Bubble in the desert

A blog I started whilst on a GE "Bubble" assignment in Nevada. I'm back in Cambridge (UK) now but still miss the desert and my friends out there.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Terrapass.com carbon calculator debate

I'm having a bit of an argument with the folks at Terrapass.com about the fact that they carbon calculators ignore the radiative forcing effect of flying.

Here's what Tom Arnold wrote in response to my original email.

Hi Carl:

We’re actively tracking this issue, and the most recent research from FAA and others suggest that 2.7 number is actually not the right way to look at things. 2.7 is simply the average of four studies in the 90’s, and now scientists are proposing a different methodology.

We’re expecting a good survey paper out in a few weeks, which we’ll blog on. Thanks for your patience, we do want to get this right, but we want to do it with the science community’s support.

In the meantime, our store system easily allows you to purchase more, just increase the quantities associated with your flight offsets.

I'm not convinced they will publish my response to it so I'll repeat it here...

Hi Tom,

Huge thanks for your reply.

You are suggesting that the science I quoted is a bit out of date and that the Federal Aviation Authority has some better research. Do you think they may have a vested interest in coming up with a better number? I do.

Which are the studies you are referring to which give rise to the 2.7 figure? Even with data collected in the 1990s, as you suggest, since most of the commercial air fleet dates back to the 1970s I don't expect much has changed since then.

The science is clearly complex and slightly uncertain but it should be noted that the 2.7 figure comes from the IPCC 1999 report 'Aviation and the Global Atmosphere'.

Sir David King, former Chief Scientific Advisor to the UK government and a professor of Chemistry at Cambridge University puts this at "up to 3x". I think he's probably in a good position to understand the science and has no vested interest in mis-reporting on the issue. He quotes his source as The Stern Review p388 box 15.6 and the IPCC WGIII chapter 5.

David King also explains, quite clearly, what Radiative Forcing is all about. I'm sure he won't mind if I quote him directly. "Aviation is directly responsible for about 700 million tonnes of carbon dioxide each year, which is just 1.6 per cent of the global greenhouse emissions. However, molecule for molecule the emissions count much more than they would on the ground because planes are very efficient at causing greenhouse warming. High-altitude deliveries of nitrogen oxides (which form ozone another greenhouse gas), as well as the water in contrails that can go on to form cirrus clouds, together enhance the direct effect of carbon dioxie by up to a factor of three". (David King and Gabrielle Walker, 2008, 'The Hot Topic').

As you can see, I think the science community has long been in support of understanding the Radiative Forcing effect of carbon released from planes. It seems that what you are really saying is that you don't want to move on this without the aviation industry being in support of the figures.

As an individual, sure, I can increase my carbon offsets with you. My object is that each and every one of the estimates you currently give to people are severely wrong.

We need some bold moves to tackle climate change within the 20 year window we have to do something about it. I hope you will be bold, read the science, and fix your calculator (and in the process explain why). One of your charts currently makes flying a better option than driving - that is just misleading on a number of levels.


New photos below

I have just added a couple of photo sets from our recent holiday below.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Not so greener than thou

Although Yolanda and I had fun working out the carbon equivalent cost of taking the train to France when compared with flying, it might sound a bit 'greener than thou'.

This really isn't the case. I have just opened my passport and quickly worked out my airmiles since 2004. I've made about 4 trips to New Zealand, 13 to the US and 2 to Canada. When you factor in the radiative forcing effect, that works out about 121 tonnes of CO2 emissions. This is entirely unacceptable, it's more than my fair share and is why I have quit flying (it's quite an adventure to travel without flying too). It's a bit sad that this outweighs any of the other eco things I have done and perhaps will ever do. Perhaps I need to quickly buy some solar panels and a wind turbine to start offsetting some of this effect. A quick calculation reveals that it might take 60 years to offset it that way. Oh well, I can try!

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Carbon Cost of Travel to the South of France - 96% reduction in CO2 (aka the nuclear train)

I had been half-joking that we were traveling to France by nuclear power and on our return, the internet shows that this was in fact, quite true. The TGV trains are electric and this electricity is sourced from nuclear power. With climate change, it is a somewhat surprising fact that presently, nuclear is good because it really does not pump out much CO2.

Anyhow, we wanted to understand the CO2 difference in our train journey to Narbonne compared with a short haul flight. It turned out that our journey by train caused 32kg of CO2 emissions each. Our friends, who flew, caused 735kg of CO2 equivalent emissons each (allowing for radiative forcing effects of pumping CO2, other gases and water vapour straight into the stratosphere).

Traveling by train we reduced our CO2 emissions for the journey by 96% - our CO2 emissions were only 4% of that of the flight.

How much did it cost? Our train tickets were £167 and getting to St Pancras cost £5 (return), a total of £172. At the time of booking a flight was £90 but getting to Stanstead would have cost at least £24 on the Stanstead Express from Liverpool Street and £5 return on the tube to Liverpool, a total of £119.

How long did it take? We left the house in West London at 9.15, checked in 30 minutes before the train (10.30) and the train left promptly at 11.05. We arrived in Paris at 13:20 (UK time) and made it to Narbonne, in the South of France, by 18:50 UK time.

If we had instead traveled by Plane, assuming it left at 11.05 from Stanstead, we would have left at 7.45, arriving at Stanstead at 9.15, giving us time to clear passport control and security and get to the gate 30 minutes before the flight. The flight would take 3 hours, landing at 14.05. Add another 45 minutes to get to the gate and clear customs, sees us leaving the airport at 14:50 in UK time. Now we have to find the hire car, which is about 45 minutes. Outside, with car, in Perpignan, at 15:35, and a 40 mile drive through rural France would add another hour. So, 16:35 into Narbonne.

In total, door to door, the train took 9 hours 35 minutes. By Plane would have taken 8 hours 10 minutes.

TransportCO2 EmissionJourney DurationCost
Train32kg9h 35m£172
Plane735kg8h 10m£119
Train v Plane-703kg (96% less)+1h 25m+£53

Added Benefits
Walking about! The train was extremely comfortable. There was lots of space for luggage (which we didn't have to worry about airlines losing), comfortable seats and a buffet car. If you are so inclined you can even jump off the train at some of the stops for a quick smoke (French side!).

We were extremely pleased to get to the South of France with only 32kg of CO2 emissions and to have had a comfortable journey. The actual situation is even better since the Eurostar operates a 100% carbon neutral operation by offsetting their passenger's carbon footprint, which lowers our carbon footprint for the trip to 10kg - though carbon offsetting can be a bit questionable.

We had 11 friends who flew instead of taking the train. They were great about sharing cars but if you overlook that small inaccuracy in the calculation, they caused a combined CO2 emission of 8.08 Tonnes of CO2 (11 x 735kg).

It's hard to imagine what 8 tonnes of CO2 is. An average French person's annual CO2 emission is 7 tonnes. 4 Chinese people would have a combined annual CO2 emission of about 8 tonnes. An average Indian person causes about a 1 tonne CO2 emission. (Source: World Bank (2004) reporting on 2002 data)

Another way to think about what 8 tonnes of CO2 is might be to compare it with car use. If we assume that an average car travels 50km a day (11,000 miles a year), at 200 grams per km, that would be 3.65 tonnes of CO2 for the year (this assumes a very small car!).

So, the CO2 equivalent of 11 people flying to the South of France from London is about 8 tonnes, which is about the same as 8 Indian people (or 4 Chinese people) emit in 1 year. Alternatively, it is more CO2 emissions than is caused by a small car driving average UK mileage over 2 years.


Here are the CO2 calculations and references.

Eurostar London St Pancras to Paris 22kg of CO2 (return)
TGV Paris to Narbonne 10kg of CO2 (return)
- much lower because the TGV's nuclear power produces little CO2

Total CO2 per person: 32kg

References: www.bbcgreen.com/Travel/Green-Transport/train-v-plane
SNCF EcoComparator
seat61.com Trains versus Planes

London Stanstead to Perpignan 710kg of CO2 (return)
- figures from terrapass.com and multiplying by 2.7 for the radiative forcing effect which they conveniently ignore

Car from Perpignan to Narbonne 25kg of CO2 (128km return)
- assumes 200grams per km CO2 (this is a low estimate - check this out www.comcar.co.uk) ;

Total CO2 per person: 735kg

A couple of simplifying assumptions were made. The Plane Journey is from Stanstead. The train journey started at St Pancras in London. These assumptions ignore the CO2 cost of getting to the airport/station.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Hiking in the South of France (Haut-Languedoc region)

A short hiking trip in Languedoc in the South of France near Bezier. We hiked from Roquebrun to Ceps to Olague to Heric to Lamalou to Villemagne l'Argentiere to Bedarieux. A total of about 42 miles over 3 days.

Here are a few photos...

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Olivier's 40th Birthday (near Narbonne in France)

A multi-day event starting with Yolanda's birthday on the 17th and followed by several nights of partying leading up to Yolanda's friend Olivier's 40th Birthday. Lots of fun. Here are a few photos.

Friday, April 11, 2008

An eco-adventure in Penzance (Cornwall)

Yolanda and I cycled along the Grand Union Canal to Paddington and put our bikes on the train bound for Cornwall. We stayed on a farm in a tent/cabin (part of the Featherdown Farm Scheme.

I'll write a bit more about the trip later, for now, here are some photos.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Manek Growth Fund - 5MG - 10 year chart

The way fund performances as reported is very misleading. Manek Growth has done very well over the last 5 years but lets take a look at how it has done over 10 years... From Morningstar.co.uk.

Now, that's not so rosy is it? £1,000 invested 10 years ago is worth about £1,000 today (this is an improvement though, at one time it was down to £300).

Friday, April 04, 2008

Electric Vehicles - zero emissions ??

A pretty decent electric 2-wheeler. It bothers me a bit that it's advertised as a 'zero emissions' vehicle. Of course, it required energy and emissions to build it (so called 'embedded energy') and it uses electricity - where is that from? Often from Coal, some from natural gas, some from nuclear.

Using electricity to power vehicles is a great start but we must also remember how the electricity is generated currently and not kid ourselves that we are solving the big problems like this. Of course though, this is the way of the future so if anyone would like to buy me one I'd love to try it!!

Another thing that bothers me I learned from cycling. Often pedestrians rely on their hearing when crossing the road. It sounds staggering but often pedestrians, whilst looking the other way, will step out in front of my bicycle. They don't do it when I ride my motorcycle or drive a car. The silence of electric vehicles bothers me. I think, for safety, such vehicles need to make a noise, perhaps analgous to the smell that is given to domestic gas so it is detectable.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

The Champ

My friend Dave made this video quite a while ago now but I see he has now put it on youtube...

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

IKEA lighting an embarassment

IKEA are generally quite eco but with their lighting they are well behind the curve. They sell banks of 5 lamps with 35W halogen lamps built in. A lighting arrangement that uses 175W. If these GU10s were the LED kind instead they would use 1.8W each, giving a total for the 5 lamps of less than 10W, replacing halogens with a usage life of 2,500 hours with LEDs with a usage life of 50,000 hours. For a slightly brighter GU10 a CFL could be used at 7W each with a life expectancy of 8,000 hours. The price difference between these bulbs now is very little.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Chris Bikes website finally up and running

Chris Bikes website, www.chrisbikes.co.uk, is now up and running. Chris can now use blogger to add special offers to his web page and if you have a look, you'll see he has been doing just that.

He's also joined the 'Cycle to work' scheme which allows people to buy bikes from their pre-tax salary - completely tax free. No NI, no income tax and no VAT. NEAT!

Cambridge Emmaus on Ebay !

Since about October I've been talking with the local Emmaus about ebay and wondering why they don't sell on there. It turns out they DO sell on ebay but, even the geek that I am couldn't find them on there.

This week I approached them again to ask why they don't link their ebay activities to their webpage and even offered to do it for them for free. It was a fairly frustrating conversation. When I went running lunchtime i had an idea - why not build a prototype to show them what it would look like. So I did, and with ebay's togo service it only took about an hour. Here's my prototype...


I thought they'd be annoyed that I had been so sneaky but it worked and they got interested. One day later they put my protype to work and now, anyone can see what Cambridge Emmaus has on ebay right now, right here...


I hope this makes a lot of money for them. They are a very nice charity.

Missing the obvious #2 - Why are short haul flights bad for the environment?

Flying short haul is THE most carbon intensive way to travel per mile (with the possible exception of flying to space). Long haul flights are more efficient per mile but they are also pretty bad for the planet because they make it easy to travel thousands of miles at once, offsetting their greater 'per mile' efficiency.

Why is short haul worse? It's obvious but hadn't sunk in to my thick skull. When you are flying, the efficient part of the journey is when the aircraft has reached cruising altitude. This is like sitting at 56mph on the motorway in your car. The inefficient part of the journey is when the aircraft is sitting at the traffic lights, well, taxiing on the runway. Even more inefficient is the part of the flight which is like accelerating hard in your car - climbing to altitude. For a short flight, a greater proportion of the energy used is in taxiing and climbing so the overall per mile efficiencies become very poor.

Environmentalists often argue about whether one thing is better than another. For example, there is a lot of noise about Biofuels and people on different sides of the arguement. However, with short haul flights environmentalists are clear. Don't take short haul flights! I think they are so clear about this because they can see that there are good alternatives available to taking short haul flights that are much more efficient and often not much slower at all, like the train, especially the nuclear powered and ultra fast TGV in France.