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.