Sustainable = cheaper?

Well… sometimes.

David highlights some Economist stats that demonstrate that sustainability doesn’t necessarily cost more. In fact, sometimes it can save money.

David makes the point that although overall these measures are cheaper, often the decision makers are not the ones who benefit from the reduced costs. And as a result they don’t actually implement these simple measures that have a societal benefit, because they don’t get to see that benefit on their bottom line.

I’ve kind of had this thought before, but never fully put two and two together. In buying our unit in Newtown we were really aware of the poor water management and lack of sustainability features like water recycling, rain-water tanks, solar panels or motion sensor lighting (the body corporate did look into installing a motion sensor lighting system after the fact but the cost was too high to install then – no doubt it would have been significantly cheaper if it had been incorporated at build time). We had limited options due to our financial situation – but mostly it was a case of the “green” options simply not existing.

Virtually every place we looked at neglected the simple measures – which was immensely frustrating for us as buyers. We did end up in a place that was north facing and has good insulation, but had to forgo some of the other things we were aware would have saved us money and been better for the environment.

My view, much as I hate to admit it, is that the buyer has no influence on this – we can ask about it, but in the end we kinda have to accept what’s available (“no influence” is probably too strong – but it certainly is negligible in the grand scheme of things). Even if we chose not to buy, waiting for an enviro-friendly place to come on the market – the market (i.e. developers) don’t know this, and aren’t incentivised to do so. A market failure caused by lack of information perhaps…

I wish there was a way for us all to flag what we were looking for so developers could take heed (assuming we could get sufficient numbers interested in sustainability measures). But there is no such mechanism as far as I can see. So ultimately I feel that government intervention is the only way.

If I were building or buying a house it would be a different story – I’d have a lot more options and choices and my dollar could be focused more effectively. But living in Sydney I can’t see any way that I can afford a house, let alone build one – so I’m stuck relying on developers of apartments and other urban housing. I think the situation is even worse in high density buildings.

But I’m not holding my breath – as I understand it the BASIX laws have actually been clawed back to support developers who claim that it’s too expensive (i.e. too much of a hit on their profits) to do some of these things. It’s really so short sighted and neglects the state of the environment in the name of profit – two steps forward, one step back.

Bring Hicks Home

Amnesty International have just launched a very clever site as part of their campaign to Bring David Hicks home.

They have a “cell” – the same as the one David Hicks has been held in for 5 years without trial – that they are touring around the country with. Visitors to the cell are presented with a “passport” explaining David’s situation, and once in the cell, they can leave a video message, which is then presented on the Bring David Hicks home website.

If you have visited the cell, you can find your video by using the search/filter options on the site.

I think the site is very good – helping to bring home the reality of Hicks’ situation and allowing people to connect in a more emotional way with what is often presented as a legal or political issue.

I also love the fact that the site uses YouTube for video hosting – a fantastic use of participant media.

The site was launched yesterday by Digital Eskimo – who also helped WWF build the Future is man made site. Nice work!

Update: GetUp have also just launched a new video as part of their campaign on the same issue.

Home water savings a drop in the ocean

The Age: Home savings virtually negligible: expert.

At a water seminar held at Woodford music festival, the dude giving the talk indicated that around 70% of water used in Australia was for irrigation and agriculture.

This highlights one of the big frustrations for me, wanting to live more sustainably. I know, some of the time, that the savings are much smaller than those that could be achieved if business (or government) stepped up to the plate.

My take on it is similar to Mr Byron’s:

“One of the good things about these small gestures is they indicate public interest and buy-in, that is the public care about this issue, they’re concerned about it, and they want to help.

“That’s terrific for when it gets to the really serious stage, and we really need to do something that involves a little bit of pain, the public is already onside,” he said.

“But these little gestures will not even get us close to where we want go. If every man, woman and child in Australia was to do it, the difference in water use would be negligible.

“The problem is the big actions carry with them a pretty big tag, but rather than bite the bullet and adopt some of the big changes needed, we’re told to be satisfied with making these symbolic gestures.”

What do you think?

Cars and business

Oikos: The environmentally destructive tax rort for cars. The bottom line:

There’s lots of talk about new measures to discourage the use of fossil fuels and debates about carbon taxes, carbon trading, mandatory renewable targets and so on. But a good start would be simply removing the economically questionable and environmentally damaging tax breaks that exist for private cars.

Can’t say I disagree. I know a few people that have cars as part of salary packages or work pays for them – what say ye?

Incandescent ban

Ban the bulb

Seems like Malcolm Turnbull is considering banning incandescent light bulbs (more at news.com.au).

I think this is a great move that will not only benefit the environment, but will also reduce the cost of the bulbs as sales volume increases. (I also love the fact it’s front page news, and the top news item on Google News today. Brilliant!)

The Sydney Morning Herald has a great image that compares the two types of bulbs. What I love about the picture is that it compares the cost of 6 incandescent bulbs with one CFL – which is a much fairer cost comparison as the life of a CFL is much longer.

At a total cost of more than 6 times, and CO2 emissions of roughly the same proportion, the incandescents simply don’t stack up.

Of course, there’s no need to wait for government intervention – you can get CFLs on the shelf today.

(I also hope that CFL manufacturers ditch the plastic blister packs (which are annoying to open) and replace them with more conventional and easier to handle packaging…)

A couple of further thoughts – I agree with some of the comments I’ve read that it doesn’t take a lot of political will to do what Turnbull is suggesting. And that a lot more is needed. But it’s a great first step.

To put the announcement into perspective. From what I understand, lighting accounts for between 5% and 10% of all household emissions. That means that more than 90% of a households emissions still need to be addressed. Still a 5-7% gain in efficiency in a household is a big step forward and should be supported.

Hot water, which Turnbull is reportedly also targeting for efficiency measures, accounts for around 25-30%, which will have an even bigger impact.

Ultimately, however, the energy industry needs an overhaul to make the big difference required. As I’ve stated before, energy efficiency will play a big part in allowing that to happen.

(Image thanks to Lighter Footstep)

Recycled water

A couple of quick things that bug me about the recycled water “debate”.

  1. Sewage water is not the only water that can be recycled;
  2. That said, sewage water can be treated to be better than tap water;
  3. We don’t need to drink the result – it can be used for industrial use, or of non-potable uses (toilets, watering gardens etc.)

We keep seeing headlines that say “we’d be prepared to drink recycled sewage”, but that’s only one small part of the story. Even so, 75%+ of Australian’s would accept it according to the polls. Other reports show recycling is cheaper than desalination.

Regardless of what happens with desalination plants we need to start recycling, and the state governments need to start taking action now. Legislating that new buildings, especially apartments, be double piped is an important start. That means that new buildings will be ready for recycling – properly separating grey-water from sewage, and allowing recycled water to be used for non-potable purposes. (Being piped to support rain water tanks also would be an even better option.)

At the time of construction, the additional cost will be much lower than retrofitting – which is one of the reasons cited for not going ahead with recycling at present. Remove that barrier for the future. I suspect that the costs will be quite low – possibly a few thousand dollars for most dwellings. Does anyone know how much it would cost?

Even if the cost was a bit more than that, the government could even subsidise it in some way (by reducing rates for a period or with a simple cash incentive) – putting $$ up-front for a reduced cost down the line.

I do hope the debate moves on from here. Recycling must be part of the solution. Governments need to get serious, and stop wasting money on desalination plants that its own advisors say will be more expensive and less effective than recycling.

Update: Vincenze makes another good point – drinking water is only a small part of the water we use – and ends with this fun tidbit: “We should recycle water, but not pee.” Indeed 😉

Sustainable energy

This morning The Australian has front page: Climate target to cost $75bn.

AUSTRALIA’S best hope of making affordable but deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 to reach global targets is by using clean coal, nuclear and gas technologies rather than renewable energy sources.

It’s interesting to note that first paragraph includes clean coal and nuclear as solutions to reach that target. Neither of these technologies are available today. Clean coal is still just a dream (as the article says further down “Capturing and storing emissions from coal-fired power stations, if viable” – emphasis mine).

Nuclear will take at least 10 years to be introduced, even if the decision was made today to start down that path. That means that it will be 2015 at least before we’ll see the benefits. In fact the report suggests 2020 as the year.

The Australian goes on to report that the infrastructure cost for these technologies “could double the cost of electricity generation”. I’m sure that’s the high-end figure (thus the “could”). I’d like to know how they came to that conclusion – but it’s fairly well understood and accepted, by both the government, business and the public, that the cost of shifting our energy infrastructure is going to cost more.

Higher infrastructure costs present a two pronged problem: 1) it’s more expensive to create clean energy infrastructure than existing coal technologies, so the market is reluctant to invest unless there is clear incentives to do so; and 2) it’s going to cost more at the point of use (i.e. our bills will be higher.

Point 1 can be addressed by the introduction of a carbon tax, which is being considered by the government at the moment (I suspect as a result of the nuclear energy inquiry). This brings the cost of coal into line with competing clean technologies, by taking into consideration the environmental cost of burning coal.

Tim Flannery presents an interesting solution to point 2. He suggests that with though prices increase with the introduction of a carbon tax, the government can reduce PAYG tax by roughly the same amount. The government continues to receive the same revenue through the carbon tax. Tax the bad, not the good is the basic principle. The net result, he suggests, is that we, as consumers, will not notice the difference. Our bills will be higher, but the tax breaks would ease, if not neutralise the pain.

But there’s another measure that can be taken, one that often seems to be ignored: efficiency. If we use less, the overall cost to us is less.

When I started reading the article, the main question I had was who produced the report? The Energy Supply Association of Australia. From their homepage: “The Energy Supply Association of Australia represents Australia’s electricity and downstream gas businesses.” So in other words, the electricity industry. The industry has a vested interest in protecting their existing practices, which I suspect is why clean coal features prominently.

The article goes on to point out this interesting tid-bit: “The report uses lower cost estimates for clean-coal technology than the Switkowski review of nuclear energy in Australia and also assumes that nuclear technology is not available until 2020.”

Perhaps the Switkowski review used an inflated figure (which is plausible); or the electricity industry is citing deflated figures (which is also plausible). So, if clean coal technology does become possible, the actual cost is probably some where in between those two reports.

I think the chief of the ESAA hit the nail on the head with this quote:

ESAA chief executive Brad Page said the report, based on best available estimates of costs and technology changes, demonstrated the need to develop the widest portfolio of technologies possible to minimise the cost of greenhouse emissions cuts.

He also said that “Over the next 25 years, if you are seeking to achieve fairly deep cuts in emissions, then polices that favour a particular renewable technology are probably poor choices,” which I also agree with.

This is where a carbon tax can be effective – let the market decide the best solution. The government is pushing nuclear, but it shouldn’t push any one technology. However, where there is a significant public interest in not pursuing a particular technology (like dirty coal, or I would argue nuclear) the government should intervene, in my view.

WWF CEO Greg Bourne was quoted saying much the same thing: “WWF chief executive Greg Bourne remained opposed to nuclear energy and called for market mechanisms to accelerate the development of lower-emissions technologies.”

At least the Oz got WWF’s and Greg’s position on nuclear right this time 😉

As an aside, I wonder if a report was released showing that renewable energy could meet that need, would it be front page? Or do only controversial findings make the cut?

Reason I ask is that the Clean Energy Future reports, released a few years back by WWF, show how our energy requirements can be met with renewable energy and gas-fired power (for base load – not renewable, but with much lower CO2 emissions than coal-fired power). Is that not newsworthy?

Polls show that the public wants renewable energy, and believes that they are the way forward. Yet it seems practical solutions that exist today are ignored. Sigh…

Disclosure: I am an employee of WWF-Australia. The views expressed here are my own, and not necessarily those of my employer.

Latte Lexuses?

David over at Oikos posts an excellent overview of car efficiency standards in the US, and how they might apply in Australia. Café standards for cars: Espresso Excels and latte Lexuses.

Al Gore mentions efficiency standards in An Inconvenient Truth, and they are also referenced, from memory, in Who Killed the Electric Car. David’s piece gives a good overview (including the costs to manufacturers) and also suggests that such standards wouldn’t be as effective in Oz.

Update 26-Jan-2006: Martin Eberhard responds to the energy portion of Bush’s State of the Union speech with specific discussion of CAFE standards.

SBS advertising

SBS has been one of my favourite TV stations for some time – good intelligent programming that would never be seen on any other free-to-air station. In the last place I lived, however, the reception was pretty poor, and I wasn’t able to watch SBS for about the past 6-12 months.

In our new place we’ve got great reception and I have discovered that they’ve introduced the practice of interupting their programs with adverts. Previously they ran ads at the end of each show.

Their old method of advertising was actually one of the really nice things about SBS – I didn’t mind the ads. Often left them running before or after a show I wanted to watch. I don’t know why, but the ads they ran also seemed to be less mainstream and a bit more interesting than the purely commercial stations.

Now that they have switched to inserting ads into their programming, it feels odd and intrusive. Something about it just doesn’t feel right. And the ads they’re running seem less refined. And some of the special-ness of the station has been lost.

I was going to write to them to express my concern when I spotted an ad on SBS last night that points viewers to this FAQ page. They’ve obviously had a lot of responses to warrant giving up a revenue generating spot to tell their viewers why they changed.

Under the section “Why has SBS introduced in-program advertising?” they say:

SBS must increase its funding base if it is to continue to produce high quality news and current affairs services and unique drama, documentary and entertainment content. As much as possible, SBS believes that this content must be original and reflective of the diverse nature of Australian society. This is how SBS will retain its relevance.

The current funding model (commercial and government funds) cannot guarantee this. SBS has not received an increase in government funding in recent years and, for the reasons explained below, the current commercial model will not deliver the needed extra resources.

They then continue:

Research has shown SBS consistently loses almost 60% of its viewers because of these extended breaks. Viewers simply change channels or switch off due to the long gap between programs. It is no wonder that the commercial networks have all but eliminated between program breaks in an effort to retain viewers.

So the lack of government funding, and the unwillingness of their viewers to put up with ads means that they’ve reverted to the tried and true, yet highly annoying, method of the commercial networks.

The funny thing is I’m now more inclined to switch channels during their programs – something I never used to do. And often I’ll end up on another station for a while watching their. I wonder what their research says about standard viewing patterns in terms of audience drop-off during ad breaks? (I suspect that one of the reasons the Ten network puts in little 10 second spots telling you it’s a short ad break – so you’re less likely to switch channels.)

I’d love for the government to step up funding to avoid this. Or for someone to come up with a great idea for generating additional revenue for SBS outside of this method of advertising. But unfortunately I don’t think either will happen…

It’s a shame – and I can’t help but think that SBS is now on a downward slope towards programming for advertisers in order to secure additional revenue. I certainly hope they maintain their commitment to “produce high quality news and current affairs services and unique drama, documentary and entertainment”. Otherwise I fear they might find their audience dwindling faster than the rate they find new revenue opportunities (just like all the other networks).

Update 2007-01-30: mebbe this thread of Doc’s will present some interesting food for thought.