ISBN 978-1-84407-910-0. “How to live a low-carbon life” second edition was published by Earthscan in 2010. The paperback gives you 300 easy-read pages consisting of 13 Chapters, Notes, Acknowledgements and Index. As an update upon his earlier 2006 book you can probably copy everything from the review, four years ago, and paste it here. So we’ll focus on what is new or different. First things first, whereas the original spoke about getting carbon footprints down from 12.5 tonnes per person to 3 tonnes, the new edition talks about getting from 14 tonnes down to 2. This difference comes from updated accounting which now includes the embodied energy for imported goods. The new target adopts the UK Climate Change Act’s recommendations of an 80% cut. This was good to see as our 2006 review did suggest the adding of more work on embodied energy. The first four chapters in Chris’s original work have been condensed down into just one which accounts for the lower chapter and page count of the new edition (300 pages vs 318 and 13 chapters versus 17).
As before though, this first chapter is probably the most important. If you judged a book by its cover and took into account the fact that Chris’s previous work was “Ten Technologies to Save the Planet” you might think him to be some techno-optimist. However, the truth is far from this stereotype. Although Chris writes in his comfort zone of numbers and science, he treats the problem as a very human one. He takes the first 30 pages to tear through lazy assumptions that somehow our carbon footprints are either someone else’s problem or to be solved by technology. His most impassioned pleas concern flying. Chris believes the key is individual action. Private Companies and the Government cannot act without consumer and voter pressure. We liked Chris waxing lyrical about “self-restraint”. It is an uncomfortable truth that few of us feel able to look in the eye. We lack self-control. On page 22 he writes “Self restraint over consumption is a hugely subversive idea in an economic system which has as its core proposition that greater and greater happiness will follow every increase in our personal incomes and spending.”
Nor is Chris shy about tackling other contentious issues such as carbon offsetting. We liked his level-headed common-sense to these things. He says it how it is and provides a largely ideological-free assessment. If our footprint is 14 tonnes then we must realise that the proportion due to our electrical usage is only 1 tonne per year. Hence decarbonisation of our electrical generation system won’t solve anything unless all the other contributors are factored in. There is 1 tonne from flights and 3 tonnes per year just for embodied carbon in imports and exports. Energy use in the home is barely a quarter of our carbon footprint with 1.2 tonnes in home heating, 0.3 tonnes in hot water heating, 0.1 tonnes from cooking, 0.2 tonnes from lighting and 0.7 tonnes from electrical appliances. Compare that to transport where your car is responsible for 1.2 tonnes per year whilst public transport is only 0.1 tonnes. Air travel accounts for a whopping 1.2 tonnes. Even that seems small fry in comparison to food production that weighs in at 2.1 tonnes. Making cars and consumer electronics together is about 1 tonne. Paper and clothing account for around 1.5 tonnes per person per year. So you could live in an unheated home all year with no lights on and you would hardly dent your carbon footprint unless our industrialised civilisation can address the carbon in our food, in our clothes, in our consumer goods and in our transport sector. Few of us still have any clue as to how difficult this will be. However Chris points out again and again how are personal consumption habits can be changed and, if we all do it, then the revolution will happen all by itself.
This book remains a great rough guide but it often falls down on some of the details. On page 245 he suggests the Feed-in Tariff export payment would be 5p/kWh whereas this was known to be only 3p/kWh long before he updated this new edition. On page 262 Chris writes that wood-burning stoves will “normally be prohibited in the clean air zones of large cities”. He ignores the fact the clean-burn stoves have to be licensed for use in Smoke-Control Zones and that local Environmental Health Officers have the right to permit non-licensed appliances in their zones. So when Chris writes that “Some people, rightly noting the low emissions of their stoves, choose to ignore this rule” you know he is talking rubbish. People choose to use unlicensed appliances in Smoke Control Zones at their own risk. They can be ordered to stop using them. Far easier to get a licensed version and save the bother. None of this is explained by Chris showing that he hasn’t properly researched this area nor sought advice on the topic. In such a sprawling piece of work this may be forgivable but it does undermine our faith in what Chris is trying to do. If we find massive flaws in the areas of our own expertise then what dangers lurk in areas where have taken his word for it?
At this point we also note that Chris has not rectified some of the howling errors from the first edition. Indeed it is ironic that within a handful of pages he can present all the data to refute his own conclusions. He chooses to make certain calculations add up to the numbers he wants. This is hardly objective. Although we can’t tell Chris to write his book by committee we do wish that he would seek some more expert help. In the areas of car transport and home renewables the subjective nature of Chris’s up-front assumptions undermines his work. Using his own numbers for comparing LPG, Diesel and Hybrid cars results in the highest lifetime benefit-per-tonne-carbon for converting to LPG. This doesn’t stop Chris from recommending Diesel because he doesn’t factor in lifetime fuel cost savings.
Chris repeats the mistake in his calculation of the emissions of changing your car for a lower-emissions vehicle. He concludes that selling your car adds a whopping 12 tonnes of carbon in the first year therefore you should keep your car until it falls apart (page 146). This is nonsense. Using his own numbers over the lifetime of the car you realise that the true number is a tiny fraction of this spread over 16 years. As long as you down-size your new vehicle’s emissions by a certain amount then there will be a net fall in emissions. For every new car going into the supply chain (almost) one is being scrapped and recycled out of the other end. We are sure that these sort of ludicrously misleading conclusions will lead many Greens to hold onto their old polluting gas guzzlers for as long as possible to the detriment of the environment. It is unfathomable as to why Chris has chosen to perpetuate this myth. Until he gets his work ‘sanity-checked’ by a wider editorial team I suggest he doesn’t bother with a third edition. These harsh criticisms to one side – we do like what Chris has done. It gives us the broad brush and most of it is common-sense. Certainly every home should have this on their bookshelves.