The way we live now: the rise of the energy-producing home” was written by Elisabeth Braw, for theguardian.com on Monday 16th March 2015 13.49 UTC

Imagine living in a house that contributed to society: a house that produced energy, while consuming none itself. Well, imagine no more. After perfecting the “passivhaus”, which consumes minimal energy, engineers and architects have developed the energy positive house.

Generating energy is one thing, building a house is another. But with its plant-decorated walls and enormous double-glazed windows, the ArchiBlox Positive House, introduced in Melbourne’s City Square last month, looks elegant and modernist. “The trick is to make the sustainable and performance products visually pleasing while also practical,” reports David Martin, construction director of the ArchiBlox Positive House – the world’s first pre-fab energy positive house.

Rooftop solar panels and cooling tubes generate energy and regulate the temperature, while double-glazed windows and thick walls conserve energy. The end result: surplus power.

Energy producing house diagram
How an energy-producing home works. Photograph: Snøhetta

The ArchiBlox team is not alone in successfully completing the energy positive challenge. The German city of Königsbrunn, working in collaboration with the Augsburg University of Applied Sciences and a local gas and electricity company, is finalising the cube-like Visioneum in the central square, where city officials hope its presence will inspire residents to think about their household energy consumption.

At the University of California, Berkeley, students working in collaboration with Honda have developed yet another concept, the Honda Smart Home, which looks more like a typical terraced house, but which generates surplus energy the same way as the ArchiBlox and the Visioneum: by radically conserving it while generating more than it needs though solar panels.

Students at the Delft University of Technology, meanwhile, have invented a highly innovative “skin” that can be attached to existing houses with similar results. And in Norway, architecture firm Future Built has managed to turn two ordinary office buildings into energy-generating ones, cutting their energy use by 90% through additional insulation and the use of sensors to control light and heating. Here, too, solar panels on the roof provide energy that can be sold back to the grid.

With cars and homes accounting for 44% of greenhouse gasses in United States (and similar percentages in Europe), it’s no surprise that researchers and architects are trying to find ways of making homes more energy-efficient.

“The development of smart technologies, like the Google Nest, is making energy savings more convenient for users by allowing for control over temperatures in the house while you are away from the house, and allowing temperatures to follow your daily routines”, notes Esben Alslund-Lanthén, an analyst at the Danish sustainability thinktank Sustainia.

ZEB house
The ZEB house. Photograph: EVE

Kristian Edwards says building a plus-house is technically straightforward. “We calculated how many square meters of solar panels we needed and optimised the angle of the roof to get maximum solar yield,” he reports. “But plus-houses are also about minimising energy consumption, so we used as much recycled material as possible, such as whole bricks from a barn nearby.” With its box-like wooden top floor slanted over the lower floor for maximum sun exposure, Snøhetta’s experiment – the ZEB Multi-Comfort House, located in the Norwegian city of Larvik – boasts a visually striking appearance.

There’s just one thing: the cost. “Cost is always a factor when building houses that are taking advantage of the newest technology”, notes Alslund-Lanthén. “Plus-houses will likely remain more expensive than conventional houses, but on the other hand the owners will benefit from lower utility bills throughout the lifetime of the house, and in many cases from added benefits such as a better indoor climate due to improved ventilation, more daylight and better insulation.”

But Edwards, an architect at the Snøhetta architechture firm in Oslo, argues that plus-houses don’t have to be expensive, noting that a ZEB-style house may only cost 25% more to build than a similar, newly-designed home. The dropping cost of photovoltaic cells will also aid the advance of plus-houses.

Either way, utility companies are currently developing new payment models that will allow home owners to pay back the cost of the new technologies through energy savings. Other plus-house owners may opt to sell their surplus energy to the grid. At the ZEB house, in turn, surplus energy will power the electric car that future residents may own.

What’s life in a plus-house like? Norwegian families have volunteered to test the ZEB house for three months each and will report their findings to Edwards and his Snøhetta colleagues. And David Martin is about to find out for himself, having signed up to live in his ArchiBlox construction with his young family for the next 24 months.

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