Goodbye to ethical man...

Sian mourns the passing of Newsnight's 'Ethical Man' and reflects on lessons that can be learnt from

Newsnight’s year-long ‘Ethical Man’ project came to an end this week. I watched most of the reports and, although some of them played up to green stereotypes, it was all a big step up from the usual magazine show treatment of green issues. I was also pleased to be asked to talk about the Green Party’s policies in the ‘end-of-Ethical-Man’ debate on Wednesday.

They did invite a token sceptic as well. Only Newsnight seems to do this as a matter of course nowadays and it’s very frustrating (getting Nigel Lawson on to rubbish Stern, for goodness sake!). So, as well as a slightly preoccupied David Miliband, Peter Ainsworth for the Tories, Chris Huhne for the LibDems and me, we had to listen to the delightful ‘professional skeptic’ Bjorn Lomborg, determined to undermine Ethical Man’s efforts.

But I thought Ethical Man was a great experiment. Getting people to try things out for a week or ‘test out the latest eco-gadgets’ for a three-minute slot is never going to show you much about the realities of living a greener life. But carrying it through for a whole year gave some brilliant insights into how an ordinary person can make deep cuts in their carbon footprint with some pretty simple changes and without pain.

They picked a good person for the project. At the beginning, reporter Justin Rowlatt wasn’t at all keen on the idea, so it was great to see the ease with which he adopted some of the measures. I was particularly impressed when, having given up his car for six months, he and his growing family (two small children and another arriving part-way through the year) decided they didn’t want it back and gave it away to a friend. They even walked to the hospital to have their new baby, and then used traditional cloth nappies without a murmur. All very encouraging.

The other big carbon saving was from cutting energy use around Ethical Man’s Camden home, achieved mainly through energy-efficient lightbulbs and changing behaviour to use appliances more efficiently. The main motivator in all this was a portable gadget that communicated with their electricity meter to show the energy being used. Justin took an enormous amount of interest in his appliances as he took it around the house switching things on and off. One of the best bits of the show was seeing his reaction to the effect of one 100W bulb on the readout.

But there were some problems. When having a home energy audit via infra-red camera, insulation was identified as something his home badly needed to cut its emissions. But, without a cavity wall to fill, fitting insulation to the inside of his exterior walls was judged too expensive to pay back quickly enough.

This is a scandal we’re well aware of in the Green Party. MEP Jean Lambert’s recent ‘Hot Houses’ report estimated that 53% of household emissions in London are from space heating and a third of this heat is lost through uninsulated walls. London has a very high proportion of houses without cavity walls – 56%, nearly a third of all solid-wall homes in England, and putting insulation on the inside of solid walls costs £40 a square metre. Not a lot for a small flat like mine with only a couple of exterior walls, but for a house it can run into thousands.

We can’t expect people to make these investments on their own. Thanks to Green pressure, the GLA is now providing free insulation for pensioners and people on benefits, but proper government support for everyone else would be a long-term investment in our housing stock that would pay off for the country as a whole many times over.

Greens in elected positions are already putting this principle into practice. The first universally free insulation scheme is in Kirklees where Green councillors negotiated, through the Council’s budget process, to provide it for 30,000 households this year at no cost.

Schemes like this need extending to the whole country, so that 2.5 million homes are insulated a year. Yes it would cost £4 billion but would save five million tonnes of carbon dioxide after the first year, ten million after the second, and so on until everyone benefits from lower bills, and we all save a huge amount of carbon.

I think there are two key lessons from Ethical Man. First is that individual action can make a big difference – Justin cut his family’s carbon emissions by 20% in one year, and that’s including a questionable flight to Jamaica to expose the bogusness of offsetting. If we’re going to reach the 90% cuts we need by 2050, every possible bit of carbon must be saved, so things like low-energy light bulbs, reducing our flights and cutting down car journeys become obvious.

But government action is also crucial. A lot of our emissions aren’t under our control – they are created on our behalf by public bodies and businesses. Looking only at Ethical Man’s home emissions, the one-year saving was close to 40%. So, government has to lead the way, putting its own house in order, regulating businesses and creating a policy framework that makes ethical lives easier.

The green option needs to be made the easy, obvious and cheap option. This is exactly why I got into politics. By changing my own lifestyle, in the end I’m only changing one life – and then only for as long as I keep it up. But, by helping to change policies and get Greens elected, I can help make it easier – and cheaper – for everyone to change their lives in the long term.

Sian Berry lives in Kentish Town and was previously a principal speaker and campaigns co-ordinator for the Green Party. She was also their London mayoral candidate in 2008. She works as a writer and is a founder of the Alliance Against Urban 4x4s
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North Yorkshire has approved the UK’s first fracking tests in five years. What does this mean?

Is fracking the answer to the UK's energy future? Or a serious risk to the environment?

Shale gas operation has been approved in North Yorkshire, the first since a ban introduced after two minor earthquakes in 2011 were shown to be caused by fracking in the area. On Tuesday night, after two days of heated debate, North Yorkshire councillors finally granted an application to frack in the North York Moors National Park.

The vote by the Tory-dominated council was passed by seven votes to four, and sets an important precedent for the scores of other applications still awaiting decision across the country. It also gives a much-needed boost to David Cameron’s 2014 promise to “go all out for shale”. But with regional authorities pitted against local communities, and national government in dispute with global NGOs, what is the wider verdict on the industry?

What is fracking?

Fracking, or “hydraulic fracturing”, is the extraction of shale gas from deep underground. A mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped into the earth at such high pressure that it literally fractures the rocks and releases the gas trapped inside.

Opponents claim that the side effects include earthquakes, polluted ground water, and noise and traffic pollution. The image the industry would least like you to associate with the process is this clip of a man setting fire to a running tap, from the 2010 US documentary Gasland

Advocates dispute the above criticisms, and instead argue that shale gas extraction will create jobs, help the UK transition to a carbon-neutral world, reduce reliance on imports and boost tax revenues.

So do these claims stands up? Let’s take each in turn...

Will it create jobs? Yes, but mostly in the short-term.

Industry experts imply that job creation in the UK could reflect that seen in the US, while the medium-sized production company Cuadrilla claims that shale gas production would create 1,700 jobs in Lancashire alone.

But claims about employment may be exaggerated. A US study overseen by Penn State University showed that only one in seven of the jobs projected in an industry forecast actually materialised. In the UK, a Friends of the Earth report contends that the majority of jobs to be created by fracking in Lancashire would only be short-term – with under 200 surviving the initial construction burst.

Environmentalists, in contrast, point to evidence that green energy creates more jobs than similar-sized fossil fuel investments.  And it’s not just climate campaigners who don’t buy the employment promise. Trade union members also have their doubts. Ian Gallagher, Secretary of Blackburn and District Trade Unions Council, told Friends of the Earth that: “Investment in the areas identified by the Million Climate Jobs Campaign [...] is a far more certain way of addressing both climate change and economic growth than drilling for shale gas.”

Will it deliver cleaner energy? Not as completely as renewables would.

America’s “shale revolution” has been credited with reversing the country’s reliance on dirty coal and helping them lead the world in carbon-emissions reduction. Thanks to the relatively low carbon dioxide content of natural gas (emitting half the amount of coal to generate the same amount of electricity), fracking helped the US reduce its annual emissions of carbon dioxide by 556 million metric tons between 2007 and 2014. Banning it, advocates argue, would “immediately increase the use of coal”.

Yet a new report from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (previously known for its opposition to wind farm applications), has laid out a number of ways that the UK government can meet its target of 80 per cent emissions reduction by 2050 without necessarily introducing fracking and without harming the natural world. Renewable, home-produced, energy, they argue, could in theory cover the UK’s energy needs three times over. They’ve even included some handy maps:


Map of UK land available for renewable technologies. Source: RSPB’s 2050 Energy Vision.

Will it deliver secure energy? Yes, up to a point.

For energy to be “sustainable” it also has to be secure; it has to be available on demand and not threatened by international upheaval. Gas-fired “peaking” plants can be used to even-out input into the electricity grid when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind is not so blowy. The government thus claims that natural gas is an essential part of the UK’s future “energy mix”, which, if produced domestically through fracking, will also free us from reliance on imports tarnished by volatile Russian politics.

But, time is running out. Recent analysis by Carbon Brief suggests that we only have five years left of current CO2 emission levels before we blow the carbon budget and risk breaching the climate’s crucial 1.5°C tipping point. Whichever energy choices we make now need to starting brining down the carbon over-spend immediately.

Will it help stablise the wider economy? Yes, but not forever.

With so many “Yes, buts...” in the above list, you might wonder why the government is still pressing so hard for fracking’s expansion? Part of the answer may lie in their vested interest in supporting the wider industry.

Tax revenues from UK oil and gas generate a large portion of the government’s income. In 2013-14, the revenue from license fees, petroleum revenue tax, corporation tax and the supplementary charge accounted for nearly £5bn of UK exchequer receipts. The Treasury cannot afford to lose these, as evidenced in the last budget when George Osborne further subsidied North Sea oil operations through increased tax breaks.

The more that the Conservatives support the industry, the more they can tax it. In 2012 DECC said it wanted to “guarantee... every last economic drop of oil and gas is produced for the benefit of the UK”. This sentiment was repeated yesterday by energy minister Andrea Leadsom, when she welcomed the North Yorkshire decision and described fracking as a “fantastic opportunity”.

Dependence on finite domestic fuel reserves, however, is not a long-term economic solution. Not least because they will either run out or force us to exceed international emissions treaties: “Pensions already have enough stranded assets as they are,” says Danielle Pafford from 350.org.

Is it worth it? Most European countries have decided it’s not.

There is currently no commercial shale-gas drilling in Europe. Sustained protests against the industry in Romania, combined with poor exploration results, have already caused energy giant Chevron to pull out of the country. Total has also abandonned explorations in Denmark, Poland is being referred to the European Court of Justice for failing to adequately assess fracking’s impact, and, in Germany, brewers have launched special bottle-caps with the slogan “Nein! Zu Fracking” to warn against the threat to their water supply.

Back in the UK, the government's latest survey of public attitudes to fracking found that 44 per cent neither supported nor opposed the practice, but also that opinion is gradually shifting out of favour. If the government doesn't come up with arguments that hold water soon, it seems likely that the UK's fracking future could still be blasted apart.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.