I have a deep loathing of flying, and not only from an environmental perspective, it’s the whole unedifying, dehumanising process of flying that depresses me.  From the arrival at the concrete monstrosity of the airport 3 to 4 hours before you intend to travel; through the endless monotonous queues that have people rifling through your  toiletries and then demanding you  take off your shoes; belt; jewelery and any other metal accoutrements you may have hanging from your person and finally the cramped, souless aircraft where you are doubtless sat next to someone with personal hygiene challenges and a bad cold. Yuk

I yearn for the days of glamorous, elegant travel by rail and sea where the getting there is as much fun as the holiday destination.  Where you arrive refreshed and rested after an enjoyable journey.  To this end I try to travel by alternative forms of transport (to the plane) as often as I can afford to (both in cost and time).  I have travelled through Europe by train and was fortunate enough to once take the Orient Express from Venice to London which gave me a taste for luxury, slow travel.

This year, after not indulging in a ‘long haul’ holiday for five years, I thought it would be an adventure to travel by sea across the Atlantic to the States.  At the time I didn’t really know if sailing there would be better or worse in carbon terms than taking the plane, but as it takes nearly a week and doubles up as a hotel, restaurant and all entertainment too, I thought it was worth the investment in carbon to try it out.

Happily though, I can report that crossing the ocean on a transatlantic liner is actually better for your carbon footrprint than flying London to New York!

Once onboard I enquired as to how much fuel was used on an average journey and was informed that an eye-watering 19 gallons of diesel a minute was consumed.  Over the period of the journey, for us it was just less than 6 lapsed days,  total diesel consumed was roughly 164,000 gallons.  The passenger capacity was about 2500 and the ship was nearly full.  All things being equal (and of course some passengers do have much bigger cabins than others), the footprint per passenger works out at about 800kgs of CO2 per crossing.  When compared to an economy flight from London to New York, this comes in at 930 kgs (using a 1.9 RFI uplift).  Hence you save over 100 kgs per journey.

Of course you cannot really compare a 6 day journey on an ocean liner to a 7 hour journey by plane, in any context.  The trip aboard ship was a holiday in itself and all food, energy and entertainment was fuelled by the total diesel consumed.  Whereas the flight is simply a 7 hour trial of endurance.  The crossing is obviously much more expensive than an economy flight to NY, but when you consider it includes 6 nights accomodation and meals, and is far more luxurious than turning right when you enter the aircraft, then it isn’t bad value.  It’s also probably cheaper than a business or first class air ticket.

So, from both a fun experience and carbon-saving point of view, I heartily recommend a sea crossing to the USA.  Try it some time.

However, this is not to say I am now recommending cruises as a sustainable form of holidaying.  The crossing is simply an alternative way for getting from A to B where train and/or bus is not an option.  Whereas a cruise usually involves a flight to get you to where the cruise leaves from, then a meander around coastlines to different parts of a country or continent, then a flight back home again.



Five years ago, in the publication Rise of the Machines, I wrote about the phenomenon of relentless rising electricity use in the typical UK home between the 1970s and 1995, despite the backdrop of rapidly increasing energy efficiency improvements in the appliances and gadgets we were using.  The increase in household numbers in the timescale alone could not explain this trend; and it is now acknowledged that the ‘Rebound Effect’ has much to answer for with increased energy use.  That is, although products are getting more and more efficient per unit of ‘use’ or ‘utility’ we get out of them, we are buying more products and sometimes multiples of the same product, and are using these products for much longer periods and often not ever switching them off (sometimes it is not physically possible to switch them off as there is no manual ‘off’ switch).

Well, only 5 years later (better late than never),  the US Energy Information Adminsitration (EIA) has come up with exactly the same findings in US households.  They have looked at energy use in the house in 1978 and in the year 2005, and concluded that electricity use in appliance and gadgets has, yep you guessed it, nearly doubled over the timeframe.  I reproduce the diagram below.

The information comes from a survey that the US EIA carries out on the energy usage in 12,000 typical American homes.  For this report they have compared how energy use has changed over three decades.   Over the period from the ’70s to mid 90s, U.S. homes on average have become larger, have fewer occupants, and are generally more energy-efficient. In 2005.  Energy use per household was 95 million British thermal units (Btu) of energy compared with 138 million Btu per household in 1978, a drop of 31 percent.   But still, the

However, the amount of electricity used in appliances and products over this timescale has almost doubled from 17% of total energy used in the home to over 30%.  The EIA put this down in part to a rapid expansion in ownership and use of entertainment and communication technology products – similar to the expansion of these products in the UK (see Ampere Strikes Back, the follow up to Rise of the Machines that focused on CE and ICT products).

What this goes to show, yet again, is that we can not rely entirely on technology advances and legislative measures to improve efficiency alone.  We need to educate the people who buy these new products and gadgets that the way they use them in the home is as important as ensuring they buy the most efficient product available in the range. Buying an A+ american style double doored fridge-freezer with added ice-maker and built in TV, for a 2 people household say, is NOT going to save electricity, although the occupants might have a warm, fluffy feeling inside because they have bought an A+ product!








A month ago I blogged about my quest to find an efficient, low-carbon heating solution for my ‘home-office’, as using central heating system seemed overkill since I spent most of my working day holed up in one small room.  At the time I was awaiting delivery of a bio-ethanol fuelled portable heater that I hoped would be the answer to my ‘carbon-free cosiness’ quest.  Well, the heater duly arrived and I have been using it over the last weeks, and so i can now report on my experience.

To start with the positives I can say  it is a mighty fine looking heater.  It’s all glass and black metal and has a flame that runs across the bottom of the heater – which does much to make you feel warm.  It also heats a small area up very fast, I can go from 15 centigrade to 24 in about half an hour (at which point I’m sweltering and have to put the fire off).  There is also hardly a smell, although there is a faint whiff of fuel that does linger.

So from a looks and warmth potential it does the job nicely.

However, there are a few downsides.  Apparently I am risking life and limb by using it in such a small room!  They recommend not using such heaters in spaces smaller then about 3×3 meters.  My room is hardly 2×2.  They also recommend keeping a window open when you have the heater on – which kind of defeats the purpose of having it there – so I have not been doing this; instead figuring my leaky old Edwardian house would have enough natural ventilation to do this job for me.  And, so far, so good, I haven’t felt faint or passed out in a swoon.  Although I do make sure to take regular breaks from the room.

The biggest downside I can see is the cost of such a system.  I bought a bulk load of the bio-ethanol with the heater and it worked out at about £4 per 1-litre bottle, although single bottles can cost as much as £5!.  When you consider that petrol/diesel, even at an all time high, is only approx. £1.30 a litre that does seem a little steep.  I also wonder how a fuel that is made locally (well, within the UK at least), from waste organic materials can cost nearly 4 times the price of a fuel that is dug out of the ground or deep sea, refined, and then transported thousands of miles to get here?

The heater will run for about 4 hours on its 1-litre bottle.  I put the heater on and off sporadically during the day as the unit does warm my small space up quickly and efficiently.  But I still get through, on average, a bottle per day.  Hence I am spending £4 daily to keep myself warm.  This is much more expensive than my gas central heating system and even an electrical heater – a friend has a halogen mini heater that keeps her office snug and that has a 400Watt rating, so it costs her about 6p per hour to keep warm as compared to my 50p per hour equivalent!

So, the moral of the story seems to be if you want to do the right thing carbon-wise, its gonna cost you lots more than by conventional carbon-intensive means.  I’m trying to find other, cheaper, local, waste derived supplies of the fuel but the best I can find at the moment works out at just under £3 per litre.  Still a high comparative cost.

Hence, if anyone out there knows of a bio-ethanol source out there that is sustainable and cheap, please let me know.  But I fear you can only get one of those two options in any one product!



Last night I had the pleasure of listening to Rachel Botsman, the co-author of a new book, released today, entitled ‘What’s mine is yours – how collaborative consumption is changing the way we live’.  Rachel is a snazzy, eloquent, entertaining and highly knowledgable speaker on the topic of all things collaborative.   She titles herself a ‘Social Innovator’ and has devoted the last few years to the idea of collaborative consumption and how technology is acting as the lynchpin for it.

For those of you who do not know what i’m talking about (and I confess I didn’t either until last night), collaborative consumption is all about how we can consume services rather than consuming ‘stuff’.  Some well known examples of this include ideas such as car clubs, where you buy access to a service, i.e. mobility when you need it, rather than buying a car (which apparently, on average sits idly outside your home for 23 hours a day); or the land-share scheme, where people with spare land who are not using it (unused gardens for e.g.) are partnering up with people who have a desire to ‘grow-their-own’ but have no access to land (some waiting lists for allotments can span 40 years!!).  Or even the more recent ‘Boris Bike’ scheme in london where people with a need to get from A to B quickly play for the temporary loan of a bike to get them there.

Another fascinating fact from Rachel is that 90% of the ‘stuff’ we own are used for just 1 day a month,  and a DIY tool such as a power drill is used for an average of 12 to 13 minutes in its entire lifetime!  How much better to have somewhere local where you could simply borrow, or rent, a power drill for those 13 minutes, instead of having one cluttering up your understairs cupboard.

Of course, eBay is one of the pioneers of a peer-to-peer redistribution scheme, although some think that eBay has now lost a lot of what made it such a revolutionary new approach to small scale trading in its early days.  But now, there are micro, and not so micro, websites dabbling in all sorts of peer-to-peer trading over the world .  The one that impressed me most is called AirBnB, a website where you can offer up a room in your house to paying guests.  There are rooms available all over the world, from castles in Scotland to whole islands in Fiji – all at a relatively low cost.  800,000 reservations have been made through AirBnb since it set up about 2 years ago.  Thats pretty amazing given it involves welcoming strangers into your home!

Of course, all of these new ways of doing business require a huge dollop of trust.  Trust in strangers at that.  But Rachel argues that this is what the Net is fostering through these sites, and that the 21st Century will be defined as the century of ‘collaborative consumption’ in the same way as the later half of the 20th has been defined in terms of ‘conspicuious consumption’.  We, as citizens will become defined by not what we consume, but what we contribute.

Its a lovely thought, and I for one hope that time will prove her right.  In the meantime, I will read her book, consume it, but then pass it on to others to do the same

Here is a TED video of Rachel doing her thing: http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/rachel_botsman_the_case_for_collaborative_consumption.html 


Since the start of this really cold winter, and because I’m working from home quite a bit at the moment, my attention has turned to the most efficient and lowest carbon solutions to heating my (rather small) home-office environment.  This has been especially the case as, up until now, I have used my central heating system to keep warm, which seems a little crazy given I spend 90% of the time in one small portion of the house, but am heating the whole thing.

I monitor my energy use on a monthly basis (being a bit of a data geek at heart), so was a little taken aback when I saw how much my gas usage and bill was for December.  Compared to the December before (2009), I had used almost a 1/3rd more gas (see graph below)!  Albeit the weather was colder in December 2010 compared to the year before, but still, the increase seemed unacceptably high.  Interestingly though, my electricity usage had not changed a jot.

I had been considering buying a small electric heater, or a halogen model, but the cost of going down that route would potentially be comparable to my (efficient A+ condensing) gas boiler system, and the carbon emissions would be much higher, so that wasn’t really my ideal solution. 

Rugging up is an option that I had already employed, but its amazing how cold you get sitting still for a extended period.  I was ending up typing with my gloves on during the chilliest days, and that was with the heating on!

But recently I came across what seems like a perfect, if not exactly cheap, solution!  A portable bio-ethanol fuelled heater.  The company claim that the bio-ethanol comes totally from a by-product of organic waste.  The fuel apparently also does not smell or release any smoke.

I say ‘apparently’ as I am currently awaiting delivery so cannot report on its efficacy or ponginess-rating yet.  But I’m very much looking forward to receiving it and testing out its claims.

Its not a cheap option though!  The bottles, 1 litre size, are about a fiver a throw, and I litre will last around 4 hours apparently.  So I’m hoping I will be able to use it briefly and intermittently throughout the day to warm the room up, and hopefully the bottle will last me a few days at least.  I’ll report back on the typical cost to run it in due course.

The other plus is that it is quite a stylish looking object, and gives off a living flame that does much psychologically to keep you warm!

I will not post a link to the product yet, just in case it turns out to be a bit of a (expensive) dud, but watch this space for updates in my quest for cosy, carbon neutral heating.