As government ministers return to work this week, they should notice something different about the way things are done at the office: Westminster is going green. Prime minister Gordon Brown announced just before Christmas that, from now on, all policy and investment decisions made on his watch must take account of the cost of their impact in terms of climate change damage. In effect, this means ministers will have to factor in a notional “carbon price” into everything they do, making green policy choices appear relatively cheaper and eco-unfriendly options more expensive.
Responding to Brown’s announcement, Tony Juniper, head of Friends of the Earth, said: “At the moment there are gaping holes in government policy, with them professing concern for climate change on one hand and rushing to expand airports and widen roads on the other. If this helps to fill in that gap it has to be a step in the right direction.”
While few of us have the power to make such environmentally significant decisions as whether to build an extra runway or back a nuclear power station, we do make decisions with environmental implications every day as we go about our lives. And many of us are as guilty of the same “gaping holes” as the government in terms of claiming to want to reduce our own carbon footprint yet still driving to the corner shop to buy a newspaper and using two or three new carrier bags every time we pop to the supermarket.
No one is suggesting we need to go as far as ministers and sit down with a calculator to factor a notional “carbon price” into everything we do. But making an effort to think about the environment before we act and challenging a few old habits is probably a good start. Here are four simple ways you can start making a difference today.
Getting to work
The obvious answer if you live in an area well-served by public transport is to let the train – or bus – take the strain. If you are more remote, and you work too far away to walk or cycle, consider your car-related options carefully.
First, do you need your own car or could you share? Most cars parked at work will have arrived with four empty passenger seats this morning. Asking colleagues who live in a certain area to share lifts could save you all money as well as immediately reduce fuel consumption. Alternatively, log on to www.carshare.com to see a full directory of car-sharing schemes and whether you can find or organise a group to match your needs.
Second, what kind of car do you use? Your car of choice can make a huge difference – Greenpeace claims that some of the worst gas guzzlers consume up to 300 times more petrol than a fuel-efficient family car and advises drivers to choose the most fuel-efficient car in their price range. Converting your car to take liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), a clean-burning by-product of the oil production process previously considered waste, is another option. At about 46 pence a litre, LPG – or Autogas – is cheaper as well as producing lower harmful emissions than unleaded petrol or diesel. However, refuelling might be an issue – only one in five Shell garages sells LPG, for example. Go to www.greenfuel.org.uk for more information and to find your nearest LPG filling stations.
Third, what kind of driver you are matters. Servicing your car regularly, taking off unnecessary roof racks and bike racks and driving at lower speeds all help make your car more efficient and less damaging to the environment.
Too often, we sit in meetings wondering about their purpose and whether our presence is really needed. When they are off-site, or we have come into the office specially for the occasion, we should also be wondering whether they were worth the fuel used to get there!
When it is your turn to organise a meeting, you have the chance to put this right. Only organise a face-to-face meeting if, first, a phone call, e-mail or teleconference would not suffice and, second, the same people are not already due to meet about something else the same week and could discuss your issues then too.
These days, most of us supposedly work in paperless offices. In theory, this should mean that, although we are using more electricity to run computers and printers, we are using less paper and creating less waste.
This is rarely the case. Many of us hit the “print” button on our PCs when we receive an e-mail or document, we keep paper duplicates of everything held electronically, and monitors, PCs, printers and photocopiers are often left on or on stand-by from one day to the next.
The answers are obvious. Print out only those e-mails or documents when a hard copy is essential, when no one else in the office has already printed out the same thing, and once you have changed the format to get rid of any unnecessary double-spacing, large type and superfluous content. And print on both sides of paper. If you are asked to repeatedly print out the same information for different managers, such as for statistical returns, complain. In this age of efficiency savings, no employer wants to waste time and money any more than you want to waste trees.
Every evening, switch off your PC and monitor. If you are the last to leave, check that lights, heaters, air conditioning units, photocopiers, fax machines and printers are turned off too.
Finally, don’t just think paper when you think recycling computers and hardware can be recycled too. Actionaidrecycling recycles printer cartridges and laptops – go to www.actionaidrecycling.org.uk – while www.donateapc.org.uk and www.itforcharities.co.uk help find unwanted equipment new homes.
The biggest offenders at work are plastic and polystyrene cups and food boxes, and over-filled kettles. Again the answer is simple: bring in your own cup, plate and cutlery, and only boil as much water as you need each time you make a drink – according to the Energy Saving Trust, if everyone boiled only enough water to make a cup of tea instead of always filling the kettle, we could save enough electricity in a year to run more than half the country’s street lighting.
What you eat is also important. Wherever possible, try to buy food that is local and organic. If you bring sandwiches to work, put them in a washable container rather than wrap them in cling film. And if you feel like fish and chips, find out where and how the fish was caught. Over-fishing is emptying the seas and many ecosystems are at the point of collapse. You can find out which species are under particular pressure at www.greenpeace.org.uk/oceans and about buying sustainable seafood at www.fishonline.org.
● About £6.8bn of energy is wasted every year, the equivalent of £113 for every man, woman and child in the UK.
● Every household in the UK creates about six tonnes of carbon dioxide every year – twice as much CO2 as the average car emits in a year.
● UK households use £1.8bn worth of electricity every year on lighting. Energy-efficient light bulbs last about 10 times longer than conventional bulbs, and each one could save up to £7 on your annual electricity bill. If every UK household installed just one energy-efficient light bulb, we would save £59m a year.
● More than nine out of 10 homes in the UK have a washing machine, and the average washing machine is used for 274 cycles a year. Using a 40deg cycle rather than a 60deg cycle cuts the electricity used by one-third.
● The average household wastes £28 each year by leaving appliances on standby. Across the UK, this is equivalent to the annual output of more than two 700MW power stations.
Source: See the Energy Saving Trust website for more details of how to cut your carbon dioxide emissions at home and work: www.energysavingtrust.org.uk
This article appeared in the 10 January issue under the headline “Clean up your act”