The Pyroholic Brethren I: the sermon

So I’m a Polyyanna on climate, eh? You would prefer this?

Amos Starkadder rose from his seat with terrifying deliberation, mounted the little platform, and sat down. For some three minutes he slowly surveyed the Brethren,his face wearing an

Alastair Sim as Amos Starkadder

Alastair Sim as Amos Starkadder

expression of the most profound loathing and contempt, mingled with a divine sorrow and pity. [...] At last he spoke. His voice jarred the silence like a broken bell.

“Ye miserable, crawling worms, are ye here again, eh? Have ye come like Nimshi son of Rehoboam, secretly out of yer doomed houses to hear what’s comin’ to yer? Have ye come, old and young, sick and well, matrons and virgins (if there is any any virgins among ye, which is not likely, the world bein’ in the wicked state it is), old men and young lads, to hear me tellin’ o’ the great crimson lickin’ flames o’ hell fire?” [,,,]

“Ay, ye’ve come.” He laughed shortly and contemptuously. “Dozens of ye. Hundreds of ye. Like rats to a granary. Like field-mice when there’s harvest-home. And what good will it do ye?”

Second pause. [...]

“Nowt. Not the flicker of a whisper of a bit o’ good”. He paused and drew a long breath, then suddenly he leaped from his seat and thundered at the top of his voice: “Ye’re all damned!”

An expression of lively interest and satisfaction passed over the faces of the Brethren, and there was a general rearranging of arms and legs as though they wanted to sit as comfortably as possible while listening to the bad news.

Stella Gibbons, Cold Comfort Farm, 1964.

So: settle down with the chocs and listen to Mr. Wimberley standing up at his first meeting of the Pyroholic Brethren.

My name is James and I am a pyroholic.
Like you Sir, and you Madam, and you young man. Possibly not the gentleman at the back in faded camo eating raw carrots out of a recycled paper bag, but almost all of you, dear Brother and Sister readers, still burn stuff you should not.

But how exactly does that let me off the hook? It does not. Suppose I listen to the still small voice. What can I do to cut my carbon footprint, to wean myself off the vice – dammit, the sin – of fire?

The first thing is to get a handle on that footprint. From now on, we are talking about a 2-adult household in Spain. Trying to count everything is impracticable, so I’ll try a blend: separating out the big-ticket items – electricity, car, flying – and using national averages for the rest. Our house is heated in the mild winters with electricity, it’s lit with CFL and LED lights, the hot water is solar, and we don’t have a/c. The fireplace stove burns wood, and since olive trees have been grown and cut down here for 2,000 years, I’ll assume that’s sustainable.

A rough cut at the annual footprint for two:

  • Electricity = 1.90 tonnes (6,560 kw/h @ 0.29kg C/kwh): typical
  • Car = 0.62 tonnes (10,000 km x 7.5 litres/100km = 750 litres diesel @ 0.83 kg C/l): low
  • Flying = 7.76 tonnes (8 short-haul (1500 km @ 0.4 tonnes) and 4 long-haul flights (10,000 km @1.9 tonnes): atypically high

Subtotal big-ticket items = 10.28 tonnes C, or 5.14 tonnes each.

(Sources for parameters: electricity – national average for 2013 from utility bill; diesel – Wikipedia; flights –  estimates vary a lot. Mem: we need better carbon footprint calculators.)

The average carbon footprint in Spain is 5.85 tonnes of C02 (2010. source: UN) against 17.5 tonnes in the USA. Emissions are a function of income as well as lifestyle, so to be on the safe side, let’s say another 5 tonnes each from the remainder of our consumption. Total 10.14 tonnes each.

The social target has to be carbon neutrality, by mid-century or earlier. Can we achieve this for ourselves? And in what timescale? Here the analogy with alcoholism starts to fray. Immediate sobriety is neither feasible nor necessary. It’s more like overcoming obesity or irritability or fear of heights, the challenge is to get on a steady downward curve.

For me, I’m 67 so the horizon is shortened by my own mortality. Realistically, I can expect at most 15 years of independent living and travel; after that, we will probably be staying in some partly sheltered environment and taking far fewer lifestyle decisions. That will be in 2029. Let’s follow Hansen and assume the collective target should be zero-carbon in around 30 years . His specific proposal was a complete phaseout of coal by 2030 followed a shift to net sequestration. It’s uncertain whether even that will keep us under 2 degree warming.  If we follow the IPCC CW and the 2 degree limit, the cuts required look more like 90% by 2050, around 2.5% of current emissions very year straight-line – twice the current rate. But I’ll go with Hansen who has the track record and no institutional bias. It looks as if Lu and I should aim for a 50% reduction in those 15 years, or 10 tonnes. 4 tonnes will probably come from a reduction in the flying we will want to do, so the problem is the other 6 tonnes.

Where to start the 12-Step Programme? Common sense suggests: with the big-ticket items.

Step 1 to sobriety: solar panels

Installing 4.7 kw of solar panels will give us the same gross electricity output as we consume, with near-zero emissions. Source: NREL’s PvWatts solar calculator, which helpfully gives insolation for Seville and allows us to set the roof orientation we actually have. The investment would give a decent return today, under neutral government policy. However the Spanish government, in the pockets of the big utilities, has proposed a totally unfair tax of 6.8€c a kwh on self-consumed electricity, on top of a zero FIT. This tax is allegedly to pay for dispatchable backup, but not believably. Large-scale wind and solar generators, let alone fossil ones (which also carry reserve costs) aren’t being asked to pay anything. And never mind that grid integration costs for wind energy, which is far more variable than solar, have been estimated by the National Grid (with a natural conservative bias) in Britain  at £2 per Mwh, or 2.3€c/kwh. For a concurring second opinion, see ERCOT in Texas, another neutral grid operator. The Spanish tax is so confiscatory and discriminatory I hope it won’t long survive legal and political challenges. Also, retail electricity rates need to go up to restore and financial health to the industry. So we can wait a few years until the penalty is reduced, or batteries become economic, or we do it at a loss. The panels will go in before three years are up.

Carbon saving per year: the whole 1.9 tonnes.

Step 2 to sobriety: electric car

We should replace our diesel car with an EV or plug-in hybrid in 3-5 years. The range extender in a hybrid will be rarely used, so to a first approximation it’s the same as a pure EV. Taking the Nissan Leaf’s consumption of 21.25 kwh/100 km, a mean life of 15 years, an unchanged mileage, and an electricity carbon intensity of 0.15kg/kwh at the half-way point of 2025, the mean annual carbon emissions will be 320 kg. I claimed all the benefits from the solar panels already, so I can’t count them again even if I charge the car at home in the daytime. The saving is conservative; mileage will go down, from age, lower range and increasing use of rail. The carbon intensity of  the battery charges should be lower than the grid supply mean, with even slightly intelligent planning.

Carbon saving per year: 0.32 tonnes.

Step 3 to sobriety: offset flights

Carbon sink

Carbon sink

From having families and homes on two continents, we have exceptionally high carbon footprints from flights. There is no private technical solution short of not flying, so we can only offset the whole 7.76 tonnes. I hope to to set this up in Brazil directly with members of Lu’s family who own patches of deforested Mata Atlantica. I’ve already planted one ipê tree in their garden, and it’s in flower. A good omen. One tree grown to maturity at 40 years fixes over 1 tonne of carbon. If it’s hardwood used for furniture or construction, or left standing, the carbon stays fixed; otherwise it returns to the atmosphere more or less slowly. Allowing for deaths and thinning, we need to plant initially around 25 trees a year. Most of you Brethren don’t have this option. The going rate for a REDD forestry offset VCU is €7.4 /tonne. Given the problems with official offset markets – very high intermediary fees and admin costs, gaming -, I suggested before that a better bet was to donate directly to a forestry or solar  charity. Even if we double the REDD price for the pretty high risk of ineffectiveness, the donation required is still only €120 a year. Clearly affordable.

You can approximate the effect of a tree-planting programme with a model of a ideal French managed forest – I’ve seen close – with n equal blocks of ages 1, 2, … n years, thinned twice, the block aged n being felled for timber. N=100 in France, but it would be 40 in the tropics. The timber yield plus the thinnings approximates the annual growth of the whole forest. As for timber, so for carbon.

Carbon saving per year: 7-8 tonnes, after about 15-20 years of  a sustained programme.

Total reduction so far is 10 tonnes, meeting our 50% target. Beat that, you Germans!

Is there anything we can or should do privately about the other half, the carbon emissions embedded in the interconnected economy into which our residual consumption flows? If we try to offset the whole 10 tonnes, the large uncertainty about effectiveness becomes very prominent. We can make changes at the margin by buying locally produced food, energy-efficient appliances and so on. At first sight this won’t be enough to make a significant dent. About half our income goes in taxes (direct and indirect): the footprint here cannot be affected by private action. We’ll see how it goes. New opportunities will open up.

[Interruption from the carrot-eating guy at the back:]

You say that the climate is the major moral challenge of our time. I was expecting a rousing call for “blood, toil, tears, and sweat”. But your solution hardly involves you in any sacrifices at all. Some us have been taking this seriously for years, and it’s been pretty painful, believe me. Can you really expect to save the world for pocket change? And what if even Hansen turns out to be over-optimistic, and we have to make deeper cuts faster? Pollyanna is right.

Sorry about that. We latecomers owe you pioneers an immense debt, and we are free riders on your sacrifices. But the evidence is clear (IPCC).  For the world as a whole, the transition to a low-carbon economy will have a trivial net cost on the 2 degree limit, quite likely none at all. (It will be higher for the Hansen pathway.) Why should it be any different for individuals? This isn’t like giving up alcohol or tobacco, where you are constantly reminded of the loss of your addictive pleasure, and there isn’t really any substitute. Initially, it is more like taking up exercise or a healthy diet: after a while you will wonder why you didn’t change earlier. I also admit I have been studiously vague about the later steps. These may well become more difficult and costly – but perhaps not. The thing is to get started. As for the worse-case scenarios, if one of them pans out, we will all have to change our plans. Can I wrap up my presentation now?

An American abstinence pledge from 1845

An American abstinence pledge from 1845

The other strategy – in fact it’s Step 4 - is to get on a soapbox in Amos Starkadder’s armour of righteousness and shout. YOU THERE, CUT YER CARBON FOOTPRINT LIKE ME! Even before actually making the cuts; I’ve signed this fine pledge, see. And of course, vote for and donate to politicians who have serious proposals for the transition.

Don’t you dare shout back in caps in comments. Nor point out that Amos was making it up about Nimshi.


I will try to make a more formal ethical justification of this approach in a later, more wonkish post. Meanwhile readers may compare with Mike’s six-point green card. He addresses wider goals of responsibility; mine is limited to climate change. But it has the virtue of providing a frame of priorities. Carbon neutrality will be an n-step programme. I suggest only the first five:

1. Go solar.
2. Make your next car electric.
3. Offset your flights.
4. Make a fuss.
5. Accept there will be more steps.

Update 1 October
Follow-up post here.

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