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Air-freighted out of season asparagus? Never again!
on 21 August 2010
I love popular science books and programmes. As a trained scientist, who still does useful but not challenging science at work, (I'm a school lab technician), at best, these books are great at keeping the science bit of your brain ticking over while managing to also entertain, but it's great when you learn new things from them and use that to spark off question and debate.
That was definitely the case with this book. Berners-Lee which I shall abbreviate to B-L, (by the way, I was unable to find out whether he is related to Sir Tim B-L, the creator of the interweb - does anyone know?), is a environmental expert in calculating the total carbon footprint of everything. The important word here is `everything'. His method factors in not just manufacturing, but the footprint of the ingredients too and the corporations that make and sell things, plus the footprint of the item in use through to its eventual disposal - ie the total contribution of an item to global warming (its CO2e - equivalent). This complete way of looking at things throws up some amazing results, but more on that in a minute.
After the explanatory introductions, the book is presented in increasing CO2e from under 10g to 1 million tonnes and beyond, and is compared against a target lifestyle of up to ten tonnes per year for the average human. One thing B-L is clear on is that in aiming to improve our own carbon footprints we should all apply a sense of scale. What good is choosing a better hand-drying option when you spend your life on planes? But having said that, he says we should pick our battles, and work out where we can get the best return for our efforts. It was fascinating reading, although I found the lower CO2e first half more interesting than the big emitters at the end as these small things have a daily visible impact. B-L has a style that is fairly serious and earnest, but with occasional jocularity to keep things light. I'd recommend this book to anyone thinking about what they can do to green their lifestyle in small steps - which all add up eventually.
Let me share just a few of the many surprising facts I got from this book:
- The supermarket plastic bag is not so bad! It represents around one thousandnth of the CO2e of a typical shop, and ironically has less impact than a paper bag. Paper uses more paper and glue for equivalent strength, and the manufacturing process has more impact too.
- Bananas aren't actually that bad as they're usually shipped - on ships. It's the air-freighted asparagus and continental out of season hothouse tomatoes that are amongst the worst fruit and veg. Out of season and air-freighted fruit and veg have around 100x the CO2e of locally grown in-season produce.
- But what about cycling one mile? Assuming the cyclist burns around 50 calories per mile... If you're looking at the total CO2e you need to consider what provides the energy that you put into cycling - ie what you eat! If you're a fan of bananas, that'll produce around 65 grammes of CO2. If you had a bacon butty - it's around 200g of CO2. If you had a plate of air-freighted asparagus the CO2e is 2.8 kilogrammes.
It's all good fun, but I've learned a lot and will put lots of little bits into action in the future . As the author suggests, it will, (now I've read it), make an ideal toilet book!