Now it's cool to be carbon neutral

21 Apr 2007Archived News Energetics in the News

PUBLISHED: The Australian - By Matthew Warren - Cheryl Bowler, Principal Consultant - Carbon Markets, Energetics Pty Ltd is asked by The Australian what is required to become completely carbon neutral.


It's fashionable to take highly visible action on greenhouse, says environment writer Matthew Warren.

THE public debate on climate change is fracturing. Abstract and global v tactile and personal. Kyoto v the Toyota Prius. Climate change is the motivation for international agreements and global frameworks, but in the gap between awareness and substantial action has blossomed a new retail and commercial fashion. Carbon is the new black.

If it weren't for television, many of us wouldn't know what a power station looked like. But we are now part of an alarming and earnest UN-scale debate on intergenerational changes in energy generation, on the morality of China building a new coal-fired power station every week while millions sit in the dark in India and Africa waiting for theirs.

The essence of climate change is a debate over how to deliver against colossal targets to cut invisible gases by staggering quantities over decades. It leads to talk of fantastic plans to capture and store billions of tonnes of liquid carbon dioxide kilometres under the ground, or of solar power plants kilometres wide and long, new global stock markets buying and selling carbon credits, whatever they are, and the lure of fortunes to be made by the clever, offset by the threat of broadacre misery for the seemingly inevitable losers.

Last year public awareness on climate change lit in Australia. Nearly a year on and the concern is turning into impatience. In this temporary hiatus between populism and policy, there is a boom in households and businesses that want to make statements about their concern. In a vacuum of real market and policy signals we are happy to invent our own urban myths. Fortunes are being made selling the fashion of climate change.

Hybrid petrol-electric cars are on the rise in Australian cities, with sales more than doubling in the past year driven mainly by fleet buyers, although they still represent less than 0.5 per cent of total new car sales. The Prius hybrid engine car has been a big hit for Toyota since its reintroduction in 2003. It outsells the rival Honda Civic hybrid by a ratio of about two to one, even though the Honda is $3000 cheaper.

But, then, the Honda looks just like a Civic. The Prius's unusual styling sets it apart from other cars on the market and tells the world that the owner has paid about $10,000 extra for the cachet of driving with environmental impunity. Honda Australia spokesman Mark Higgins says the Prius's sales strength is in business and government fleets, where brand recognition on the environment is on the rise.

``One of the major reasons people buy the hybrid Civic is that people want to do their bit for the environment, they want low emissions, low fuel consumption, and they don't want it to stand out from the crowd,'' he says.

British supermarket chain Tesco has signalled it is thinking of introducing food miles labelling on all the products it sells as a response to climate change. The idea is that food that has been imported thousands of kilometres will have made a much greater contribution to greenhouse gas emissions than locally produced foods. The scientific basis for this claim is much less certain. The full life cycle of foods includes primary production, preparation, packaging, retailing and disposal. Preliminary research by Australia's food processing industry in 2003 suggests transport is among the lowest contributor to greenhouse.

Incorporating the full cost of greenhouse into energy prices would be the simplest way of demystifying this claim. But why wait? At an international conference of science journalists, Roger Short from the University of Melbourne called for an end to cremation to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Instead he suggested everyone be buried upright in a cardboard cylinder beside their favourite species of tree. During cremation the average male body produces more than 50kg of carbon dioxide as it is heated to 850C for 1 1/2 hours. It's about the same level of emissions as a dozen cars attending the funeral. Should they be banned, too?

Solar panels and hot water systems are the Prius of household energy systems: modern, energy saving, expensive and highly visible. Rooftop solar panels to augment domestic electricity consumption start at about $12,000 a house; solar hot-water systems cost about $3000 but have a much better payback period.

Most state governments have introduced hefty rebates for their installation: the Greens think they should be mandatory and Labor leader Kevin Rudd has promised to increase the subsidy for household solar panels.

But a study by McKinsey&Co on the technology pathway to reduce greenhouse gases has identified the first, and cheapest, solution is neither of these pricey options. It is insulation. About 2.5 million homes in Australia are still not insulated, most of these rental dwellings. Insulation is a relatively cheap and simple change that could cut 27 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions by 2020.

Insulation Council president Dennis D'Arcy says the problem with insulation is that it is too cheap and simple.

``Insulation is very cheap compared [with] these other solutions and it has been around a long time. There's nothing new or bright and shiny about it,'' he tells Inquirer.

``Gizmos are visible and are very obvious signs that you are doing something. That seems to excite people a little more and they seem to excite governments. If you insulate a suburb of houses, who knows you've done it?''

In the present market of high visibility on climate change action, companies, the AFL and even newspapers are declaring themselves carbon neutral, although energy experts and academics are concerned the market is moving too far ahead of the regulations needed to police it.

And there are signs some buyers may not understand what they are buying.

Carbon markets consultant Cheryl Bowler from Energetics says the term carbon neutral should be based on a full life-cycle assessment of a company's or household's operation, but in some cases it is being interpreted selectively.

"It's probably more a case that [the term] is being used naively because people aren't aware of what their carbon footprint is: they calculate just their energy-related emissions , but they can be leaving out a large proportion of what they are responsible for," she says.

The fast-moving retail greenhouse market has already experienced problems with claims about the definition of green and renewable power. Regulators had to tighten key rules and definitions in the national greenpower accreditation scheme after it was found some retailers were exploiting loopholes to sell zero-cost green energy to householders from sources such as the Snowy hydro scheme.

Since the start of this year retailers have been required to source a minimum of 10 per cent accredited greenpower from new generators to stimulate investment in low-emission energy sources.

``The language becomes a little murky for a general consumer to determine the difference between renewable power or clean power or renewable energy,'' Deloitte energy expert Lorraine Stephenson says. ``If you are getting offered something for nothing and it relates to new renewable energy, then you have to be a little suspicious.''

Associate professor in energy systems at the University of NSW Hugh Outhred is concerned about the validity of credits generated by schemes such as NSW's greenhouse gas scheme GGAS, which continues to generate credits for demand management and efficiency gains in electricity generation as emissions continue to increase.

``In NSW we have this implausible situation where each year we get a report on how well the scheme is going and yet in the fine print emissions continue to increase,'' he says.

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