Talk about Newsnight

Ethical Man - Justin Rowlatt

How green is your government Minister?

  • Newsnight
  • 29 Nov 06, 05:00 PM

The Government makes a lot of its new green credentials. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown jointly launched Sir Nicholas Stern’s report on the potentially apocalyptic consequences of global warming and, to underline the government’s commitment, it announced a climate change bill in the Queen’s speech.

Environment minister Ian Pearson MP on Newsnight in OctoberIndeed, back in May Mr Blair appointed a Minster with special responsibility for climate change. He is Ian Pearson, the MP for Dudley South, and yesterday I shared a platform with him at a conference on sustainable development.

It was my job to open the conference. I ran through some of the things my family and I have been doing as Ethical Man and then I set the delegates a little ethical living test. I asked a series of questions about their lifestyles including whether they had made the switch to a green electricity supplier.

It was one of the first things I did after I was coerced by my editor into becoming Ethical Man and it did more to cut the carbon footprint of our home that any of my other ethical exertions.

For a small premium, our new supplier guarantees that, for every unit of electricity we use, it will buy a unit of electricity from a renewable source. According to my carbon guru, Professor Tim Jackson of University of Surrey, switching supplier will cut the annual carbon emissions my family is responsible for by about one ton – that’s ten per cent of our total emissions.

This was a pretty green audience and a good few of them had signed up with green suppliers or had opted for one of the green tariffs offered by most electricity companies. So had the Minister done the same I wanted to know?

Imagine my surprise when Mr Pearson admitted he hadn’t. The Minister of State for Climate Change and the Environment said that he was in the process of doing so.

Given that changing to a green electricity supplier or opting for a green tariff takes a single telephone call and a couple of minutes I trust he has done so now. If not here are a few contacts for you Ian: you could see if your current electricity company offers a green tariff or could contact Good Energy, Ecotricity, Green Energy UK or any of the other green electricity companies in the country.

Oh, and do tell me how you get on.

Comments  Post your comment

  • 1.
  • At 06:32 PM on 29 Nov 2006,
  • Philip wrote:

Scary stuff - this guy looks a 'dead ringer' for Chris Morris...

  • 2.
  • At 09:44 PM on 29 Nov 2006,
  • xrichx wrote:

...he looks nothing like Chris Morris!

  • 3.
  • At 10:18 PM on 29 Nov 2006,
  • Matthew wrote:

Sounds like one for the next PMQs - "has the member for Dudley South changed his energy supplier yet?"

The same minister at another conference yesterday had no answer to climate change emissions from aviation. Today Uttlesford Council rejected plans for growth at Stansted; action rather than rhetoric!

  • 5.
  • At 03:37 AM on 30 Nov 2006,
  • Spartacus wrote:


I'm not convinced by your figures for the carbon savings from switching to a green electricity supplier - I'll use Good Energy as an example.

As I understand it, green electricity is over twice as expensive as normal (brown) power. Each MWh of green power comes with a ROC, which is worth about £45/MWh. The wholesale price of brown power is about £30/MWh, so green power is worth about £75/MWh.

However, I see from the Good Energy website that they quote a price only about 10% above my standard supplier. I think I understand how they manage this, but the reason is rather subtle.

Each electricity supplier has an obligation to collect a certain number of ROCs every year, determined as a fixed percentage of the electricity they supply (this year it's 6.7%). If a supplier doesn't achieve this total then they pay a fine, which is distributed to all suppliers in proportion to their compliance (last year, the average supplier redeemed ROCs amounting to 70% of their obligation).

If your supplier buys only green power, then they can easily meet their 6.7% obligation. However, if all they do is sell the excess certificates to other suppliers, then they are not necessarily saving much additional carbon. They could just be buying green power the other suppliers would have bought anyway.

The only way Good Energy can guarantee to save additional carbon is by retiring the excess ROCs they receive. They do this, but only retire extra ROCs "up to an equivalent of 10%". I assume this means that this year they will redeem 6.7% of their ROCs (i.e. to meet their obligation), retire 3.3% and sell the remainder.

If we assume that the average supplier is 80% compliant next year, then buying your power from Good Energy saves 3.3 + (20% * 6.7) = 4.6% of your carbon emissions from electricity, compared to buying your power from an average supplier.

Since average annual household CO2 emissions from electricity are around a ton, this will save about 46 kg of CO2 - well under 1 ton.

This is quite a crude argument, so perhaps I'm missing something - I'd appreciate it if you or Prof Tim could clear this up.

That is a very interesting point Saprtacus. I'll certainly refer this on the the Professor and will also ask Good Energy if it wants to respond.


  • 7.
  • At 01:54 PM on 30 Nov 2006,
  • Matt Lees wrote:

This reminds me of a Phillip K Dick novel - The Zap Gun - about weapons designers who don't actually produce working weapons, but produce those for fashion (as a result of secret arms deals). In other words, this is a vacuous argument. We all ultimately get our energy from the same sources. I would appreciate it if the BBC would cease to connive with Labour Party policies and I would appreciate these arguements all the more if Govt ceased imposing punitive policies and instead actually devised R&D programs at least on a par with the USA.

  • 8.
  • At 04:40 PM on 30 Nov 2006,
  • Spartacus wrote:

Actually, I think there might be a simpler argument that comes to the same conclusion.

I've argued above that the ROCs which Good Energy sell (about 90% of the total they buy) might not be "additional". However, even if they are additional, I don't think that Good Energy can claim the associated carbon saving.

Since ownership of the ROC passes on to another supplier, ownership of the carbon saving should too. So even if these ROCs are additional, they don't belong to Good Energy. They should only claim savings for the ROCs they redeem or retire.

At least, that's my take. Where's an economist when you need one?

Good Energy is the 100% renewable electricity supplier. That means we supply the grid with an amount of renewable electricity that is equal to the amount of power used by our customers.

A ROC is a financial mechanism that the government introduced which aims to encourage investment in the renewables industry. A ROC does not denote the ‘greenness’ of the electricity neither does it help you to calculate your carbon saving. If you take ROCs away, renewables will still be carbon neutral.

If you want to know that you are making a carbon saving through your electricity supply, make sure it is 100% renewable. To verify electricity is renewable, it is given a Renewable Energy Guarantee of Origin – a REGO. These ensure that green electricity is not counted twice. This independent website shows exactly how much renewable energy the UK’s electricity companies supply and how much carbon dioxide their supply emits:

Good Energy also instructs an independent company to carry out a “green audit” each year. This is to double check that we have supplied the grid with an equal amount of renewable electricity as used by our customers.

Our ROC retirement policy is a commitment we have made to benefit Renewables for tomorrow. Reducing the number of ROCs in the market place increases their value and makes investment in renewables more attractive.

Supplying 100% renewable electricity is about our commitment today. It is building consumer demand for renewables and with more customers signing up, we can work with more independent renewable generators. Good Energy is influencing government policy on Renewables too. Actions we have taken defend and strengthen the renewables market.

This is providing a stable market for localised and small scale renewable projects such as domestic solar installations and community wind or hydro schemes. This is how the UK’s future energy can be sustainably sourced and we dedicate time, lobbying government, aiming to ensure it reaches it potential.

Of course, opinions differ on the best way to provide the UK with sustainable energy in the future. We’re holding a debate on Renewable Energy and Climate Change on the 11th December in Bristol and, Spartacus, Justin, all, please come along.

Thanks for your contribution Hugo (#9). Hugo (as you may have guessed) is a press officer for Good Energy and - for the record - I am one of the company's customers.

If I may speak on behalf of Spartacus - not that he normally needs any help - I don't think he is denying that if you sign up to Good Energy then every unit of power you use will be matched by a purchase of a unit of energy from a renewable source.

His point is about your practice of selling off ROCs or Renewable Obligation Certificates.

For those readers not familiar with the intricacies of the UK energy market all electricity generators in Britain are obliged to generate a certain proportion of their power from renewable sources.

They are awarded ROCs for the power they generate from renewable sources and ROCs are tradable - you call sell them on to other generating companies.

Spartcus argues that if a company is struggling to meet its renewables obligation it can buy additional ROCs from companies like Good Energy which, because all their power is from renewable sources, have ROCs to spare. It won't, therefore, invest in additional renewable capacity.

As a result it isn't right for a customer like me to claim the full carbon dioxide reduction because, had you not sold on some of your ROCs, other companies would have been obliged to generate more of their power from renewable energy sources.

In economic terms what he is saying is that you cannot cannot claim that all the renewable electricity you generate is genuinely "additional".

Is he right?

  • 11.
  • At 03:31 PM on 01 Dec 2006,
  • Spartacus wrote:

(Apologies - very long post)

REGOs are awarded to green generators for every kWh they generate, and collected by suppliers to verify the proportion of renewable generation in their fuel mix. They differ from ROCs in that all green generators qualify (e.g. large hydro doesn't get ROCs), and that REGOs aren't in themselves worth anything. Their only value lies in allowing suppliers to claim that their power supply is green - that's what they were designed for.

Under the REGO system, suppliers can calculate the CO2 emissions associated with their supply, based on some simple emission factors. Renewables are awarded zero emissions per kWh, so a supplier with a REGO for every kWh they supply can claim to have zero emissions associated with their supply.

This is how Good Energy can claim to be 100% green - they are using the REGO system as it is designed to be used, and I'm sure it's all 100% above board and kosher.

However, I'm not convinced that it follows that Justin has saved a ton of CO2 emissions simply by switching supplier.

From what I understand of the other actions Justin has taken, they have all resulted in a real reduction in CO2 emissions (other than the carbon offsets from that jaunt to Jamaica) - by which I mean that there's less CO2 in the atmosphere as a result of Justin's actions, compared to an alternative world where he took no action at all.

However, I do not think that switching suppliers has resulted in a 1 ton reduction in actual CO2 emissions, since I very much doubt that renewable output has increased to match Justin's electricity demand.

Rather, Good Energy are now supplying renewable power that would otherwise have been bought by other suppliers (financed by selling ROCs, as I explained above). So the credit for renewable generation is shuffled between suppliers, rather than more renewable generation being brought on line.

This is all perfectly legitimate - we need some way to account for carbon emissions, and the REGO system has the benefit of simplicity. However, I think that the overall effect is misleading - 1 ton of CO2 emissions have not been *saved* as a result of Justin switching suppliers, they have mostly been *re-allocated*.

I've glossed over several points in this argument. For example, if the REGO system persuades sufficient customers to switch to green suppliers then the big utilities will start to take action. This will add a premium to green power which will result in more renewable generation being brought on-line. However I don't believe that this challenges the principal observation: that 1 ton of CO2 has not been saved by Justin switching suppliers.

That's my take, but I'm not an ecological economist, so I'd be happy if Hugo or someone else could prove me wrong.

Hugo - can I ask you a direct question, to keep it simple? Your website tells me that I can save 1046 kg of CO2 per year by switching to Good Energy (it managed this without asking who my current supplier is, which seems a little presumptuous, but never mind).

Let me construct two alternative scenarios:

(a) I stay with my current supplier for the next year
(b) Identical to (a), only I switch to Good Energy today.

Will scenario (b) result in approximately 1 ton less CO2 in the atmosphere in one year's time than scenario (a)?

I must correct you, Justin, it is electricity suppliers, not generators who are obliged to submit a specified amount of ROCs.

As I stated in my earlier entry, a ROC is a financial mechanism to encourage growth in renewables. Renewable generators get paid for ROCs. Who submits the ROC is of limited relevance, what is important is it has been paid for and that money has gone to the generator.

Spartacus, you pose a question that renewable generation has not increased to meet Justin’s demand - Of course it is increasing. What Good Energy does is go and source renewable electricity from small and medium scale independent generators to meet our customer’s demand, just like the 15kW wind turbine at an organic farm in Staffordshire and the community micro-hydro scheme in Talybont-on Usk in the Brecon Beacons and the 18kW Solar array at St Aldhelm’s Church in Edmonton, North London. This is just a small number of the projects that came on-line this year. Good Energy provides a marketplace for generators like these to come and sell their electricity. Our mission is to boost localised renewable energy because it is a massively effective tool in the fight against climate change. The more customers we have, the more power we can source from these types of generators, continually offering a better price, making it a more attractive investment which encourages more and more potential generators to start new projects.

Good Energy is frequently talking to organisations such as Ofgem, Energywatch and the National Consumer Council, encouraging them to improve regulation and give consumers better guidance on renewable electricity supplies. Below is a link to a report published by the Environmental Change Institute at Oxford University, ‘Green Electricity Code of Practice’. Good Energy funded the ECI to produce the report as part of our continuing mission to bring more clarity to this very complex issue.

I hope you will find all the answers you are looking for inside. If you have more questions, you are welcome to come and see us.

  • 13.
  • At 07:26 PM on 01 Dec 2006,
  • Spartacus wrote:

Thanks Hugo, I'll take a look at that report.

However, you haven't answered my question - I'll repeat it here for clarity. Two scenarios: either

(a) I stay with my current supplier for the next year, or
(b) I switch to Good Energy today.

Will scenario (b) result in approximately 1 ton less CO2 in the atmosphere in one year's time than scenario (a)?

  • 14.
  • At 08:31 PM on 01 Dec 2006,
  • Spartacus wrote:

Hugo: "you pose a question that renewable generation has not increased to meet Justin’s demand - Of course it is increasing"

You misunderstand me - I didn't mean to imply that renewable generation isn't increasing.

I just don't believe that Justin switching to Good Energy caused renewable generation to increase by an amount equal to his electricity demand - and, more importantly, with non-renewable generation decreasing by an equivalent amount.

Also, while I'm glad to see that you're doing worthy work in the promotion of microrenewables, I doubt that the examples you mention above are representative of your typical supply.

I note from your 2005 environmental report (linked below, final page) that you sold almost 65,000 MWh of electricity to your consumers in 2004-05. How much of that came from generators with a capacity of under 1 MW?

  • 15.
  • At 11:34 AM on 02 Dec 2006,
  • Martin Ashby wrote:

Most comments refer to Good Energy. Ecotricity has a different model. It sells all its ROCs, but invests all its profits in new renewable energy generation. Next year it plans to double is generation capacity. It also guarantees to charge the same as your regional supplier so there is usually no cost premium.

As all profits go into renewables you know that you are not helping to fund new coal and/or gas and /or nuclear which you may be if you are a customer with other main steram suppliers offerring a green tariff.

  • 16.
  • At 03:35 PM on 02 Dec 2006,
  • Spartacus wrote:

Hi Martin,

I'm glad that Ecotricity are investing in renewable energy, and that you're so happy to recommend them as a supplier - there's no better advertisement than a satisfied customer.

However, I'm not convinced that Ecotricity's model is much of an improvement on the one offered by Good Energy.

The Renewables Obligation (despite its faults) has created a market for green power by increasing the value of renewable electricity. This market is stimulating investment in new renewable energy generation.

While I'm glad that Ecotricity are investing their profits in this market, I don't see where they provide evidence that their investment is making a significant impact on new generation, and that they are not displacing funds that would otherwise have come from other sources. The question again is "additionality" - what is the *additional* effect of my changing supplier to Ecotricity?

This paper (posted by Hugo above) discusses the pitfalls of different options for green energy branding. The work was sponsored by Good Energy, but I think it's a relatively unbiased and intelligent analysis of the subject.

They rightly focus on additionality, and highlight the problems with both the Good Energy and Ecotricity model (you won't be surprised that they come out in favour of Good Energy, but you can come to your own conclusions).

Just as I don't believe that my switching to Good Energy will save a ton of carbon that wouldn't have been saved anyway, I don't believe that my (or a thousand people) switching to Ecotricity will cause a significant amount of investment in new green projects that wouldn't have happened anyway.

Note that I don't say that *no* carbon will be saved (though it's hard to estimate how much), and I don't say that *no* new green investment will occur. I'm sure that both companies are doing good work, and can trot off a long list of worthy projects they've helped to fund - they do provide *some* additionality.

Again, I'd be happy to be proven wrong, but I just don't believe that either company is quite as green as some of their adherents might think.

  • 17.
  • At 01:35 PM on 03 Dec 2006,
  • Ian Pearson wrote:

Justin, thanks for highlighting the contribution that switching to a green tariff can make to reducing our individual carbon footprints. As you say, it's also quite a straightforward process, and I've sent off my application for a green electricty tariff.

As your broadcasts have made clear, investments in energy efficiency can also make a substantial difference to a household's carbon footprint, whilst also cutting energy bills. I'd urge people to visit the Energy Saving Trust website ( to see what steps they can make too.

  • 18.
  • At 02:44 PM on 03 Dec 2006,
  • Spartacus wrote:

There's no telling on the internet, but I suppose this last post might just be from climate change minister Ian Pearson, who Justin mentions in the article.

If so, I'm sure he's a busy man, so I'm almost glad that he apparently hasn't had time to read Justin's other article, or the comments posted on this thread.

However, he'd be a good man to involve in the debate. Given the confusion, perhaps the government should consider developing an accreditation system for green energy suppliers, and an associated framework for personal carbon accounting.

Justin - you appear to have the man's attention. Strike while the iron is hot.

  • 19.
  • At 07:44 PM on 05 Dec 2006,
  • Chris Jardine wrote:

As author of the Environmental Change Institute report, I thought I'd add a few comments from our perspective.

First, I think it's important to note the difference between ROCs and CO2 emissions reductions. ROCs are a policy instrument designed to increase the proportion of electricity generated from new renewable sources. This is linked to CO2, but is dependent on other factors, notably overall electricity demand.

So, does buying green electricity reduce CO2 emissions beyond that which would have occurred anyway? The answer is - it depends.

If you switch to a green electricity supplier, you will be getting green electricity, but that means that someone else will be getting browner electricity if no additional capacity is built. So buying green doesn't reduce overall CO2 unless:

a) Customer demand for green electricity is greater than that demanded by the Renewables Obligation. Currently, green electricity is only about 1% of UK sales, whereas the Renewables Obligation demands 6.7% this year. But if demand for green electricity ran to, say, 10% of supply, then meeting that demand would result in additional capacity being built beyond that required by the RO. An individuals actions in switching to a green supplier would then directly lead to new capcity and reduced CO2. However, given that the Renewables Obligation is set up in such a way that the targets will not be met (due to buy-out clause) such a situation is unlikey to arise.

b) The green tariff being offered is additional. Tariffs that retire a percentage of their ROCs mean that more green electricity has to be generated in order to meet the Renewables Obligation. Therefore if 0.1% of all ROCs are retired, then 6.8% of generation will have to come from renewable sources to meet the 6.7% target. In this way buying green will result in additional CO2 savings that would not have occured otherwise. This is why our report values 'additionality' so highly - it makes the consumer demand count towards extra CO2 reductions.
Tariffs that are not additional (i.e. green funds) merely support capcity that has to be built anyway under the terms of the RO. In essence consumers pay a premium to help electricity companies meet targets they have to meet anyway.

  • 20.
  • At 11:52 PM on 05 Dec 2006,
  • Prof Tim wrote:

(very long post from Prof Tim’s sick bed!)

Just to prove that a carbon guru is always on duty, Justin phoned me a couple of days ago in a rare moment of lucidity (mine not his) and asked me to take a look at Spartacus’s fascinating challenge on green electricity tariffs. It’s been a wonderful distraction from stomach flu' but don’t expect any easy answers. This is a really complex area. Spartacus calls for an economist. But a philosopher might be more useful!

At the heart of the challenge, according to Spartacus, lies a ‘straightforward’ question about the 'real' difference in carbon emissions between two alternative 'worlds':

World 1) Spartacus switches to Good Energy today;
World 2) Spartacus stays with his 'conventional' supplier for the next year.

Spartacus reckons that he should only be credited with any carbon savings if the carbon emissions associated with World 1 a year from now are lower than the carbon emissions associated with World 2. He also argues that there won’t be any difference between the carbon emissions in world 1 and world 2, because of the Renewables Obligation. And so, QED, consumers with green tariffs can’t claim zero carbon.

After several delirious nights of super-guru-esque cogitation (or it could just have been the fever) I reckon Spartacus is wrong on both counts, but may nonetheless have a very good point of principle.

Let’s tackle additionality first. Does Spartacus signing up for a green tariff lead to ‘additional’ carbon savings that wouldn’t have happened anyway? Our biggest problem here, believe it or not, is a philosophical one. At least one of the worlds we’re being asked to compare, doesn’t actually exist and never will. So we can never make a direct comparison. The best we can do is use a variety of simple models about what we believe might have happened if… In simple systems, this process works well enough. In more complex ones, like the current renewable energy market, it’s incredibly unreliable.

In one simple model – what economists call a ‘perfect market’ – a unit of demand stimulates a unit of supply, and the answer to Spartacus’s conundrum is a straightforward yes. In another model constrained by a perfect 6.7% Renewables Obligation, the answer is a straightforward no. Both these answers are wrong.

The trouble is that even within the Obligation, companies aren’t ‘forced’ in any real sense to redeem ROCs equivalent to 6.7%. If they so choose, they can opt out of their obligation by paying into a ‘buy-out fund’. This buy-out provision makes the whole question of 'additionality' much harder to guess at.

Let's explore this complication by reframing Spartacus’s challenge in the following way:

If Spartacus signs up for a green tariff, does Caligula become a more or a less ethical man?

Who is Caligula and what does he have to do with Spartacus? Well, in this blog he’s the CEO of a ‘conventional’ electricity supplier labouring under the Renewables Obligation.

Caligula has nothing to do with Spartacus, has never even met him, but if he's a rational man, and discovering that Spartacus has signed up for a green tariff, he must now sit down immediately with a bank of economists and figure out if its in his shareholders’ best interests to continue with the company plan of buying X ROCs to cover his quota (so stimulating more renewable generation) or instead just to opt for slightly fewer ROCs and slightly higher buyout charges.

Though critical to the question of whether or not Spartacus's decision leads to additional carbon reductions, Caligula’s decision is almost impossible to arbitrate on. For a start there’s the relative costs of ROCS, of renewables, and of buyout charges. Then there’s all the ‘transactions costs’ associated with making these decisions. And then suppose that Caligula is neither rational nor ethical but makes his decisions based on how well he ate at breakfast or slept last night. And next factor in that Caligula’s company is not the only player in the game. And finally figure that Spartacus is not the only person signing up for green tariffs, but is part of a deluge of Newsnight viewers all anxious to follow Justin’s example! Suddenly constructing a counterfactual comparison of world 1 and world 2 becomes a carbon guru’s nightmare.

Of course this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try it. [If anyone’s interested, this is called agent-based modelling and it’s all the rage these days.]

But what if Spartacus was wrong in the first place? What if the critical question isn’t about proving ‘additionality’ at all?

From a carbon guru’s perspective there are two important things to cover off. One is the ability to account systematically for all carbon emissions across the economy. For this you need a system which doesn’t over-allocate or under-allocate either carbon emissions or carbon savings. But this doesn’t exclude, in principle, a system in which people who sign up for green tariffs are allowed to claim the carbon-free nature of their purchase. As long as noone else in the same accounting frame is making the same claim. At one level this is just bean-counting.

But the second point – and ultimately, I suspect this is what Spartacus is getting at – is all about ethics. Is it FAIR to allow green tariff customers to claim the credit for having a green tariff? As things stand right now, with so few people signed up for green tariffs, this almost seems like a non-question, one we could quite happily answer yes to. If people have gone out of their way to make a clear statement about the kind of life they want to live and the kind of electricity they want to consume, and have a supplier who clearly provides it, you could say they have a strong claim – almost a right – to incorporate that decision into their personal carbon account. Particularly in a society in which most other people don’t give a damn.

But what if things changed? What if suddenly carbon was rationed and people’s lives and livelihoods depended on getting their personal carbon footprint down? Would it still be OK for people to claim carbon benefits from having green tariffs? And if green tariffs were in short supply, what would this mean for those who got there first?

I suppose you could think of it as a first mover advantage. ‘Hey, I saw this coming years ago and protected myself against it. Why should I care about your shortsightedness?’

But the question of fairness still won’t quite go away. The fact is, as Spartacus himself has pointed out, renewable energy tariffs are cheap right now for 'ethical' customers because they’re subsidised by the sale of ROCS on the market. In a sense, Justin has purchased his own ‘ethicalness’ at a knock-down price. This doesn’t much matter right now. But in a world in which everyone has a carbon ration, and carbon itself has an economic value, it wouldn’t really be fair for Justin to behave like that. And since he is ethical man – rather than simply low-carbon man – it is my sad duty to point this out. Grace a Spartacus.

All we're left with now is the problem of how to calculate Justin's new improved ethical carbon footprint. I think I may have come up with a solution that will keep the carbon savings without compromising the ethical principles. But I’m still too feverish to figure out if it’s workable or not. And besides I still have to persuade Justin to do it. We’ll let you know later…

  • 21.
  • At 11:58 AM on 06 Dec 2006,
  • Spartacus wrote:

Typical - you wait days for an economist, then two come along at once. Thanks Chris and Tim, I think I'm beginning to understand this.

By the way, my motivation in pursuing this was Justin's claim that switching to a green supplier, "did more to cut the carbon footprint of our home that any of my other ethical exertions". I just couldn't see how this could be right, based on a couple of intuitive principles:

Other than large hydro, renewable electricity is more expensive than conventional generation - green tariffs wouldn't be cheap without ROC support. If Justin wasn't paying for his increased green-ness, then someone else had to be (I now appreciate that the argument is a bit more subtle).

But in particular, large hydro aside, renewable electricity is an expensive way to save carbon (though there are many other points to it's credit which I'm sure the customers with green tariffs value). It might be cheap for the individual, thanks to ROCs, but it's expensive for the UK. In terms of the UK's carbon footprint, I'm not convinced that encouraging more green power is the best use of our current resources.

Assuming a ROC price of £45 and ~500kg of CO2 saved per MWh of green power, the RO costs £90 per tonne of CO2. Compare that with energy efficiency measures, which can quickly provide a net *benefit*, rather than a net cost - i.e. a negative carbon price. Compare too with the Stern report's estimate of the social cost of carbon (which is much higher than other recent estimates) of about £45/tCO2.

So that's my intuition; there's more to this than simple cost but, in the interests of resource efficiency, an ethical approach would tend to prefer the carbon savings that can be made at least cost to the UK economy, and at this point that's unlikely to mean green electricity (or micro-turbines, for that matter). Basically, it's about more than Justin just reducing his own allocation of the UK carbon budget.

However, Prof Tim has convinced me that this ethics business is trickier than I'd realised. I look forward to seeing what he comes up with for Justin's ethical carbon footprint (I'd be interested to see the same logic applied to the Ecotricity model, but that's a lot to ask of a man on his sick-bed).

  • 22.
  • At 08:02 AM on 07 Dec 2006,
  • Andrew Pittman wrote:

The Green's really are incredibly naive if they think this government is going to do anything that makes us use our cars less.He simply derives such huge revenues both from those who sell petrol and those who buy it that public spending would collapse if he did.In fact they've done the reverse.They've persuaded us that motoring is so inherently dangerous that we all need huge gas guzzlers built like tanks to protect ourselves and traffic calming and forests of traffic lights are designed to create stop start driving in order to use more petrol and thus generate even more tax revenue.

  • 23.
  • At 09:05 PM on 08 Dec 2006,
  • Gordon wrote:

It is quite ironic that the Green's actually campaigned for the introduction of traffic calming, even after I sent Friends of the Earth and others letters pointing out the extra pollution it caused. Most of the most pollution generating road " improvements " were introduced under the auspices of " road safety ", but the most obviously important policy for road safety annual eye-sight tests is never mentioned by many road safety groups. A new roundabout was installed at a cross-roads on one of my local roads after two serious accidents in two weeks. I know for a fact that the driver involved as the cause was practically blind at the time of the accidents, I knew his grand-daughter well.

To find out more about the environmental impact of traffic calming see

It would appear that wind farms are also not what they are cracked up to be by the green lobby. Perhaps the government subsidy is waste of money as it is just a vehicle for the rich to fool themselves that they are doing their bit for the environment whilst continuing to fly and run large cars etc.

  • 24.
  • At 11:52 AM on 09 Dec 2006,
  • Spartacus wrote:

Actually, I've had second thoughts about my argument above (#21).

I might believe that the RO is an expensive way to save carbon (though there are several other arguments in it's favour), but it exists whether I like it or not. In retrospect, I shouldn't have confused my doubts about the RO with the calculation of an individual's carbon footprint.

That said, I think my point about Justin's task amounting to more than simply cutting his personal allocation of the UK carbon budget still stands, but I'll wait to see what Prof Tim has to say.

  • 25.
  • At 12:51 PM on 09 Dec 2006,
  • Spartacus wrote:

There are a couple of interesting articles on ethical consumerism in this week's Economist. They focus on the fair trade, organic and local food movements, but many of the arguments are reflected in the comments above.

The story appeared on the front cover of early issues, but was bumped by the Baker report. It's available online here (subscription required):

Their view is that these movements don't do as much good as their adherents might think, and in some cases can actually do harm. Given the source, you won't be surprised by these conclusions ("The answer is free trade - now what was the question?"), but I think they are right to shine a light on the likely impacts of good intentions.

They widely quote FT contributor Tim Harford, author of a popular book on economics. The extract linked below gives a flavour of the argument, by examining what happens to the price premium you pay for fair trade goods (and how the retailers get away with it).

  • 26.
  • At 12:28 PM on 15 Dec 2006,
  • Chris B wrote:

you don't have to pay more for Green electricity. Npower will supply you with Green energy at the smae price as their brown energy, just sign up for their Juice product!

  • 27.
  • At 05:45 PM on 18 Dec 2006,
  • Spartacus wrote:

David Milliband has reheated the idea of personal carbon credit accounts.,,1969164,00.html

This brings us a little closer to the world described in post 20, where we all have a personal carbon ration.

Perhaps I'm the only one, but I'm still looking forward to seeing what Prof Tim comes up with for calculating Justin's ethical carbon footprint.

Any advance, Professor?

  • 28.
  • At 01:29 PM on 20 Dec 2006,
  • Spartacus wrote:

Green tariffs were in the news last week, with a report by the National Consumer Council examining products currently in the market.

The report concludes that many green tariffs are oversold, and that it's "easy for consumers to be confused and misled". They press for clear, minimum standards and independent auditing of claims. Hear, hear.

No supplier escapes criticism, though Good Energy fare better than most. The authors are less impressed by Ecotricity, and slam some of the offerings from large suppliers, including NPower's Juice tariff.

The report is generally very good, though Prof Tim's response has made me question their (and my earlier) strict definition of carbon savings. They take a hard line here, requiring that suppliers retire ROCs in order to claim additionality. Under this definition, "even the better tariffs on offer will only reduce CO2 emissions by around 100 kg a year". (The calculation is similar to the one in my first post above - see footnote 18 in the report.)

Ofgem are apparently due to issue revised Green Supply Guidelines in the near future. It's possible that this report will be influential in guiding Ofgem's thinking, so if anyone has any issues with the analysis then I recommend raising them quickly. (It would be nice to see some of the arguments developed in this blog, but that's probably a bit much to ask.)

The report is available here:

It generated some press response, e.g.:,,1973621,00.html

  • 29.
  • At 02:05 PM on 20 Dec 2006,
  • Lawrence Clark wrote:

We've signed up to a green electricity tariff (NPower Juice) and we're thinking of having a wind turbine installed, but in the meantime we've decreased our annual use of electricity by 30% (from 2900 to 2000 kWh). We'd always had half a dozen compact fluorescent lights in the house and didn't leave the TV on standby, but were surprised by the savings that came from installing even more energy-saving lamps and not leaving the stereo and the DVP player/digital receiver on standby. This has saved far more in electricity this year alone than we've spent on the new lamps, partly due I'm sure to the psychological effects of not taking electricity for granted and turning things off when they are not needed! As for CO2 accounting, we've saved about 450 kg of CO2 per year (based on the average for all of NPower's UK generation).

Dear Ethical Man.
Check out alternatives to the wind turbine which was shown on your newsnight programme.

1) There are other, more efficient technoligies available.

2) If your house is not suitable, you can install it on a pole in your garden.

There's a new type of wind generator made in Germany, the prototype of which will be erected in January 07 and this may solve your problems. Techn. details of one pre-production wind turbine were very promising.

I am convinced of this new technology because I saw the little pre-procution machine in action.

Kind regards,
Ms K Martens

  • 31.
  • At 11:20 PM on 05 Jan 2007,
  • D Taverner wrote:

Dear Ethical Man. In view of your advisors view that renewable sourced electricity can be counted as reducing your carbon emissions, would it not be true to say that if we were to run our cars on renewable sourced fuel (ie bio fuel) our carbon emissions would also be reduced? In that carbon emissions from the combustion of bio fuel are equal to the carbon extracted from the atmosphere during the cultivation of the plants that are used to make bio fuel, the net carbon addition to the environment is zero. If this argument is valid, then if the government were serious about reducing carbon output from the UK, then would it not be relatively simple to increase the duty on fossil fuel by something drastic, and subsidise bio fuel correspondingly. At a stroke, the UK carbon contribution from combustion of fossil fuel could be reduced and all the targets hit. I guess it wouldn't take the chemists long to come up with an aviation grade bio fuel either, given enough incentive. I guess this policy would not be too popular with the directors of BP and Shell amoung others, so call me a cynic, but it seems pretty clear who is pulling the strings.
By the way, any diesel car will run on ordinary kitchen cooking oil with a very minor modification, so if you and your family want your car back, you know what to do!

  • 32.
  • At 03:10 PM on 23 Jan 2007,
  • Spartacus wrote:

In a related note, Ofgem (who administer the RO) have come out strongly against the Renewables Obligation, criticising it as "very costly" and inefficient. They're not impressed by the government's planned changes either.

"The cost per tonne of carbon saved under the RO is, at £184-481, higher than the costs of other policy measures such as the EU Emissions Trading Scheme at £12-70 a tonne, the Climate Change Levy at £18-40 a tonne and the Energy Efficiency Commitment which ranges from bringing a benefit to a cost of £60 a tonne."

Here's the Ofgem press release:

.. and some press response:,,1996563,00.html

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