Carbon Omissions: why we need to start talking about consumption


Elena Blackmore, a Project Officer at the Public Interest Research Centre, writes about the Carbon Omissions event in London two weeks ago.

If our carbon emissions are falling, it means we’re on the right track, right? And we’ve done it without needing to drastically change our economics (or even our lifestyles). But what if our accounting systems are wrong?

On Tuesday of last week, the Public Interest Research Centre (PIRC) launched a brand new animation exposing three lies we are told consistently by our government about our emissions. The animation, produced in collaboration with leading animator Leo Murray and acclaimed journalist George Monbiot, is the culmination of a lengthy project by PIRC to ensure the UK’s emissions are properly tackled by the Government.

We currently account only for territorial emissions: those created within our own borders. This conveniently allows us to ignore the emissions associated with everything we consume that we import from elsewhere in the world. Is this such a big deal? Well, yes. It means that, whilst on paper, the UK’s carbon emissions have fallen by 19% since 1990, when measured on a consumption basis they have risen by 20%. As ex-PIRC Director Guy Shrubsole showed through Freedom of Information requests two years ago, ministers and civil servants have known about this for many years but (in a shocking show of irresponsibility) have chosen to simply ignore it.

On the panel, John Barrett of Leeds University had also crunched the numbers on whether our emissions were going up because of a burgeoning population – a favoured smoke-screen by many who don’t like to address their own consumption patterns. The Optimum Population Trust (now Population Matters) used to have a scheme whereby you could offset the emissions of your flight by paying £5 that would go towards family planning in sub-Saharan Africa. John’s conclusion? Yes, of course the number of people has an impact, but nowhere near the size of the impact of our increased consumption.

But consumption drives growth, and growth keeps us afloat, and that’s the only way we can be happy, right? Well, no. Welcome to another lie. After a certain level, increases in income have no bearing on how happy we are, as Kate Soper of London Metropolitan University discussed. Focusing on consumption and growth is not only misleading, it’s actually damaging to us and the planet. Misleading because the error margins are often bigger than the miniscule increases or decreases fixated upon by rolling news; before even getting to the fact that GDP excludes most of what we hold dear: how happy we are, how much time we have to spend with our friends, how we treat one another. As Robert F. Kennedy once said, such reductionisms “measure neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country.”

Damaging, perhaps more worryingly, because a focus on money and consumerism can actually make us less happy, less concerned about the environment, and less compassionate, because of the encouragement of materialistic and self-interested values. Research shows that these values are in direct, psychological opposition to values centred on concern for community, other people and the environment, as Tom Crompton of WWF told us on Tuesday. Encouraging consumerism is not only harming the planet through its directly destructive use of resources, it is undermining society’s concern about this damage and ability to act collectively to work against such damage.

So what can we do about it? First, maintain the pressure on our government to take our outsourced emissions into account – and start tackling consumption. Alice Bows outlined the need to not get locked into more carbon intensive energy systems such as investing in fracking. Ruth Potts and Kate Soper argued for our need to redefine our relationship with material goods: encouraging collaborative production as well as consumption. John Barrett said we should at least stop talking about GDP before finding an alternative (of which there are many existing suggestions). Caroline Lucas, MP for Brighton Pavillion, said we must bring the issues of climate and consumption back onto the political agenda. A recently launched campaign, Leave Our Kids Alone, was mentioned, and the panel were in agreement that advertising – a key component of consumer culture – must be curbed to allow our minds to be freer of clutter and anti-social values.

Audio from the event, held at Friends House Euston, will be available online from later this week. The speakers were Guy Shrubsole (Friends of the Earth), Kate Soper (London Met Uni), John Barrett (Leeds Uni), Alice Bows (Tyndall Centre, Sustainable Consumption Institute), Tom Crompton (WWF-UK), Ruth Potts (New Materialism), Caroline Lucas (MP, Green Party).


The Work that Reconnects: spiraling towards sustainability


What makes CAT special? CAT is so many things to so many people, but in the two months I’ve volunteered here every answer to this question seems to come back to those three words: inspire, inform, enable. Last Saturday these words gained new meaning for me when I went on a bit of a personal journey through ‘The Work that Reconnects,’ a workshop at CAT based on Joanna Macy’s work and superbly facilitated by Jenny Smith and Jenni Horsfall. This was an intensely personal process, and it was inspiring to see people trust each other with their vulnerabilities – so here I’ll only be talking about my own experience. But be warned, tears were definitely involved.

If you wanted a place to be introspective and thoughtful, you could hardly do better than go to the Brook Trust room in WISE. With its big bay windows and pale ash walls, it seemed to concentrate the sunlight into a calming glow.

Unlike the Douglas fir, CAT's birch trees show the rejuvenation of native flora in the quarry

From the south facing window I could see a small Douglas fir pushing its way out of the steep slate scree: a symbol of local natural triumph just as surely as it reminded me of the global wave of human-distributed non-native species. Over the course of the day I found my eyes returning to that evergreen, as if I could call forth from its needles and the surrounding landscape a message of purpose and hope.

Because let’s be clear: from the moment we started the Work that Reconnects spiral by giving gratitude, I was kind of an emotional wreck. This spiral progresses from gratitude, to honour our pain, to seeing with new eyes, to going forth. On an intellectual level I found much to admire in these phases, but in the moment something about the group’s openness smashed down my walls of rational control and paved a road from my gooey emotional centre straight to my tear ducts. Crying off and on all day was frankly exhausting, and I’m still trying to put my learning into words. But I know the workshop helped and changed me, and I’m happy to let the answers emerge organically. In the meantime, you’ll find me reading some of Macy’s books for more inspiration – and hopefully dry-eyed.

There’s much about the workshop and the Work that Reconnects that I haven’t described here, but there’s a whole network to fill you in on the details. One exercise I found particularly useful for thinking about next steps and new projects was called “the creativity cycle,” using the seasons as a metaphor for change. This sort of thinking may not be for the faint of heart, but if you’re willing to step outside your comfort zone I highly recommend it. So many of the problems facing our world – climate change, environmental destruction, poverty, disease, war and so on – are so overwhelming in their scale and awfulness it can be hard to imagine a positive future. But feelings of panic, fear and loss are nothing new, and  the Work that Reconnects reminded me that we are not alone – and that we can turn our pain into new strength.

The 13th century Persian poet Rumi wrote a poem called “Intelligence and Tears” that Jenny read out at the beginning of the workshop. Not even Rumi had all the answers, but poetry seems to me as good a place as any to begin the final part of the spiral, the ‘going forth’ into the world again:

Till the cloud weeps, how should the garden smile?
The weeping of the cloud and the burning of the sun
are the pillars of this world: twist these two strands together.
Since the searing heat of the sun and the moisture of the clouds
keep the world fresh and sweet,
keep the sun of your intelligence burning bright and your eye glistening with tears.

Recommended Weekend Viewing

The web is choc-a-bloc with videos vying for your attention on a cold evening indoors.  There are some great nuggets of green information and environmental news online.

Here’s a selection of CAT’s top videos and our favourites from the rest.

ZCB’s artist in residence, Joanna Wright, shared this inspiring video on zerocarbonarchive. The film by Lucas Oleniuk and Randy Risling documents a windmill builder in Africa:


Germany is leading the way with renewable energy and the Energiewende. This great little video from The Heinrich Böll Foundation explains what’s going on over there:


This video created by Lightgeist Media and the London College of Communication highlights the positive message of CAT:


Bob Shaw teaches on our woodland and greenwood crafts short courses. Here he demonstrates how best to fell a tree sustainably:


CAT has some fantastic organic gardens at the visitor centre. Our experienced gardener, Roger, talks briefly about his techniques:


Community energy schemes are a great way to cut costs and emissions! This short film by Cornelia Reetz shows how the Scottish town of Fintry is using renewable energy to benefit the community:


This short film from Josh Fox, Oscar-nominated director of GASLAND, looks at the techniques used in fracking for shale gas. (Warning: this contains strong language)


You can find all our videos on CAT’s youtube channel.

And let’s not forget why being sustainable is so important in the first place. Last year, Sir David Attenborough spoke to the Guardian about climate change from his perspective. Watch it here.

ZCBlog: the Energiewende

As we write up the research for our third ZCB report on how Britain can decarbonise, it’s interesting to look around at what’s being suggested in other decarbonisation strategies. Germany, for instance, stands out for its ambitious Energiewende (‘energy transition’) that combines a phasing out of nuclear and coal power with a huge increase in renewables to achieve an 80% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. (If you get CAT’s Clean Slate, you’ll have seen the article on Energiewende in our Spring 2013 edition.)

So far this plan has had dramatic results. For instance, in ten years Germany’s renewable electricity jumped from 6% to 25% of its total share, and about 50% of capacity is community owned.

So what lessons does this offer for the UK? Two weeks ago PRASEG, the Parliamentary Renewable and Sustainable Energy Group, held a seminar to discuss just that.

“This is the most amazing, in both senses of the word, challenge that they’re engaged in,” said the seminar’s Chair, Tom Heap, a main presenter on Radio 4’s environmental documentary series Costing the Earth. “Whether you think it’s fantastic or somewhat flawed, it’s of great benefit for us in the UK because it’s like a live, pilot experiment. We can see how they’re getting on, and hopefully learn from the strengths and weaknesses of what they’re doing.”

ZCB’s Energy Modeller Tobi Kellner agrees: “The issues brought up in this debate are absolutely spot-on, and very similar to many of the debates we have in the ZCB energy research team. Germany is currently a few years ahead of the UK on the trajectory towards a future powered by 100% renewable energy, and in many ways their Energiewende is similar to the kind of political push that we’d like to see in this country.

From a socio-political perspective, perhaps the most interesting aspect the speakers touch on is how it happened that in Germany support for this transition spans right across the political spectrum, including German industry and conservative parties. From a technical perspective, it’s great that the speakers don’t leave out the significant challenges involved with a transition from fossil fuels to renewables. This includes the question of how variability can be balanced, and on the changing role of coal, gas and nuclear power stations in the energy system.”

PRASEG has shared recordings of this seminar on their website, and we’ve embedded them below for ease of access. Enjoy!

  • An introduction by Tom Heap (3min)

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  • Rainer Baake, Germany’s State Secretary at the Federal Environment Ministry from 1998 to 2005 and current Director of the think tank Agora Energiewende (20min)

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  • R Andreas Kraemer, Director and CEO of Ecologic Institute in Berlin, Spokesperson of Germany’s ecological research network Ecornet and Coordinator of the British-German Environment Forum (16min)

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  • Dr Alan Whitehead MP, Labour MP for Southampton Test, member of the Energy and Climate Change Select Committee and PRASEG Chair (17min)

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  • A Q&A session (1hr)

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A week at Ecobuild shows a strong CAT community

In the face of huge numbers of exhibitors and talks competing for attention at this year’s Ecobuild, the event was a welcome reminder that CAT still offers something unique in the world of sustainable design.

Ecobuild 2013 was a massive event. With over 1,500 exhibitors, nearly 60,000 attendees, and dozens of conferences and seminars, it’s fantastic that so many visitors managed to find their way to the CAT stall. The Internet has been alive with comments about the Ecobuild experience, tweeting about everything from the need for more power sockets to a call for more humanitarian and student organisations.

This latter concern made the Centre for Alternative Technology stand out in a sea of product-oriented, for-profit stalls. Our GSE banners caught many people’s eye, and with building schematics thin on the ground elsewhere quite a few architects stopped to peruse the students’ sketches on the walls.The models were also popular, especially the bird hide!

Students, lecturers and staff generously gave their time to stand at the stall and field all sorts of questions, from the basic – “What is CAT, anyway?” – to the complex – how to become totally self-sufficient in energy, for instance, or how to find out the ratio of materials in WISE’s rammed earth walls.

“I had an interesting conversation with a woman who was really disillusioned with the trendy state of architecture education in general,” recalls Jake, a current Professional Diploma student who worked at CAT’s Ecobuild stall, “most people at other schools won’t approach anything to do with science and maths. Here at CAT you can really talk about physics in a way you can’t at other places.”

Many visitors expressed interest in coming to CAT to study – and Student Support Officer Will, who worked at Ecobuild all three days, talked to a student who just graduated from CAT’s Professional Diploma course this January, and who had actually first heard of our programme at Ecobuild.

Students from all our graduate courses – REBE, Prof Dip, AEES and AEES Distant Learning – volunteered and came to say hello, and enjoyed getting the chance to meet and talk to students on other CAT courses. Those who came to explore Ecobuild tried to attend as many seminars as they could, with generally positive responses. Even the staff got to check out some events – like the final conference on art – and displays – see the photo at the bottom!

Friends of CAT also stopped by to ask about how things have changed at the Centre since their last visit, and to tell their stories of their experience here. With Ecobuild’s focus firmly on the physical – and in some cases, the concrete – the general appreciation of CAT’s message shows its continued ability to inform, enable and inspire.


London can feel worlds away from Machynlleth (driving the Ecobuild van there and back was proof of that!) and it’s not always easy to visit. Luckily CAT is sometimes able to come to you. If you’re in the Birmingham area, why not check out our stall at the National Homebuilding and Renovating Show? Tobi Kellner, renewable energy expert, will be speaking every day of the show at 12.15 on wood as an energy source.


This display of wool insulation caught many people's eye, and CAT students and staff show their appreciation!



ZCBlog: reflections on an Ecobuild seminar

If you attended Ecobuild last week (CAT’s review to follow), you know there were almost too many intriguing conferences and seminars to choose from. We didn’t manage to make it to ‘Is this the end of the road for zero carbon?’ but if anyone else did we’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below. (Our answer is a definite “Not if we can help it!”)

We did manage to get to the final conference of Ecobuild, though, and it was well worth the wait. In ‘Encouraging sustainability through art,’ psychologist Oliver James, The Idler founder Tom Hodgkinson, and artists Sophie Molins and Clare Patey discussed how art can help us overcome our addition to consumerism and work for a healthier planet. Of course, this fits right in with ZCB’s artist in residence project. In this week’s ZCBlog, we’ll talk about some of their arguments and projects we found most exciting.

Coming to terms with climate change

Host Oliver James got things off to a provocative start by calling Britain a society of “credit-fuelled consumer junkies,” but went on to describe how today’s climate challenge is for all of us to accept the facts, and then to tolerate the distress these facts cause us. He then outlined three psychological coping mechanisms, the first of which is denial: climate change isn’t happening, or if it is humans aren’t causing it. The second is maladaptive response, a category most of us fall into: to accept climate change but blunt the feelings of fear, grief, anger, panic and so on with a range of arguments. These include:

  • We’ll fix it through technology, like geoengineering
  • Live in the present, and ignore the scary future
  • Diversionary tactics, i.e. small behavioural changes (“if I recycle then I’m doing my bit”)
  • Blame shifting (“the US and China are the real culprits”)
  • Indifference
  • Unrealistic optimism

The third response, and the only one that leads to effective action, is adaptive coping: to accept climate change, go through the process of mourning, and transition to practical problem solving. The best way to encourage others to cope adaptively, James concludes, is to walk them through their fears gently, and ease them into considering new values.

Stop climate change by doing nothing

One of these new values might be idleness. Tom Hodgkinson spoke about how doing nothing – and thus travelling less, buying less, using less technology, etc. – can mean fewer carbon emissions. At the same time, he argued, we get our good ideas and do our creative thinking when we are at rest.  Setting aside time for this could be crucial to planning for sustainability.

He also offered the idea of permaculture as a model of the ideal lifestyle. Permaculture is an intelligent system that requires less input from the humans running it: minimum effort for maximum output. As we try to reduce energy use, we might turn to ecological solutions like permaculture to guide our thinking.

Is art the answer?

As we craft solutions to carbon emission reduction, should we turn to art to convert people to a particular way ofthinking? Sophie Molins is Art Co-ordinator at Artists Project Earth (APE), a non-profit that uses popular music to raise funds for climate change and social justice causes. Musicians in other countries make remixes of popular songs by artists as diverse as Eminem and Mumford & Sons, and profits from these tracks have funded over 330 projects to date.

While APE tries to raise awareness of our moral and spiritual obligations to stop climate change, Clare Patey’s site-specific work emphasises social engagement and bringing people together – and she is adamant that art should not be didactic. She helped design the Carbon Ration Book,

and organises Feast on the Bridge in London every year to get people involved in the process of food production, consumption and disposal. Another piece she created laid out all the food an average British person would eat in their lifetime, from the thousands of milk bottles drunk to the sheep eaten. Rather than presenting a finish product for people to view, Patey shows the huge transformative power of including people in the creative process.

Overall this conference touched on a whole host of issues about how we limit our emissions and respond to a changing climate. Should we create art, or seek therapy – or just sit at home and play cards? Perhaps we can do all three. Above all, this last conference at Ecobuild was an inspiring glimpse into the way creativity can turn even the of biggest challenges into an opportunity.


For your Zero Carbon news, check out the Spring 2013 ZCB Newsletter!

Podcast: social perceptions of wind power

On this week’s podcast we learn about the social side of wind power, and particularly the strength of local opposition and NIMBYism (‘not in my backyard’), from a graduate of CAT’s MSc Architecture: Advanced Environmental and Energy Studies course. Ruth Chapman now works in wind power development for renewable energy company Dulas, but for her MSc thesis she investigated social responses in Wales to wind turbines based on attachment to place, a sense of fairness, and other values. She also uses excerpts from interviews to illustrate how her research reveals the complex challenges and tensions that will determine whether we meet governmental renewable energy targets, and whether we go on to achieve a zero carbon future.


Previous podcasts

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Podcast: what policies do we need to encourage eco-renovation?

Energy use has been in the news recently, from Ofgem’s warning that Britain will come “dangerously” close to power shortages within two years, to the public outrage in response to Centrica reported that British Gas profits increased 11% after a hike in prices a few months ago.

Following on from our most recent sustainable architecture post, this week’s podcast describes current refurbishment policies in the UK, in particular the Green Deal. Tina Fawcett, Senior Researcher at the Environmental Change Institute at the University of Oxford, explains why we need policy if we’re going to refurbish Britain’s buildings – and what new policies might be effective and feasible.


Previous podcasts

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Podcast: climate change migration myths

Should the world brace itself for waves of “climate change refugees,” and what does that have to do with islands, cities or natural disasters? This week’s talk to students on our MSc Architecture: Advanced Environmental and Energy Studies course is from Alex Randall, past CAT employee, current communications activist at COIN, and co-creator of the carbon-trading spoof CheatNeutral. Says Alex,

“If anything, climate change is not going to result in huge numbers of people moving to new locations, it’s going to result in the amplification of existing migratory corridors. And… it’s not likely to be across borders.”



Previous podcasts

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ZCBlog: Can climate change be funny?

At Zero Carbon Britain the researchers are wrapping up their research, crunching all their data to see how the ZCB scenario will change, and gearing up to write it all down (to seriously mix our metaphors). Which brings us to a big question: how do we talk about climate change? It’s a hugely complicated problem that can be hard to understand – and if you do understand it, it can be even scarier than it is complex. From the right angle, of course, this scariness can be funny.

Some people are really knowledgeable about climate change and work really hard to stop it or reduce their daily carbon footprint. Others ignore it, don’t believe in it, or wish they could do something about it – if only they had the time, or it wasn’t so difficult. And there are those who have become disillusioned because not enough is being done by government, or other people. How can one person’s actions make a difference when the problem is planet-sized? As Comedian Sean Lock said of climate change and recycling, “I feel like I’ve turned up at an earthquake with a dustpan and brush!”

So how do we convince people to take climate change seriously, and to think creatively about solutions, without being completely depressing?

This advert from the Norwegian organisation Miljøagentene, helping kids become ‘Eco Agents’ to strive for a positive future, shows one way to find the humorous side to having a sense of responsibility.

In contrast, this video, the five scariest things about climate change, shows that you can talk about these enormous problems in an upbeat way – and perhaps learn something new into the bargain!

Have you come across any funny or inspiring videos or pictures about climate change? Share them with us here!