Archive for the 'fuel' Category

climate change, fuel, travel

“The plane will go anyway”

I choose not to fly as much as possible. People don’t like to hear this, because they can already feel a potential judgment coming of their own actions or choices. But let me explain why first.

It’s not because I’m scared or because I don’t like looking at the clouds from above (in fact I do): it is just unfortunately the case that flying by air is just an incredibly quick way to blow all of the good karma you built up by cycling and reusing plastic bags. After space travel and splitting the atom it’s probably the fastest way you could burn fuel and create pollution. You’d have to cross the Atlantic by jet ski in order to be more environmentally unfriendly.

Everywhere I go however (by bus, boat and train) from Toronto to Mexico, from La Paz to Rio de Janeiro, I hear the exact same words, from different people, repeated with eeiree similarity: “But the plane will be going anyway. So why not be on it?”.

It’s fascinating to me that humans can trick ourselves with statements such as this when we know it would be morally reprehensible to respond to “look, we’re gonna gang-rape this girl anyway, so you might as well join in”. Continue Reading »

climate change, fuel, society, travel, USA

4 tuktuks, 3 airplanes and a Mississippi steamboat – my Carbon Footprint in 2010

I’ve done a lot of travelling in 2010. Namely across the Atlantic, looping around the USA, into the Caribbean and travelling down Central America as far as Nicaragua. So naturally I’m concerned about what the cost is to our shared natural environment of all my wanderings. From the outset I’ve tried to travel as environmentally friendly as possible, which informed my decision to travel across the Atlantic by ship

Even so, my travelling must have had a big impact on the environment that we all have a stake in, and over the New Year I’ve been trying to figure out to my satisfaction what that might be, and how good an idea (for everybody else and our shared global environment) me travelling around having a good time is.

To give you an idea of why I think this is important, have a look at my recent article that details how the world’s politicians have failed us when it comes to combatting climate change, and how we are, unfortunately to say the least, heading for an all-out global catastrophe.

I’ve worked out a very approximate answer in terms of a “carbon footprint”, measured in metric tonnes of carbon dioxide (* see note 1).

But rather than first list a bunch of figures I want to look back on exactly how far I’ve come, compare that to my “carbon budget”, and consider the choices I made and what I got out of it.

I arrived in New York City at the beginning of January on a ship from Southampton, England. After visiting Philadelphia, Boston, Washington D.C., Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal by long-distance bus and train, in April I moved to Chicago (by train) and spent 3 nice weeks there. I then hired a car (a hybrid electric Toyota Prius) and drove 5000 miles across the West through Seattle and down through Portland and Eugene to San Francisco, where I left the car.

13 000 miles around the USA

13 000 miles around the USA

I then got a train to L.A., took a campervan around wine country for a few days, and then took a 3-night train ride to New Orleans (these are big distances…). I then took bus and car (with my parents) to Florida, and then finally visited New York City by train again very briefly for the 4th of July before returning by train to Florida. Up against my visa time limit, I flew out of the country to Nassau, The Bahamas, where I stayed for a month and a half. I then flew (there is no other option) to Cuba, and then from Cuba to Cancun (the closest exit). I only took buses after that.

Just taking the carbon cost of the first 6 months in the USA, the obvious big costs are the ship to the Americas, the private car road-trip across the West, the campervan (surprisingly bad) and the flight out of the country. The ship accounts for a huge 1816.1kg of CO2 (nearly two tonnes… although I calculated at the time, marginally less than a transatlantic flight (* see note 2). Continue Reading »

fuel, politics, USA

Oil disaster in the Gulf – a failure of government

I’ve been in New Orleans and Florida the last few weeks and there is genuine anger that the oil disaster in the gulf is still going on. The government, and the corporations responsible for building, operating and mitigating the disastrous impact of the drilling operation have all been fairly useless in doing anything real about it. And everybody knows it.

My friends Stella and Mitch in New Orleans were kind enough to let me video them briefly about their perspective. They give heartfelt testimony to just how important this stuff is, and how hugely it is affecting the tourism, fishing and oil industries in Louisiana and further afield that are the mainstay of most people’s livelihoods.

Needless to say, BP has come in for an awful lot of stick. Signs attached to New Orleans lamp-posts insult BP. I saw a woman dancing with her partner at a Zydeco music festival sporting an “FU BP” poster pinned to her back. But the shocking thing to me is not that a multinational corporation should externalise its costs and risks, and screw people and the environment in the process. It has been the almost utter inability of the US government to do anything effective about it.

Yet many people – on the left and right of the political spectrum – have fallen into what I see as a trap of blaming BP, as if BP is a “bad apple” and all other oil corporations are fine, a piece of “framing” that hides the larger systematic issues and abuses. Certainly the right-wing old fogies here in Florida are clinging to this narrative: “BP is some corrupt British corporation, coming over here and colonising American resources. Corporations in general (including and especially American corporations) are OK; it is this errant and colonialist, elitist, distant British corporation – operated by some posh English dude – that is purely at fault”. While BP are obviously guilty of massive and criminal negligence, to understand the situation blame must be levelled at the other corporations involved, at the federal regulator (which Obama has now taken to task because it was hand-in-glove with the oil industry), and at the federal government itself. But moreover, America’s laws and political culture are exacerbating the situation: the government is hamstrung (partly legally) from effectively responding to the crisis because it is not an act of God but the actions of a corporation, for which they are legally responsible. The federal government has not been able to (and/or willing to) step in and mitigate the situation in the way they morally should have. Republicans, for all their rhetoric, have only made the situation worse and prolonged the crisis.

Last week’s decision by a federal judge to overturn the Obama-administration imposed moratorium on drilling just shows how uncaring the Republicans are about the real issues involved, and how much they have bought into (and are propagating) the shallow “bad apple” frame, without looking at the obvious danger of this happening again. Judge Martin Feldman’s decision also, of course, shows up the blatant and chilling partisanship of the US judicial system.

As it happens, and as my friend Mitch from New Orleans mentions in his video, the moratorium is an imperfect solution that itself is damaging ordinary people’s livelihoods. But when a federal judge and the corporations responsible for criminal negligence are singing from the same hymn sheet, I get the chills.

So for me the issue is far FAR bigger than “is BP a bad apple?”. The frame needs to be: oil exploitation is inherently suicidal, all these corporations are out to screw over people and the environment and animals for a quick profit, American political culture is actually set up to HELP them do that and not to prevent or mitigate the likely disastrous results, and there needs to be a wholesale reform of not only energy policy but a culture and legal structure of corporate welfare that goes to the heart of what America is today.

fuel, travel

Travelling by ocean liner – a green alternative…?

written 9th Jan

For the last few days I’ve been enjoying the luxuries of the Cunard White Star Line ocean liner “Queen Victoria“, as it makes its way across the North Atlantic from Southampton England to New York. We’re currently just entering the shipping lanes of the East coast of America, above the island of Nantucket, and I’m watching the container ships gather on the horizon from the luxury “Commodore Lounge” at the top of the ship. I say luxury because I’ve sadly found that these cruise liners aren’t really built for travelling across oceans: they’re built for “cruising”. By and large, my fellow guests are retired, well-off and in couples; whereas I am a single young man: one of only two that I have met on board. Most guests seemed to have “cruised” before – one retired English couple blaisely spoke to me about their 10th world cruise. Clearly I have very different motivations from almost everyone on board: my motivation has been Slow Travel and minimising the damaging greenhouse gas emissions that flying to New York would have caused. My young friend – a philosophy lecturer in his late 30s – shares my motivation about slow travel, but his main motivation is fear of flying. Unfortunately, because of the social scene these cruises don’t seem to lend themselves to be enjoyed by youngsters (under 50). And, perhaps because the motivation for most guests is not to ease pressure on our shared global environment, the effect is not particularly environmentally friendly either.

Personally I could do without the grand “Royal Court Theatre” that occupies the forward parts of decks one to three. And as much as I’ve personally welcomed the small onboard gym I could probably manage with just the one swimming pool (not three). But with a casino, a ballroom, a disco, four restaurants and many more cafes and bars, the Queen Victoria sets itself up to be a high “consumer” of energy and resources.

In fact, before booking the journey I was pained to find that ocean liners typically use 120 kWh of energy for every “100 passenger kilometres”. That’s in fact more than an Boing 747 airliner, at – depending on fullness – between 30 and 53 kwH per 100 passenger kilometres [according to David MacKay’s very useful “Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air” (p.128)]).

By Cunard’s own calculations the ship emits about 0.53070307 kg of CO2 per passenger mile. Multiplied by what I estimate as a rough distance for the trip of 3422 miles, that is a total of 1816.1 kg of CO2. That is alot of CO2, whichever way you look at it; more than most people in the world are responsible for in a year.
By contrast according to the calculator at Choose Climate the same distance by plane would create only 650kg of CO2. So, what on earth am I, as a green, doing taking a form of transport that emits more CO2 than a plane…?? The answer is two-fold: the first is that the plane’s CO2 emissions are not the whole story. We know these days that due to the total warming effect of CO2 plus H2O (contrails) plus Nitrous Dioxide in the upper atmosphere, the damage from an aeroplane at 40 000 feet is effectively tripled, so that the original 209 kg of fuel which burns with twice the amount of oxygen to create 650 kg CO2… creates 1949 kg of CO2-equivalent warming effect, delivered direct to the upper atmosphere, where it does instant damage.

So already, with this amendment, even the ship’s vast CO2 emissions per passenger just narrowly beat the plane’s.

The Queen Victoria's extravagance is a barrier to mainstreaming ocean travel

Secondly, however, I wanted to travel by sea for a different reason: I was simply damned if I was going to fly.
Apart from anything else, if there is no viable alternative to taking the plane, where is the consumer choice in that, and what does that say about our society’s one-track version of progress? It seemed obvious to me that surface travel by ship should be less environmentally-damaging than air travel, and when I was unable to find a suitable passenger-carrying container-ship, I turned to ocean liners as the next most environmentally-friendly way to get across the Atlantic (needless to say, if I had been able to find a container ship on which to travel then the environmental impact of my presence on board it would have been truly negligible, as MacKay’s book discusses).
Aside from the aesthetic slow travel aspect (which has been wonderful), the high figure of the ship emitting 1816.1kg of CO2 on my behalf on the journey also accounts for my being put up in 4 star hotel luxury for seven days with a la carte meals three times a day (it’s a battle to get out of the restaurant at any point during the day and do something to work off the calories), entertainment, shops, and a support team of 1000 staff (one for every two guests).
Herein lies part of the hope I feel for ocean travel as a (more) sustainable alternative than plane travel. Plane staff could barely be pared back. But (labour considerations aside) downscaling a ship’s staff complement/guest experience by a third would reduce the experience to a mere 3 star luxury, which would be quite enough for me. Because the Queen Victoria with all its luxury already manages a lower overall level of climate-damage than an aeroplane, just think what could be achieved by trading in some of the luxury and adding some more environmentally-inclined processes to the ship’s layout and systems. A ship that was truly designed for moving people across oceans rather than being a floating hotel for well-off retireees could I’m sure give the aeroplane a run for its money in terms of environmental credentials. With the right investment and market conditions, a new era of ocean-going travel could provide a viable and more-environmentally-friendly alternative to transatlantic flights.

And lower prices might allow a greater diversity of people to enjoy the experience of slower, more environmentally friendly travel.


Max gets converted to LPG

Max with T25 friends

Max arrives at Gasure in Chester

In December 2008 I got my 1977 VW Type 2 Bay Window campervan “Max” converted to run additionally on Liquified Petroleum Gas (as well as petrol). Hurray! Below are some pics of the process, done by Gasure in Chester; in general, even around £1000, it was well worth the money!

Even at 5,000 miles a year, Max would make that money back in petrol savings in well under 2 years, possibly in 1 year (even with a disgraceful 15 MPG), with the price of LPG (less than 50p a litre) now often half of that of petrol. There is an excellent calculator at LPG is not quite as efficient as petrol because it has a lower energy density, and this calculation includes a typical 20% MPG loss.

They say wear and tear on the engine is less, too. In fact this FEELS the case, just driving along.  Apparently my oil will also last longer without changing (which is an issue in an Air-Cooled (or rather, an oil-cooled…) VW).

Environmentally, LPG is not a panacea. But LPG does give a 10-20% carbon dioxide reduction in comparison to petrol. LPG also delivers 80% lower nitrous oxide emissions than diesel and produces zero particulate emissions.[1] That means that if cars generally ran on LPG there would be no smog, no asthma…

Surprise advantages!
But it’s even better than that! Turns out Max loves LPG as a fuel. He:
– is smoother generally, with less bumpy gear changes
– starts up much MUCH more easily (see about the pre-heater below)
– can go into 2nd and 3rd gear earlier and leave later


For the full story on how it works, with nice big pictures, visit