Good Energy

The guys at Good Energy have been really supportive and excited about the expedition, so much so that they have made a contribution which allows me to keep the blog regularly updated during the expedition, so they and everyone else can follow the journey. Good Energy supplies 100% renewable electricity sourced from wind, water, sun and sustainable biomass. CO2 from coal-fired electricity generation is one of the largest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions in the world. Switch your electricity supply to Good Energy using this link and not only will you be supporting the pioneering community of independent green generators, but for every sign up they get they’ll make another donation to help get the bus around the world. It helps you cut your personal CO2 emissions, helps them grow a great business, and helps me get round the world.

Thursday, 30 April 2009

The Canary

This week I met with one of the world's most respected and influential leading scientific experts on Arctic Sea Ice, and I suggested a study which may reveal that the mechanisms causing the shrinking ice extent are not directly linked to rising global temperatures.

It appears that the thickness of new ice, formed since the last summer (First year Ice), may have grown as thick this winter as it ever grows in it's first year. The analysis on this is still being done, but my preliminary look at comparable data seems to suggest it may even be thicker than usual. This would suggest that the factors causing sea ice retreat may be seasonal, and only acting in the summer. In simple terms, the ice grows as much as it always has done in the winter, but in the summer something is causing it to disappear faster. This in turn implies that the ice retreat is not caused (directly) by global rising temperatures, because that's a mechanism which you would expect to find happening all year round, not just in the summer.

The most likely causes of a more rapid summer melt are hydrographic rather than atmospheric. That means currents, which are either bringing warm water into the Arctic Ocean to melt the ice or, currents which are sweeping the older thicker ice southwards where it melts (or most likely a combination of both).

So where have these currents appeared from? Some think they are cyclical currents which appear every 60-80 years. Others suggest they are currents caused by global warming.

If all this turns out to be true, and the scientists concur with the interpretation of the results (hugely unlikely) this will be a phenomenal discovery, that the depletion of the Arctic ocean sea ice is not directly linked to rising global temperatures. Climate change deniers will seize on it, and this will be regurgitated and misrepresented in every debate for the next 5 years until someone publishes a further finding.

There are other explanations for this observation that First Year Ice grows consistently (if indeed it is observed). It seems that this year the sea ice extent will make a slight recovery on last year. This is great news and implies that the decay is not linear (resulting in zero ice conditions in about 4 years) by subject to cyclical factors which could prolong the inevitable zero ice condition for about 30 years. It's also strong evidence against the "tipping point" argument.

Another explanation is that thinner ice grows faster, so regardless of conditions the ice will always tend to a first year thickness of about 1.5m-2m at which point it insulates itself against the cold and further growth.

Even if it turns out that climate change is not directly responsible for the very visible decay of the Arctic Ocean, it doesn't undermine the fact that most scientists agree that the planet is experiencing man made climate change, and that it's effect is accelerating. New positive feedback mechanisms of releasing greenhouse gases are being discovered at an alarming rate, most notably methane release from the arctic seabed as it warms.

Of course I'm pleased that the Arctic Ocean ice may not be as threatened as previously thought, but I'm more concerned that this will be seized on to demotivate efforts to take action on emission reductions.

The real questions are;
how effective will the world's attempts at emission reductions be, and
how bad will the consequences of climate change be on human life.

Answers to follow...

Saturday, 11 April 2009

Zen and the Rust of Carbon Counting.

When you do any kind of mechanical work on a vehicle it becomes a conversation between you, the designers of the vehicle, and other people that have worked on it in the past.

To repair something you have to interrogate the vehicle to understand how it was supposed to work, lots of looking, wiggling and muttering, "why have they done that?" and "why did they do it that way?"

The next step is to come up with a solution that bypasses or replaces the problem. A "fitter", as opposed to a "mechanic", is someone that can diagnose the broken part, remove it and replace it with a new one. That's what you find in modern dealerships.

However when you are in the middle of nowhere and you can't replace it with the a new part, you have to recondition it or fabricate the part, and again you have to have a dialogue with the designer by looking at the vehicle and asking what does this part really do, why has it failed and how can I make sure my home made part will work properly and last as long as possible.

This conversation happens in an internationally spoken language that transcends borders. But confusion arises from someone who has bodged a repair in the past that hides the original design. It's like another mechanic talking over the designer.

In truth, anything short of replacing the part with manufacturers spares is a bodge. Every other solution is a compromise constrained by time, tools, know how and materials, but some bodges are better than the original design. The true measure of how good the repair is, is how long it lasts compared with how long you expect it to last.

In Namibia I tied up a cracked leaf spring with a bit of nylon cord. It was the key leaf that was cracked, so effectively the front axle was held on the car with a piece of string. By rights it shouldn't have lasted long, but actually we clocked up over 1000km until we found another leaf to replace it. In absolute terms using string to hold your wheels on is terrible bodge, but in practice it was a great bodge because it worked well and lasted longer than expected.

The bus body was custom made by coach builders so there are no original replacement parts, everything has to be redesigned and fabricated from scratch. The front wheel arches on the bus are repaired now, and we've used 2 small sheets of steel, about 8 grinding wheels, and a reel of welding wire.

The energy costs of the repair and the materials are obviously a lot less than producing a new bus, but how does it fit into my 2 tonne budget? Well, I'm hoping I can cover some of carbon costs with savings from the indirect effects of my actions.

The bus was destined for the scrap yard, so the indirect consequence of my activity (a phrase which will no doubt make regular appearances on this blog) is to save it from being broken up and crushed. That would have taken up a lot of energy, and it might have created the demand for one more new bus so preventing that is good. On the negative side it also would have provided some second hand Merc parts, which might have prevented the demand for new parts being manufactured.

Like ripples in a pond, indirect effects radiate out forever but are almost impossible to predict accurately. There are lots of 709D parts in commercial breakers so I'd say its a safe bet that supply for second hand parts outweighs demand and always will, so not scrapping this bus won't create a demand for new parts.

To quantify my indirect effects, I need to compare them to a reference point (aka base case). Indirect effects are all relative; any actions trigger either more or less indirect emissions compared to what would have happened if I'd chosen a different set of actions. If I choose a set of actions that cause less emissions, that's a saving which I am responsible for so I can add it to my 2 tonnes annual budget.

The problem with this is that other people might be out there indirectly saving the same emissions and they may be more responsible for the saving than me, so actually I can't really be sure that I'm responsible for the saving and so I can't really add the saving to my budget with total certainty.

That leaves me with 2 options, either ignore indirect effects completely when carbon counting, or factor in some sort of uncertainty percentage for the savings and costs, so for instance I only get say 30% of the indirect savings I make and only have to pay out 30% for the indirect carbon costs.

How do you chose the percentage? Well by this stage it's all so woolly you might as well pick a number at random. No wonder no one trusts carbon offsetting any more.

There's a lot to be said for ignoring indirect effects. The primary benefit is that it forces the owner of the indirect emissions to be responsible for them. Biofuels have been criticised because of the indirect effect of sustainably grown agrofuels. The argument goes like this; even if the oil is produced in a sustainable way, it creates a demand for whatever was being grown on that land before and that demand is met by another farmer who invariably isn't growing it in a sustainable way.

I don't jump to the defence of the biofuel industry for the sake of it, but it does strike me that the second farmer is to blame here, not the biofuel farmer. By including indirect effects, the biofuel farmer takes the blame for the other farmer. But by ignoring them, the blame points to the unsustainable farmer, which seems fairer because the problem is not agrofuels, but agriculture. The counter point is that there isn't enough land left for the other farmer to do anything but unsustainable farming so that leaves us all a bit paralysed.

Except not in my case, because there are enough scrap yard buses to meet global demand.

So after all this I think the fairest way for me to count my carbon is to do the following:

I'll be responsible for 30% of the indirect costs and savings, unless it's indisputably clear that there is no other third party involved in which case I'll be responsible for it all. I've chosen 30% because I personally feel that the principle of ignoring indirect effects has merit in about 70% of cases.

I'm making the repairs to the bus in such a way that they should be good for at least 3 years. This bus lasted 18 years before I rescued it, so I'm claiming back 1/6th of the carbon cost of manufacturing it against the refit, because by recycling it I'm eliminating the demand for a 3 years-worth of a new bus.

I also think it's fair to spread the carbon costs and savings of the refit over 3 years.

Now I have to find out the carbon cost of a grinding disk, a 1991 mercedes bus, and how much energy the welder uses and hope my bodges last longer than expected.

Saturday, 4 April 2009


I just watched the last episode of Michael Smith’s Drivetime, on BBC4. I loved the whole series but the last episode in particular really struck a chord. Michael really captures the emotional rollercoaster of hitching, and the joy of being on the road and journeying.

I also love his disdain for the language of corporate “solutions”, and the way the word rolls out of his accent with such contempt. Catch the whole series while it’s on the BBC Iplayer.

Bankrupt Stock

Tut, roll your eyes to the sky, shrug and sigh with me “the credit crunch”.

Two, yes TWO, of the companies that had agreed to support the expedition have gone into liquidation since Christmas, despite both being companies at the sharp end of the “green economy”.

One in particular has gone down the pan because of Boris Johnson’s decision to scrap the Low Emission Zone for smaller vans.

Obama’s talking about an economic renaissance driven by green businesses. And I heard Zac Goldsmith presenting the same argument at the New Energy Awards, but I don’t see how this is playing out in practice, with practical initiatives.

I can’t post more details about the companies because in both cases my contacts there have promised to try to sneak out the bits I need before the liquidator gets to do a stock check.

Please note; these bankruptcies are no reflection of the benefits available to sponsors supporting the expedition. In fact to find out about the massive exposure, visibility, brand association and sponsorship activation programme sponsors can expect from Mission:Emissions Expedition, contact me today.


Every time I see the word “eco” used as a prefix, I brace myself with the thought that it's going to be utter crap. A lot of the time it is too. For instance I have regularly been described as an “eco-adventurer”.

When it’s used to describe products “Eco” tends to mean this version is less damaging than the non-eco one. I always jump to the assumption that the non-eco one must therefore be shamefully bad, and the Eco one can at best boast that it’s not as horrific.

The other thing that annoys me about the Eco prefix is when it’s used as a catch-all simplistic way of summing up complicated issues and totally blurring them in the process. For instance, an “Eco-Coal Fired power station” doesn’t produce harmful spent uranium rods. It’s a trite example but the point is that while some aspects of the eco-solution might be great, the prefix often ignores a whole realm of un-eco facets.

“Harmful” is another one. When I worked as a tour guide and I didn’t know the date of some battle or church I’d say it was from the olden days. It was a very effective fudge. Harmful how? Is it one of the harms we should be worried about, or is one of the trivial harms we can live with.

Anyway, I guess the fact that I’ve got to get back to working on my “Eco-Bus”, makes me an Eco-hypocrite, so far less harmful than a normal hypocrite.


I have this recurring thought when I get pulled up by a traffic light just as it changes. If I went through that light, there would be one less car in the queue at that light, and one less engine idling away. If the traffic is so bad that there is a perpetual queue at that traffic light, there will be one more engine idling at that light all day because the traffic queue will always have one extra car in it, until the queue at that light drops to zero.

I’m not saying I should run the light, but each time I hold up traffic at a busy junction it’s equivalent to leaving yet another engine idling all day.

Also I was thinking that more polluting cars, and Lorries should get right of way so they can get to where they are going and switch their engines off sooner.

Perversely this thought experiment means I should buy a Hummer to have the moral right of way.


I’m really interested in the psychological justifications we all come up to justify behaviour we think is not sustainable. I’ve got energy saving bulbs which means I am less likely to run upstairs to turn one off now. I never remember to unplug the mobile phone charger, though I’m quite good about turning the telly off standby. It all feels like my personal actions have such a trivial impact, but none the less I dwell on the “good” things I do using them to forgive myself the “bad” things.

The premise of this journey is that to make an impact everyone on the planet will have to change their behaviour. But short of holding your breath in a cold dark room, it’s hard to do anything that doesn’t emit greenhouse gasses.

I was at a conference with Nick Stern last month and he explained the logic behind needing an 80% cut in emissions. I can’t picture how my personal life either as a rufty-tufty expedition leader, or as a London suburban commuter, looks when it’s constrained to just 20% of its emissions. Being smug about buying UK grown food in the supermarket isn’t going to cover it, let alone make up for my flight to Perugia to speak at a conference. And I don’t think I can sit back and expect Business or Government to provide solutions that do it all for me.

For the population (global and national) to make the sort of dramatic changes needed, people businesses and government have to motivated by having their lives made considerably easier when they behave sustainably compared with when they don’t. In practice this means either financial or regulatory encouragement.

There are no easy fixes, or we’d be doing them already. Education campaigns are great but they only change the behaviour the educated and the wealthy (how is someone that lives on a dollar a day going to cut their carbon footprint by 80%), and I even then only partly. It’s no good the yummy mummies of Clapham recycling yogurt pots to mentally justify their Chelsea tractor for the school run.

At the moment the debate seems to be culturally stagnating into a bit of which hunt. I’m going to try to use this blog to fess up to my personal hypocrisies, not because I want to provide an environment where hypocrisy is acceptable, but because keeping problems a secret, means you can’t solve them (just like the rust on my truck).

There’s something quite empowering about confessionals. Anyone out there want to confess, wipe the slate clean and start again?


As some of you know I am working as for the Catlin Arctic Survey and I have a responsibility to coordinate the scientific use of the data collected by the team.

So I was incensed by this blog entry, so rammed with misrepresentation and unchecked “facts”. Anyway now that I have a Blog too, I thought I’d put it to good use by venting about this muppet. It’s astounding an intelligent man can get it so wrong. I am referring to the editor of the Telegraph that publishes the crap that Booker writes, full of half-researched inaccuracies. He’s a great example of a writer that stops looking critically when they get to a snippet of information that suits their argument. That’s what separates bigotry (masquerading under the badge of “a polemic”) from journalism Christopher. How do you get space in the newspaper?

You get bigots on both side of the climate change debate, but really it’s not much of debate these days. Scientifically, climate change is so widely accepted the debate is now about how fast and how bad is climate change going to be for humankind, and what if anything can we do about it. I don’t have anything against Booker personally; I’d give any pompous moron the same contempt. And I did find this which made me laugh.

To be clear, the views expressed here are my own (it’s a blog) and do not represent the position of the Catlin Arctic Survey (CAS). I did suggest getting a dartboard for the office I could pin his picture too and it was rejected as it would be hard to justify it as a business expense. (For legal purposes I should point out, that was a joke and I have never discussed dartboards, darts or any pointed projectile with any members of the CAS team. Your home is at risk if you liable someone, even on a blog Christopher.)

Blue Peter Badge

I’ve been wearing my Blue Peter Badge in bed. Sod it. If you had just been awarded a Blue Peter badge, you’d be wearing it in bed too. I was trying to explain what it means to Belgian friends, and the best explanation is that it’s like an award from the queen, or an honorary degree from the University of Life. OK I’m overstating it a little bit, but it’s still a big deal. The last time I was given a badge I was in the cub scouts.

Last week I got a call from Nikki at the BBC who was organising a race across London for the presenters of the 50 year old kids TV programme and asked me to help with my veg powered rally car. To my surprise (based on a long love-hate personal history with the BBC), Nikki turned out to be really lovely, very genuine and professional (and really cute too).

To start with, Helen, the presenter I was helping, and I had to scavenge some grease from restaurants along Wanstead high Street, while Andy, another presenter, had to find somewhere to charge up his electric car, before we raced across London to the BBC.

It was a really close call with only 4 car lengths in it at the finishing line, and we had a sprint finish into the Blue Peter garden, but importantly Helen and I won!!! The programme goes out on the 14th of April on BBC1. Watch out for my wonder-woman spin.