eReader gets Cleantech bill of health — so why are magazines reporting the opposite?

eReader gets Cleantech bill of health — so why are magazines reporting the opposite?

Amazon KindleAmazon’s Kindle offsets its carbon emissions in the first year of use, according to Cleantech’s report The environmental impact of Amazon’s Kindle. But Radimir Bobev of Device Magazine has reported the story differently, claiming “E-Books not such a Green Option, According to Research“. Bobev may not be a regular reporter on green issues — the article spells ‘carbon dioxide’ as ‘carbon dioxied’ 50% of the time. The bottom line is that a typical book costs 17 pounds of CO2 to produce, while the Kindle generates 370 pounds and the iPad generates 286 pounds. According to the Cleantech report, this suggests that the average Kindle buyer buys three books a month, meaning they would have reduced their carbon emissions using the Kindle within seven months, and the iPad within six months.

So why does Bobev maintain that e-Books are “not such a green option”, and why does he claim that this is “according to research”?

This is, of course, incalculable.

As opposed to carbon costs, which go largely uncalculated.

All reports of the nature of the Cleantech report are, of course, laden with assumptions. There are perhaps fewer assumptions regarding the Kindle, which only performs one function, than the iPad which performs many, but they are assumptions nonetheless. This notwithstanding, attempts to quantify what costs what are necessary if we are to understand what is ecological living and what is not.

More importantly, we need to learn to distinguish between a hair-shirt mentality towards environmentalism, and sound choices, and again between sound-choices and ‘tech will save the day’.

Which is more environmentally friendly, to drive a twelve-year old car with a two-generations old engine which has already lost much of its performance vs fuel expended, or a brand new car? Put in those terms, a brand new car of the same specifications sounds like a safe bet. But what about the environmental cost of manufacturing the new car? Every manufacturer will happily declare the miles per gallon — though you may struggle to get anywhere near this in real life — but I have yet to see a new car advertised with its carbon offset cost of manufacture  declared. A 2004 analysis by Toyota found that as much as 28 percent of CO2 emissions of a typical petrol-burning car occur during manufacture and transportation. Another study by Seikei University put the pre-purchase number at 12 percent. 1 Rivals criticised the Toyota Prius for having dramatically higher manufacturing carbon-offset costs, which mean that it may be the unenvironmental option for drivers who keep a low mileage.

Which is better — new or old? High-tech or lowfi? The answer is inevitably that there is no one-size fits all. Information is required — and yet, in an information saturated society, we very rarely get to see the kind of information which Cleantech has calculated for us.

This in itself is not assisted by journalists who report the news backwards.

More questions than answers

As the great-grandson of a railwayman, and the grandson of a railway missionary, I love trains, railways, railway stations and rail travel. My natural inclination is to back them. So I’m in a slightly funny position with the consultation on Stratford’s prospective Parkway Station. The public consultation is very short — 4 March to 19 March — and the consultation presentation leaves many more questions than it answers. The consultation documents are in the form of posters, and the consultation website gives virtually no more information.

The questions I would expect to be answered in a consultation of this kind are as follows:

  • What routes are being served, and what are the train operator plans for the future of these routes, if the station is built?
  • What is the capacity of the route to take on more passengers?
  • What evidence is there that opening a new station will increase passenger numbers?
  • If the new station will not increase passenger numbers, what is the predicted impact on existing stations?
  • In the case of Stratford-upon-Avon, I have some other, very specific questions. Stratford is (or was, last time I checked) Britain’s third most popular tourist destination. It will play a leading role in the Cultural Olympiad as part of the 2012 Olympics. It is home to the world’s most famous theatre, and the world’s most famous theatre company, and also to the Shakespeare birthplace trust. Parkway stations, such as Warwick Parkway, are typically constructed on out-of-town sites to give easy parking for local people to commute to perhaps London or Birmingham. They provide ample parking, hence the name Parkway and relatively easy access from motorways. It’s true there are people who have to go from Stratford to Birmingham or London, though my local station of Honeybourne is a deal more convenient, faster and more cost effective for trips to London, and Warwick Parkway is available on the other side of Stratford. But most of the potential growth in rail use for Stratford is inward, not outward: tourism is destined to play an even larger part in the town’s future, with the reopening of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre next year.

    Therefore, I would want to know:

  • What testing has been done of likely tourist uptake of the new station?
  • Given that tourists can walk from the existing station into the town, what is the likely response to having to walk to a bus, and then take the bus into town, only to have to take it out later in order to return?
  • What negotiations have taken place with train operators to ensure good links with fast services? Even from Warwick, it is quicker to drive to Coventry to take a train to London than to take the Chiltern line from Warwick Parkway
  • I am not saying that these questions are unanswerable. But, despite laudable sections on environmental and flooding impact, the consultation posters significantly fail to answer the basic rail-industry questions, and, equally, the more specific Stratford-facing questions.

    I would very much like to be able to support the creation of a new station. However, on the evidence presented to me, I don’t believe I can. Right now — and I would be only too happy to be proved wrong — this seems to be yet another grandiose public construction scheme of the type that is plaguing this area, whether Labour-led (“Eco”-towns) or Conservative (Bancroft and Bridge).

    If they know why they are doing this, please would they tell us? Otherwise, it is time to learn that just because we can build something, it does not mean that we should.

    Planning law must change

    South Warwickshire Environmental Association is a local group which — among other things — is strongly opposing new sand and gravel quarries around the A46 at Broom and Dunnington. Essentially, Mexican company Cemex gained planning approval about 25 years ago for a long neglected quarry at Marsh Farm, on the condition that they reinstated the land after works were complete. Although this reinstatement has never taken place, they are now looking for permission to quarry a short distance away. In all, there are six sand and gravel sites earmarked for these kinds of works in Bidford, Salford Priors and Harvington, among others. If you are not local, you need to understand that these are rural villages of extraordinary charm and beauty.

    I’m not going to go into the ins and outs of the local campaign. You can follow the news at the Stratford Herald, or on the association’s website; if you are local, I do urge you to support it. But my concern right now is our antiquated UK planning system which, in my experience, penalises the honest and serves the well-lawyered, well-funded, and the simply brutal.

    First off, planning decisions which have a disproportionate effect at a very local level are made at a distance. Broom’s planning decisions are not made by Broom Parish Council, nor even by Stratford District Council. They are made by the planning committee of Warwickshire County Council. In most cases, it means those making the decisions have neither local knowledge nor connection. True, both the Parish and District Councils can play an advisory role but, as we have seen in this particular instance, things can go wrong with this process, leaving local people no avenue to voice their concerns.

    Second, there is no linkage between fulfilment of previous conditions and the granting of new approval. How can Cemex possibly be allowed to dig a new quarry when they didn’t finish (or even start) the reinstatement of the old land? Simply, because there is nothing to make them. If they were selling a product to the public — for example, a car, or computer software — and failed to comply with previous conditions placed on them, then the Office of Fair Trading, the courts, or even the European Union would impose punitive fines and ban them from further sales. If they were a private citizen who — for example — failed to abide by a Noise Abatement Order, then they would be given an Anti Social Behaviour Order, and if they failed to comply with that, would face a fine or prison. If they were a motorist, they would eventually lose their driving license. No such linkage is applied in planning law.

    Third, all the money is on the side of those who make money. I remember vividly attending a planning appeal at another local authority, where the planning committee had turned down a proposal for a new housing development, and the speculative builders had immediately insisted on appealing. The council brought its own employed solicitor, who looked tired and worn down. The builders brought a smart QC — a silk, in fact — from London. Once the decision was overturned, as it inevitably was, since the council did not have resources to invest in defending it, the QC then demanded that all the costs of the appeal be met by the council. The request was granted. This was (to me) an extraordinary example of a quasi-judicial process thwarting the will of the electorate’s elected members. I subsequently learned that this was in fact quite common. It means that we, the electorate, are funding the means for our wishes to be ignored.

    This is all exacerbated by the kind of quarrying targets that we find in the minerals core strategy. And, of course, we have seen the kind of flouting of local process that happened with the proposed imposition of the Long Marston Eco-Town.

    What should be done?

    At the moment, planning law is both confused and confusing. It is unsurprising that so many appeals by prospective builders and quarriers are upheld, since they are able to invest much more time in delving through the law to find grounds to overturn a decision. Elected councillors are not legal experts, nor should they required to be. Rather, their duty is to exercise their judgment on behalf of the entire community. To balance the needs of economy with the needs of local people to live quiet lives, unhindered and unimpeded by money-making ventures, is a political decision, not a legal one. If the councillors get it wrong, the electors are free to tell them so at the ballot box.

    We do not need further amendments to planning law, but, rather a new simple, definitive system designed to make planning decisions easy to make, and restrictions easy to enforce — with penalties which are greater than the profits a company might make by flouting them. If you go to the government’s Planning Portal, and type the term ‘quarry’ into their search, you find 694 separate results. True, a number of these are news items, but every news item is included because it partially sets a precedent.

    We also need to dramatically alter the balance of risk and reward in favour of the citizen, against materials extractors and speculative builders. In general, for most types of business in Great Britain, the balance is about right. Companies need to be able to bring new products to market and sell them, both to satisfy the consumer and in order to turn a profit which puts money into the economy. But for planning, that balance is heavily skewed. This is particularly an issue because the results of poor planning decisions are with us for decades or even centuries. I’m told that it will take 25 years before the Marsh Farm land would be back to normal if reinstatement started today. Very few businesses in the modern world will survive 25 years, leaving residents with nowhere to turn if reinstatements are not made.

    Finally, we need to reassess what we really want to do with the landscape of Britain. On current strategies, we are perpetually increasing the number of houses, quarries and industrial plants. Do we really need to do so? Perhaps — but we ought to have the debate. Do we really need to continue to do so on green-field sites, while large swathes of urban areas are left to become wasteland? I think not. But it is naturally much more profitable to build on green-field sites than to work with all the pitfalls of building on former factories. Everybody knows this: you will not find a politician, planner or bureaucrat anywhere who wants to build on green-field as a preference to brown-field. But our planning system gives little true support to this view.

    While we know what we should do, our system aids those who wish do to what we wish they wouldn’t. And this must change.

    The confusion that is transport policy

    If you live in Coventry, it’s cheaper to drive to London than go by train, but if you live in Honeybourne, the train is cheaper. Stratford on Avon District Council this year threatened to impose parking charges on places like Alcester that don’t have a parking problem. In the evenings, on-street parking is free, but off-street parking, where you aren’t cluttering up the roads, is chargeable. And, woe betide you if you miss the hard to read signs, as I did shortly after they changed to evening charging (there was no sign to say that it had changed) — Stratford makes more money from the fines than it does from the charges.

    The Transport Select Committee, it seems, agrees that transport policy is in disarray. It’s, of course, convenient to blame this on Labour (who are conveniently placed for many kinds of blame), but it transport policy has been in disarray for years. Barbara Castle, for those with long memories, was the one who shut down lots of the commuter and village railway stations. And Margaret Thatcher, famously, sold off the railways as a way to break the power of the unions. At the same time, lots of Labour local authorities across the country imposed the first of punitive parking regimes as a way of punishing motorists into behaving themselves.

    Since then, motorists have been told that their road taxes, parking, petrol charges, and, increasingly, parking and speeding fines, are going up for all kinds of things — to save the environment, to pay for the roads, to support road safety, to manage congestion, to shift people onto public transport, to regenerate town centres, for cleaner air, for faster transits. The list goes on.

    Does anybody really believe any of it?

    It is disappointing that motorists no longer trust the government on transport policy. But the government has probably learned to live with mistrust now. More importantly, it seems that there is no longer a consensus within the various strands of government about what transport policy is trying to achieve. Nor much idea from the possible next government: David Cameron’s crew got very stroppy when petrol prices went up, and complained that this meant fewer road journeys, but it was their own Kenneth Clarke who introduced the fuel escalator with this very purpose. Do we worry that fewer car journeys will damage the economy, or do we worry that the endless increase in petrol consumption makes us ever more dependent on the rest of the world for oil?

    Here’s another one. Until recently, diesel was more expensive in the UK than petrol. Why? Why do we tax diesel engines, which are 20% more fuel efficient (and therefore better for the environment) than petrol engines, in this way? Previously, diesel particulates were understood to be worse for pollution levels. But these are now filtered and the filtering strictly monitored through the MOT test.

    And another — the new, much more expensive road tax for larger cars only affects newer larger cars. If you’ve got an old car, burning oil along with fuel as it chugs unhealthily along the road, then you pay less. But old cars are less fuel efficient and less safe. And another one — the Inland Revenue approved mileage rate is 40p per mile for the first 10,000 business miles, but only 5p per passenger: little in the way of incentive to car-share.

    Until we can work out, as a nation, and agree it across local and national government, what transport policy is for, we will never work out what it should be.

    Back to Top