Monday, 28 June 2010

What is the dream?

‘Where do you see yourself in 5 or 10 years time?’ is a question that one may commonly hear during a job interview and less commonly at 10pm on a Sunday evening at a pub overlooking the Thames in Wandsworth, Pimms in hand. I unexpectedly ended up having this type of philosophical conversation at a social event last night. I was discussing jobs with a friend who explained that what he is doing right now in finance is not what he would like to do at all (he’d like to be a teacher, a writer or set up a charity). Another friend was saying he does not know what he is aiming for in his current job as an estate agent.

When I explained that I am interested in, focused on and committed to sustainable development and doing my bit to help the environment, I was met with ‘so in an ideal world, what would you like to achieve in this sector in your lifetime?’ Wowzers. I did not have my thinking hat on at this point after a long day in the sunshine at the Royal Academy, picnic in Regent’s Park, awful England match and a BBQ, but time to put it on and engage my brain...
The best I could come up with in response at that moment was: On my death bed, I would like to feel that I have contributed to a significant reduction in anthropogenic green-house gas emissions (that is, those caused by human activity). This is in addition to many other things to help reduce human impact on the earth like encouraging responsible resource management: reduce, reuse, recycle.

I was asked ‘if there were no political, social or monetary constraints, what would you do to tackle climate change’? Wowzers Take 2. Right, must attempt to shake Pimms-induced brain fuzz. I think that two key areas for carbon emissions reduction that I would like to focus on are transport and the built environment. Evidently these are highly complex areas and it would not be a case of throwing money and resources at them. For example, Islington Council put on a ‘bike skills’ show as part of Bike Week last year, but found out from audience feedback and post-event social data, that whilst watching bike-athletes do wheelies, spin around and do jumps and hops on their two-wheeled vehicles is a nice way to spend part of a Saturday afternoon, it did not help encourage public bike use. We are still learning about what will have the most impact, but I think Boris’ plans for safer, more practical cycling routes and bike storage around London is a good start. Cheaper public transport would be another good step to take. As the new budget has shown, this is not likely to happen any time soon, but in my ‘constrain-free’ world, it certainly would happen!

In terms of ameliorating energy efficiency of buildings and industry, I would create and improve financial incentives like tax rebates for good behaviour and grants for domestic insulation (the ‘polluter pays principle’ is another story and does not always work). I would definitely invest in renewables and look into CHP and decentralised energy systems at this time too.

Looking back, these all seem like quite tame responses, but I believe that to implement something more extreme (free public transport and solar panels for all!), even in a constraint-free world, would require time, effort, research and development.

There are many smaller projects that at a local scale are fantastic for community spirit (e.g. Transition Highbury, or the Modbury anti-plastic bag project) and can collectively make a world of difference. Whether encouraging grow-your-own and ‘buy local’ to help reduce the carbon emissions related to food transportation or exploring options for eco-friendly art and theatre, it all adds up. When aiming for carbon emissions reduction, it is advised to neither neglect other areas of environmentalism, nor other areas of sustainability (economic, social) and instead aim for a holistic approach, because all of these things are strongly interlinked.

‘What are the main barriers and challenges that we currently face?’ Before my job as a recycling advisor, I would have probably said educating people and helping them to understand (and believe, in some cases) climate change and that they, as individuals, can and will make a big difference. My recycling job has helped me to see that changing people’s attitudes and behaviour towards environmental sustainability through education is not straightforward and is certainly not the full answer. As stated in a previous blog entry, there are other barriers to recycling, like the supermarkets not giving enough options for less-packaged products. To relate this to tackling climate change: education is important (and actually the communication of environmental issues is one of my passions), but companies selling products and the government have a huge responsibility too. As we are coming out of a recession, I would say that it may be difficult to prioritise environmental issues over economic ones. The answer is: there are many barriers of various forms and relative sizes, but we should attempt to tackle them all.

‘Will it actually make a difference?’ At this point I suggested to my friend that he visit the website of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which particularly in its summary publications demonstrates the evidence behind the claims. It makes clearer the science behind future scenarios (e.g. if we continue emitting at the rate we are, the CO2 level will rise to x parts per million by x time and this will cause x catastrophic global effects), as well as showing that the negative impacts of anthropogenic climate change are happening now and on a global scale.

‘Do you believe that we can stop it?’ Climate change happens naturally and through palaeo-environmental reconstructions and climate modelling we have seen that there are cycles of warming and cooling (with CO2 levels rising and falling respectively) over thousands of years. It is essentially since the industrial revolution that CO2 levels have risen dramatically to a level and at a rate never seen before. Here, I pointed him in the direction of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. For this reason, climate change is not something that we are aiming to stop, rather we are aiming to reduce human-induced climate change and therefore the impacts that go with that.

Bearing in mind these were my thoughts late on a Sunday night, my answers may well be different (better informed) in a few months time when I have had more experience in this field. Whether at an interview or down the pub with your mates, I have realised the importance of regularly taking stock of where you would like to be and how to go about getting there.

Thursday, 24 June 2010

Britain Bike Week 2010

I met with some fellow eco-friendly ex-Bristol Geographers on Sunday and we briefly discussed how easy it is to lose track of all these environment weeks and days! There is Earth Hour, Earth Week, Environment Week, the list goes on...but fear not my friends for the Eco Chic blog will keep you up to date and in order.

So this week, not only is it Recycle Week 2010, but it is also Bike Week 2010. This year should be a big one as Boris Johnson recently announced plans to introduce a cycle hire scheme across London and a large financial investment in improving cycling safety and feasibility for the capital.
On Sunday my Geography pals and I remarked at the new double-decker bicycle rack outside Waterloo Station- all sorts of wondrous things such as this are likely to be popping up now.
I particularly recommend the ‘Find Your Nearest Event’ Bike Week website feature as there are so many exciting things going on all across our beloved Britain including repair workshops, fantastic competitions, bike rides... Go Team Green!

Bright Sparks

The focus for Recycle Week this year is electrical items and small appliances. A new reuse and repair shop has opened this week on Seven Sisters Road as part of the Islington Council’s recycling initiative. Check it out!

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Knightsbridge and Belgravia

Yesterday I spent my afternoon swanning around Knightsbridge and Belgravia advising residents on recycling.

All those I spoke to were friendly, although only a few were the actual houseowners as most were housekeepers. I had one very smartly dressed butler tell me he was 'very sorry but had very little time to discuss such matters as was rather busy setting the table for the evening meal', whilst one very glamorous woman told me that not only was she a 'pioneer' of environmental activities, but she was 'quite simply obsessed with it'. I then discovered that she only recycled her newspapers, when she found the time, and was not at all aware of the door-step recycling service.

It seems to be quite a transient population: some had only just moved in, many are often away on business and for some this was one of many residences. So having their very own recycling advisor come to their doorstep was one helpful, practical and, quite simply, priceless luxury. Lovely!

Getting greener

Just a little update on my job as a recycling advisor for all you keen recyclers who would like to know! I am in the third week now and have met many members of the public, all Westminster residents, ranging on a scale from the not-so-green to the extreme-green! Rather than dichotomous or mutually exclusive, I am finding these terms to be rather on the same continuum. I am learning that you cannot have one model for behaviour change in relation to sustainability as individuals begin at different levels of green so need encouragement and advice tailored to their level.

In Westminster residential areas there are both Micro Recycling Centres (big recycling bins) and a once-a-week doorstep collection service. Often, people think that if packaging has a recyclable symbol on it, they can put it out for collection, but they do not realise that it depends upon whether your local council has the facilities to recycle that particular item. In the doorstep collection in Westminster one can recycle paper, card, cans, tins, glass bottles and jars, aerosols and plastic bottles. The Council is working on being able to offer recycling of different types of plastic and food waste.

A good day at work for me is when I have helped someone who would like to recycle learn how to do it; perhaps they have just moved in and were not aware of the options, or do not speak much English so need one of my leaflets that describe which items to recycle visually or in their first language. For those who are already recycling, I ask them how we can improve the service and check that they are aware where they can recycle more diverse materials that are not collected like small appliances, batteries, textiles, cartons and plastic bags. They can then take it to the next level and reduce their waste and recycling in the first place, for example through purchasing only items needed and those with less packaging. Inevitably we get some who believe it a waste (excuse the pun) of time, or who have heard rumours that it all ends up in landfill anyway. These latter comments are fortunately few and far between and often I am able to talk them around to it by explaining that it is easy (a mixed collection service means they do not have to do any sorting), important for various public health and environmental reasons and by showing them where it goes (to a local recyclables sorting plant where it is sorted mechanically and by hand followed by recycling process plants depending on the material- plastic bottle lids are made into plastic crates for example).

Many barriers to high recycling levels do not lie with the residents themselves. A common complaint is that in order to reduce our own waste, it is up to the supermarkets to give us more options for buying items with less packaging. Many Westminster residents have a small flat so would prefer more frequent recycling collections so as not to clog up there kitchen or hall way; unfortunately, because refuse collections are more frequent, the excess recycling ends up there. It would seem that more information is needed as, for example, it has not been made clear by the Council which types of plastic bottles can be recycled, nor the fact that you should compress them and take the lid off (the lid can go loose into the recycling bag or box).

So there you go. I am slowly but surely helping people to slide a little further along the green continuum towards ‘extreme green’, wherever they started from! By the way, this week is a great time to thoroughly investigate reaching your recycling potential in your area because it is Recycle Week 2010!

Monday, 21 June 2010

Sponge careers event and visit a SuperHome

I am currently organising a Sponge event supported by Amida recruitment where Sponge members can enjoy presentations and discussions, providing them with a ‘mini toolkit’ enabling them to create their own career opportunity. This does not necessarily mean changing job or career, but could also mean making the best of yourself in the job that you are already in. As a reminder, Sponge members are professionals of the built environment who have an interest in or work within the realms of sustainability.

The venue and content is organised and last week I composed my first Sponge newsletter to invite guests to the event, using computer language on htm kit (e.g. br in triangle brackets = line break, whilst a href= ("webpage address") 'Link name' /a in triangle brackets= a link to a webpage and the text you want it to appear as)- it looks more complex than it really is. We are also promoting the SuperHome network so I added this to the newsletter and sent it out to all 1723 members this morning! See here for the webpage version of the e-newsletter. Hopefully positive RSVPs to my careers event will start coming in thick and fast into the Sponge inbox!

Sunday, 20 June 2010

Happy (green) Father’s Day!

Like a good daughter should, I normally spend hours making a card (out of left-over paper and wrapping paper of course) to send to dear papa in the post, but busy London life has meant that this year I have sent an e-card instead (sent with as much if not more love)! Plus, instead of buying a present (using up the Earth’s valuable resources), this morning I ran a 10km in Regent’s Park in his honour. Both of these things are decidedly, if somewhat unintentionally, more eco-friendly?! Discuss amongst yourselves.

Thursday, 17 June 2010

Sponge Entrepreneurs Event

Last night I attended and helped out at a rather fascinating soirĂ©e held at the Kings Cross Hub, run by Sponge and sponsored by RICS. The Hub comprises three levels with a large skylight and central atrium, the perfect location for entrepreneurial inspirations to occur. Drinks and nibbles (aka networking to the max and swapping business cards) were followed by speeches from two sustainability professionals who have successfully ‘gone it alone’.

The first was Pooran Desai, who founded the BioRegional Development Group in 1995, which delivers practical solutions for sustainability and has since grown significantly. His main tips were networking, whilst seeking out and taking opportunities as they arise. This is how the BedZED housing project had developed: BioRegional had thought it had better have its own eco-friendly offices so asked the local government if there was any land being sold in the area, to which they replied ‘yes, it is quite large though!’ So the upshot of that was that they made use of the land to build (in addition to the originally intended BioRegional office), a 100-home eco-friendly community. This in turn led to the development of BioRegional’s own sustainable property company and One Planet Communities programme.

The second speaker was Robert Corbyn, who with a background as a Chartered Surveyor (a ‘CS’ if you are in the know-how) set up the Low Carbon Energy Assessors in 2008, which are a multi-disciplinary firm of ‘CSs’ providing low carbon energy surveying and expertise. Robert also described the impact that setting up your own company can have on your personal life- his wife and children often get annoyed as he has to work on projects at the weekends. He is making a massive profit despite the recession, but is working very hard at it and advises that as long as you are passionate about what you are working hard for and are so focused on, then you can enjoy the journey immensely.

The talks were followed by two 45-minute sessions where event attendees (all aspiring entrepreneurs) were split into groups, each group having two entrepreneurs in it. The helping out bit mainly involved me pointing people in the direction of their (numbered or colour-coded) tables for the discussion groups and telling people when it was time to grab another beer and bit of pizza before moving onto the next discussion group. I met several interesting people, including Joanna Yarrow, founder Director of Beyond Green, who are the main providers of sustainability advice for the 2012 Olympics among other projects. Also there were the founders of Green Tomato, Parity Projects and Better Generation. To avoid namedropping any more than I already have, I will leave it at that, but just to say that it was a fantastic evening where many built environment professions could have their questions answered by professional entrepreneurs before they take the leap themselves.

Sunday, 6 June 2010

BP disaster: Oil spill in the Gulf Of Mexico

If you have not already heard what is going on currently in the Gulf Of Mexico then listen up because it is an ongoing event with entirely serious consequences. In lay terms, a large undersea oil pipe burst and the resulting cracks are extremely large and leaking oil at an alarming rate: hundreds of thousands of barrels worth every day. Due to the high pressure of the oil leaking it makes it very difficult to contain, but engineering experts are doing their best so we hear. BP have detailed on their website situation updates and what is being done to stop the leak. Rumours are that this is the world’s worst environmental disaster, the second being the Exxon Valdez disaster (1989); this current one emits the equivalent oil of Exxon Valdez every 4 days.

I heard another rumour among my green friends that BP was not letting anyone else sort it out as they would like to start rebuilding their reputation now, by cleaning up the mess themselves. My immediate thought was that this is a global issue and is not about one company saving face- we should enlist the help of all the experts and engineers around the world. I have seen online that there are forums and some newspapers are taking suggestions for solutions from engineers, academics and retired oilrig workers. Whether these ideas are actually considered by BP I am not sure.

Oil continues to leak and the environmental effects of this pipe blow-out are likely to be very long term and widespread as the oil is carried on ocean currents, majorly impacting upon marine and other wildlife. It is very hard to see that there may be a silver lining to this, but perhaps this will prompt energy companies to move towards greener options.

Friday, 4 June 2010

I am a Flexitarian Localvore!

In greening one’s routine, perhaps it helps some people to put a funky fad name on it, to sound up to date, knowledgeable and fashionable. The title of this blog post refers to the fact that my diet is mostly vegetarian because meat creates a lot of carbon emissions in production, but I am flexible in that I will happily tuck into a locally sourced organic sausage or roast chicken on occasion. Personally I do not think that these silly frilly names are necessary and quite frankly may be a demonstration of green snobbery i.e. ‘I know the lingo therefore I am supremely green and a better person than you’.

At the same time, the lovalvore movement is growing and having an exclusive name like that makes people feel that they belong to an exciting and secret club. On the other hand, it may also put people off. Anyhow, whatever you want to call it, there are clear environmental benefits to choosing food that produces less carbon emissions either in its production or travel and that can only be a good thing.

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

An uncertain future

MRW is an informative recycling website and here keeps us up to date with the new plans for budget cuts to DEFRA and DECC during the establishment of our coalition government:

Despite these cuts, the EU agreed on 26th May that our targets for carbon emissions reduction will be increased from 20% to 30% below 1990 levels by 2020. Part of this decision to achieve a greater reduction is due to the recession, which last year alone saw emissions at 14% below 1990 levels. This is a good thing and hopefully the US will follow suit and increase their targets too, which currently stand at a mere 3-4% reduction by 2020. We are barely into the move to a coalition government so it is not yet agreed that these higher targets will be unilaterally adopted within the EU. This is set to cost quite a lot, which may increase carbon taxes, although apparently we will also save money due to having a healthier population as a result of less air pollution. I am intrigued to see how this pans out, and of course will do my part and encourage others to help with the reductions!