Cheap energy? Yes please!

The Ecologist, November 21 2012

It’s one of the first questions many people ask when they hear that a wind turbine is being put up near them; “Will I get cheap energy?”

The answer, finally, may be yes. For now, however, you’ll need to move to Cornwall to qualify. In a Goliath-style challenge to the Big Six, the small renewable energy company Good Energy earlier this week announced a lower tariff for people who live within two kilometres of their Delabole wind farm.

The tariff will save users about £110, and they will also receive a windfall of £50 for every year that the windfarm’s production levels exceed expectations. Good Energy hopes to roll it out in other parts of the country if it works out.

Price rises well above inflation rates from the big six energy companies have made energy prices a hot political topic this year. Last week SSE announced a rise in profits of almost 40%, just a few weeks after announcing a price rise of 9%.

Fuel poverty – where energy bills eat up more than 10% of household expenditure – is predicted by government research to hit nearly 10 million by 2016. The conservatives are particularly sensitive to these issues after a blunder by the Prime Minister in the House of Commons a couple of weeks ago, when he wrongly announced that the upcoming energy bill would force energy companies to offer customers the lowest available tariff. The department of energy and climate change (DECC) has been trying to explain his statement away ever since.

The tariff however is also aimed at the problem of community attitudes to onshore windfarms. Research has repeatedly shown that if communities were seeing any financial advantage from having a power station nearby, acceptance would be easier. Onshore wind is proving to be one of the most divisive issues for the coalition government, but DECC has signaled support for community schemes.

Good Energy’s tariff, however, is a step beyond anything suggested by the government.  “We’ve been thinking about how to do this for a couple of years now, after we did some big consultations in 2010,” says GE chief executive Juliet Davenport. “When you sit down and talk to people one of the things they always want to know is Can I get cheap energy?”

Good Energy will finance its tariff through some small saving measures, such as using an uncertified tariff rather than a certified one. “There are also very small benefits we get if we supply locally because you reduce the losses in the system,” explains Davenport. “And we’re using part of the profit from the wind farm, about £25K which will also go to support the tariff. If it’s a windfall year, the extra cost will probably be about £5-10 thousand on top.”

She admits she is now hoping the Big Six will take up the idea. “What’s in it for them? Well, goodwill for a start, and then they might pick up a few more customers and hold onto existing ones.”

Does she think they’ll take up the challenge?

She laughs.

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off

Sky magazine tax loophole saved up to £40m a year

The Guardian, p.1, November 19 2012

With David Leigh

A magazine for satellite TV customers published by BSkyB was used as a tax avoidance scheme that saved the company up to £40m a year.

The broadcaster had been saving millions in VAT by charging satellite customers a nominal £2.20 a month for the Sky magazine, using a tax loophole that has now been closed. Magazines, along with books and newspapers, are normally zero-rated for VAT, and this meant Sky could avoid VAT on a small but significant percentage of revenue. The saving, at about £3 to £4 per person, would have amounted across Sky’s 10 million subscribers to at least £30m to £40m a year.

A court battle involving Debenhams at the beginning of the decade highlighted the problem of VAT avoidance through the artificial splitting of services between different parts of a corporation.

But in 2005 UK courts ruled that cable companies were allowed to deduct VAT on “cable guide” magazines and similar publications, if they structured them so that customers did receive a genuine product from a separate company, delivered at a fair price.

In 2005 Sky relaunched BSkyB Publications with James Murdoch on the board, and in 2007 they took production of Sky magazine in-house and also began distributing Sky Sports magazine and Sky Movies magazine. A small note on the Sky magazine masthead in 2011 told readers: “£2.20 of your package price is paid by you to BSkyB Publications Ltd for this magazine.”

Some readers raised objections on online talkboards to the fact that when they had tried to cancel the “crap” magazine they had been told that their subscription was discounted by the magazine’s price, and if they opted out they would no longer get the discount.

“What Sky are doing is saving themselves some VAT. It’s perfectly legal and it’s something any efficient company would do,” wrote one poster.

BSkyB Publications’ accounts show that most of the income from the supposed monthly price of the magazine was recycled back to Sky TV, described in its books as payments for “customer data” and “support services”. This left only a modest apparent profit on BSkyB Publications’ accounts. But in December 2010, apparently as a sop to Liberal Democrat and UK Uncut campaigning on the issue of tax avoidance, the Treasury minister David Gauke announced a variety of anti-tax avoidance measures, to be enacted in the following spring. This included legislation against VAT “supply-splitting”.

In February 2011, when the legislation was published in the same form despite energetic lobbying, Sky said it would end publication of Sky Movies magazine and Sky Sports magazine, and downsize Sky magazine, with a potential loss of 20 jobs. Coming in the middle of the financial crisis, it was widely perceived as a cash-saving exercise.

A fresh inquiry launched by the Metropolitan police into phone hacking was also occupying people’s minds. By October all publications had been pulled, and BSkyB Publications was also being wound down. A footnote in Sky’s quarterly report for September 2011 noted that Sky had previously recognised benefit from the zero-rated VAT treatment at about £3 to £4 per head, but that this had now been “restated”.

A spokesman for HM Revenue and Customs told the Guardian it was not possible to comment on individual cases. “If there is some kind of contrived scheme or vehicle, ie it’s obvious that the purpose of the scheme is to avoid paying VAT and it’s taking advantage of a loophole and we consider that tax is actually owed on the scheme, rather than just being a case of sensible tax planning … we can make the judgment that this is not legitimate tax planning. And if we consider that somebody has not applied the rules we will then go back three to four years and if there is back tax owing we will ask them for it.”

Sky said in a statement: “The TV listing magazine that Sky used to publish was, in common with all newspapers and magazines, zero-rated for VAT. Sky directly contributes more than £1bn a year in tax – a total of 1.4% of all taxes paid by the 100 largest FTSE companies. We’re proud of the significant – and growing – contribution we make to the British economy.”

John Christensen of Tax Justice Network said: “Tax avoidance is deeply engrained in Britain’s corporate culture. While the government’s proposed general anti-avoidance rule will go some way to remedying this, more needs to be done to put pressure on accountants, tax advisers and tax lawyers to build tax compliance into their professionals norms and guidelines. Tax avoidance is now a high-risk activity, not just to the companies involved, but also to the reputations of their professional advisers.”

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off

Why does wind turn people into maniacs?

The Ecologist, November 19 2012

We’ve witnessed yet another week of the sort of politics that makes ‘furriners’ click their tongues when they look at the UK.  On large swathes of the continent wind farms are built with very little fuss. Up they go, clumped together like penguins, happily generating more than 15% of the country’s power in Spain, or 18% in Denmark.

Jobs? Yes thanks; at least 96,000 in Germany where more than 50% of wind farms are owned by local communities, plus Greenpeace thinks that wind energy could provide more than two million jobs worldwide by 2020.

But here? Here, in the actual birthplace of wind power, just the mention of the phrase causes frothing at the mouth. You may not be aware that the world’s first ever wind turbine powered generator was built in Scotland in 1887, by professor James Blyth (when he offered the surplus power to his neighbours; they refused, calling electricity ‘the devil’s work’. Plus ca change etc. etc.). But even though British engineers and innovators have been at the forefront of wind from the very beginning, even though we should bloomin’ be used to it by now, it is still one of the single most divisive issues in modern politics.

Last week a Greenpeace undercover filming operation revealed that all our most paranoid conspiracy fantasies were spot on. Tory grandees like Lord Howell and Peter Lilley were filmed telling people they thought to be anti-wind farm campaigners that, yes, Osborne hated wind, yes, John Hayes the energy minister had been put into office in order to help the anti-wind movement along, and yes, there is a big chunk of the party plotting how to water down the Climate Change act.

The sting was set up because Greenpeace were getting more and more worried by the messages they were hearing out of Whitehall about a militant anti-wind faction that had cabinet support. Being Greenpeace – a bunch of slightly over-energetic folk who can’t just sit around and moan about this stuff like the rest of us, but instead, feel compelled to go out and actually do something about it – they decided the next logical step would be to set up a undercover filming sting.

The resulting story – a Tory backing an independent anti-wind candidate in order to get the issue higher up the agenda – was splashed across the front of the Guardian last Tuesday evening. The story rumbled back and forth over Twitter at the same time as Paul Staines, the right wing blogger behind the Guido Fawkes blog, floated another conspiracy theory that the BBC had held a meeting in 2006 about climate change (it’s quite hard to work out what the actual conspiracy was but he seemed very, very excited about it).

Okay. So our worst fears are confirmed and we now know for sure that a big chunk of the Tory party, right up to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, is so rabidly opposed to onshore wind that they want to make legislative changes to slow its expansion.

I find myself at a loss to understand this. Wind farms are not beautiful, but neither are coal and gas-fired power stations. There are about 130 operational power stations around the country and 357 operational wind farms. What, exactly, is the difference? Yes, wind dips and rises, but gas, as Lord Howell admitted, needs to be bought from sometimes dangerous sources. Noone in the anti-wind group disputes that we need to build new power stations. If wind farms dominated the landscape from one end of the country to the other, that would be one thing, but 357 wind farms is not enough to dominate anything. There are certainly enough stretches of not particularly overlooked farmland on which a few more turbines can easily be slotted. So what’s the real reason for this visceral, frothing hatred?

I don’t know. But if I were a wind company looking for somewhere to invest and I happened to catch sight of these snarling, drooling goons, I know I’d have the good sense to steer well clear.

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off

If we want renewables, we’re going to have to accept nuclear

The Ecologist, November 9 2012

After weeks of arguments and confusions, the mood was amazingly frolicsome at the Energy and Climate Change select committee this week, when the Energy minister John Hayes came before them to talk about nuclear power.

Hayes has caused no end of trouble for this government, whether deliberately or not, by giving anti-wind comments to the Mail and Telegraph and blowing up a huge storm (sadly one that powered no turbines). But a great thing about him – whether you share his views or not – is that, like Boris Johnson, he is refreshing unbowed by criticism.

We’re so used to seeing politicians bowing low before the press, and even though I’m a press it makes me uneasy, like seeing someone backing down in front of a bully. I’ve always thought that one reason people love Bozza so much is because he’s so freewheelingly unbothered by what papers say about him – he seems to have fortunate access to a longer perspective where he realises that today’s headlines too will fade.

And Hayes shares this happy viewpoint, jauntily sitting down in front of the committee, merrily brushing aside any little jabs about the wind farrago, and carrying on with his endearing habit of flannelling anyone and everyone he meets. (Sample line; “I am blessed with wonderful civil servants who bring joy to my heart each and every day.” Delivered drily enough to make a few people laugh aloud, including his civil servants.) I must admit I really do warm to him, although I suspect he could be forceful if crossed.

But charm only goes so far. In the Times this week Rachel Sylvester reported rumours of plans to cap renewable energy, in particular on-shore wind. In BusinessGreen James Murray added that apparently, for Secretary of State Ed Davey, offshore wind is the priority, and Davey might regard the cap as a price worth paying if it meant more money was released for other low carbon projects.

There is a bewildering feeling that on-shore wind – a proven technology, the cheapest form of renewable energy we have, easily available to local communities at low cost, and a massive and growing market around the world – is somehow being written out of the picture here. Hayes says he will judge it on “aesthetic grounds”; will he also be judging applications for open cast coal mines or gas pipelines on that basis?

Meanwhile plans for nuclear are, apparently bouncing ahead.  Hayes told the committee that he’d met with Vincent de Rivaz, head of the French company that owns all our current nuclear reactors and is planning to build our next lot, the day before, and that he’d told him that he expected to have the deal more or less done by the end of the year.

How will they manage the finance, given the no subsidy promise? Hayes has a cunning answer to this. “The strike price [the price guaranteed to the power station for the energy they produce] for different technologies cost different amounts – on shore and offshore wind for for example.” In short, if you have a problem with nuclear energy receiving a higher strike price than say, gas, you also need to defend the fact that renewables get more money too. It’s neat.

In short, if we want renewables, then we have to accept nuclear. It’s close to blackmail really, but they’ve got the renewable lobby over a barrel – which is perhaps why some of it teamed up with the nuclear lobby this week to ask the government to hurry up and get its act together.




Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off

Conspiracy theories r us

The Ecologist, November 2 2012

After weeks of bonkerness around the energy bill, I decided to collect all the conspiracy theories I could lay my hands on, in an effort to get to the bottom of what on earth was going on…

Leaving aside Cameron’s defeat onEurope (never been a good look for a Tory leader), ash dieback (too depressing to even think about) and the comments by the wonderful Dame Helen Ghosh – at one point the most senior woman in the civil service and now the new director of the National Trust – that Cameron has a “clique” and that women tend not to thrive in Old Etonian cliques  (although I’d be happy to just repeat that, over and over again, like tory party tiling), most policy watchers were actually pretty bemused to see energyshambles, as it is now fondly known, hitting the headlines again.

Even as the Daily Mail and Guardian argued about whether energy minister John Hayes had really promised an end to all wind farms before being told off by the secretary of State, Paul Waugh, editor of PoliticsHome, mused on Twitter; “It takes a particular kind of political genius to give a second showing in a fortnight.”

But how has this happened? Why did David Cameron sack the apparently popular Charles Hendry and bring in anti-wind John Hayes instead, leading to a row that surely any half sane person could have seen coming a mile off? Didn’t the CBI tell the government to sort itself out and get its energy policy organised? I, like most people, was under the impression that the CBI ran the country.

So what is going on? In my quest for enlightenment (you don’t work for Satish Kumar without picking this sort of phrase up) I emailed all my favourite energy and politics wonks and promised them anonymity if they would tell me their favourite conspiracy theories for energyshambles. They kindly responded. And so, in no particular order… the main theories are that:

- Hendry was too pro-wind and the Chancellor wanted him out so that he could carry on with hisDash-for-Gas. Hendry, my industry expert mate points out, has been working on energy for six years now and has far more expertise than most politicians in this area. The fact that he (and Greg Barker and Ed Davey too) are all enthusiastic about renewables is based on empirical evidence of their usefulness. But the Chancellor just lurves gas …

- Another theory about Hendry, however, is that actually perhaps he had made a right mess of the energy bill? Although he’s much loved by the industry, perhaps number 10 looked at the bill over the summer and realised that it is – as it is – a terrible mess and felt that Hendry had messed up? “There is some credibility in this when you actually look at the bill and realise how many problems there still are with it,” says one observer. “But it is also very strange as the single best person to try and finalise it – and clear up the mess once and for all – was the one minister who really understood it – Hendry.”

- What about John Hayes? Why on earth was he chosen for the job? One theory is that Cameron is simply politically stupid and “truly thought that by adding an anti-wind, pro-gas and pro-nuke junior minister like Hayes he’d create ‘balance’ at DECC (Department of Energy and Climate Change) and get Osborne and all the Tory anti-renewables people off his back. Now, what he actually gets is an embarrassing cat fight, which makes the government look untrustworthy to energy investors of all stripes.”

With this theory, Hayes was not supposed to make too much actual difference – simply please the right-wingers and keep everybody happy. But obviously, if this was THE PLAN, then it has all gone horribly horribly wrong, with Hayes making the front page of the Mail and Telegraphwithin weeks of getting into the job. At least one expert sees this as just a terrible miscalculation. “Hayes was meant to be the cuckoo in the nest at DECC. But he may become a victim of his own ‘success’. His comments were worthy of a few column inches on page 5, but were hardly Front Page News. His stated comments should jeopardise his position as a Minister – they certainly marginalise him in the Department – but will have no impact on Coalition policy.”

But is that right? Or was there a more devious agenda at work?

Cameron is “rumoured to have told John Hayes to ‘deliver a win for our people on wind farms’”. Was he supposed to defeat the whole wind agenda? A few people are wondering if the whole thing was cooked up to undermine onshore wind altogether. And one expert points out that Hayes does have a hold over Cameron, because he has delivered him the Cornerstone group – an ultra-conservative group of politicians whose website promises: Faith, Flag and Family.

According to this pundit, the most worrying thing is that “The more you look at it, the more clear it becomes clear that we have the weakest prime minister since Callaghan. Even Major managed to win an election and get his party to occasionally do as he said”.

Any clearer? A little…but definitely no more reassured.


Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off

Politics? Or naked mudwrestling?

The Ecologist, October 19 2012

What happened? The week started so well, with David Cameron coming over all Yoda and trying to stretch healing hands over the increasingly toxic bickering between the treasury and the department of energy and climate change over renewables, nuclear and gas.

It was going to be beautiful. They were all going to meet together, have a statesmanlike chat, say sorry for the rude things they’d said about each other (“Say sorry properly George!”), and find common ground. Turbines and power stations would miraculously spring – like Brigadoon – into being. George and Ed would stroll off hand in hand, boyishly punching each other in the shoulder. Ah shucks! And then, as so often with the entertaining soap opera that is government in the modern world, it all went bosoms up.

First Cameron appeared to be actually making energy policy up as he went along in Prime Minister’s Question Time. As he said “I can announce that we will be legislating so that energy companies have to give the lowest tariff to their customers” there was the all-too familiar sound of hands slapping foreheads all round Whitehall – he said what? Frantic questions all round ensued. Did DECC know about this? As their officials asked for a bit of time to answer press questions it became clear that they did not. Did the energy companies know? Yet again their press officers pleaded ignorance. And annoyance, frankly.

Then it got still worse as the Independent ran a story about George Osbourne’s favourite nickname for the green lobby groups; apparently he affectionately refers to them as “the environmental taliban”. After giving a speech at the Confederation on British Industry the following day, DECC secretary of state Ed Davey was unable to stop a micro-expression of irritation crossing his face when one journalist prodded him with this.

Back at the house of commons, shadow energy secretary Caroline Flint was merrily laying into the government and the energy minister John Hayes (Davey was still at the CBI) sitting opposite her. “Did he know about the announcement yesterday? It’s like something out of the Thick of It,” she said. “Millions of people deserve better”. Hayes, given a rubbish job, rose to the occasion quite magnificently, even coaxing a laugh from Flint, as he said: “She asks if we knew what the Prime minister has been considering? Of course we understand what the prime minister has been considering…” In other words no, then.

Meanwhile Mark Lynas was telling George Osbourne to be very ware as “the environmental taliban is on the move”. And the green NGOs were banding together, for the first time since Copenhagen, to reinforce that message, with a demonstration outside the treasury even as questions were being asked in the house. “Dear minister,” one NGO wrote to Osbourne, “If the story is accurate, please could you be specific about which individuals, MPs, Ministers or organisations you are likening to the Taliban?”

So. For a week that, Cameron must have hoped, might quiet down general anxiety about the direction of “the greenest government ever”, it’s been a bit of a mess. Where is it all headed? Davey made one telling, and revealing comment at the CBI: “No one will be happier than me to see the politics taken out of energy”.

Actually, after a week in which energy politics look more like mudwrestling than government, I should think quite a lot of us would be pretty happy too.



Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off

Where the Tories stand

The Ecologist, October 10 2012

So Cameron has wound up party conference season with a solid, nothing-too-blinding speech, that made him look like a prime minister, but didn’t really tell us very much else.
To his credit, he did actually refer to greentech issues, saying: “We’re number one in the world for offshore wind. Number one in the world for tidal power. The world’s first green investment bank…”  This is better than Ed Miliband last week, who didn’t even refer to climate change.  (Apparently it was in his original speech – but he forgot!) If this was the only thing that had been said about environmental issues all conference, I would be feeling pretty good. Sadly, that is not the case.

We can now get a much clearer picture of the positions of the new Tory ministers, for example; Owen Paterson at Defra, and John Hayes at DECC. After all the rumblings about them being climate sceptics and anti-wind farm, it was interesting to see them in action, and obvious that, as usual, they are not just straight forward anti-environmental baddies. The truth is a bit more nuanced than that.

John Hayes, who has come from skills and business, is particularly interesting. He has replaced the universally well-liked Charles Hendry, and is still a relatively unknown quantity. In person he is acute, funny, and surprisingly charming. His speeches to various meetings around the conference did nothing, as far as I could see, to rebut charges that he is opposed to wind farms (he repeatedly falls back on the idea that he will include “aesthetic” factors in his decisions on these issues), but he was also scathing about the delays and prevarications that leave the UK with a potential energy gap looming ahead.

He is bullish on the idea of including a decarbonisation target in the upcoming energy bill: “We won’t be dragooned into taking a position.” He told the audience at one meeting that he has ordered reviews of a number of issues, including carbon capture and storage, so that he can make his own mind up on these issues: “Why would I become the energy minister and merely parrot policy from others?”

When his statements are taken together, they should cause some gloom in the renewable sector… and yet there is something very pragmatic about him that causes optimism. You can’t help but feel that if Hayes does review these issues, – and then moves even slightly more towards renewables – he will be the most powerful type of ally imaginable.

Owen Paterson, the new secretary of state at Defra, has been stomping all over delicate environmental sensibilities this week, with boyish enthusiasm for shale gas (he’ll have a one-stop shop to make applying for permits easier) and badger culls (yay! He loves them!). And he reportedly told a meeting that he wanted to see an end to green subsidies because “if you start having subsidies you end up with a Soviet-style system, where politicians make decisions that might actually be better made by the market”. He has not, however, discussed how he feels about subsidies for the nuclear industry.

Above their heads, meanwhile, the rumours have it that there is some tension between David Cameron, who is, reportedly, still a little bit green at heart, and George Osborne, who is firmly playing to the right wing of the party on all this, and who in his own speech announced tax breaks for shale gas – reinforcing his dash-for-gas plans. 
The months ahead are going to be a colossal tussle for our long-term future, as the energy bill goes through parliament and the energy minister publishes his strategy.

Will he lay out the support that our fledgling renewable industries need? Will ministers put in place the measures that will encourage businesses to create the green jobs that are floating out there?

I’m torn between depression and optimism about the outcome… but I am certainly riveted.

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off

Taking on the Tea Party Tories…

The Ecologist, September 28 2012

I went to see the Saatchi exhibition of chess boards by artists like Damien Hirst, Rachel Whiteread and Tracy Emin this week, and came away thinking that none of these artists had a clue about the dark heart of this wonderful game. Chess is war, vicious, brutal, dirty, political war, played through tiny gestures, with small pieces of wood on a simple checkered board. The artists had made boards with dollshouse furniture, dead animals or ceramic pumpkins, and totally missed the subtlety, the pleasure of polite decimation. For a better image, Saatchi should have turned to the coalition government as it lines up along two sides for a royal battle over the environment.

This is where, it has become clear over the last few months and particularly during the Liberal Democrat conference, a tumultuous battle is going to be fought between the rightwing of the Tory party and the liberal democrats. To a casual onlooker it may look like nothing very much. But beneath polite statements to the press will be teeming rage and frustration, an epic fight over what the Libdems have finally remembered is one of the most vital issues for a generation – and, perhaps even more importantly, one of the only areas in which the Libdems can have genuine, powerful traction.

They made this realisation extremely clear at conference this week. Ed Davey is the cabinet minister for the Department of Energy and Climate Change (one of only a handful of libdems in actual positions of power). He has finally moved completely out of the shadows of his predecessor Chris Huhne and is rapidly becoming one of the most notable figures in the party – a fact testified to by the rumours of his secret bid for the libdem leadership.

He has set out his position extremely clearly. He sees renewables as the way forward; he believes that, as well as generating power, they will generate jobs and industry. And he is well supported in this belief by people from all across the spectrum, including the Confederation for British Industry, (CBI).

The libdems, it was obvious at conference, have realised that this is potentially a policy area on which they can regain popularity, and they mean to hammer it home.

To add to the joys – being in the right, having lots of popular support – they even have ‘baddie’ opponents in what they are now calling the “tea-party” part of the Tories. Interestingly Davey’s new Tory energy minister John Hayes has employed for a number of years a researcher who also works for the Taxpayers Alliance – often known as the British version of the Tea Party. I wondered then if there was a dig at this and so have contacted the Hayes office many times but they have refused to return my calls and emails to confirm whether Dr Lee Rotherham is still working for them.

Why the silence?

Chancellor George Osborne as we all know remains dubious about renewables; if you’re going to have an opponent, who better than the man already so unpopular he has been publically jeered?

This is an area where the Libdems can legitimately cast themselves as the brave warriors fighting for the people against those evil Tories. It must feel wonderful after the last couple of years of abject misery.

So. The opening moves in this battle have now been made and positions established.

We now need to watch closely how Davey will proceed. He needs to work out ways to outflank Osborne and the Tory rightwing, and to get Cameron’s support. He needs to hammer home his case – green jobs, industry, a clean future, and meeting decarbonisation targets. The next few months will creep by in tiny, subtle political moves. We had better pray that Davey is a good chess player. Better than Tracey Emin, at least.

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off

Do you know the water footprint of your food?

The Guardian, September 22 2012

Asked to guess the water footprint of the fantastic milky coffee that I am drinking in Leila’s Shop, a cafe and food shop in Shoreditch, London, I hazard a guess of 10, maybe 15 litres? The actual figure – 207L – nearly makes me spit it out again.

The pressure on our global water supplies has been growing alongside a rapidly increasing human population. At present about 41% of the world’s population lives with what Unesco calls “severe water stress”, and that number is predicted to rise to two-thirds by 2025. A 2006 UN report states: “The word crisis is sometimes overused in development. But when it comes to water, there is a growing recognition that the world faces a crisis that, left unchecked, will derail progress towards the Millennium Development Goals and hold back human development.”

But awareness and understanding is still low. “Most of us in the west don’t really think this is our problem. We think we use about 150L of water a day, and that’s that,” says Leila McAlister, proprietor of the shop.

In reality the picture is much more complicated. We may use 150L of “real” water (which is still higher than most countries – in China average daily “real” water use is 86L, and 46 in Kenya). But around 70-80% of accessibly freshwater used by humans is directed towards agriculture. And increasingly experts argue that the water that goes into producing our food and goods should really be included in that total too, in a concept of embodied water known as “virtual water”, or your water footprint.

Using this measurement, our water footprint is actually far higher and has far more impact then most of us realise. At the beginning of his bookVirtual Water, Prof Tony Allen, creator of the concept, looks at the typical water footprint of your breakfast. The numbers are staggering. Allen quotes 140L for coffee, around 80L for toast, 120L for eggs, 240L for milk: coming, in total, to 1,100L, or around three bathtubs of water.

Our globalised agricultural system means that much of that water use is not in the country where the product is being consumed. So developed countries are essentially exporting their water use, just as they export carbon emissions. It’s been estimated by the Water Footprint Networkthat Europe exports 42% of its water footprint.

It was in order to raise awareness of the situation that McAlister teamed up with Allen to create the Wonderwater pop up café (open until Sunday) at Leila’s Shop, allowing Allen’s team to come in and audit her menu, and then to create a new version with the virtual water footprint of every offering beside it.

The eggs fried with tangy, smoky sage? A water footprint of 732L, thanks to the gigantic water footprint of olive oil. The utterly delicious cavolo nero and bean soup? More olive oil means that the footprint is 619L. McAlister admits to having been shocked by the water consumption of the vanilla pods in her damson compote. “They really take up a lot of water. The footprint for that was 994L.”

It’s not really clear, at the moment, what we are supposed to do with this information. “This is all very skeletal form now,” says Naho Mirumachi, who works alongside Allen at King’s College London. “The issue is extremely complex, and we are only beginning to make progress and really understand it. There really is no consumer guidance, but as our understanding develops it will come.”

Though McAlister admits it has been fascinating to “have a team of academics come in and work on my food and tell me things I didn’t know about it”, she has yet to stop using any ingredients. “It has helped me to visualise the issue though.”

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off

The new Green Party leader

The Ecologist, September 12 2102

When Caroline Lucas stood down as leader of the Green Party in May, things were looking a little confused. The party was sitting on a string of successes – an MP, two MEP, a city council – that had seemed, for a while, to be moving towards a genuine breakthrough. But now momentum had stalled and no one seemed exactly sure what would come next.

If the answer to the question was indeed the election of their new leader Natalie Bennett then it is an answer that must now have many Green party members sighing with relief. Because it is clear at a single glance what Bennett will not be; she will not want to return to old inhouse bickers about leadership or long arguments about recondite theoretical issues. If the choice is between idealism or pragmatism, the Green Party membership have definitely come down in favour of pragmatism. Photographs of her show someone who looks focussed and businesslike (you would struggle to guess from her Wikipedia entry pix which party she leads), and her CV is similarly tilted. You don’t edit Guardian Weekly for five years by preferring meetings and theories to action.

And in person Bennett seems, initially, as pragmatic as you could wish. The members already have a copy of a document by her campaign group laying out her first 100 days as leader which includes a fairly breathtaking range of plans to travel round the regions, meet the Scottish greens, hold phone conferences with Greens in other countries, hold monthly policy meetings on specific issues with guests from NGOs and unions, hold regular friends and supporters dinners… and that’s before she even gets onto refining Green party strategy. When I interviewed members six months ago, no one knew exactly what the strategy for the future was, and it was causing a few headaches. They do now though; it’s exciting to see.

I manage to catch her in the middle of the Green party conference in Bristol and ask a few more questions. What is her main focus? “Well, it’s important to emphasise that the Green Party leader has very limited powers, I have to take the whole party with me. But my basic plan is a pincer attack; we do really well in the European elections in 2014, getting six MEPs or maybe, if you include Scotland, seven? And then we take the West Midlands model, where three councillors on three councils were turned into thirteen on seven, and we apply that around the country  - we don’t work harder, we work smarter.”

The West Midlands model has become a bit of a touchstone for the Green Party. Bennett’s deputy, Will Duckworth, also new to the leadership, was one of a group of Green party members in the Midlands who began a project a few years ago to  broaden out Green party membership and representation in the area, with extremely positive results that he attributes, in his speech, to “communicating the Green Party message in a way that connected with residents, well organised support from the region and a team that was prepared to work hard”.  Bennett has pledged to study how they did it, and then transport that model around the country in video or workshop form.

She admits that her experience of actually practising politics, rather than covering it. is limited. “My experience of politics has all been through the Green Party. I founded Green Party Women and I’m chair of Camden Green Party, I ran against Frank Dobson for Holborn and St Pancras in the general election and I was patted on the head by various other campaigners and told that I was doing really well [she grimaces – she is obviously not used to being patronised].” One green party activist who saw her in action echoes the campaigners. After hearing the leadership election results, Sarah Cope wrote a celebratory blog of Bennett’s ability to inspire, and said of those hustings: “Even veteran MP Frank Dobson looked somewhat amateur compared to Natalie’s passionate yet calm performance”.

Bennett accepts the urgent need to find money, of which the Green Party has a perennial shortness, but argues that “what really matters is getting the political message right so that donors and unions think that it’s worth backing us. To greatly multiply our funding we don’t need the super rich, we just need green businesses and rich individuals. I think the money’s out there, it’s just a matter of being sufficiently exciting. And don’t forget, it doesn’t always have to be money – we get a huge amount of volunteering, and in some ways that’s better, someone who does it for love is better than someone who is being paid.”  (I murmur that this is a very silver lining way of looking at being broke and she laughs.)

In fact the more that Bennett talks, the more it becomes clear that, despite her down-to-earth Girl Guide appearance, in reality like most members of the Green party, she also has a broad idealist streak running down her back. I ask what the priorities are, and she jokes “Well, we need to completely reshape the economy,” before dissolving in laughter. There is no doubt she means it, though. Bennett had taken voluntary redundancy from the Guardian in March, and had planned “to write a book about our environmental and economic crisis and how we get out out of it. And then Caroline stood down.”

More thoughtfully, she talks about walking back to conference down a Bristol street full of small independent shops, and thinking that “we need to be reshaping manufacturing, shortening supply chains, bringing manufacturing home…

But the thing about a lot of these issues is that it’s not either or. Preparing for a low carbon world will create a lot of jobs for example. In so many ways it all ties together. Often people feel profoundly insecure – they want to know whose job will be next up, they’re worried about the childrens future. But we want to restore a sense of security and optimism.”

There are big decisions ahead for the Green party. Should it be just a kind of pressure group, or a space for radical thoughts, or should it be seeking serious political power? If they decide to go for the latter compromises will have to be made, the very thought of which will be resisted by a huge percentage of the party. Does Bennett have the steel for those sort of decisions? Without a doubt. Does the party have the steel too? Well. That’s an interesting one. They did not elect Bennett because she would be a pushover. So what, exactly, are they going to do?

Posted in environment | Comments Off