Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Creating a no-dig garden bed

It's almost child's play...

The idea is to smother the weeds and grass under the newspaper, and to keep the newspaper moist under the mulch to encourage earth worms.

Lay newspaper.

Lay out watering pipes (in this case, some of the pipes had to go under a footpath). You want the pipes on top of the newspaper and under the mulch.

Water well.

Top with mulch and compost.

Ready to be planted!

Monday, June 23, 2008

Winter mornings

Early fog rising from the ground, clouds above - winter in my garden.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Solar cooking

I have become increasingly interested in the concept of solar cooking. This video has a number of interesting solar cookers - I think I will try making one myself.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Stop the Madness - Stop Coal Mining

This picture from Google Earth shows Garzweiler, Europe's largest open cut coal mine. It is a deeply personal image for me. My forebearers came from the villages that lie in the path of a giant monster, set to destroy centuries of German history and architecture.
During my last trip to Germany, I went to visit my grandfather's birthplace. It is still beautiful. A quiet rural village in the heart of some of the best farmland Germany has to offer. Lush green meadows, rich paddocks. One would think that in times of climate change and a growing food crisis, all would rush to stop any further coal mining and the destruction of this beautiful and productive area.
Several of the buildings you see here are centuries old. They will all be destroyed within a few years. Some of the villages that have already made way to the mine went back to Roman times. Two thousand years of history sacrificed on the altar of greed. My forebearers' graves will be dug up and crushed under with no respect to the dead.

The mine operators Rheinbraun believe their "clean up works" will remediate the damage done to the landscape. Current plans are for a giant lake which will eventually fill the hole left behind by the mine. But of course no matter how serious Rheinbraun takes its remediation efforts, it cannot bring back the historic villages.
And the monster does more than "just" destroy villages and valuable farmland. It is digging up coal. Brown coal. Dirty coal. Coal is the most potent contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions. 97 per cent of the coal from Garzweiler ends up in coal fired power stations in Germany. Germany likes to see itself as a global leader in fighting climate change but has consistently refused to look at the link between its own coal use and climate change. If we are to have any chance in stopping global climate change, we need to stop using coal. The crazy thing is that it does not even make economic sense. Germany pays large subsidies to support coal mining. This is money that would be better spent on renewable energy projects, more affordable public transport and better energy efficiency.
Environmentalists and local residents tried to fight the monsters that were threatening their villages, their farmland and their history, but eventually many residents ended up working for Rheinbraun and have been re-settled to new village developments. Green groups trying to stop the procession of the monster through the Court system have failed. The last attempt by German environmental group "BUND" was thwarted when BUND members were forcibly removed from a paddock with fruit trees owned by the BUND that was in the way of the mine expansion. BUND vowes to fight on, but there do not seem to be too many options left. The trees are gone, the mine continues. It breaks my heart in more ways than one.

Images: google earth, photos of village scenes taken by me, photo of large digger (apparently it is the biggest in the world) downloaded from Wikipedia.

More images of the destruction wrought by Garzweiler mine are here.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

German-style rye bread

My German sourdough rye bread recipe has made it into THE GOOD LIFE BREAD BOOK published by Earth Garden Books in 2008.

For those who don't have access to the bread book, here is my recipe:

German-style Mixed Rye Bread

Makes one large loaf or two smaller ones. I usually make double the recipe and bake two large loaves or three medium-sized loaves on two baking sheets stacked above each other in the oven. This lasts us about a week and means that I only have to use the oven once to bake all the bread for a week! You may want to prepare the dough in the morning so the bread has enough time to rise before you bake it.

Note: Sour dough bread tends to dry out in the fridge. It stores well in the freezer (cut in slices for convenience before freezing). You can also keep the unsliced loaf in a clean cotton bag or an earthenware pot (a “Römertopf” or a large casserole dish with lid are perfect) in your cupboard. Half a peeled potato will prevent your bread from drying out. If you feel adventurous, you can replace some of the flour with other seeds or grains such as pumpkin seeds, pepitas, sesame seeds, linseed or rolled oats.

250 g sour dough starter (recipe link here)
approx 500 ml lukewarm water
550 g rye flour
450 g plain (wheat) flour
5 teaspoons of salt
1 tablespoon of caraway seeds (whole or ground)
1 tablespoon of ground fennel
1 tablespoon of ground coriander seeds

Mix all ingredients and knead into a smooth dough. Adjust the amount of water so that your dough is neither too sticky nor too dense. The dough then needs to stand in a warm spot (26-30 degrees C) for at least two hours until it starts rising visibly. Do not use too early or your bread will not rise properly! (If you leave your bread dough to stand for too long (e.g. overnight) it will still bake fine and be perfectly edible but it will develop a much stronger sour dough taste.) Knead the dough again with your hands for about 10 minutes. Form your bread. Let stand for another two hours until it has risen well. Bake in a hot oven (225 degrees C) for about 60-70 minutes. There is no need to preheat a fan-forced oven. The bread is ready if it sounds hollow when tapped against the bottom. Let the bread completely cool down before cutting.

Sourdough starter

If you like sourdough bread and have no access to commercially produced sourdough starter, you can also make your own. Warning: this is a process that will take several days and cannot be rushed. However, once you have made a batch, you can keep using it for a long time. This is how to:

Day one: mix 100 g of rye flour and add enough warm water to make a thick batter-like dough (100 ml or more). Keep in a warm spot for a day until the mixture develops a slightly sour smell and possibly some bubbles.

Day two: add 100 g of rye flour and 100 ml of water and mix well with a spoon. Keep in a warm spot for another day or so. The sour dough starter should be gaining in strength and begin to show some bubbles.

Day three: add another 100 g of rye flour and 100 ml of water. Your sour dough starter now needs to sit until it begins to bubble up and has developed a strong sour smell. This may take another day or two. It is now ready to use.

Keep a couple of tablespoons of sour dough starter in a small jar in the fridge. You can use this next time to make a new batch of sour dough.

For the next batch of sour dough, take most of your sour dough starter, add 100 g rye flour and 100 ml water and add the same amount again the following day. Your sour dough starter should now be active again with lots of bubbles. Take a spoonful of this mixture and add to the remainder of your starter in your jar. Use the rest for your next batch of sour dough bread.

If you continue feeding your starter in that way you can keep it indefinitely. Sour dough starter can also be dried and keeps well in the freezer.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Bill McKibben: First, Step Up

American environmentalist Bill McKibben has been writing about environmental issues for two decades and was one of the early voices to raise the alarm over climate change. This article by McKibben was first published in Yes! Magazin in early 2008. McKibben not only raises the alarm, he wants you and me to join the revolution and tackle climate change together. I republish his article here under the create commons licence in accordance with the requirements set out by Yes! Magazine.

First, Step Up
by Bill McKibben
Asking people to make sacrifices to stop Global Warming is political suicide, right? Evidently not.

At any given moment we face as a society an enormous number of problems: there’s themortgage crisis, the health care crisis, the endless war in Iraq, and on and on. Maybe we’ll solve some of them, and doubtless new ones will spring up to take their places. But there’s only one thing we’re doing that will be easily visible from the moon. That something is global warming. Quite literally it’s the biggest problem humans have ever faced, and while there are ways to at least start to deal with it, all of them rest on acknowledging just how large the challenge really is.

What exactly do I mean by large? Last fall the scientists who study sea ice in the Arctic reported that it was melting even faster than they’d predicted. We blew by the old record for ice loss in mid-August, and by the time the long polar night finally descended, the fabled Northwest Passage was open for navigation for the first time in recorded history. That is to say, from outer space the Earth already looks very different: less white, more blue.

What do I mean by large? On the glaciers of Greenland, 10 percent more ice melted last summer than any year for which we have records. This is bad news because, unlike sea ice, Greenland’s vast frozen mass sits above rock, and when it melts, the oceans rise—potentially a lot. James Hansen, America’s foremost climatologist, testified in court last year that we might see sea level increase as much as six meters—nearly 20 feet—in the course of this century. With that, the view from space looks very different indeed (not to mention the view from the office buildings of any coastal city on earth).

Pandora’s Icebox

Climate’s Vicious Cycles
What do I mean by large? Already higher heat is causing drought in arid areas the world over. In Australia things have gotten so bad that agricultural output is falling fast in the continent’s biggest river basin, and the nation’s prime minister is urging his people to pray for rain. Aussie native Rupert Murdoch is so rattled he’s announced plans to make his NewsCorp empire (think Fox News) carbon neutral. Australian voters ousted their old government last fall, largely because of concerns over climate.

What do I mean by large? If we’d tried we couldn’t have figured out a more thorough way to make life miserable for the world’s poor, who now must deal with the loss of the one thing they could always take for granted—the planet’s basic physical stability. We’ve never figured out as efficient a method for obliterating other species. We’ve never figured out another way to so fully degrade the future for everyone who comes after us.

Or rather, we have figured out one other change that rises to this scale. That change is called all-out thermo-nuclear war, and so far, at least, we’ve decided not to have one. But we haven’t called off global warming. Just the opposite: in the 20 years that we’ve known about this problem, we’ve steadily burned more coal and gas and oil, and hence steadily poured more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Instead of a few huge explosions, we’ve got billions of little ones every minute, as pistons fire inside engines and boilers burn coal.

Having put off real change, we’ve made our job steadily harder. But there are signs that we’re finally ready to get to work. Congress is for the first time seriously considering legislation that would actually limit U.S. emissions. The bills won’t be signed by President Bush, and they don’t do everything that needs doing—but they’re a start.

We need a movement. We need a political swell larger than the civil rights movement—as passionate and as willing to sacrifice. Without it, we’re not going to best the fossil fuel companies and the automakers and the rest of the vested interests that are keeping us from change.

And the international community meeting in Bali in December overcame U.S. resistance and began the steps toward an international treaty that will be ready in 2009. The talks are going slowly, largely because of American intransigence, but George Bush won’t be president forever, so there’s at least a chance we’ll re-engage with the rest of the world.

If we do, there are steps we can take. Because the problem is so big, and coming at us so fast, those steps will need to be large. And even so, they won’t be enough to stop global warming—at best they will slow it down and give us some margin. But here’s the deal:

Who’s Willing to Step Up?
Asking people to make sacrifices to stop Global Warming is political suicide, right? Evidently not.
We need to conserve energy. That’s the cheapest way to reduce carbon. Screw in the energy-saving lightbulbs, but that’s just the start. You have to blow in the new insulation—blow it in so thick that you can heat your home with a birthday candle. You have to plug in the new appliances—not the flat-screen TV, which uses way more power than the old set, but the new water-saving front-loading washer. And once you’ve got it plugged in, turn the dial so that you’re using cold water. The dryer? You don’t need a dryer—that’s the sun’s job.

We need to generate the power we use cleanly. Wind is the fastest growing source of electricity generation around the world—but it needs to grow much faster still. Solar panels are increasingly common—especially in Japan and Germany, which are richer in political will than they are in sunshine. Much of the technology is now available; we need innovation in financing and subsidizing more than we do in generating technology.

We need to change our habits—really, we need to change our sense of what we want from the world. Do we want enormous homes and enormous cars, all to ourselves? If we do, then we can’t deal with global warming. Do we want to keep eating food that travels 1,500 miles to reach our lips? Or can we take the bus or ride a bike to the farmers’ market? Does that sound romantic to you? Farmers’ markets are the fastest growing part of the American food economy; their heaviest users may be urban-dwelling immigrants, recently enough arrived from the rest of the world that they can remember what actual food tastes like. Which leads to the next necessity:

We need to stop insisting that we’ve figured out the best way on Earth to live. For one thing, if it’s wrecking the Earth then it’s probably not all that great. But even by measures of life satisfaction and happiness, the Europeans have us beat—and they manage it on half the energy use per capita. We need to be pointing the Indians and the Chinese hard in the direction of London, not Los Angeles; Barcelona, not Boston.

Building a Movement
Most of all, we need a movement. We need a political swell larger than the civil rights movement—as passionate and as willing to sacrifice. Without it, we’re not going to best the fossil fuel companies and the auto-makers and the rest of the vested interests that are keeping us from change.

Some of us have spent the last couple of years trying to build that movement, and we’ve had some success. With no money and no organization, seven of us launched StepItUp in January 2007. Before the year was out, we’d helped organize 2,000 demonstrations in all 50 states—and helped take our once-radical demand for an 80 percent reduction in U.S. carbon emissions by mid-century into the halls of power.

We haven’t won yet—but we’re way beyond what we could have expected when we began. Last November, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi stood at a podium in front of 7,000 college students gathered from around the country at the University of Maryland and led them in a chant: “80 percent by 2050.” I’m as cynical as the next guy, but it feels like our democracy is starting to work.

It will need to work much better, though. We’ll need to see a whole new level of commitment—to nonviolent protest, to electioneering, to endless lobbying. We’ll have to be committed to an environmentalism much broader and more diverse than we’ve known—younger, browner, and insistent that the people left out of the last economy won’t be left out of the new one. And we’ll need to see it not just here but around the world. Because they don’t call it global warming for nothing. If we’re going to have a fighting chance, we’ll need every nation pitching in—which means, in turn, that we’ll have to understand where we all stand right now.

What about China and India?
Here’s the political reality check, just as sobering as the data about sea ice and drought: China last year passed the United States as the biggest emitter of carbon on Earth. Now, that doesn’t mean the Chinese are as much to blame as we are—per capita, we pour four times more CO2 into the atmosphere. And we’ve been doing it for a hundred years, which means it will be decades before they match us as a source of the problem. But they—and the Indians, and the rest of the developing world behind them—are growing so fast that there’s no way to head off this crisis without their participation. And yet they don’t want to participate, because they’re using all that cheap coal not to pimp out an already lavish lifestyle, but to pull people straight out of deep poverty.

Which means that if we want them not to burn their coal, we’re going to need to help them—we’re going to need to supply the windmills, efficient boilers, and so on that let them build decent lives without building coal-fired power plants.

Which means, in turn, we’re going to need to be generous, on a scale that passes even the Marshall Plan that helped rebuild post-World War II Europe. And it’s not clear if we’re capable of that any more—so far our politicians have preferred to scapegoat China, not come to its aid.

I said at the start that this was not just another problem on a list of problems. It’s a whole new lens through which we look at the world. When we peer through it, foreign policy looks entirely different: the threats to our security can be met only by shipping China technology, not by shipping missiles to China’s enemies.

When we peer through the climate lens, our economic life looks completely changed: we need to forget the endless expansion now adding to the cloud of carbon and concentrate on the kind of durability that will let us last out the troubles headed our way.

Another Way to be Human

Our individual lives look very different through these glasses too. Less individual, for one thing. The kind of extreme independence that derived from cheap fossil fuel—the fact that we need our neighbors for nothing at all—can’t last. Either we build real community, of the kind that lets us embrace mass transit and local food and co-housing and you name it, or we will go down clinging to the wreckage of our privatized society.

Which leaves us with the one piece of undeniably good news: we were built for community. Everything we know about human beings, from the state of our immune systems to the state of our psyches, testifies to our desire for real connection of just the kind that an advanced consumer society makes so difficult. We need that kind of community to slow down the environmental changes coming at us, and we need that kind of community to survive the changes we can’t prevent. And we need that kind of community because it’s what makes us fully human.

This is our final exam, and so far we’re failing. But we don’t have to put our pencils down quite yet. We’ll see.

Bill McKibben wrote this article as part of Stop Global Warming Cold, the Spring 2008 issue of Yes! Magazin. Bill McKibben is the author of The End of Nature, Wandering Home, and Deep Economy, and a founder of StepItUp, which has recently joined forces with 1sky.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Cut your household greenhouse gas emissions and save money in the process

Following my visit to the inspiring solar passive home at Naripinda, I was wondering how the rest of us could achieve a better environmental footprint for our houses. Many of us are stuck with older houses, and even new homes in Australia are still being built with little attention to their environmental footprint. Given sky-rocketing energy prices, concern for the environment is increasingly underpinned by a strong financial incentive to cut energy use.

The easiest way to achieve an energy efficient house is to incorporate all significant features right from the start, such as solar orientation, insulation in walls, ceilings and floors, thermal mass and double-glazed windows. The savings in running costs for energy efficient houses will very quickly pay back the initial outlay in extra spending, as an average of 39 percent of energy consumed in typical Australian homes is used for space heating and cooling.

Unfortunately, most existing buildings are nowhere near that ideal, and many homes leak energy at an alarming rate through lack of insulation, cracks in the walls or gaps around windows or door frames. Insulation should be a number one priority for all home owners, particularly in the cooler parts of the country.

In addition, some simple changes can keep energy bills and greenhouse gas emissions down. Changing all incandescent light bulbs for compact fluorescent lights immediately cuts household energy consumption by around ten per cent. Turning lights off when leaving a room further reduces energy consumption.

Contrary to widely held views, halogen downlights do not save energy. According to Sustainability Victoria, “Halogens are considered an energy intensive lighting option because several halogen lights are needed in the place of one fluorescent light bulb to achieve even lighting levels in a room. Most halogen globes used as downlights consume 50 watts each and an additional 15 watts for the transformer. A 50W halogen downlight used 3 hours a day will cost around $10 a year to run. If you had a room with 8 halogens and ran them for 8 hours each day, it would cost you over $200 every year!”

Another way to immediately reduce your carbon footprint is to turn appliances off at the wall when not in use. The Global Warming Cool It! website lists some surprising facts on standby power. For example, did you know that over one year, some microwave ovens generate more greenhouse gas running the digital clock than cooking food? Or that large-screen televisions, when used 6 hours a day, generate around half a tonne of CO2 emissions each year — more than a family fridge? In an average Australian home, items on standby power together generate over 750 kilograms of unnecessary greenhouse gas emissions each year.

In my own house, we were able to reduce our overall energy use by over 30 per cent simply through changing our light bulbs and modifying our behaviour. The savings were more than enough to pay for 100 per cent Green Power and thus reduce our household greenhouse gas emissions to zero.

For more information you can download the Australian energy efficient building guide.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Energy-efficient passive solar design - a visit to Naripinda

This article, which I wrote after an interview with Phil P and Jan P at their inspiring energy-efficient solar passive house in May 2008, was first published in the Palerang and District Bulletin in June 2008. The photo on this website (showing part of the house and the vegetable patch near the kitchen) was taken by me and is different to those published in the Bulletin version.

It took two years of planning and many long hours of discussions before Phil P and Jan P decided on the final design of their award-winning solar passive house in Bywong. Located on a small rural-residential holding, Naripinda (the word means galah in the now extinct Nhirrpi language of South Australia) combines all features of solar passive building design.

Both owners are passionate about reducing their environmental footprint through good planning and sensible use of their building. As Jan P explained, rather than spending money on elaborate fittings or unnecessary décor, they focussed on getting the solar basics right – good orientation, double-glazed windows throughout the house, dark floor tiles and thermal mass inside the building.

Instead of a standard house design with rooms on all sides, this house only has single-room depth with north and north-easterly orientation for all rooms. A double row of windows on the higher northern walls maximises sunlight exposure. Smaller windows in the lower walls on the southern side allow views of the courtyard and the surrounding bush. The eaves are specifically designed to cut out excessive heat in summer while allowing the winter sun into the house to warm up the rooms on cold days. All western walls are without windows and have extra insulation to protect from the intense afternoon sun.

Jan P said that in preparation for their building project, she and Phil did a lot of research into solar passive design features but they had no pre-conceived ideas of what the house should actually look like. This open-minded approach resulted in a strikingly unusual building. Rather than constructing an elongated row of single rooms to achieve optimal solar exposure, the owners decided to go for a more interesting design whereby the house is “cut into two halves” which sit at a slight angle towards each other on different levels on a slope.

The silver-coloured corrugated tin exterior with its large window fronts and the split design give the place a feel of lightness which defies the fact that this house incorporates a significant thermal mass. Phil P explained that the interior trombe wall, which connects the two sections of the house, used up as many bricks as one would find in an average brick veneer home. In addition, all outside walls are made from ‘reverse brick veneer’ where the brick is on the inside of the building rather than the outside. Brick is a good heat store and helps to retain heat inside the building on cool evenings and in winter, while the light coloured exterior walls reflect intense summer heat away from the house.

To answer my question of what advice he would give to prospective home builders, Phil P took me outside. “You need to look at the landscape,” he said. “We were first advised to build on top of the hill to get a good view. That would have meant destroying the beauty of the environment by running heavy machinery across to get to the top. It also would have meant exposure to wind, heat and a heightened fire risk. Where we are now (on a plateau lower down surrounded by gentle slopes on three sides), we are well protected. Walk around your property, get to know your place well, and then make decisions. Everybody will have an opinion, so you need to watch out. If something sounds like bad advice, it probably is.”

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Winter vegetables

This is the first year that I have a really "serious" winter vegetable garden which will eventually supply most of what we need. I was surprised at the amount of things I can grow here over the frosty winter months. We are currently harvesting kale, silver beet and the more colourful rainbow chard (picture above), lettuce, broccoli, snow peas, mibuna, chinese cabbage, pak choi, carrots, various herbs and sellery. I have also planted cauliflower, red and white cabbages (the latter for making Sauerkraut!), more broccoli, more peas, broad beans and kohlrabi.
I tried to follow some permaculture principles here - mixing up plantings (at least to a degree) and a "keyhole" access path in the middle, and lots and lots of compost and mulch in the bed. I have also included a watering "system" with a seeping hose running a few centimeters under the soil. I only water when the soil is dry below approximately five centimeters down. So far this is working well.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Dig up the front lawn!

Another step towards greater (self-)sustainability: I have added more fruit trees to our garden. This time I dug up the front "lawn" (if you can call it that after countless years of drought - maybe I should call it the balding front weed patch instead?) to plant pears, plums, apricots and a cherry tree. (I had placed the chairs on the lawn to get an idea of where I would plant the trees)

These are all standard sized trees and will eventually reach approximately four meters in height and diameter. This should give us some nice shady spots in summer!

The week before I had already added some miniature apple and pear trees (they grow "only" up to three meters) to our existing small "orchard" which is rapidly running out of space. I am planning to espalier the apples and have set up posts and wires to train the trees onto those.

Unfortunately, I also have a few trees in the orchard area that may not be fruit trees - no idea whether the previous owner had planted them and they got broken off and have only now come back (in which case they might just be root stock and no good), or whether they put themselves there (they are rather small so it is possible that they are either woody weeds of some kind or "self seeded" fruit trees). If they turn out to be weeds, they can be harvested for their wood, so nothing is lost.

Following Jackie French's advice, I am also trying to grow more trees from seed. So far I have managed to grow several peach trees (luckily we love peaches...) and some plums. I am just wondering whether the plums will bear fruit as I have no idea what they are and therefore don't know whether I have the right pollinator.

Since my earlier tree planting efforts I have learnt a few things. Some of the most important lessons learnt are:

- You need to dig a hole of at least about 1 meter in diameter to plant the tree. Keep the area around the tree free of grass.

- Fruit trees need some watering in winter (even when they are deciduous) and regular water in summer, at least until they are well established. I now plant all my trees with a plastic water bottle stuck upside down (bottom cut off and without lid) next to the tree, so that I can water deeper down and minimise run-off.)

- Get onto cherry and pear slugs quickly, they can and will kill your tree (I lost several trees due to these slimy black little critters).

- A good mulch is vital. Mulch regularly but not too close to the stem to prevent rot.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Catometer improves energy efficiency

Our sitting room has a large glass front facing North (note to my Northern hemisphere readers: this is the sunny side!), and I use this glass front to warm the house during daytime in winter. The trick is to know when to open the curtains. Open them too early, and the single pane windows will lose all the warm air. Leave it too late, and I have missed some of the beneficial warmth of the sun.

That is where my energy efficient, friendly and totally natural cat-o-meter (seen in action on the left above; and on the right after he has done his job) comes in. My cat seeks out the warmth and will crawl behind the curtains when the temperature is just right. I then know it is time to let the light in and open the curtains. On cloudy days, the cat simply stays on the sofa.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Guilt-Free Flying With Carbon Offsets – Buyer Be Aware

(This is the updated version of an article I published in the Palerang and District Bulletin in May 2008. The article was published in conjunction with another article on emissions trading which I published earlier on this blog.)

There are many ways for individuals to reduce emissions, including: changing our energy mix towards more renewable energy, improving the energy efficiency of houses and appliances through insulation and better design, driving less and with fuel-efficient cars, and choosing food and other consumer items with a lower carbon footprint. One area with immediate win-win appeal is carbon-offsets.

The voluntary offset market allows consumers to buy offsets for the carbon emissions associated with using a product or a service. For example, most major airlines in Australia calculate the carbon emissions from a particular flight and then offer the option of flying ‘carbon neutral’ by paying an additional amount that will be used to contribute to a carbon offset project in Australia.

The carbon offset market in Australia has grown substantially over recent years. The Environment Protection Agency (EPA) Victoria estimates that in 2006-2007, around 3.28 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalents were traded by Australian carbon offset providers with a value of at least $44 million. In 2007, EPA Victoria and Global Sustainability at RMIT University in Melbourne developed an independent carbon offset guide to give businesses, government agencies, NGOs and private consumers a better overview over the expanding offset market in Australia. This guide is now available online.

Unfortunately, as carbon offsets are a largely unregulated market in Australia, there are also some operators who make misleading green claims in their advertisements. This has prompted the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) to publish an issues paper in January and begin monitoring unsubstantiated claims of ‘low carbon’ or carbon neutrality. The ABC reported on 29 March this year that the ACCC is now taking General Motors to court over green claims made by Swedish car brand Saab, which it distributes in Australia.

Consumers wanting to offset their emissions or make a ‘carbon neutral’ purchase should check whether their offset provider is registered with the Australian Government’s ‘Greenhouse FriendlyTM’ scheme to ensure they get the abatement they are paying for.

Certified Greenhouse FriendlyTM companies undergo an independent assessment of their emissions and offset projects. According to the Greenhouse Friendly website, these projects must occur in Australia, and they must generate additional, permanent and verifiable reductions or sequestration of greenhouse gas emissions. Greenhouse Friendly™ projects can include energy efficiency measures, waste diversion and recycling, capture and flaring of land fill gas and other fugitive emissions, generation of renewable energy, and tree planting and avoided deforestation projects.

The voluntary offset market is likely to continue even after Australia’s emissions trading scheme is in place, and it will probably take up whatever offsets are not included in the official scheme, although the details are yet to be decided.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Carbon Markets – Where On Earth Do They Fit?

(This is part 1 of an updated version of an article I published in the Palerang and District Bulletin in May 2008). Part 2; Part 3.

Climate change is happening faster than previously anticipated. Many climate scientists now warn that we may have less than a decade to prevent more severe weather events, sea level rises of several metres, and the loss of up to fifty per cent of native animal and plant species in some areas.

In response national governments are putting a price on carbon emissions, either with carbon taxes or emissions trading schemes. The Rudd Government has chosen the latter and has set itself the highly ambitious schedule of having the scheme up and running by 2010.

Meanwhile, the scientific and political understanding of impacts has become much clearer since Mr. Rudd’s election promise to cut Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions by 60 per cent by 2050.

Economist Ross Garnaut was called in to analyse the likely economic impacts of various responses and now calls for emissions reductions of 90 per cent – partly on the analysis that doing less will ultimately be far more costly.

Some scientists believe not even that is enough. For example, NASA’s Dr James Hansen calls for emission reductions of greenhouse gases above 100 per cent as the world is already beyond what he considers to be a “safe” threshold of 350 ppm of CO2-equivalent in the atmosphere. That means we not only have to stop emitting carbon into the atmosphere, we also have to make a concerted effort to sequester the carbon already emitted, for example through massive tree plantings and carbon sequestration technologies.

Clearly, it is high time we stop talking about reducing emissions and actually start acting at a large scale now. And sorry Mr Rudd, but 60 per cent emissions reductions by 2050 simply is not good enough.

Continue reading: What is emissions trading?

What is emissions trading?

(This is part 2 of an updated version of an article I published in the Palerang and District Bulletin in May 2008) Part 1; Part 3.

The Australian Government has announced that it will establish a ‘cap and trade’ emissions trading scheme. Under the scheme, the Government sets a limit on the overall amount of greenhouse gas emissions allowed in Australia (that is, it sets a cap). The Government then issues emissions permits up to that limit.

Each permit represents a standard quantity of greenhouse gas; for example, one metric ton of carbon dioxide equivalent. Companies then acquire permits from the Government to cover their emissions. The basic idea is that because there is a limit (or a cap) to overall emissions, these permits represent real monetary value and therefore put a price on carbon. Companies will be able to trade their permits, thus allowing the market to find the cheapest carbon abatement options.

Experience in Europe where cap and trade has operated for several years now, indicates that this type of market is only as effective as the cap level and the price placed on carbon. An over-generous cap level results in a lower carbon price and provides insufficient incentive to change towards a low carbon economy. As a result, the effect on emissions will be negligible.

Some of Australia's large emitters, particularly those in the mining and power sectors, have been trying to influence the government to allow for free permits. This would result in a similarly unsatisfactory outcome as in the European Union, where too many free permits were given to Europe's power companies, resulting in windfall profits for the big emitters, higher prices for consumers and little emissions reductions.

So far the indications coming from Climate Change Minister Wong are encouraging, who stresses that the government wants to include all companies in the emissions trading scheme and not give special treatment to some at the detriment to others. Hopefully, the government will also stand firm on including oil and petrol, unlike the New Zealanders, who bowed to pressure to take the important transport industry out of the equation.

All parts of the economy need to be transformed towards a low carbon future. Transport plays a major role in emissions, it also needs to play a major role in emissions reductions.

Continue reading: Tree planting as part of markets.

Tree planting as part of carbon markets

(This is part 3 of an updated version of an article I published in the Palerang and District Bulletin in May 2008.) Part 1; Part 2

With urgency to move to a low carbon economy a companion option to emissions reductions is carbon sequestration.

In Australia this process – strategically removing carbon already in the atmosphere through trees and forests, has received relatively scant attention, but it has major potential for diverse environmental benefits.

According to the 2005 Global Forest Resources Assessment by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the world has lost about a fifth of its forests since the beginning of the 20th Century and continues to lose an estimated seven million hectares per year. Ironically, as reported in a recent issue of Time magazine, the upsurge of soybean and other crop plantings for biofuels is accelerating the deforestation of the Amazon and elsewhere to make way for cropland and in this way is doing more harm than good for the atmospheric balance.

Trees are not only an important CO2 sink but also provide natural habitats for many plant and animal species, stabilise the soil, help improve inland rainfall patterns. Australians like planting trees, even while others are still removing them. It is therefore unsurprising that tree plantings play a major role in the voluntary carbon offset market that currently operates in Australia.

Read on: Guilt-Free Flying With Carbon Offsets – Buyer Be Aware