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.

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.

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