Mike Berners-Lee “How Bad are Bananas?”

ISBN 978 1 84668 891 1. “How Bad are Bananas? – The Carbon Footprint of Everything” by Mike Berners-Lee was published by Profile Books in 2010. This 240 page paperback includes acknowledgements, introduction, ‘quick guide’, eleven main sections, more info, notes, references and index. We have piled through several books like this over the years starting with Chris Goodall’s “How to Live a Low-Carbon Life” and ending recently with “Time To Eat The Dog” by Robert and Brenda Vale. So it is a crowded market. How exactly do you make books about carbon footprinting interesting these days? Berners-Lee’s approach is to divide up our carbon footprints into ranges starting with “Under 10 grams” (starting with a text message) and going, in stages, all the way up to “1 million tonnes and beyond” (includes the footprint of the entire world). One of our key criticisms of the Vale’s book is that it was vastly padded out with way too much detail about the calculations. Mike doesn’t make this mistake as his text talks about footprints in a more qualitative & relative sense. Details are wisely left to the references section at the rear. Where all such books fall down is on their assumptions. It is a minefield and we nearly always find a bizarre assumption or inaccuracy. I am sure if I wrote this book then they would raise the same criticisms of my assumptions.

Thus, we are all human and this human failing shines through in each work like this. (In Goodall’s case he showed his anti-car stance by delivering several questionable opinions about the cost of carbon saved in the area of buying low-carbon transport and converting it to liquid petroleum gas.) A natural bias leads to general ignorance leads to inaccuracy. Berners-Lee does waffle repeatedly about how difficult it is to calculate carbon footprints and describes the various methodologies. It all depends on where you draw the lines as to what is “in” and “out”. Nobody would agree with how to do this but I would argue that we have to use “additionality”, ie, does this activity lead to an additional carbon footprint or should we net off the footprint of the nearest equivalent, ie, the carbon footprint of staying in a hotel room should deduct the footprint of staying at home. If you don’t you are assuming that the only alternative to staying in a hotel is non-existence, ie, death. Surely not? (As an illustration flick to page 153 for the pie-chart of the carbon footprint of a swimming pool. It includes 1.8% for “food and shampoo” plus another 0.1% for “office supplies”.)

“How Bad are Bananas” is occasionally entertaining although some of the comparisons leave you scratching your head. It is full of odd wisdom like “eating cheese for a year is like flying to Madrid” (I made that up but you see my point). This is a minor point in comparison to some of the claims. Berners-Lee describes “green” electricity tariffs as a “swindle” (page 57) and puts a rather negative spin on the concept of a carbon neutral utility. Whereas his point about the Renewable Obligations Certificate is valid (see the section of this web site on the use of ROC to help pay for Solar Panels before the FiT came in here) the rest of his assumptions are dubious. It sends out a dangerous contrarian message to advise anyone NOT to invest their money in a renewables generator. The author delivers a slightly fairer assessment of the relative carbon costs of buying a new & more-efficient small car, to replace an old big car. However I would have put a rather more positive spin on it because your old car doesn’t go to landfill – it is sold on and on getting re-used and re-used until finally it is scrapped and recycled into new cars. The negativity in car-replacement operates in a surreal world where buying a new car makes the old car sit on your driveway turning into rust. That ain’t how the real world operates. Your purchasing decisions – be they for green utilities or for small efficient cars, shape the market and ensure more and more of these type of products are offered. This is how free-market economics work – so get out there and shape the world.

We did like the author’s assessment on page 68 about whether it was worth slowing down in your car to save carbon and money. He did some back-of-the-envelope calculations comparing a motorway journey at 60mph and 70mph and figured out that they cost about the same if you factored in time versus petrol cost. You save carbon but you lose money. It is a difficult choice. If your time is free then go slowly. It makes for an interesting debate and that is what this book delivers. I should be less a carbon-ometer (marketed to super-greenies) and more pub-fact-book to spark debate amongst regular Joes and Jills. In this respect the work of the Robert and Brenda Vale shines through by poking their nose into every area of our lives and asking such controversial questions as “what is the carbon footprint of keeping a large Alsatian dog?”. Berners-Lee doesn’t go that far. Another criticism may be that he travels too narrow a path and comes across the same topic several times. For example he starts with a text message, then goes onto talk about an E:Mail, then a computer, then a Google Search then a Data Centre – however all of these topics are more-or-less facets of the same industry sector. Likewise the author has done a lot of work in the supermarket and food sector so this does crop up time and time again. Along the way you will learn that growing a potato has a lower carbon footprint than cooking it.

It was a surprise to learn just how bad milk is. In fact it is fair to say the author rants and raves against the evils of milk on the basis that the ruminating cows (that produce it) are farting out so much methane. This seems counter-intuitive in a world where we have grown up to accept milk as a universal good. But it makes sense if you think about it. Few of us will. I won’t look at a bowl of cornflakes the same way again. Another delight was the author’s somewhat pro-plastic (bag) point-of-view. Certainly we agreed with him in this area. Plastic bags can be demonised but only if disposed of inappropriately. Once in the general environment they are bad news. However, once in landfill they are so much buried carbon locked away. They are self sequestrating. Interesting thought. Paperbags seem like a good idea but once in landfill they rot producing methane. Again it is how we dispose of these products that become important. It really betrays how inadequate our response to climate change is if we focus solely on the energy sector. We loved eye-opening tit-bits like this. Even-more we liked the skirting of controversy when the author does a rough calculation as to the carbon cost of a human life. Just check out the pie-chart on page 142. Wow. Maybe all economists in Government should start to use this style of “true-cost” accounting. What a world we would live in.

If we could wish for one change to this book it would be to get Berners-Lee to reject the use of economic discounting when calculating the payback on micro-renewables (page 134). I was astonished. It is highly unorthodox given that the payback on microrenewables now is between 10 and 15 years. Economic discounting has really only crept up in terms of really expensive investments over the really longer term – like hundreds of years when we spend £billions. This is the preserve of macro-economics not micro-economics. Read the Stern Report and the work of Bjorn Lomborg to see how this works. Applying a 10% discount to a ten year investment in photovoltaics is simply wrong. I don’t know where the author got this idea from. His other conclusions about the Feed in Tariff in relation to costs per ton of carbon saved are probably correct and in line with the criticisms of George Monbiot. However these purist economic arguments don’t account for either the Realpolitik nor the resilience factors. We simply want our own power stations closer to hand rather than a tree in the Amazon – it doesn’t matter what the price is. Likewise it is hypocrisy for environmentalists to tell us that carbon offsetting is wrong and that we should make carbon savings at home only to turn around and then say those savings are too expensive and we need to spend the money in the Amazon. Obviously we should do both.

About post-carbon-man

A passionate advocate of a peaceful transition to a sustainable political-economy, Mark hails from a working class farming background. Today he is a Company Director and Chairman of the Low Carbon Chilterns Co-operative. Whilst at University (Engineering Masters) he was active in Conservative Student politics but has had no affiliation since. He has travelled widely on business covering the USA, Europe, Middle East and Central Asian Republics. In 2007 Mark founded Post-Carbon-Living and a year later co-founded Transition Town High Wycombe. He lives with is wife & daughter in a home they retrofitted to be carbon-neutral. Today he blogs about surviving politics on a shrinking planet and is passionate in his rejection of Nationalism.

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