ALL the world seems to like a little feel-good factor while pretending to be green. Too bad the reality and the hype often don't have much to do with each other.
For my first example: hybrid cars. Turns out that for all the hype, if you're serious about saving the planet, you probably wouldn't buy one.
Insurer IAG has been taking climate change seriously since long before it became popular. The company has a vested interest in the issue – climate change means more extreme weather events, which means more damage, which means more insurance claims. You need to look no further than last week's profit downgrades from the latest Australian storms.
Insurers also tend to have a touch of the actuary about them, a leaning towards working out what long-term costs and risks might actually be, as opposed to warm-and-fuzzy PR stunts.
Knowing that, I was prepared to pay more attention than usual to a presentation on sustainability by IAG New Zealand's chief information officer, Allan Dornan, at FST Media's insurance and wealth management technology conference last week. Besides, I was chairing the session and therefore had to stay awake anyway.
Dornan spoke about IAG busily becoming carbon neutral. Of course the company had Toyota Prius cars in their fleet – doesn't everyone ticking the environment box these days?
The hybrids use less fuel than the average car, but they're also more expensive to build and buy. When IAG worked out the numbers, factoring in the total cost of ownership (TCO) of a hybrid vehicle, the extra cost was some 10 times greater than the value of CO2 they were saving.
So IAG New Zealand is buying highly fuel efficient diesels instead of hybrids and using some of the money saved on driver education, which has the ability to cut fuel consumption by about 10 per cent.
It's the difference between being serious about the greenhouse stuff and wanting to look like you're being serious. By comparison, a quick Google finds our most capital “G” green banks worthily telling shareholders about buying a Prius.
And then there's Earth Hour, something of a Fairfax invention and now enjoying a popular international following and promoting WWF. While observing the drearily dark Sydney skyline on Saturday thanks to temporary token interest in turning off a few lights, I was reminded of another example from Mr Dornan which demonstrated what being serious was like instead.
As part of his presentation, Dornan showed a photograph of a fairly standard desk and asked the audience what was different about it. The answer was the power points on top of the desk instead of somewhere deep below it among the dust and cobwebs.
On Friday night, many city workers made a once-a-year effort to brave the dust and dirt by crawling under their desks to turn off their computers/mobile phone rechargers/electric nasal hair clippers/whatever at the wall.
IAG whacked power packs on top of the desks in one office and saved $10,000 on its electricity bill.
There also is the broader contrast between the enthusiastic Earth Hour hype and the general outrage that greeted the suggestion that electricity prices will soar under any rational sort of carbon reduction policy. If we decide carbon has a price, it will have to be paid. Besides, make electricity expensive enough and folks will tend to use less of it. We want to feel nicely green, but we like cheap power more.
The naiveté of much of the greenhouse noise, from both the alarmists and denialists, tends to distract from attempts to get serious about it. In its usual rational fashion, the lead editorial in last week's Economist magazine made the case for action on climate being justified not because the science is certain, but precisely because it is not. That's a concept the more simple-minded jumping on the sceptics bandwagon might find hard to grasp.
After dealing with several facets of the issue, including making some criticism of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the Economist reminded its readers:
“The ambiguities of science sit uncomfortably with the demands of politics. Politicians, and the voters who elect them, are more comfortable with certainty. So 'six months to save the planet' is more likely to garner support than 'there is a high probability—though not by any means a certainty—that serious climate change could damage the biosphere, depending on levels of economic growth, population growth and innovation'. Politics, like journalism, tends to simplify and exaggerate.”
The magazine was scathing about a particularly alarmist UK government advertising campaign that seems more interested in scaring silly children than reducing carbon. The leader, perhaps with a view to being serious like IAG rather than jumping on any bandwagon, makes its case in the final two paragraphs:
“Plenty of uncertainty remains; but that argues for, not against, action. If it were known that global warming would be limited to 2°C, the world might decide to live with that. But the range of possible outcomes is huge, with catastrophe one possibility, and the costs of averting climate change are comparatively small. Just as a householder pays a small premium to protect himself against disaster, the world should do the same.
“This newspaper sees no reason to alter its views on that. Where there is plainly an urgent need for change is the way in which governments use science to make their case. The IPCC has suffered from the perception that it is a tool of politicians. The greater the distance that can be created between it and them, the better. And rather than feeding voters infantile advertisements peddling childish certainties, politicians should treat voters like grown-ups. With climate change you do not need to invent things; the truth, even with all those uncertainties and caveats, is scary enough.”