Sunday, January 28, 2007

Energy Revolution Report: How to cut Global Energy CO2 Emissions by 2050

Just how on earth is this planet going to substantially reduce it’s carbon emissions? For sure, it will require radical solutions to be implemented, and a groundbreaking study released this week provides the very roadmap we so desperately need. The report is the first comprehensive analysis of how the global energy system can be restructured based on a detailed assessment for the potential of proven renewable energy sources, energy efficiency and the utilisation of efficient, decentralised cogeneration. Such a route would deliver nearly 70% of global electricity supply and 65% of global heat supply by 2050.

The report, ‘Energy [R]evolution: A Sustainable World Energy Outlook', was developed in conjunction with specialists from the Institute of Technical Thermodynamics at the German Aerospace Centre (DLR) and more than 30 scientists and engineers from universities, institutes and the renewable energy industry around the world. Commissioned by the European Renewable Energy Council (EREC) and Greenpeace International, it demonstrates how we can halve global CO2 emissions by 2050, whilst allowing for increased energy consumption and economic growth. It concludes that renewable energies must represent the backbone of the world’s economy – and that includes developing countries such as China, India and Brazil.

Structural change is at the core of the report. Decentralised technologies and energy systems connected to local distribution networks and large scale renewable energy supplies, such as large offshore wind farms and Concentrating Solar Power plants will be key components. This will achieve higher fuel efficiencies and reduce distribution losses.

In stark contrast, following a "business as usual" scenario would see demand for energy double by 2050, the authors warn.

The report also highlights the short time window for making the key decisions in energy infrastructure. Within the next few years governments, investment institutions and utility companies have to act. Within the next decade, many of the existing power plants in the OECD countries will come to the end of their technical lifetime and will need to be replaced, whilst developing countries such as China, India and Brazil are rapidly building up new energy infrastructure to service their growing economies.

This is a rallying call for governments to phase-out subsidies for fossil and nuclear fuels by 2010 and introduce the `polluter-pays principle`. The market as it currently exists is distorted by the fact that it is still virtually free for fossil and nuclear fuel industry to pollute. Current conventional energy subsidies (to the tune of $250-300 billion worldwide) artificially reduce the price of power, keep renewable energy out of the market place and prop up non-competitive technologies and fuels. Thus, at present new renewable energy generators have to compete with old nuclear and fossil fuelled power stations which produce electricity at marginal costs.

Without political support renewable energy remains at a disadvantage, marginalised by the distortions in the world’s electricity markets created by decades of massive financial, political and structural support to conventional technologies. Developing renewables will therefore require strong political and economic efforts, especially through laws that guarantee stable ‘feed-in’ tariffs over a period of up to 20 years.

Energy Revolution presents demands that are needed in the energy sector to encourage a shift to renewable sources. The main ones are:
• Phase out all subsidies for fossil and nuclear energy and internalise external costs of damage to health and the environment
• Establish legally binding targets for implementation of renewable energy
• Provide defined and stable returns for investors
• Guarantee priority access to the grid for renewable power generators
• Implement strict efficiency standards for all energy consuming appliances, buildings and vehicles

This a report with far reaching aims which, it is hoped, will result in far reaching consequences – consequences that would contribute to sustainable economic growth, high quality jobs, technology development, global competitiveness and industrial and research leadership. And of course, a whopping 50% reduction in carbon emissions. All we need do now is start working out how to tackle the remaining 30%

Energy [R]evolution: A Sustainable World Energy Outlook

Slow Travel

You've heard of the Slow Food, now slow travel - and what better an adventure than to head off on a year long round the world trip without resorting to the use of planes.

Ed Gillespie and his partner are going to be travelling across Europe to Moscow, then to Ulaan Baatar on the Trans-Mongolian express, into China and down through south-east Asia (Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Malaysia). From Singapore a container ship to Australia, cross-country to Sydney, a hop over to New Zealand, up a few mountains then onto another cargo ship from Tauranga to Los Angeles. From there, it's down south to Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and finally to Costa Rica to catch a banana boat home from Puerto Limon.

You can follow the high, low and slow travails of his journey through his

View Ed's carbon footprint for his world tour.

Observer Article

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Scottish Schools to put Al Gore in the classroom

Meanwhile, north of the border, the Scottish Executive has announced Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth is to be put on the curriculum for all secondary schools in Scotland. The initiative is aimed at maximising the educational message of the film and demonstrate the impacts of global warming to children.

Pilot screenings of the film are to take place in schools towards the end of the current academic year, prior to a full introduction in the 2007-08 school year. This is a great education initiative - hopefully the rest of the UK will follow Scotland's lead. Jus' dinnae gie 'im a glasgae kiss...

Defra research into mitigating urban flooding

In October I asked a senior governmental advisor what strategy the government had in place to tackle rising sea levels and the increasing risk of extreme wet weather conditions. His response did not cheer me. Thus, it is with some sense of relief that I read today that Defra has just launched a new series of projects designed to investigate ways in which to reduce the impacts of urban flooding in England. The fifteen studies will help to identify areas most at risk, along with the causes and management options available to reduce the threat.

The problem of urban flooding currently costs the national economy an average of £270m every year, with an estimate increase of up to £15bn by 2080 as conditions worsen.

“Adapting to the impacts of climate change is vital if we are to manage the risks of flooding and coastal erosion. We can’t ignore the consequences which is why we need to start adapting now,” said Ian Pearson, Minister for Climate Change and Environment. “The issue of urban drainage flooding is of growing concern to towns and cities across England. Many homes and businesses have already suffered from the devastating impacts. But climate change will make the problem of urban flooding more serious because of the increased likelihood of more intense and frequent rain storms.”

“These 15 pilot studies will test new approaches to reduce the future impact of urban drainage flooding on people’s lives.”

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Carbon Week: Day 5 ~ Green Electricity Tariffs

One of the easiest and most cost effective measures to take in cutting one's carbon emissions is to switch to a renewable energy supplier. We all know this. I switched to Ecotricity nearly two years ago, and thought that by doing so all my electricity comes from renewable sources, hence I have not included it in my carbon emission calculation.

Seems I need to think again. Peter Hale of Climate Concern UK contacted me with his concerns that Ecotricity was not 100% from renewable sources. He drew my attention to the National Consumer Council's recent report on Green Tariffs which demonstrated that there is in fact only one supplier of 100% renewable energy in the UK:
Good Energy

Examining 9 energy companies (with a total of 12 green supply based tariffs) here are some of the NCC's key findings:
~ Many green tariffs are not delivering the environmental benefits they claim to.
~ Many suppliers are doing little more than meeting legal requirements (current legal obligation is to supply 6.7% from renewable sources).
~ Even the better tariffs on offer will only reduce CO2 emissions by around 100kg a year - just 6% of an average household's CO2 emissions.
~ Good Energy is the only supplier whose green tariff is based on 100% renewable electricity.

NCC calls for:
1.Benchmarking tariffs - a compulsory consumer code which suppliers are required to actively sign up;
2.Transparency - production by each supplier of a fuel mix disclosure chart for each tariff as well as a chart demonstrating the supplier's overall fuel mix;
3.Independent auditing - publically available and posted on supplier's websites;
4.Environmmental benefits -calculation of the amount of reduced CO2 emissions they will provide to each average household.

Here is what they have to say of the Ecotricity New Energy tariff:

It "is principally a green fund product (which means the supplier invests some of the premium consumers pay into new renewable energy or other environmental projects) with a green supply element (which means the supplier guarantees that the electricity it sells to customers is covered by the electricity it buys from renewable sources) of 25% of the electricity from renewable wind farms. The remaining 75% comes from coal, gas and nuclear sources."

The NCC report criticises Ecotricity for not making it clear on their website that new Energy tariff customers will not receive 100% renewable energy as part of the tariff. They go on to state: "Of the 25% of electricity from renewable sources, some of the 'greenness' is being sold three times. The supply aspect of the tariff is therefore not offering any additional benefits."

Good Energy in comparison:

"Good Energy offers a green supply tariff, with no green fund or carbon offset element. They support small independent, renewable generators by paying them a fixed price for their electricity.
Good Energy's green tariff is based on 100% renewable electricity sourced from wind farms, small hydro and solar power generators. Good Energy holds Renewable Energy Guarantees of Origin in respect of this, and it retires out of the system all the associated Levy Exemption Certificates. This is good practise and means that the 'greenness' in the electricity is not being sold to consumers twice. Good Energy commissions an independent auditor to verify the contractual basis of it's green tariff."
(Ecotricity does not)

"Good Energy also buys and retires Renewables Obligations Certificates (ROCs) equivalent to 5% of their total supply over and above what is required by the Renewable Obligation. By doing this, it ensures that this electricity is clearly additional to its legal requirements, and is dedicated to Good Energy's customers."

The NCC concludes: "For those suppliers who want a green electricity supply, pure and simple, this is probably the closest they will get to it."

One little point was also highlighted in the report:
"The WhichGreen? comparison website is sponsored by Ecotricity, though this is not immediately obvious at the outset. Its recommendations need to be seen in that light." (It rates Good Energy as 6th, and places itself as Number 1!)

Why not change your supplier to Good Energy right now - I just did: it took me just two minutes to fill in online.

National Consumer Council Report Reality or Rhetoric: Green Tariffs for Domestic Consumers

[Top Photo: Wind, solar, small hydropower,geothermal resources. credit:]

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Carbon Week: Day 4 ~ Carbon Offsetting: Greenwash or Golden Opportunity?

Well, yes, I did actually pay to offset my emissions in the end, through The Carbon Neutral Company. (You get a nifty certificate and a rather stylish recycled leather flying luggage label, which I have now re-branded as a train luggage label.) Salvation at the click of a button comes remarkably cheap too. But is that all it is?

What is carbon offsetting?
Carbon offset refers to the process of taking action to rebalance carbon emissions. This is predominantly done by purchasing carbon credits generated by investing in schemes, often in developing countries, such as energy efficiency (e.g. installing energy saving technologies in housing developments), renewable energy (e.g. wind farms) and sink (e.g. forestry) projects. A carbon offset negates the release of CO2e (Co2 or carbon dioxide equivalent) by avoiding the release of, or removing from the atmosphere the same amount of CO2e somewhere else. The "carbon saving" this creates theoretically offsets the "carbon deficit" created by an individual or company. This process is then referred to as becoming "carbon neutral".

The controversy
1. choice of schemes backed
Tree-planting is controversial due to scientific concerns that the carbon absorbed by a tree during its life is released back into the atmosphere when it dies or is cut down, thus providing no "additionality". Other concerns centre around the quality of the forestry projects,such as large-scale monoculture tree plantations which often have negative impacts on the environment. As a result of these concerns, many offset companies now focus predominantly on renewable projects instead (Fro instance, 85% of The Carbon Neutral Company portfolio is now invested in renewables. Their Natural Wood Portfolio supports indigenous trees within long term woodlands in the UK that aid rural regeneration)
2. Accreditation
Problem is, like any new or evolving market, this is a largely unregulated area, and as a result exposes itself to criticism. Today the government has launched a consultation on voluntary implementation of The Gold Standard Code of Practise to ensure positive contribution of all schemes. The Government's standard is based on the use of certified credits from the established Kyoto market, through sources such as the UN's Clean Development Mechanism (CDM). These credits are backed by an international framework and institutions to ensure that real emission reductions take place, as well as providing a clear audit trail.
The code of practice proposes that offset providers supply consumers with clear information and transparent prices. Defra will provide guidance to consumers on offsetting, which will also help consumers to make informed decisions about their actions.
3. Not a viable alternative
Environmental organisations, such as Friends of the Earth, are sceptical of offsetting and view it as permission to pollute. This morning Tony Juniper on the Today programme pointed out the biggest problem of all: offsetting is not an alternative to using fossil fuel and must be seen as a last resort, rather than as a panacea for eccessive carbon use. Ultimately, carbon emissions must be cut at source.

For me, carbon offsetting proved to be a useful way of helping me evaluate the impact of my activities. But offsets will not stop climate change on their own - to do that we are going to have to reduce our personal emissions. My three pronged attack I set out yesterday is my personal commitment to reducing my emissions. What's yours?

Defra: offsetting - FAQ's

Commercial providers of offsets in the UK:
The Carbon Neutral Company
Climate Care
Carbon Clear
Climate Stewards
Tree Flights
Two charities that provide offsets:
The Climate Change Trust

[Photos from Island Blogging]

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Carbon Week: Day 3 ~ Analysis of My Carbon Footprint

In a nutshell my CO2 emission figures for 2006 are:
Aviation: 710 kg
Rail: 292kg
car: 107kg
Electricity: nil
gas: 1,255kg
food: 1,700kg
clothing: 300kg

TOTAL: 4,365kg (that's just under 4 1/2 tonnes)

I am feeling very smug and, ahem!
Please note how my green halo gleams and sparkles.

But wait. What in real terms does this actually mean? Well, checking this amount against bestfootforward, I discover that have I used up the equivalent of 2.5 global hectares last year. Worse, if everyone in the world lived like me we would still need 1.6 planets to support global consumption. Crikey. To be truly sustainable I'd need to reduce my emissions to roughly 2.500kg per year (which for me means knocking off 1,865kg; over a third) - and that's on the basis that we all reduce our emissions to this level as well.

So what can I do about mine? What carbs can I cut?

Three things leap out from the figures above:

1. Ditch the gas central heating. Renewables are clearly the way forward, but solar panels, wood fire burners and the like equals financial outlay, so this shan't be immediate. This shall have to be relegated to a medium term goal, and will report back as and when developments are possible. (Update re: wind turbine on my roof. Am still monitoring the potential wind factor on my roof. Update will be coming soon)

2.Axe travel by plane. (and car - especially after discovering that car emissions were so high) It has to go, save where essential, or impractical to do otherwise. Pound for pound, cheap flights are clearly the most damaging in CO2 terms, given that my calculations do not actually reflect the true damage (if multiplied by a further 2.7, that would take my emissions up by a further 1,917kgs - that's almost another 2 tonnes!) The final clincher for me is the recent controversy over contrails creating additional havoc to our atmosphere, as covered by the BBC in their recent Inside Out programme.

3. Sustainable food. Yes, something can be done with immediate effect here as well.
At Home: In November, I set myself the challenge of doing without my freezer. This is now empty and switched off, so that in itself will cut emissions. As this has only been out of service for 10 days to date, I haven't yet noticed any discernable impact or inconvenience, but will update on this as the three month challenge progresses.
Dining Out: I touched on the issue of sustainable fish in December. So, here be a few commitments:
Fish and meat ~ will eat if sustainable and provenance is local &/or organic
Water ~ After harrumpfing and thumping the table in agreement with Giles Coren's latest chew - on water - it can only be tap, Belu or UK derived. (Otherwise vodka will do as a substitute. Organic vodka.)

There is of course another alternative, which would take very little effort ....
I could Offset...

Coming Next: Carbon Offsetting - Greenwash or Golden opportunity

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Carbon Week: Day 2 ~ My Carbon Footprint

As a christmas present to myself this year I decided to calculate my carbon footprint for the whole of 2006. My interest lay primarily with coming to an informed evaluation of my own CO2 expenditure - establishing a figure and thereby being able to compare it with the average UK figure (A recent study by the Carbon Trust puts the annual carbon footprint of the average Briton at 10.92 tons of CO2).

I was also curious as to what 'price' my emissions were in our newly evolving personal carbon market. There are various footprint calculators on the internet where you can enter some rough estimates (bestfootforward is a great 60 second ready reckoner, and is surprisingly accurate), but as I wanted to subject my annual CO2 count to closer scrutiny, I decided to take my examination a little further. At the end of the day I realised it would take a mathematician to work out a truly accurate picture, but I think on the basis of the information to hand, I now have a fairly rounded picture of my carbon footprint for 2006 - and a far clearer idea of my impact on the environment as an individual.

I have some advantages. I am based in central London. My electricity is supplied by Ecotricity. I do not have a car, I mostly cycle, I have easy access to and buy most of my food locally (mainly at my farmers market and local organic stores), sometimes I catch a cab, occasionally I hop on a bus.

The two main carbon groupings I examined were:
Travel - plane, train and car (kilometers used rather than miles)
Household energy use - gas

My dates are 01.01.06 - 31.12.006 inclusive, and any travel that commenced during that time-span is included in the calculation where the outgoing journey commenced within the dates but the return was thereafter.

Looks straightforward. In reality it took a little bit of doing. I compared three established sites (co2balance, The Carbon Neutral Company and Climate Care) with Defra's conversion factors. Some of the sites gave more detailed calculators; on others it was not possible to break down into individual components. It comes down to preference of use at the end of the day. All three preferred sites gave similar calculations with very little variation - nothing came widely off the mark. The difference lay in the suggested cost of offsetting the emissions, with co2balance proving to be the most expensive. For my purposes, to calculate each component, I found the easiest route was to apply to multipliers supplied by Defra (which is what most UK carbon offset schemes are based on in any event).

What did surprise me was my discovery that the multiplier used for calculating car and plane emissions are very close - x 0.16 for a small 1.4L petrol car, x 0.15 for short-haul flights. Which means that in reality if I were to drive to Edinburgh from London, as opposed to flying, my emissions would be almost the same for each journey. Where the limiting of the impact comes in is when you share your car (divide by number of passengers). Also what has not been taken into account is the fact that CO2 is far more damaging when released at a greater height. This has not been factored into aviation emission calculations, as there is still debate within the scientific community as to just what the additional multiplier should be. The consensus currently favours multiplying one's aviation emissions by 2.7 for a truer reflection. As this has not yet been incorporated into carbon calculations I have decided to go with the existing calculations for the time being.

Here is the breakdown:

Aviation x0.15
(Distance (km) x Multiplier = Carbon Emissions(kg))
Gatwick - Palma r 2620km = 390kg
Stanstead - Toulon r 2128km = 320kg
PLANE SUBTOTAL 4748km = 710kg (=0.71 tonnes)

Rail x0.04
(co2balance do individual rail calculations.
For longer distances, use Mapcrow
All of my journeys commence from central London)
Guildford r 96km = 4kg
Paris r 1032km = 41kg
Birmingham r 338km = 14kg
Winchester r 214km = 9kg
Brighton r 170km = 7kg
Bentley 68km = 3kg
Guildford 48km = 2kg
Oxford r 204km = 8kg
Paris r 1032km = 41kg
Birmingham r 338km = 14kg
Manchester r 594km = 24kg
Truro 450km = 18kg
Truro - Abergavenny 364km = 15kg
Aber - London 244km = 10kg
Basingstoke 77km = 3kg
Guildford 48km = 2kg
Paris r 1032km = 41kg
Paris - Aigle r 676km = 28kg
Other/local 275km = 11kg
TRAIN SUBTOTAL 7300km = 282kg (=0.292 tonnes)

Car Hire: small petrol 1.4L x 0.16
(For comprehensive fuel calculations, go to
VCA carfueldata)
somerset weekend 660km = 107kg
CAR SUBTOTAL 660km = 107kg (=0.107tonnes)

Electricity x0.43
Supplier: Ecotricity (renewable) = nil

Gas x0.19
(I phoned my supplier who gave me my 4 last quarter kwh readings)
6,609 kwh pa = 1,255kg
GAS SUBTOTAL = 1,255kg (1.255 tonnes)

I also examined, and with guidance on rough additional calculations from the Carbon Trust Report:
As most of my food eaten at home comes from my local farmer's market, I am safe in the knowledge that it is all raised, grown, produced, gathered, caught, or baked within 100 miles of the M25. Salamis and the like from my local Italian deli's, it has to be said travel form further afar, but Luigi assures me they are ship-freighted. So, including food miles and production of raw materials I add another 200kg. Dining out, however neccessitates a higher figure with a restaurant meal generating up to 8kg per diner. Dining out at three + times a week, I have rounded it up to 1,500kg.
FOOD SUBTOTAL = 1,700kg (1.700 tonnes)

This is difficult, and old habits die hard (Do I really have to admit what I spend on clothes?) Suffice to say I shall incorporate the figure of 300kg (for production and transport)
CLOTHING SUBTOTAL = 300kg (0.3 tonnes)

GRAND TOTAL = 4,365kg (4.365 tonnes)

Of course I'm sure this does not even begin to truly reflect the footprint of every item bought and all the other aspects that I have overlooked. But it's a start. I now have a clearer picture of my personal carbon footprint, and it makes me want to reduce it further.

With particular thanks to Dominic Stichbury of The Carbon Neutral Company for generously giving me his time and assistance on the finer points of carbon calculations.

All photos are of the west coast of Scotland - as it's so dreich and unseasonally mild down here...

Monday, January 15, 2007

Carbon Week: Day 1 ~ Top Greenhouse Gas: Carbon Dioxide

For the whole of this week I am delving into the world of carbon.
I am going to examine what the big deal is with Carbon Dioxide (as opposed to all those other greenhouse gases),
what my carbon footprint looks like,
whether or not carbon offsetting is a golden opportunity or just a bit of greenwash,
and the low down on personal carbon allowances.

First, the legislative framework and a few facts and figures...

The Kyoto Protocol
The objective of the Koyoto Protocol is the "stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system." Countries that ratify this protocol commit to reduce their emissions of carbon dioxide and five other greenhouse gases (GHGs), or engage in emissions trading if they maintain or increase emissions of these gases.

The treaty was negotiated in Kyoto, Japan in December 1997 and finally came into force on February 16, 2005 following ratification by Russia. There are now a total of 169 countries and other governmental entities that have ratified the agreement. Notable exceptions are the United States and Australia. Other countries, like India and China (developing countries, called Non-Annex 1 economies) which have ratified the protocol, are not required to reduce carbon emissions under the present agreement.

* By 2008-2012, Annex 1 countries (developed economies) have to reduce their GHG emissions by an average of 5% below their 1990 levels (for many countries, such as the EU member states, this corresponds to some 15% below their expected GHG emissions in 2008). While the average emissions reduction is 5%, national targets range from 8% reductions for the European Union to a 10% emissions increase for Iceland. Reduction targets expire in 2013.
* Any (developed) country that fails to meet its Kyoto target will be penalized by having its reduction targets decreased by 30% in the next period.
* Kyoto includes "flexible mechanisms" which allow Annex 1 economies to meet their GHG targets by purchasing GHG emission reductions from elsewhere. These can be bought either from financial exchanges (such as the new EU Emissions Trading Scheme) or from projects which reduce emissions in non-Annex 1 economies under the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM).

Greenhouse Gases
Some GHGs occur naturally in the atmosphere, while others result from human activities. Naturally occurring GHGs include water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and ozone. Certain human activities, however, add to the levels of most of these naturally occurring gases. Approximately 30 gases are produced by human activity which contribute to the greenhouse effect.

GHGs naturally blanket the earth but the recent increase in temperature is a result of the increase in the concentration of the main greenhouse gases, in particular those that are man-made.

Under the Kyoto Protocol there are six gases listed that are of greatest concern and must be reduced:

Name:...........................Released into the atmosphere by:
carbon dioxide (CO2)......burning fossil fuels, deforestation
methane (CH4)...............landfill sites, large-scale livestock farming
nitrous oxide (N2O)..........vehicle exhaust fumes, use of fertilizers
hydroflurocarbons (HFCs)..refrigerators (replaced CFCs)
perfluorocarbons (PFCs)..aluminium smelting
sulphur hexafluoride (SF6)..semiconductor manufacturing

The Big Deal: Carbon Dioxide
Atmospheric concentrations of CO2 are changing rapidly as we burn fossil fuels, clear forests, use gasoline-dependent transportation and heating systems and build with concrete. In particular, the amount of CO2 has increased by over 37% since pre-industrial times (from about 270 molecules of CO2 per million molecules of air in 1850 to the present 381 parts per million, now climbing higher and faster each year - currently by 2.5 ppm annually. To put this in context, prior to 1850 CO2 concentrations stayed between 260 and 280 ppm during the preceding 10,000 years).

* After water vapour ,CO2 is the most prevalent greenhouse gas.
* CO2 accounts for 80% of total greenhouse gas emissions.
* The current global surplus of CO2 from carbon fuel burning is about 6 gigatonnes (billion tons) per year.

Tomorrow: my carbon footprint
Previous post: CO2 Concentration Chart: A Few Quick Climate Change Facts

Friday, January 05, 2007

Day 8: Last day of Swiss Bliss

Ahh, sadly it is time to leave this environmental pod-heaven ... so, I hand over to my final guest blogger who is relaxing in the chalet before his morning run around the mountain.

Lazy E: Adou, what do you think about the state of the world today? Adou, Adou?

Adou: Zzzzzzzzz

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Day 7: Guest Travel Writer ~ Matthew Brace

Today, I hand over the blog to award winning travel writer and foreign correspondent Matthew Brace, who kindly let me sit in on his conversation with Sofia de Meyer, the founder with the vision and determination to bring Whitepod into existence.

Matt: what struck me was the amount of effort gone into Whitepod - all running around to keep it going. Give me idea of how much effort put in.

Sofia: The pods come first. As we do not use cement to fix them in the ground, we must pitch them with the first frost in November which freezes the structure into the ground and then the snow provides insulation. As soon as platform is set, everything follows. To set up camp requires huge logistics - from working out the amount of petrol needed for the lamps, matches, fire-lighters, kindling, wood pre-ordered for season - I'm starting to have a mathematical brain!

When we dismantle the pods, such is the limited impact on the environment, you would not know we had been here. Currently we are in discussions with a Charpentier - structural wood engineer - to find a way to set them without frost. One way would be with thin steel cables which will anchor the pod like a tent. The pods will have their green summer jackets and we will use green mesh to cover under the platform as well to ensure their appearance sits well with nature.

My staff help set up the camp because they then realise what is involved, so that they are part of and are included in the philosophy. Team work is important here: you cover everything. They say a successful busines is built as a pyramid, I say no it's a horizon, with each person on the same level. Look at the guy behind Patagonia.

Matt: In the summer will the Whitepod experience leave a larger impact on nature?

Sofia: No - and this is very important to us. There are mountain pathways already marked out - so walkers will be using existing paths. Also there are four established hiking routes here. We are very keen to introduce kite flying and there will be rock climbing in the Pointe de Valerette. The Dent du Midi is behind, with her seven peaks that look like teeth, where you can also go walking on established routes and rock climbing.

Matt: Do you have an established written eco-philosophy?

Sofia: Yes, you can find our eco-philosophy on our website I am at the moment preparing a little booklet which guests can refer to and take home. We want to inspire guests to do likewise at home, even the little things, such as be considerate to others, to use ecologically kind cleaning materials. We also have very little waste. Our composting and recycling is very organised - no packaging, as 95% of our food is sourced locally and brought in wooden crates. Fruit comes from local growers in Monthey, except for oranges which come from Spain. Almost nothing comes from outside of Europe. Dried fruit is local but not the nuts. Vegetables are either organic or local. If you buy local Swiss produce it is close to European organic standards, because pesticides etc are not allowed to be used in Swiss farming. So, most of our food nearly organic or mostly organic.

Matt: How did you come to decide to do this instead of continuing as a city lawyer in London?

Sofia: I always kept it with me the love of nature. I grew up in Villars, and my father was a fantastic person and great influence. As a child I used to help him out with the chalets he renovated and as he grew older, I would run up the hill to check the chalets and we would then sit down and have our chunk of cheese and admire the mountains. He meant everything that matters to me - he taught me patience and respect for nature.

After six years in law, there came a point in time to decide whether to become a partner in my London city firm. That was my crossroads three years ago when I was 30 years old. So I came back here and spent three days in the forest for inspiration. At the end of the three days my decision was made. I had decided I wanted to create something for me, it was important to me to have a philosophy that means respect for nature.

Matt: What other influences shaped your vision?

Sofia: I have travelled much and I always aimed to travel within eco-tourism guidelines, sleep locally where local communities gained, and where I would gain some education of the local environment. To set up Whitepod I first of all followed the international eco-tourism guidelines. When I read the document, I realised that the guidelines had different emphasis to different places. For instance, it was very different in Africa from here in Switzerland eg we don't have a water shortage. But we have a lack of knowledge of the alpine environment, how to protect the slopes, that we can do to promote less invasive activities such as snow-shoeing. It became clear to me when reading the report that there is a need for eco-tourism, but how should we apply it? These issues came up again and again, and the recent Eco-tourism Summit highlighted the necessity of low impact, education and the need to give back to the local community. I want to set up Whitepod camps where they need assistance - for instance, set up temporary camps in Nepal to bring tourism to the place for building the community, then once it is established we can leave.

Matt: Why Pods?

Sofia: It started from wanting a removable structure - therefore a tent. I looked at teepees, yurts, but they were not right, then finally found the pod. I chose it because it was innovative, gave maximum space, has good heat retention and has a window, which you cannot have with yurt. We had it modified, and now we are building our own because we want total immersion with nature, totally dismountable and have it made locally with people with limited skills. They made our ceramic tableware, which took four months. We said, okay, then we will wait. And now we have lovely mugs, plates, pouring jugs etc.

Matt: Have the Swiss been receptive to the Pods?

Sofia: We ran into huge problems. They say it doesn't fit with the laws of chalet construction despite being low impact. I say that they must close the book of chalet rules and look at this differently. The only way we can do this for the moment is that we apply for temporary structure permits every 4 months, but we are now running out of the argument of it being temporary. I have been asked to sit on a forum to put Whitepod forward as a good example of sustainable tourism. There is a huge gap between low impact builds and planning laws, especially in Switzerland. Eco tourism needs to be incorporated widely so that it can progress. We need local planning laws and local support so that we can plan for the future, for even the next season.

Matt: What about incorporating renewable technologies such as solar panels?

Sofia: Yes, we looked at soft material solar panels for pods but we do not really need them. We have also considered it for the chalet, but we do not get enough sun at this side of the mountain for it to be a practical solution at the moment. Instead, we took out much of the lighting from the chalet, to reduce usage. Next year we are putting in place a thermal underground pump for all our hot water supplies. When we took on these premises, we prepared the ground for it from the outset, so all that is needed is now for it to be put in place in time for next winter season.

Matt: You have proved that eco-tourism works and is economoically viable. People want this experience, but there seems to be a reluctance to take on such a business concept.

Sophia: You are right. In the business world, ecology equals failure, bad quality. However, I think we can turn this around. You can sleep in a tent but it can be warm, comfortable and luxurious. Our pods are low impact, considerate impact. The most frustrating thing is that it's easier to be non-ecological. Look at most consumerism and tourism - one advert here offers free car parking for the ski pistes covered in artificial snow, which is all wrong. It makes it more difficult for people to be environmentally ecological in their decisions. Whitepod offers an ecological experience.

Matt: Any plans for the future?

Sofia: We want to take Whitepod further afield. We are planning to franchise the concept and have received huge interest from all over the world. There are many people who want to buy pods, but we decided not to sell without the philosophy. So we decided the best way is to franchise, so that we can retain that element of control. When you sign a franchise contract, you receive an operations manual, and the investment plan is all set out. The operation manual goes into great detail down to what the cleaner needs, how many hours are required to clean pod etc. The idea is that it is all set out for you so that you can read it and open tomorrow. There is also management support for the first month to assist and oversee, so that the whole operation can be set up smoothly. It's going to be a busy year!

Hotel Heaven,
Confessions of a Luxury Hotel Addict

by Matthew Brace
published by Random House
Due out in Spring 2007

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Day 6: The Perfect Day

More snow in the night and picture perfect blue skies with the sun slowly climbing round the mountain. So achingly beautiful is this sight, I quickly pull on my boots. Off I crump into the knee-high snow through the woods and up the meadows to the abandoned cow shed, where I sit awhile to gaze in wonder at the Narnia stretched out before me.

Back in time for a late lunch before heading off with Alain up the mountain on our skis where he takes me to a high point way above the pods. There, we harness up to his paraglide before ski-ing off the edge and soaring high. I have no fear as I know I am in the safest hands - Alain has not only successfully taken a blind man paragliding, he has talked him through his descent from Mont Blanc and is the inventor of the first paraglide harness seat for paraplegics. So, I reckon, he knows what he is doing.

Ah! But this is utterly fantastic, and I laugh with the sheer exhilaration of the initial lift-off. So this is what it is like to fly like a bird - and the silence, the stillness, then whoop we dip and twist and play acrobatics with the air currents, before eventually coming to a gentle landing in a field in the valley. I feel a heightened sense of being alive and am elated, my heart beating hard, wanting to repeat the experience all over again.

But no time, evening will soon be drawing in, promising a remarkable sunset, and after dinner it is proposed we go skiing in the light of the full moon. A perfect day indeed...

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Day 5: Guest Explorer ~ Ben Saunders

Still here at Whitepod, now under a good few more feet of freshly falling snow. Tobogganing at midnight brought some impressive bruises (thanks Ben!), and off-piste skiing this morning will doubtless bring more...

So, this afternoon, I am going to hand over my blog to another guest and fellow podster: my favourite arctic explorer, multi-marathon runner and all round athlete Ben Saunders.

Lazy E: Having trekked the arctic three times now, you'll have witnessed a changing environment at first hand. Please do tell us about what you saw.

Ben: The climate of the high Arctic is changing fast. The warming that’s happening is inescapable, indisputable fact. And when you see it firsthand, as I've been lucky to do over the last six years, the pace and the scale of this change is breathtaking. According to a recent NASA survey, 750,000 sq km of perennial sea ice (an area three times the size of Great Britain) disappeared between 2004 and 2005 alone.

In 2000, expeditions setting out for the North Pole from the north coast of Siberia were able to walk straight from the land on to the frozen surface of the Arctic Ocean. When I flew by helicopter to the same starting point in 2004, we found more than 20km of open water between the coast and the edge of the pack ice.

Klaus Toepfer, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Program, described the Arctic as the "barometer of global climate change…an environmental early warning system for the world." If he’s right, then this barometer is telling us that there’s major change on the way. We’re not talking about fractions of decimal points, either; the size of the areas of ice that are melting is barely comprehensible.

Lazy E: I know each expedition takes many months of planning and that you are also very concerned about limiting your impact on the environment. Can you tell us about the modern technological advances that you are using?

Ben: The most exciting technology for me right now is solar power. On an expedition to the Greenland ice cap in 2005 we experimented with using flexible photovoltaic panels for the first time. I didn’t have particularly high hopes – I expected to be constantly trickle-charging batteries and then charging our gear (satellite phones, cameras, video gear, ipods) from this giant battery, but the reality blew me away. Our suppliers (Iowa Thin Film Technologies) sent us a 1.8 metre panel that weighed less than a kilo, and being rather doubtful that it could provide us with enough power, I plonked it on my windowsill in Putney on a grey London day and plugged it into my laptop. An hour later it was fully charged, and I was gobsmacked. Why wasn’t every roof in London covered with this stuff?

It continued to impress us throughout the month-long expedition. Despite shooting hundreds of photographs, a few hours of digital video, and updating my website each evening using a power-hungry satellite phone and a palm-top computer, we never once used a battery. Everything was solar powered.

In the future, we’re planning to have photovoltaic fabric incorporated directly into our tent and sledge covers, and perhaps into the shoulders and arms of our jackets.

Lazy E: What great expeditions are on the offing for 2007, and how can we follow your progress?

Ben: I’m off to Antarctica in October with a fellow adventurer, Tony Haile. Our aim is to make the first unsupported return journey to the South Pole on foot. From the coast of Antarctica to the South Pole and back to the coast again. At 1,800 miles, it will be the longest unsupported polar journey in history, and we expect to be on the ice for four months. You can find out more at, or at my blog,

Lazy E: You are a bit of a regular whitepodster now. What is it about this place that draws you back?

Ben: I love it here. The scenery, the fresh air, the company, the food, the skiing and of course the pods themselves, this wonderful mix of eco-inspired high-tech and low-tech, geodesic domes and wood-burning stoves. It’s the perfect antidote to 21st century London living.

Monday, January 01, 2007