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ENVIRONMENT: Soaring Energy Costs May Force Low-CO2 Living

Stephen Leahy

BROOKLIN, Canada, Jun 5 2008 (IPS) - Climate change is a global problem but individuals and communities can take simple measures to cut their carbon emissions in half, experts said Thursday on World Environment Day.

The U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP) launched a “Kick the CO2 Habit” campaign in Wellington, New Zealand today to encourage low-carbon lifestyle choices at home and when travelling.

“The public have the power to change the future – have the power to personally and collectively influence economies to ‘Kick the CO2 Habit’,” said Achim Steiner, UNEP executive director.

UNEP released a kind of “Rough Guide” to low-carbon living, entitled “Kick the Habit: The UN Guide to Climate Neutrality”, which is available free online.

The knowledge and technology to dramatically reduce carbon emissions already exist, mainly through improvements in energy efficiency. What have been lacking in most countries are incentives to make changes. Now the hard stick of high energy prices has given the public new interest in reducing energy costs, which also reduce carbon emissions.

“The typical North American family could reduce their energy use by 73 percent,” said Godo Stoyke, an energy expert in Edmonton and author of “The CarbonBuster’s Home Energy Handbook”.

For an up front investment of 11,000 dollars in energy efficiency measures, the savings over five years would be 17,500 dollars, a 32 percent return on investment, Stoyke told IPS. And that savings estimate is based on lower energy prices of a couple of years ago.

What’s involved is pretty simple. Replace lighting with compact fluorescent or LEDs, install solar water heater, use cold water for washing clothes, hang clothes up to dry, improve insulation, turn off the “energy vampires” – electronic devices like a cell phone charger, computer, DVD player and so on that use energy even when not in use. Switch to a more fuel efficient vehicle – more than half a two-car family’s carbon emissions are emitted by their vehicles.

“Half of the money we spend on energy goes into the gas tank,” Stoyke noted.

There is little new here, and despite the cost-savings, a mania for energy-efficiency has not swept around the world. Low energy costs were a big reason, another was the initial investment. “People seem to focus on the upfront costs and ignore the life cycle cost savings,” he said.

And there are lots of institutional barriers put up by governments at all levels. In many North American communities, an outdoor line for drying clothes is illegal. Local governments and neighbours sue to prevent installation of “unsightly” solar panels or wind turbines.

Financing is often another issue although an investment in energy efficiency offers a guaranteed return. Stoyke operates his Carbon Busters Inc. business of boosting energy efficiency in schools and other institutions on a self-funding model and only takes his profit as a percentage of the energy savings of his clients.

These days he has all the work he can handle, including housing developers and car dealerships.

New buildings offer tremendous opportunities for emissions reductions. Stoyke is involved in a zero-carbon village project outside Edmonton that will be highly efficient and generate all its own energy sustainably.

In Sweden, for an additional cost of 3,000 dollars in super-windows and extra insulation, new townhouses have been built without a furnace. Heat from the appliances and the occupants are enough. Edmonton, with its -40C winters is too cold to go without a heat source however.

“In the near future countries and communities with low dependance on fossil fuels will have the most stable and successful economies,” he said, noting that Sweden has set a target of being oil-free by 2020.

The village of Ashton Hayes in Cheshire, England is aiming to be the first carbon-neutral community in the England. In just two years, the 1,000 residents have saved 20 percent on their energy costs and transformed their community.

“It’s been great fun and an amazing boost in community spirit,” said Garry Charnock, who put the idea to some friends in the local pub. “I thought they’d think of me as a bit of a crank, but they were all for it.”

More than 75 percent of the village showed up for the first meetings, something that had never happened before. Charnock told IPS that people are worried about climate change and want to do something but are reluctant to do it on their own. Unwittingly, Charnock’s notion of a carbon-neutral village unleashed the power of community.

People share ideas and statistics on energy use, and make suggestions for improvements while sitting in the pub. There’s been a remarkable transition over a huge range of behaviours, he says. People are converting their front lawns into vegetable gardens to reduce the carbon used in transporting food. To reduce car use, they lobbied the local town council to build a footpath to the train station.

One key to Ashton Hayes’ success has been the philosophy of not blaming anyone or forcing people to participate. They adopted a “do what you can” attitude. Older residents say the community spirit and common purpose is similar to that during World War II.

“It wasn’t the main idea but people are also saving a lot of money now on their energy costs,” Charnock said.

Once people starting doing things to reduce their “carbon footprint”, it snowballs into their entire lifestyle, said Akua Schatz, community relations specialist at the David Suzuki Foundation, a Canadian environmental group.

Since 2002, more than 360,000 people have joined a virtual community sponsored by the David Suzuki Foundation. Each member commits to adopting three actions from a list of the 10 most effective ways to reduce their environmental impact. Again, these are simple and easy to do, such as walk or bike or use transit to get to work once a week, or grow food in gardens. The foundation provides information but the community shares ideas and tips with each other.

“We have a big, active community and they are pushing for policy changes as well,” said Schatz.

The individualistic “me-first and me-only” culture of North America is reversing. People see the value of doing things together and are becoming more engaged in the political process, she said: “Individual action alone is not enough. We need to have both.”

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