Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Green not Greener

My own definition of green is something that does not create harmful waste for the environment and I doubt I'm alone in thinking that. This means that nuclear power for example is not 'green'. It still produces radioactive waste that is harmful to its immediate environment. Likewise, cars with internal combustion engines are not green because they still produce emissions, no matter how efficient they are.

The motor industry though seem to be particularly fond of propagating such myth and fantasy. In July, What Car? magazine announced the winners of their annual Green Awards. Winners included, in the Best Sports Car, the Mini Cooper S, with a fuel economy of 45.6mpg and CO2 emissions of 149g/km. The accompanying write-up said: “the Cooper S delivers scorching pace without sizzling the planet.”

According to the EU’s Environment Protection Agency, a passenger vehicle does an average of 12,000 miles a year. A Mini Cooper S doing that distance in a year would therefore produce 2.86 tonnes of carbon dioxide. What is green about that? If we all traded in our cars for a Cooper S, methinks the planet would still be sizzling.

It’s not just old tech that feels smug about its green credentials: new, hybrid tech can be just as guilty. Take the Prius hybrid-car for example, the darling of the enviro-conscious middle classes. Over short trips - which it must be fairly noted are the most common of all car journeys - its use of battery power marks it as green, but over longer distances the petrol engine is used which certainly isn't. In fact, some small cars now produce near enough the same CO2 levels as the Prius but don't need fancy technology to achieve this. Even the battery has a tenuous claim to being green. If the car has been ‘hacked’ it can be charged from the mains, but how is this electricity likely to have been generated? If it hasn’t been hacked, it is recharged by capturing kinetic energy lost through braking, some of which may come through burning fuel on long journeys. So the Prius isn't green, but greener, or more efficient.

I don’t want to sound too critical. If the whole world drove a Prius we’d have massive cuts in CO2. More efficient technology, not just in transport but elsewhere, is also important for reducing emissions in the meantime. However, shouldn’t we save “green” for those things that are actually green? Calling a product “green” when it could be responsible annually for nearly 3 tonnes of carbon dioxide is ludicrous.

I fear the green misnomer risks complacency, slowing down the transition to truly green life by kidding people into thinking they’re making a substantial difference. False green tech supports the notion that people can continue enjoying the same lifestyles when what we really need are major changes. (“I can keep driving This Gas Guzzling SUV around the city centre because it won the What Car? green award so it must be more environmentally friendly than The Other SUV.”) It can also narrow the concept of green, for example, focusing on the energy efficiency of a fridge, which is a good thing but if it’s still powered by electricity generated at Drax then what's the actual gain?

You may think that society en masse can only move as quickly as the technology most widely available, but at the same time we can surely determine the technology required if the issue wasn’t obscured by marketing and media that tries to eke out the profit of old tech for as long as possible.

Should we even use the term “green”? Adam Shake at Twilight Earth argues for abandoning the term altogether, instead calling out those things that aren’t green in order for truly green things to become the norm. It’s a compelling argument. On Newsnight last month, Solitaire Townsend of green PR firm Futerra said that changing people’s minds about the environment is the easy bit, getting them to change their behaviour is the hard part. Could Adam’s approach perhaps be the [albeit difficult] solution? Either way, the manner in which green is bandied around today needs addressing.

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