How I became green

Ever since my history teacher explained about global warming I knew we were in trouble. But it was too depressing to worry about. What could I do about global warming, pollution and the preservation of the countryside? Like most people, I assumed there was nothing I could do; I put the issue to the back of my mind, went traveling and got on with my life.

More than 20 years have passed since then and the same environmental problems my history teacher had described in such detail are now universally recognized as one of mankind’s greatest challenges. Following the publication of two landmark reports which have confirmed the existence of climate change (in the face of a well-funded denial lobby) it seems that all parties now agree that “something must be done”. At their recent summit in Berlin, all 27 EU member states committed to reducing carbon emissions by 20 per cent by 2020 – a much more ambitious target than the Kyoto Treaty’s miserly 5 per cent target. If this target is taken seriously, and is not torpedoed by industrial lobby groups, it could change the way we live our lives.

Angela Merkel, Germany’s Chancellor and the host of the Berlin Summit, received glowingly positive media coverage for her strong line on global warming. And the fact that all 27 countries signed up for this 20 per cent reduction was seriously impressive. But this target was agreed between politicians who will no doubt take a “top down” approach by instructing industry to cut their emissions – and if this has no real popular backing it will result in endless negotiations, delays and compromises. Already the German car industry are lobbying the chancellor and saying “jobs will be lost”. Taking a top down approach doesn’t really address the problem – which is you and me, and our need for more heat, power, speed and comfort. We are the problem and we must find a solution by taking responsibility and changing our behaviour.

What Angela Merkel should have done at the Berlin summit is talk directly to the citizens of the EU. Rather than address her political colleagues, the press, environmentalists and industrial spokesmen – the “interest groups” – she should have spoken to us. Only a groundswell of public opinion will force industry and government to take real action. Although this is now happening in the UK where the public are quite aware and the big supermarkets are the latest group to have just gone green, the average Romanian isn’t aware that his behaviour can have an impact on global warming.

Merkel could have got onto the public radio and given a speech. She could have said something like this: “Every year we pump billions of tons of carbon into the atmosphere and, as a result, temperatures are rising dramatically. Our winters are warmer, our summers hotter and the number of storms and floods is unprecedented. And this is just the beginning. If the polar ice sheets melt completely the level of sea water will rise so much that all coastal cities will be flooded. But if we all face up to this problem, and if we all make some sacrifices, we can prevent a problem becoming a catastrophe. But all of us need to act: all of us need to cut our consumption of fuel and electricity; and I ask for your support in persuading industry to do the same.”

TWO years ago I was working in northeast Romania and I needed a car. I decided to go Japanese. I think their vehicles are the most reliable, technologically advanced and they also look good. When I was looking at cars my criteria was speed: I wanted something that could overtake everything on the road, compete with the German machines, get around the country without being held back by traffic. I was intrigued and tempted by the raw power of the Subaru, with its sublime Boxer engine, but opted for a Honda Accord, a good family saloon which also goes fast.

But getting a car – even a technically perfect Japanese one – didn’t solve my transport problems. I lacked the suicidal tendencies needed to drive at high speeds and often my two small children were in the back, immediately removing all incentives for going fast. As we all know, the number of cars in Romania is increasing rapidly – far quicker than the government’s farce of a road building programme – and the lines of cars waiting increases everywhere.

So I got a bike. When it comes to getting round Bucharest nothing can beat the bicycle, and there is nothing more enjoyable than cruising through a scrum of cars which have been immobilized at a junction, seeing all those people literally stuck in their boxes, many of whom seem so attached to their cars they are unable to consider using alternatives. People in Romania are very sceptical about cycling. “You must be very brave,” say some. They can’t understand how it can be safe to cycle – but it is, and the more gridlocked this city becomes the safer cycling will become.

Increasingly frustrated with driving in Romania I started taking my fold-up bike on the train, and I soon realised it was the best way to get around the country. Distant cities like Suceava, Timisoara, Iasi and Baia Mare are served by comfortable sleeper trains: I would leave Bucharest late at night (after a full days work) and arrive early in the morning. I even took my bike on the overnight train to Belgrade. Sleeper trains seem the ideal way to travel – you cover long distances and sleep at the same time – and I’m surprised that more people don’t travel like this.

By 2006 I had developed the best ways of getting around in Romania: bike, train, metro and bus. Impatience at Bucharest’s impossible traffic had obliged me to find alternatives, and when I realised how efficient the bike is, and how healthy I started to feel, I was further encouraged. The only downside is that people tend to sneer and laugh, but that is a small price to pay for the freedom of the road.

It was only later that I started thinking about the environmental aspects of my choice of transport. I had been motivated by the need to find the most effective way of getting around and I wasn’t really aware that in doing so I was also reducing my own contribution of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. A tiny and irrelevant saving indeed, but one has to start somewhere. What I found particularly interesting was that the best way of getting around is also the most environmentally friendly. In my experience the humble bike and the old fashioned train puts the mighty car to shame.

By the end of 2006 I was feeling quite pleased with myself when it came to transport. When it came to getting round town fast, I had it figured out – and I was making a small contribution to saving the planet. But then I met my brother, Magnus, who had been working in the Maldives Islands on a post-Tsunami aid programme. Magnus was rapidly going green. Listening to him was fascinating; he talked about a plan he worked on with BP-Tata India to provide all Maldivian islanders with solar panels, with the potential of helping them cut their dependency on diesel generators and become the first carbon-neutral Asian country; he talked about how bad flying was in terms of carbon emissions, and that on his last flight he had seen An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore’s seminal film about global warming.

I ran into Magnus a few months ago and I was all ears. A student of environment and energy studies at the Centre for Environmental Technology in Wales, he sends me all sorts of interesting information about how oil is running out (the “Peak Oil” theory), about how much energy those alternative light bulbs save, and the German “Passivhaus” which is so well insulated that it doesn’t need normal heating and can maintain a constant 20 degrees centigrade in the coldest German winter.

When it came to discussing transport I realised that I had a useful card to play; my use of the bike and train. Like most people with a family, Magnus still considered the car as the optimum way of getting around. Suddenly the boot was on the other foot and I could give him a lecture about something. But I thought he was overdoing it somewhat when he beat himself up about flying. Surely going by plane was similar to getting the bus – which is considered environmentally friendly by the greens.

Although I have always been interested in this issue, I do find it difficult to relate to environmentalists. They tend to be so committed to the eco cause that they tend to come across as extremists. The language of environmentalism is very technical, partly because a complex scientific debate about global warming (is it really happening?) has been raging for over ten years – and most of us are excluded from the debate as we lack the basic scientific credentials.

It is a gross generalisation to say that all environmentalists are bearded freaks or extremists, but I must say that those I have met do seem to come across with a passion and intensity that I find hard to take. But things are changing and more reasonable spokespersons are emerging. Al Gore is a mellow character who is as far from being a bearded extremist as one could imagine. His film An Inconvenient Truth has had a huge impact in the United States (the world’s biggest global warmer) and it won this year’s Oscar for best documentary. It has also propelled him from political obscurity to figure in Democrats’ voting lists for their upcoming primaries. This man may yet be President – if he chooses to run – possibly resulting in the greening of America.

If the US has Al Gore as its “reasonable environmentalist”, Britain has George Monbiot, a journalist for the Guardian and one of the most convincing writers on this issue. My brother gave me a copy of Monbiot’s latest book – HEAT: How to Stop the Planet Burning – and it is a revelation. Heat is an appeal to cut our carbon emissions by 90 per cent, and it describes what ordinary people – as well as governments – need to do in order to achieve this target. Monbiot critically examines the alternative energy solutions, the most promising of which are sea-based wind farms and “solar thermal” power stations, which can heat water up to 400 degrees centigrade and drive turbines).

Two of the big causes of global warming are transport and the generation of electricity – largely driven by our tendency to consume as much as we can afford. Most people are aware that driving is bad for the environment but there is far less awareness when it comes to how much energy our houses consume. Not only do we lose most of the heat we generate through poor insulation, and wasteful boilers, but we use lots of electrical energy simply by leaving our gadgets on standby. Plasma screen televisions, for example, use five times more energy than an ordinary set – as do everyday incandescent light bulbs compared to the new “eco” bulbs.

The pattern is clear: our transport habits lead to huge consumption of fuel and the way we consume energy at home sucks up massive amounts of electricity – which is generated by coal and gas powered furnaces that contribute heavily to global warming. Although we could change all this by simply using less fuel and energy, and travelling less, a massive change in attitude and behaviour is first required by the public and by government. If this change of attitude were to happen these energy efficiency measures would be implemented very quickly indeed. But changing attitudes is a very tough prospect and there doesn’t seem to be a government anywhere on this planet which has the courage to stand up in front of its people and industry and say: “Stop! Enough is enough. You must consume less energy.”

I was also in for a personal shock from Heat. Up to half way into the book I had managed to maintain the illusion that my own behaviour was exempt from this, that my own attitudes and habits were part of the solution. I was in for a rude shock: not only do I now realise that my boiler is very much part of the problem, and that I must get one of those new “condensing” boilers which re-uses much of the gases which have been burned, but I was confronted by the aeroplane argument again – and this time I couldn’t ignore it. Monbiot says that any carbon savings made by individuals are wiped out “ten thousand times over” when you use a plane. Apparently one return flight across the Atlantic contributes more than one ton of carbon to the atmosphere – per passenger. I flew over 20,000 air miles last year and I need to cut this by 90 per cent if I am to be personally serious about this issue.

Monbiot sums up the challenges involved with these words: “The campaign against climate change is an odd one. Unlike almost all the public protests which have preceded it, it is a campaign not for abundance but for austerity. It is a campaign not for more freedom but for less. Strangest of all it is a campaign not just against other people but against ourselves”

It would be easy to pour scorn on the Romanian government for their lack of effective policies when it comes to transport or energy efficiency, for the weakness of the Garda de Mediu (eng: Environment Protection Agency) who apparently just take bribes from polluting factories rather than force them to make improvements, about the lack of public awareness, about the outrageous amount of heat and power that is consumed by Ceausescu’s absurd Casa Poporului.

But it would also be unfair to be too critical of Romania. After all, it is a poor country and all poor countries pollute a lot less than the rich ones simply because people living in poverty consume a lot less energy (this in itself presents environmentalists with a conundrum: should they be kept in poverty in order to keep carbon emissions down?)

There is something almost appealing about Romania’s incompetence on this issue when compared to the hypocrisy of countries like Britain. At the recent EU summit when the 20 per cent carbon reduction target was announced, Tony Blair managed to present himself alongside Angela Merkel as one of the champions of the new EU environmental targets. At the same time as the EU summit, George Monbiot presented an investigative documentary on Britain’s Channel 4 in which he said “an audit of the government’s planned carbon cuts show they will achieve only half of what is claimed.”

In the UK there is a “green arms race” going on between the Labour and Conservative parties over the moral high ground on environmental policy, which the Conservatives seem to be winning. Not only is their leader, David Cameron, genuinely green, but Labour are being exposed as hypocrites. Gordon Brown is planning a massive expansion of Britain’s airports – potentially eliminating any carbon savings made in other areas – and they continue to exclude the shipping and aviation industries from all carbon emission targets, even though these two industries contribute hugely to the problem.

In Romania there is no political battle going on about environmental policy. The only place where political capital can be made out of this issue is at the EU level, and Romania will merrily agree to whatever is proposed (especially if the current government don’t have to implement). The issue isn’t taken seriously by the media and in the education system “environmental science” is so complex that the last thing students learn is that there are such things as simple solutions.

One of the features of a country emerging from poverty is that people want to consume as much as they can afford. For someone who has never owned a car and never had control over his own heating system, the temptation to turn up the heat and drive everywhere is overwhelming. And it can be assumed that this person would only have the dimmest understanding of global warming – something that is not yet taught in Romanian schools or presented continually in the media.

Romanians also tend to associate eco-friendly solutions like bicycles and trains with their grim communist past. If you ask a middle class Romanian about the train he will tell you about how awful it was under communism, and may well confess to never having used it since he got a car. If you ask him about bicycles, he will invariably think of peasant villagers getting about on the only form of transport they can afford.

Although Romania was a big industrial polluter under communism they did have some practises which would now be considered environmentally friendly – such as district heating systems and sustainable forest management. Unfortunately all of these factors have been discredited by their association with poverty, inefficiency and communism and it will be difficult to encourage a move back to these systems.

The horse and cart is an intriguing symbol in this context. To a Romanian the horse and cart represents ignorance, dirt and backwardness and since EU accession it has been made illegal for horses to use public roads. To a foreigner the horse and cart is a delight; a form of transport that disappeared generations ago in the west; an essential ingredient for eco tourism; an environmentally friendly form of transport which may – if the oil actually does run out – become a very valuable asset in the future.

This article was also published in Vivid magazine.

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