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The winds of change

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Several readers took issue with our critical interpretation of the Energy White Paper (AJ 27.3.03), adding their views to the debate for a more sustainable approach

Go for green

It is amazing that there is still such a widespread misunderstanding of the basic facts and issues, exemplified, I'm afraid, by your correspondent's question: 'Is the amount of effort required to cut CO 2emissions by 60 per cent, a waste of energy?'(AJ 10.4.03).

Environmental sustainability is not only no limit to good architecture, it should form its inspiration.However, we seem to see precious few examples of this, when, in fact, it is not rocket science, it need not be expensive and there is no downside. It is perfectly possible to design buildings that reduce energy use by between 60 and 90 per cent over the current average, at little or no additional construction cost (and large life-time savings). The only thing stopping us is laziness and inertia - in other words, failure to do our jobs properly (OK, so sometimes there is an intractable client, but all too often we presume they will take that position without even asking).

It is popular in some quarters to argue that global warming is not really happening. If you say this, you are on your own; precious few scientists agree with you. But also, so what? Why grouch if there's no downside? There is very little doubt that climate change exists and that it threatens our civilisation (just as many past human civilisations have destroyed themselves by changing their environment - take the Mayans or the Mesopotamians, or the original Easter Islanders).

Look at this statement from Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) scientist Peter Barrett at the Antarctic Research Centre, New Zealand: 'Global climate, even in 50 years' time, may be warmer than the earth has experienced in the past 12 million years changes of this speed and magnitude are unprecedented to our knowledge, aside from large meteorite impacts.'

Add to that the fact that oil is now officially running out, as confirmed by Dr Roger Bentley at the Institute of Energy, who said: 'Global conventional oil production will reach its physical peak in approximately 10 years.'Would you prefer nuclear? I think not; why accept the risks when there are perfectly clean alternatives available?!

There is far more energy available than we could ever need. It is possible to meet our entire energy needs from today's photovoltaics technology covering just three per cent of the Sahara Desert. And 50 per cent of the UK's demand from wind energy? No problem. It is a bit more expensive right now but this is changing, thanks to the scarcity of fossil fuels and carbon taxes like the climate change levy, driven by the Kyoto agreement.

So what is delaying the transition? The answer is a catch-22 lock-in of the global economy to oil. How can we change it? By buying and building efficient buildings powered by green energy.

Here are two things that will also have the advantage of increasing our knowledge, benefiting the world's poor and stimulating the growth of appropriate technology and cleaner energy, while costing next to nothing. First, buy your electricity, at home and at work, from a green energy supplier. This means a 100 per cent clean energy supplier, such as www. unit-e. co. uk (rated number one by Friends of the Earth). Second, offset your emissions by investing in clean energy for the world's poor through www. climatecare. org or www. futureforests. co. uk.

So, if we do all this what are the consequences? Expect buildings that cost less to run and are nicer to be in; we might even get a better quality of life; and we might get some better architecture. Are you up to the challenge? Would you like to stop griping and get on with it?

Robertw@xco2. com

Austin Williams writes:

Many thanks for your email. Just to set the record straight, though:

lt is interesting how many learned scientists argue about the importance, relevance and accuracy of the issue of global warming.

There is not a consensus as you might like to believe.

My reference to 'is the amount of effort a waste of energy' relates, maybe somewhat obliquely, to the central debate around 'labour' versus 'resource' productivity. This is an essential argument to unpick to recognise the shift away from traditional concepts of 'progress'.

Why should 'sustainability' form architecture's 'inspiration'? There is a logical leap here.

Why should energy policy determine architectural design? Let's be a bit more analytical about these things.

Your condemnation that architects are blighted by 'laziness' and 'inertia' is presumably aimed at others.

I hadn't realised that the Mayans, Easter Islanders, et al, had changed the climate so dramatically, as you suggest.

Peter Barrett is not an IPCC member.

Rather than quoting from The Ecologist, as you do, it is interesting that even Barrett, who is something of a catastrophist on this topic, confines his researches to Antarctica. His projection of 1.8degreesC warming (the lower IPCC projection) as a straight-line graph into the future is dramatic but not the whole picture (see his report for Nature 16.1.03); and dangerous. His avoidance of the various provisos in IPCC reports (such as the complete omission of clouds, for example - the greenhouse gas known as water vapour - from its computer models) is disingenuous.

Oil running out oh no, not again?

Selectively quoting the Institute of Energy (IoE) is not helpful. See its summary paper Nuclear Energy: the Future, which says:

'Electricity demand continues to increase and new nuclear plants are one of the only assured ways of providing reliable power, while containing CO2 emissions.' Presumably, that quote doesn't fit your argument.

Even the IoE's report states that wind turbines are only effective for 30 per cent of the time, given unreliable wind patterns.

The area of photovoltaics that you state as being necessary to replace conventional methods of energy production is the same as the entire surface area of England. That would be nice.

Apparently, green technology will benefit the world's poor. This is a non sequitur. Why should it? After all, it is not because of their energy policies that they are poor.

Coming back to the original question of resource productivity versus labour productivity (ie local production), this is a real problem.

It is a problem for the concept of progress; for the concept of universalism; and for the project of humanism.

Home-spun agenda

The article by Austin Williams (AJ 27.3.03) is riddled with such basic and gross errors, it would be humorous were the subject matter not so serious.

He implies that CO2 emissions from human beings contribute to global warming.

The CO2 we emit originates from carbon locked up in biological organisms. This carbon has been part of the natural carbon cycle in the biosphere; it has been so for millennia, and is constantly recycled. It is not a cause of global warming. Fossilised sources of hydrocarbons release carbon that has been out of circulation for millions of years, thus significantly increasing its atmospheric concentration, and this contributes to global warming.

He says that CO2 emissions do not originate in the home, apart from 'a few gas stoves and oil-fired ovens'. In fact, the great majority of heating in this country is not electric, but comes from natural gas. The energy required to meet heating requirements in homes is many times higher than other electrical requirements. Therefore, homes contribute directly to CO2 production.

I could go on, but will spare your informed readers these easily attainable facts. Williams' agenda, however, is clear: deny the problem exists, and deny that you have anything to do with the solution. It is disappointing that you have facilitated him by allowing such a misleading article into your magazine.

Dr Shane Slater, Element Energy !

Austin Williams writes:

I'm afraid I work here. My 'agenda', as you put it, is for rational debate on this subject and to open up the unpleasant fact (to some) that the orthodoxy of global warming ought to be challenged, so that we can see the wood for the trees.

Hardly anyone doubts the existence of global warming and also a causal anthropogenic influence on CO2 levels. However, the points of contention are: a) whether it is necessarily a bad thing; b) whether CO2 is the central issue; and c) whether human intervention - especially in prioritising the role of reducing carbon emissions - will make a positive, predictable and meaningful difference.

For Dr Slater, breathing out is apparently a reasonable entropic relationship of re-releasing carbon equivalents; whereas releasing fossilised carbon is somehow immoral due to an unreasonable timescale differential. It all depends on how far up your own backside you want to go with these comparators. If we are playing the silly numbers game beloved of ded icated ecologists, then we find that there are no meaning ful actions that are genuinely carbon neutral. Even wind farms need to be designed, manufactured, transported and maintained.

However, this becomes an incestuous game of ridiculous comparisons. This is an evasion of the core questions asked above.

Even if carbon emissions are the biggest problem we face, targeting, nay blaming, domestic users is a little rich given that since 1997 through Export Credit Guarantee mechanisms the UK government has effectively exported over three times the amount of CO 2emissions that resulted from the closure of domestic coal mines. I don't have a problem with this since it has led to improved developmental standards for the Third World countries in question, but most anti-carbon campaigners don't like development, per se.

After all, what would happen if everyone in China got off their bikes and wanted cars? 'We can't let it happen', is the usual response. In order to help them help themselves we must deny them advanced (allegedly polluting) industrial technology.

But to address the point raised by Dr Slater, the DTI report, Energy Consumption in the United Kingdom, indicates clearly that the carbon emissions from primary generation sources are ratioed across user sectors, distorting the real incidence of carbon production. This is the point I was making about the Energy White Paper being a social-policy mechanism to discipline domestic users disproportionately.

Thirty-one per cent of final energy consumption is domestic, of which 40 per cent is space heating (not an exact comparison - the Department of Trade and Industry states that 'space heating and hot water accounted for 82 per cent of domestic use of energy'. Whatever, perhaps we should go back to the good old days 30 years ago, when only 5.6 million people had central heating, compared with 21.7 million today.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs' Digest of Environment Statistics states that: 'Total UK carbon dioxide emissions fell by five per cent between 1990 and 2001, mainly because of greater use of natural gas and reduced use of coal in electricity generation and increased use of nuclear-generated electricity.'

However, the running down of nuclear power and the increased reliance on gas will have little if any 'positive' impact on CO2 emissions. Less reliance on web-browsing 'for easily attainable facts' and more take-up of real research conclusions could be a good start to the debate.

Finally, to produce a mere five per cent of total UK power generation by 2010 (the Energy White Paper, remember, aspires to 20 per cent by 2020) will require 15 60MW wind farms to be built every year for the next six years. And as Philip Stott, emeritus professor of biogeography, says, 'meanwhile, climate will merrily change unpredictably whatever we do'.

What do you think?

Please email your technical views, comments and answers to austin. williams@construct.emap. com, write to Austin Williams, The Architects' Journal, 151 Rosebery Avenue, London EC1R 4GB, or visit the discussion forum at ajplus. co. uk to contribute to the online debate

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