The rights of spring

It’s always easy to be gloomy about the environment. Take the rise of greenwash. In this issue we report on a major peat producer launching a questionable carbon label (p 4 ) and the dubious zero carbon claims of the mastic asphalt industry (p 21 ).

But amid the gloom, it is important not to lose sight of good things and real progress. Two examples spring to mind as winter’s end slides into view. First, there was the unusual sight of a government minister condemning an entire industry for its disservices to the environment on prime time television.

Climate change minister Phil Woolas’s target was bottled water. His platform was an edition of BBC 1’s Panorama programme. His point was that there was simply no point to bottled water, no justification for all the energy consumed, waste produced and environmental damage done in manufacturing billions of plastic bottles and lugging them, full of water, around continental motorway networks and into our homes. The vastly cheaper stuff that comes out of the tap, with a much smaller environmental impact, is as good.

The fast-growing bottled water industry, which barely existed 25 years ago, employs tens of thousands of people in the UK. It gives consumers something they clearly want. It is, in conventional terms, a big success story and one this government would ordinarily crow about. Yet bottled water is a complete environmental nonsense, and it is good to hear a minister say so, with courage and in no uncertain terms.

The second ray of sunshine was news that CO2 emissions from home heating have fallen significantly for two years in a row, dropping by some 7% between 2004 and 2006 (see p 8 ), despite growths in population, household numbers and the economy. If the rest of the country went the same way, we would be well on course to cut carbon by 80% by 2050.

Why did it happen? Mild winter weather was partly to blame. The rapid rise in gas and electricity prices since 2004 gave a strong incentive to cut energy use, showing that price signals really can deliver. But at the same time many low income households were pushed back into fuel poverty.

The third reason was that very many homes, mostly occupied by lower income families, have become better insulated recently thanks to government policies on fuel poverty and climate change. This insulation work will grow rapidly under the new Carbon Emissions Reduction Target, although there have been problems in delivering a smooth transition (see p 6 ).

Two years of falling emissions are not a trend and home heating accounts for only 14% of total emissions. So we should not get too excited. Even so, as spring arrives - ever earlier - it’s cheering to note that some things seem to be going well.

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