Last Updated: Thursday, 30 March 2006, 21:59 GMT 22:59 UK
Giving micropower to the people
Countering climate change should begin at home, says Alan Knight in The Green Room this week. A hands-on approach to energy generation, he argues, gives people a sense of empowerment and the impetus to reduce their environmental footprints.
Over the last year, the problems of climate change have loomed larger than ever on the worldwide stage, with a series of extreme weather events from dramatic floods and tropical storms to warnings of thinning Arctic sea ice, swelling temperatures and rising sea levels.
Since 1990, atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations have increased from 354 parts per million to over 380 ppm, and are still growing fast.
At this rate, we're heading towards severe climate change, which would have a devastating impact on the natural world, health and economies.
However, it's not over yet. We create carbon emissions, and we have the power to reduce them; if every household in the world reduced its CO2 ouput, the cumulative effect would be massive.
We need to take practical steps to help people connect with the energy in their homes, and begin to solve the problem at a personal level, instead of just searching for a large-scale techno-fix.
It's about giving people the tools they need to do the job.
We set up the Sustainable Consumption Roundtable - a joint initiative of the Sustainable Development Commission and the National Consumer Council - to advise the UK government on the practical steps it should take to help people reduce their environmental footprint and take control of their energy use.
We'll report our findings next month.
We began our research in October 2005 with a two-day public event in Manchester, which brought together more than 100 people from across the social spectrum.
We found people were deeply concerned about climate change, but felt locked in to the systems around them, and looked to the government to instigate change to help them.
We explored the impact of microgeneration technologies like solar water heating, mini wind turbines and air source heat pumps on people's attitudes to energy use in households and schools.
Electricity calculator It is clear that DIY energy generation rarely leaves people unchanged in their outlook and behaviour. Home-grown energy helps people engage emotionally with their energy use and take back control of their own energy consumption.
On the other hand, people without micro-renewable technologies find it more difficult, if not impossible, to make sense of their energy consumption and energy bills.
One London woman spoke for all when she said: "Electricity, well it comes from that little meter... comes straight in here... I have no idea where it comes in from before that... I've never thought about it."
By contrast, those who acquired small-scale energy technologies as tenants of pioneering social landlords really got to grips with energy issues.
A teenage couple who moved into housing fitted with solar water heating now actively choose to buy energy efficient A-rated appliances and investigate the environmental credentials of washable nappies.
"We felt it was better to work with the house than against the house," they said.
An elderly widow in Kirklees in Scotland, given a new air source heat pump, is experimenting with different settings on her heating control panel to see how she can enjoy warmth at minimum cost.
"I didn't realise before that it was the immersion heater running away with the money," she said. "It's made me more aware of where power is being used in my house."
In schools with small-scale energy technologies, pupils and teachers feel proud of their solar panels or wind turbines, and are inspired to live up to the school's new environmental identity.
On-site renewable energy generation becomes an even bigger motivator when teachers integrate it into the curriculum.
Making the link
As governments all over the world grapple with how to get householders and upcoming generations involved in tackling climate change, our findings hold some important lessons.
The language of "energy efficiency in the home" is currently going over the heads of householders who do not make the links between their TVs, dishwashers and thermostats to their worries about global climate change.
Making energy generation part and parcel of people's homes and schools may hold the key to empowering and engaging energy consumers for the first time.
If so, we cannot afford to leave it to one side in our bid to tackle climate change.
Alan Knight is the co-chair of the UK's Sustainable Consumption Roundtable.
The Green Room is a series of opinion pieces on environmental issues running weekly on the BBC News website
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Published: 2006/03/30 21:59:17 GMT
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