Undercover Economist

Lights on – or off? Low-carbon living is anything but easy…

Those of us resolving to lead a lower-carbon life in 2010 could do worse than acquire a copy of Prashant Vaze’s new book, The Economical Environmentalist, in which the author picks over the fine details of his life. He works out how much CO2 he could save by driving more slowly, installing loft insulation or becoming a vegetarian. The result will be a little dense for some, but it is delightfully geeky and has the virtue of being right more often than not.

This virtue is underrated. Environmentalists have been slow to realise that the fashionable eco-lifestyle is riddled with contradictions. The one that particularly exasperates me is the “food miles” obsession, whereby we eschew tomatoes from Spain and roses flown in from Kenya, in favour of local products grown in a heated greenhouse with a far greater carbon footprint.

Other less-than-obvious truths are: that pork and chicken have substantially lower carbon footprints than beef and lamb (yes, even organic beef and lamb); that milk and cheese also have a substantial footprint; that dishwashers are typically more efficient than washing dishes by hand; and that eco-friendly washing powders may be distinctly eco-unfriendly because they tend to tempt people to use hotter washes.

My conclusion is that a well-meaning environmentalist will make counterproductive decisions several times a day. I don’t blame the environmentalists: the problem is intrinsically complicated. Over a vegetarian curry in London recently, Vaze ruefully described to me the “six bloody months” he spent trying to research an eco-renovation of his home.

Even the experts can tie themselves in knots. Duncan Clark, author of The Rough Guide to Green Living, unveiled “10 eco-myths” in a Guardian podcast in November. Many of them were well chosen, but unfortunately his number one “myth” was not a myth at all: that switching off lights will reduce CO2 emissions. Clark’s logic is seductive: some European carbon emissions, including those generated by electricity, are subject to a cap. Clark is right to say that conserving electricity will allow other sectors to take up the resulting slack, because they will be able to buy permits to emit more cheaply than if we left our lights blazing.

Where Clark goes wrong is in assuming the cap will remain fixed forever. If we all turn out our lights, the price of permits will fall and politicians will find it politically easier to tighten the cap. So, keep installing those energy-efficient light bulbs. (Another less-than-obvious truth is that it’s not worth waiting for your old bulbs to burn out before you fit the new ones.)

After picking through the ideas of Vaze, Clark, David MacKay (a Cambridge physicist) and others, my view is that it is hopeless to expect that volunteers will navigate this maze of decisions.

That is why a broad-based, credible carbon price will be the foundation of any successful policy on climate change. The price would affect the cost of every decision we make; it would take away the guesswork. Current carbon pricing schemes, such as the European emissions trading scheme, are a good start, but they leave out too many sectors, and permits are too cheap.

And a final admission: not every feature of the low-carbon lifestyle is impossibly obscure. I felt rather smug when I realised I could stop drinking cappuccino in favour of espresso, saving 90kg of CO2 a year. Then I totted up my carbon footprint from air travel in 2009. It is the equivalent of almost 50 tonnes of CO2 – or more than the entire footprint of a typical British family of three. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out how to shrink that particular footprint. This year I shall do better.

Also published at ft.com.