Tuesday, October 30, 2007

How to Get Rid of Online Ads and Ad Banners

One of the most pervasive and irritating aspects of modern life is the sheer amount of advertising we are exposed to on a daily basis. I manage to escape most of that advertisement by only watching public television and listening to public radio. I don't read weekly or monthly magazines which these days seem to contain more advertisement and editorials with product promotions than original content. However, until recently I had been unable to escape ever more and increasingly annoying ads on the Internet.

This has now changed. I have found a simple, free solution using css stylesheets called adsubstract. The developers claim that this solution works with most browsers. I have tested it with Safari. It is very easy to set up and it works like a charm! Instead of annoying pop-ups and flashy ads all I get now is a white space where the ad would have been. I can finally read the newspaper without having to close pop-ups that superimpose themselves over the page I am reading and without being distracted by ads demanding my attention.

My advertisement abstinence has a curious effect: I don't know what the latest "must have" gadgets or fashions are and so I have no desire to rush out and buy them. When I go shopping, I am always surprised at all the STUFF that is out there and that people seem so keen to buy even though I cannot even imagine a need for it. Advertisement does work, even on people who do not want to get sucked into the consumerist lifestyle that is so pervasive in our society. I have always tried to be reasonably frugal but it does take a very conscious effort to not buy things that are not absolutely necessary. The most important aspect of being able to resist from buying things only because they are on offer is to understand the difference between needs and wants.

Advertisement makes that distinction very difficult for most consumers. So many things look so promising and seem to make so much sense when they are pushed by commercials and ads. According to the magazine PEDIATRICS "Advertising is a pervasive influence on children and adolescents. Young people view more than 40 000 ads per year on television alone and increasingly are being exposed to advertising on the Internet, in magazines, and in schools. This exposure may contribute significantly to childhood and adolescent obesity, poor nutrition, and cigarette and alcohol use. Media education has been shown to be effective in mitigating some of the negative effects of advertising on children and adolescents." I think this finding not only applies to children, it applies to all of us.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Australian Election 2007 - YouTube Update

This year's election campaign is made so much more interesting with satirical YouTube videos making fun of the candidates. One of my favourites on John Howard is "Bennelong Time Since I Rock and Rolled":

The best Kevin Rudd YouTube satire I have come across was also mentioned by other Australian media in the last few days. (A note to my non-Australian readers: Kevin Rudd impressed the Australian public and the Chinese delegation when he spoke in Mandarin at the APEC summit in Sydney earlier this year). In case you missed it, here it is:

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Close Encounter of the Venomous Kind

Working and playing in the garden in Australia is wonderful. Unfortunately, it can also be deadly. In our part of Australia, the garden will harbour a number of venomous species, including venomous spiders (redback spiders, whitetail spiders) and highly venomous snakes such as Tiger Snakes (Notechis scutatus) and Eastern Brown Snakes (Pseudonaja textilis) and the less dangerous but still venomous Redbellied Black Snake (Pseudechis porphyriacus).

It is easy to miss a spider or a snake and get bitten, so the key is to be aware of the dangers. When we first moved here, our shed was a breeding ground for redback spiders. Every box I opened had one crawling out to me. Redbacks are very shy, so as long as you are careful and don't put your hand into something without looking first, you are less likely to get bitten.

I managed to get myself bitten by a spider about a fortnight ago. Luckily it was "only" a huntsman spider which was clearly unimpressed with my attempt to remove some scale from a young eucalyptus tree. Huntsman spiders rarely bite and are not poisonous to humans. It still freaked me out - huntsman spiders are very big and very hairy, just the sort of spider that would come to haunt you in a nightmare. The one that bit me looked kind of pregnant with a very big belly.

The Eastern Brown Snake is among Australia's deadliest snakes. And that's exactly what we encountered in the garden this week. The day before yesterday, three year old S came into the house to inform me that he had seen a snake and it had gone underneath the shed the kids use as their cubby house. I kept the kids inside for the rest for the day but obviously I cannot lock them up for ever! Yesterday we did not see another one, but today I spotted it myself - same spot, same time of the day. It was a huge adult brown snake, at least 1.20m long, and again it vanished underneath the shed.

According to the University of Sydney, "there are about 3,000 snake bites per year [in Australia], of which 200 to 500 receive antivenom; on average one or two will prove fatal. About half the deaths are due to bites from the brown snake; the rest mostly from tiger snake, taipan and death adder. Some deaths are sudden, however in fact it is uncommon to die within four hours of a snake bite."

I rang Wildcare and had Hans, our local snake handler come out to have a look. He came with his snake handling gear but could not catch it because it was hiding. He gave us some tips on how to avoid getting bitten by a snake. This is mostly about making snakes more visible. Brown snakes and Tiger snakes are notoriously hard to spot - when they lie on the ground it is extremely easy to mistake them for a stick.

This is a summary of his advice:
- Keep the grass short.
- Fill in any cracks and holes under floors or sheds.
- Clear rocks, logs and the like from around the house and the kids' play area.
- Trim bushes around the house and the play area to about half a meter off the ground so that snakes can be spotted easily.

It is also important to know what to do if you spot a snake:
Stand absolutely still. Snakes have no ears, but they can feel vibrations. If the snake has seen you, keep a close watch on the snake. It is likely to be more frightened of you than you are of the snake and will probably move away if you do not move. Then move slowly backwards, always keeping an eye on the snake. Do not run, as the vibrations will alert the snake to your presence and it may feel threatened.

And last, what to do if you get bitten (hopefully you and I will never, ever experience this) by an Australian snake.
Note: this may not apply to snakes outside Australia, so check with your local wildlife authority if you live somewhere else!:

- Immediately apply a pressure bandage. We bought a handy snake pack from Reptile Awareness Displays of Australia at one of their snake demonstrations at a local country show. Most people get bitten on their limbs, either on their leg or an arm.
- Firmly bandage starting from the toes or the fingers. The key is to stop the venom from moving through your body.
- Immobilize bitten limb with a sling and/or splint.
- Keep patient still and calm.
- Ring 000 immediately to get medical attention.
- Monitor pulse and breathing. If either cease, apply mouth-to-mouth or CPR until medical attention arrives.
- Where possible bring vehicle to patient (to avoid moving patient, it is really important to stay still to stop the venom from spreading).
- Do not try to catch or kill the snake as hospitals can identify the snake from samples taken around the bite site.

And last not least, here is part two of a three-part video on Australia's ten deadliest snakes by the late Steve Irwin. Our local Tiger snake is number four on Steve's list. The Eastern Brown Snake is number two. I suggest not showing this video to your kids, as what Steve is doing here is utterly crazy and could be fatal to anybody else.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

At Last: Solar Panels Are About to Become Affordable

I just came across a recent article in "Industry Week" announcing that low-cost high efficient solar panels developed under the auspices of mechanical engineering Professor W.S. Sampath at Colorado State University will soon go into mass production.

The article estimates that the cost to the consumer could be about half the current cost of solar panels and points out that the technology can be affordably installed and operated in nearly any location.

This is very exciting news. A massive reduction in production cost compared to traditional solar panels means that the new panels will be able to produce energy at roughly the same cost as "traditionally" generated energy. Accordingly, the cost argument for continuing to use coal and other fossil fuels becomes less and less convincing.

Electricity generation is the biggest single contributor to global warming, both globally and in Australia. If we could replace old technologies such as coal fired power stations with cheap solar power energy, we could make a massive saving on our overall contribution to greenhouse gas emissions.

Production of these new panels is expected to start by the end of next year.

Monday, October 22, 2007

The World Solar Challenge is On Again!

I am usually not a great fan of car racing. But then again, I am not a great fan of spectator sports in general anyway. Of course, motor sport is only a very small contributor to CO2 emissions in the atmosphere, but given the huge effort we have to make to reverse our massive impact on our global climate, it seems to me that any carbon-emitting activity that is not vital for our society should be suspended.

Luckily for those who really like car races, there is an exciting alternative. The Solar World Challenge is on again, with over 50 teams racing in solar cars across the Australian continent. The Solar Challenge is now in its 20th year. The cars look fantastic - streamlined, slim, futuristic (the small picture on the right shows the car of the University of NSW Solar Racing Team). I wouldn't mind driving one of those myself!

In fact, world emissions from road transport alone account for close to ten per cent of total CO2 emissions. The solar car race demonstrates that it is possible to fuel cars by sunlight. Just think of the possibilities! I think it is a great shame that we have not yet seen a massive government and industry investment in these transport alternatives. Just imagine the technological advances we could have made over the last twenty years! We could all be driving these cool cars now instead of lugging around clunky, ugly and CO2 belching sedans, four-wheel drives or SUVs.

What a shame that our corporate media are not more actively involved on site, reporting on the progress of the race. I would love to be able to follow it through the news rather than having to check up on it through the net.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Welcome back, Margo Kingston!

I met Margo Kingston in July 2004 at the Bungendore launch of her book "Not happy, John". Margo used to be a mainstay on Phillip Adam's wonderful radio programme Late Night Live and a very knowledgeable political journalist with the Sydney Morning Herald. She set up an inter-active online political opinion forum called "Webdiary" which she described as an "experiment in 'participatory journalism' between writer and reader". Webdiary was initially part of the Sydney Morning Herald's website. In short, she was one of the most important political journalists in Australia at the time.

And then she published "Not happy, John" in 2004, just before the last federal election.

At the book launch, Margo explained why she had started Webdiary and what had inspired her to write "Not happy John". She felt that the Liberal Party had led down "small l liberals". She outlined the way John Howard and his friends were undermining democracy in Australia through deliberate misinformation (eg on the reasons for going to war in Iraq), the removal of freedom of information by adding "commercial in confidence" clauses, pork-barreling as a way of buying votes, and pandering to overseas powers and bending the rules to accommodate them (such as during the visits of US President George Bush and Chinese President Hu in October 2003).

And she explained why the Australian media at the time seemed unable to critically analyse what was happening in front of their very eyes. I remember in particular her comment that in Australia, journalists only have a small number of potential employers: mainly Murdoch, Packer and Fairfax. A journalist who falls foul of either one of them may well find him- or herself out of a job permanently in this country. A strong incentive not to stray too far off the accepted course, especially if you have a mortgage to serve and a family to feed. Margo said at the launch that because she did not have to support a family, she not only had the freedom to pursue a more critical journalistic role, she also felt the responsibility to do so.

"Not happy, John" was a passionate book. It was an important book. Unfortunately, the Australian public was not ready for it and voted John Howard back into office. To make matters worse, John Howard not only dominated the Lower House, he also managed to secure a majority in the Senate. John Howard continued his disastrous policies on climate change and surprised the Australian people with the introduction of his so-called "Work Choices" legislation. Nobody was able to stop him.

And Margo suddenly vanished from the public scene. Her Webdiary got the chop from the Sydney Morning Herald. It was moved to a private website where it was kept alive by a group of concerned citizens. Margo no longer wrote articles. Her informed voice, so important for Australia's democracy, had fallen silent.

But now she is back. I heard her on Phillip Adam's Late Night Live last week Tuesday (16 October 2007). And she has written another book, "Still not happy, John". If the opinion polls in the lead-up to the coming election are anything to go by, a majority of the Australian public now agrees with her.

Welcome back, Margo. I hope we will hear a lot more from you again.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Greening the Desert

I am getting increasingly interested in the concept of permaculture and in how to garden in a place that may end up resembling a desert, if the drought continues for much longer and longer term climate change predictions are anything to go by.

I have been trying to find more information on desert gardening. I recently came upon an article in The New Scientist from 14 October 2006, which described the success of tree-planting in the Sahel region of Africa, where farmers managed to reverse desertification by preserving existing trees and planting new acacia trees. This not only made the desert retreat, it also influenced local weather, with researchers attributing an increase in rainfall to the larger number of trees.

I also found this great video which describes a project to green the desert in Jordan.

I am sure that some of those techniques would also work in Australia, including in our garden.

In the Garden

I have spent a lot of time in the garden this last week. The drought is starting to bite again. The grass is dying off, and keeping the vegetables alive and well is a daily toil. Those vegetables that are already established and have plenty of mulch around are doing ok, but the new seeds and very young seedlings need a lot of looking after. The sun burnt relentlessly the last few days, although it is only October and supposed to be spring. But despite the earlier onset of heat during the day, we also had a couple of nights with frost. Yet most damaging have been the gusty, hot and dry winds which have swept across the land, sucking all remaining moisture out of the soil.

Some climate scientists warn of coming food shortages, even in spoilt Western countries. The media already report on seed shortages in Australia and New Zealand. The drought, coupled with increased demand from China and India, is also biting into milk supply in Australia, where butter and cream are becoming increasingly difficult to get for bakeries and patisseries, and some rural commentators warn that a lot of foods may no longer be available by Christmas. Fruit and vegetables prices are on the rise and are said to go up even higher. Given what happened with bananas last year, after cyclone Larry struck Northern Queensland, wiping out most of the banana crop and raising banana prices to over $12 a kilo, I will not be surprised by anything.

So I keep on going. I walk the garden with my watering can every day. So far my effort is paying off. I am already harvesting some wonderful vegetables - spinach has done well, as have silverbeet and mibuna. We have had quite a few broad beans, maybe not yet enough for a full meal, but certainly enough to add to something else. My potato patch is showing signs of life, although the first tops that peaked out through the straw were burnt off by frost. My broccoli is now in flower and I am going to let it go to seed, ditto for my kale, both of which have been wonderful staples throughout the winter months. I find self-seeded snow peas growing like weeds in all sorts of odd spots, and some bok choy has turned up unexpectedly next to the first sprouting jerusalem artichokes. Onions have gone in and are looking hopeful, and I may possibly get a good batch of garlic next winter. There are leeks growing which will be ready to harvest soon, and a first batch of carrots is not too far away from being ready.

However, looking after my vegetables does take time - I am not sure how other people manage to do this in half an hour during the weekend, as it takes me at least an hour each day, mostly because it just will not rain!

Monday, October 15, 2007

Let's Vote for Politicians Who are Truly Climate Clever!

The Australian Government under Liberal Prime Minister John Howard has consistently ignored climate change as a real threat. John Howard has in the past repeatedly told the public that he was a climate change "sceptic."

Unfortunately for the government, the public has now woken up to climate change. The changing climate is highly visible in Australia which has been experiencing an on-going drought for a number of years now. Now the Howard Government is trying to re-brand it's climate change policies. Instead of investing in solutions, the Howard Government has been using taxpayers' money to dress up its own inaction as "climate clever." The original government ad is a "clever" mix of good advice (line dry your clothes, change to energy efficient light bulbs) and the promotion of (currently non-existent) "clean coal" technology and nuclear power.

The Australian grassroots organisation "Get-Up" produced a wonderful spoof of Howard's climate change ads which was shown during the Australian Football League Grand Final. Here is an opportunity for you to see it.

There is absolutely no doubt that we all have to do our bit to tackle climate change. Consumers have to change their habits, and that is certainly something I am trying to do myself and promote on this blog.

However, if governments continue to promote the burning of fossil fuels, support the coal industry, look for solutions that may or may not deliver positive greenhouse outcomes far in the future (such as Howard's love-affair with nuclear power) and do not act decisively to include carbon cost into energy pricing now, then all the small steps we as individuals may take will get completely swamped by the big decisions our governments make.

Throughout its eleven years in government, the Howard Government has
- refused to sign the Kyoto Protocol, thus helping the other big climate denier, the USA under George Bush, to erode international efforts in tackling the problems early on;
- undermined the development of renewable energy in Australia by not setting proper targets for renewable energy; and
- promoted non-binding emission reduction targets which result in no reduction at all.

The single biggest contribution to climate change all of us can make is to VOTE for a party that takes climate change seriously and pressure governments in power to work much, much harder on finding solutions. If the majority of the world's scientists are right - and I have no reason to doubt that they are not - we are running out of time.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Does Your PC Choke on Coal While You are Asleep?

Computers around the country contribute to climate change even when nobody is using them.

Let's assume you use a standard desktop computer with an LCD flat screen. You work during the day and leave your computer on for 12 hours over night while you are not there. Sound familiar? This is a standard scenario for thousands of computers used in call centres and offices around Australia where the screens will go into stand-by mode and the computers remain turned on but sit idle for 12 hours a day, 365 days a year.

The scary part about this is that even though you may not be doing any work, your computer continues to use large amounts of energy. During the time you are away from your desk, your typical desktop computer uses almost 335 kilowatt hours of energy per year, just for sitting there, turned on but doing nothing.

In Australia, most electricity is produced by burning black coal. To keep just a single computer going over night doing nothing, you have to burn approximately 160 kg of black coal a year! This amount does not include the amount of coal burnt while you actually use the computer, it is solely for keeping the computer on over night.

Carbon emissions differ across countries depending on the energy source used. In Australia, your lonely computer will produce just under 350 kilograms of annual carbon dioxide emissions while you are asleep.

There are some obvious solutions. At home, you can turn your computer off at the wall before you go to sleep and subscribe to a 100 per cent green power option through your energy provider to reduce your computer's impact on the environment.

But what about work? If you cannot turn your computer off at the wall, at least use your computer's energy saving option. Appropriate power management (which will put your computer into sleep mode while idle) will save up to 95 per cent of the energy you would otherwise use. If your company has a policy of keeping computers on over night, talk to your management about it. The convenience of leaving your computer on is not a good enough reason to contribute to climate change.

Figures on coal requirements and carbon dioxide emissions were provided by the Australian Greenhouse Office following a personal inquiry.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

How Many Nuclear Power Stations Does it Take to Dry Your Clothes?

A dear friend of mine who currently resides in the United States told me that in her New York suburb people are not allowed to use a clothes line. In other suburbs, where there is no such regulation, people often choose not to use a clothesline because people might think that they do not have the money to own and run a dryer.

The utter absurdity of these regulations has finally come to the attention of some state governments in the US. According to a an article published by the Christian Science Monitor on 24 August 2007, The 'Right to Dry' – movement is growing and some states have introduced legislation to override clothesline bans, which are often instituted by community associations. Apparently, the main reason why community associations ban clotheslines is that some people are so prudish that they find other people's clean clothes offensive. Quite frankly, I find it more than offensive that people think they can trash our environment for such a stupid reason!

There are so many reasons why clothes lines are far superior to a clothes dryer that I actually think we should ban all clothes dryers!

Clothes dryers use a huge amount of energy.
Clothes dryers account for approximately six percent of energy use in the residential sector in some US states.
In 2005, there were 88 million dryers in the US, according to the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers. The Christian Science Monitor estimates that these dryers consume annually 1,079 kilowatt hours of energy per household, creating 2,224 pounds (or slightly over 1,008 kilograms) of carbon-dioxide emissions per year.
That makes a total of 94,952 million kilowatt hours of energy spent to run clothes dryers in the US! By comparison, California's nuclear power industry produced only 36,155 million kilowatt hours of energy in 2005.

This is a complete no-brainer! Clothes lines use no energy. I wonder how many nuclear power stations could be shut down if we all stopped using clothes dryers?

Line-dried clothes last much longer.
I have always been puzzled by American websites suggesting ideas on how to deal with the lint produced by their dryers. My clothes do not produce lint. I did not even know what lint was until I read about it on the Internet! Lint is a result of clothes dryers (and old-fashioned, inefficient top-loading washing machines) subjecting clothes and other fabric items to stress. As a result, particles and short fibers come off and form fluffy clumps known as lint. Fabrics then become thinner over time and clothes start fraying and falling apart. Wouldn't it make more sense to keep your clothes in one piece rather than trying to come up with ideas on how to use the bits that fall off because you are subjecting your fabrics to too much stress?

Clothes that have been allowed to dry in the sun smell beautifully.
You can completely skip using perfumes in your laundry powder, the sun does the job so much better.

Line drying your clothes saves you money.
Yep, you can get something for free! Running a clothes dryer once a day will cost you around US$135 a year, according to the Home Energy Saver website. Using your clothes line is free. You don't even have to invest in solar panels to get the sun to do the job for you!

Line drying saves ironing.
There is a bit of technique involved here. I hate ironing and have not ironed a thing in years. If you hang your clothes carefully and fold them properly when you take them off (rather than stuff them with gusto in your clothes basket), the wind will do the work for you and you will never have to use your iron again.

Clothes lines are stylish.
Just think of Italy and the lines of clothes hanging between houses! Or Australia with it's iconic Hills Hoist in the backyard! I certainly find a living backyard or streetscape with kids, clothes lines and vegetable beds far more appealing than the sterile ugliness of manicured lawns.

Lose weight by using a clothes line!
Here is some incidental exercise to help you stay slim or lose weight and get some fresh air in the process! So much better for you, for your wallet, and for the environment than driving to the gym and breathe in the wafts of sweat and other fumes you and your fellow gym inmates produce when you lift artificial weights or run on an electric treadmill.

Clothes dryers are responsible for a large number of house fires.
The US Fire Administration estimates that clothes dryers account for about 15,600 structure fires, 15 deaths, and 400 injuries annually.

And last, but not least - yes, you can dry clothes even in wet weather. Just bring them inside and dry them indoors using a clothes rack!

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Australian Water Restrictions Contribute to Inaction on Global Warming

Most areas of south-eastern Australia are in drought. The "Big Dry", as the drought has come to be known, is entering its seventh year in many districts. To preserve precious water resources, many Councils around the country have introduced water restrictions. These restrictions usually encompass sensible measures such as no topping up of swimming pools, no washing of cars, no hosing down your driveway. Some Councils offer water audits which include incentives to install dual flush toilets and water efficient shower heads, and to fix leaking taps.

This is all good. I also agree that watering of lawns or water-guzzling ornamental plants in the garden needs to be discouraged. Similarly, people should not use automatic sprinkler systems which can waste thousands of litres of water.

However, many Councils also set specific times during the week when watering gardens is allowed irrespective of what is grown in the garden, how much water is used or what the weather is on a given day. For example, you may only be allowed to water between 8 am and 10 am on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

These kinds of restrictions are unjust and unduely interfere with people's private lives. What if you have to work during those times? What if it rains on those days? What if your precious plants start wilting and need urgent watering on Saturday?

It is also bad policy in a broader sense, given that water and climate change are interlinked and should not be seen as separate from each other. Every one of us should aim to become "climate neutral" to fight the imminent threat of climate change. Apart from moderating our consumption, choosing energy from renewable sources and using our cars less often, we need to eat locally grown food and plant trees to offset remaining CO2 emissions.

Under current water restrictions in the Council area we live in, it is possible to have 10 minute showers (or longer!), use inefficient top-loading washing mashines and flush fresh drinking water down the toilet at lib but it is de facto forbidden to grow vegetables (which are mostly shallow rooted and therefore need a small amount of daily watering) or plant new trees (young trees need sufficient watering until they are established, including most drought hardy plants!).

In effect, Council's water restrictions contribute to inaction on fighting climate change, which in turn is a major contributor to our water problem.

It does not have to be that way. For example, we could have a water pricing system which would set a target of how much water could be used per person. Water usage beyond that limit could be subject to a steep rise in price. People would then be allowed to choose how they want to use their water within that limit.

Under such a scenario it is perfectly possible to grow a vegetable garden that will feed your whole family if you implement various water saving measures in your household, such as stop having daily showers (wash yourself using a jug and a cloth, and only have a military-style 2 minute shower once a week), follow the "when it's yellow let it mellow" regime for the toilet, use a water-efficient washing machine and wear clothes a bit longer so that the washing machine gets used less often.

Councils have a responsibility to monitor the amount of water we use. However, it should be up the individual to decide how they want to use their own water allocation. Some may prefer to keep their long showers. Others may want to grow their own food. At least we would not discriminate against gardeners as is currently the case.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Meet Harry the Scarecrow

The boys have been reading "The Wizard of Oz" and that gave us the idea to make our own scarecrow! There are plenty of birds in the garden digging up our vegetable bed. Not necessarily crows, though, it is more the Australian magpie that proves to be rather destructive in freshly set up vegetable beds.

Harry's head is made from an old flour bag. G and S jointly drew the face (with glasses, hence the name Harry...) and stuffed the bag with straw. Harry's hat has lived in our shed for at least the last 11 years and is pleased to be used once again! Harry's shirt also had a long and happy previous life and will hopefully last the summer.

We had so much fun - and I am pleased that we only used things that would have been "waste" otherwise.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Greener transport - a conundrum for people living in country Australia

Traveling by bicycle and public transport used to be my preferred choice of getting around when I was living overseas. I did not even own a car until I moved to Australia!

Unfortunately, the rural village we live in now has totally inadequate public transport, making traveling without a car very difficult. This is a shame, as the majority of people living here make the daily trip to work in Canberra, which is about 30 km from here.

There is a very limited train service with no option for a return trip on most days.
The few buses that do run are expensive and do not run often enough, making it difficult to do things in town and get back to our village by solely relying on public transport.

When the bus company initially surveyed people about using a bus service, many responded and there was great interest. I even rang them to find out when they would finally start running their service! The bus company then installed a number of buses services, including an early morning service designed to take people to work. Unfortunately, the uptake has not been as vigorous as the company had hoped. There are a number of reasons for this:

1) The service is unexpectedly expensive with a $10.00 price tag for a single trip.
2) There are too few buses, making it difficult to get into town, do some shopping or go about other tasks and catch a bus back, especially when travelling with young kids.
3) The bus for people returning from work left the city far too early, making it not a viable option for most workers.
4) While it is possible to get into town by bus, it takes around three times as long as by car.

The bus company says that the $20.00 round trip fare was already heavily subsidised and that it would work out cheaper than taking the car and paying inner-city parking. This may be so, but our family, for example, never uses inner-city parking as we do our shopping in one of the other centres where parking is free. Apart from shopping, we may travel into town together as a family, for example to visit friends. Quite apart from the fact that it would be close to impossible to organise such an outing around the limited bus time table, using the car with the whole family also works out much cheaper. Petrol cost for a round trip by car costs about $15.00, or $7.50 per adult (if assuming that children would travel for free on the bus which will not be the case once the kids get a bit older).

This has created a vicious circle.
Only few people use the bus because it is not convenient enough.
The bus company finds that it is running its service at a loss and has already cut their early morning service, with more services under review.
This again results in fewer people taking the bus as it is now even more inconvenient.

We are now facing the prospect of losing our bus service altogether.

The way I see it, there is a government responsibility here to take a whole-of-society approach to public transport. At the moment, the economic equation for the individual traveller is clearly against public transport and for car travel.

This has multiple negative side effects for society as a whole, such as higher greenhouse gas emissions, higher air pollution, higher wear and tear on roads, a higher incident of traffic accidents and more traffic congestion requiring more roads.

When looking at the cost from all these factors, it seems to me that it would end up being much cheaper for governments, society and the environment to strongly support public transport by making it as affordable and useful as possible. To pay for the immediate cost, I would propose a carbon tax on car sales and on petrol. In the long term, public transport pays for itself through the savings for society.

One city in Australia, Melbourne, is leading the way with free inner-city tram services. I am sure with some creative thinking we could find a similar a solution for places in and around capital cities across the country.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Our upside-down world of rewarding polluters and making conscientious consumers pay

Reading Tim Flannery's 2006 book "The Weather Makers" finally spurned me into action and I signed our household up for the "green energy" option offered by our energy supplier. Unfortunately, I have since found out that not everything that looks green also is truly green. According to Green Electricity Watch

Energy retailers recognise a competitive advantage in providing green energy products and a confusing array of them have appeared. Some are good; some not so good; and others are of no use at all in supporting new green power generation and reducing our current emissions.
There are two broad categories of products - Green Power which is accredited by an independent government panel; and non-accredited products.

Now, what is accredited renewable energy and why does it matter? Here is the definition by Green Power, the agency responsible for the regulation of the green energy industry:

Accreditation is essentially an endorsement from an independent authority. In GreenPower’s case this means the renewable energy product is endorsed by a collection of state governments that manage the GreenPower program. For a renewable energy product to gain endorsement from the GreenPower program it must be generated from:
- Eligible renewable energy sources that meet strict environmental standards
- A new renewable energy facility that was built since January 1997 (Other renewable energy exists, but it may not be accredited because it was built before 1997, and was already contributing energy to the electricity grid)

So I went back to my energy provider, and sure enough, the feel-good "green" option I had subscribed to (which was the only one available at the time of my subscription) was not quite as green as I would have liked it to be. For $67.70 a year extra fee we got 100 per cent renewable energy (up to the average Australian household usage) but only a small proportion (I think it was around 10 per cent) was for accredited renewable energy. No wonder that Green Electricity Watch gave this option a "poor" rating. Our energy supplier has now changed their system, offering green energy products with a choice of ten, twenty, fifty and 100 per cent accredited renewable energy. The 100 per green energy option (which got a "good" rating from Green Electricity Watch) will set us back $6.00 a week (or $312 a year).

That is quite a premium to pay for doing the right thing. Wouldn't it make more sense to make customers pay for choosing a dirty energy supplier (such as coal) than punishing them for choosing a climate friendly solution? Clearly, this is a case of market failure. We do need a carbon tax to properly reflect the true cost of our choices.