Going green may make us feel better, but according to at least one mathematically minded expert, the end results can be insignificant. Chris Benfield reports.
The launch publicity for a new set of targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions failed to mention, of course, that we are getting nowhere fast with the last lot, set out in the Climate Change Programme of 2000.
And without some fairly blood-curdling penalties to go with them, there is every chance we will miss the new ones too.
Chris Goodall, a Green Party candidate with a master's degree in business administration, says the real problem is that despite the rising price of fossil fuels, manpower is also looking more and more expensive.
A kilowatt of power output over an hour – the consumption of a one-bar electric fire or a one-horsepower motor, such as you would get on a decent power saw – costs about 10p in electricity in this country, after two years of rising prices.
"A strong human male, working at peak efficiency, can sustain an energy output of about 0.8 kilowatts for a few hours a day. To employ this muscular individual as a labourer, at the minimum wage, costs something over 5 an hour," says Goodall. "Even when working at his best, and without adding any ancillary costs, this man's work is at least 60 times as expensive as electricity and 200 times the price of gas or petrol.
"This is the root of all our problems.
"Because carbon fuels are so cheap in relation to the alternatives, the underlying demand is breathtakingly unresponsive to price changes. Between the first quarters of 2004 and 2006, the price of crude oil almost doubled. In the same period, total world demand for oil rose. For most customers, oil is still remarkably good value.
"Tumble dryers cost about 25 pence to dry a full load. It might take half an hour to put this load on a washing line and take it in again at the end of the day.
"In 1930, 50 kilowatt hours of electricity cost about 4 per cent of the weekly wage of an industrial worker. The equivalent today is less than one per cent."
In short, if governments expect us to use stored energy sensibly, they are still letting us buy it far too cheaply.
As it is, says Goodall, we burn it just to pander to human laziness. Not only do we all want cars, we expect them to have power-assisted steering, which reduces fuel efficiency by about five per cent, and, increasingly, electric windows. Then we complain about getting fat.
Goodall in his book, How To Live A Low-Carbon Life, goes a step further than most of its competitors in the burgeoning library of advice on going greener. He sets out to do the sums on all the well-meaning waffle and work out what is really worthwhile and there are interesting surprises in the answers.
He "proves", for one thing, that it is not as clear as you would expect that walking contributes less to global warming than driving.
He works out the greenhouse gas emissions of a western dairy farm and concludes that producing the amount of milk needed to give a human being enough energy to walk over a mile does almost as much damage as taking the car. Put two people in the car and it increasingly looks like the greener option.
This is mathematics as drama and it leaves out a lot – like the cost of building the car.
It also assumes, like the politicians, that the problem is creating greenhouse gas, rather than using up the raw materials of civilisation faster than we can think of replacements.
But to some extent, they are the same problem. And time and again, Goodall's sums end up proving, more or less, that individual efforts are going to make only a marginal difference, at best – whether you measure energy saved, emissions averted or pennies in pockets.
As Goodall puts it, the saving from switching off computers at night "is not great enough to warrant the inconvenience of reaching down to the plug".
Doing it might make you feel better. But you don't deserve to if you are going to replace the old telly with a giant plasma screen and buy the kids an X-Box. Putting a low-energy bulb in the porch will make a tiny difference. But not if the kitchen refurbishment involves six halogen spotlights. The benefits of loft insulation over the past 20 years have been more or less wiped out by the growth of refrigerator size. The recycling of plastic bags is a spit in the wind of a global market which means a kilo of winter salad, grown in heated glasshouses and flown across the world, can use 200 times as much energy in heat and light as it puts on the plate in calories.
We might think twice about it all if half the street lights were switched off and every trip to the shops cost as much as a taxi. But as Goodall says, nothing that dramatic is going to happen as long as governments want to get re-elected.
"It is difficult to envisage any individual country deciding to take unilateral action over emissions if the costs – either financial or in terms of material comfort – were substantial. No democratic country has ever engaged in significant self-denial for any sustained period of time without similar behaviour from other states."
He adds that free-trade agreements do not help. Germany tried to restrict the use of aluminium drinks cans, which are made from a little sand and a lot of electricity, but the proposal was ruled an unfair restriction on trade within the EU.
Goodall concludes: "Individuals have to be the driving force. Eventually, private companies will perceive a market for low-carbon products and governments will come to see that real action is not electorally disastrous. Individuals must provide the leadership that will galvanise the rest of society."
His book is aimed at those individuals who are prepared to lead the way, however frustrating the progress. But all government agencies could usefully use his book to check their interminable lists of footling advice on how we can try to save the planet while they mess about. Most of the figures they work with at the moment are wrong or incomplete, according to Goodall.
He does support the EU's latest pathetic gesture at stopping the economic tide – making us all buy more expensive light bulbs, with more dangerous chemicals in them.
Low-energy bulbs are, he says, just about worthwhile. But it would be more effective to make householders, building designers and highways authorities, think twice about using two bulbs where one will do. His attention to detail throws up a lot of fresh advice on questions like: is it worth replacing your old water boiler before its time is up?
The answer depends on a number of factors but in short, it might be if you have a big house and the boiler is more than 10 years old – and you do not buy a boiler too big for the job.
It is more important to fill an old washing machine properly than to buy a new one. The best way to save on tumble-drying is to have a good spin-drier. Keeping your fridge in a cool place will do more good than buying a new one. A dishwasher might be more economical than using the sink, but not if it only has a cold-water feed – which means its water is heated by electricity through the appliance rather than gas through your boiler.
Oh, and by the way, Goodall calculates that most of us could avoid middle-aged spread if we simply walked another 30 miles a year.
How to Live a Low Carbon Life: The Individual's Guide to Stopping Climate Change is published by Earthscan, price 14.99. To order a copy from the Yorkshire Post Bookshop, call free on 0800 0153232. Postage costs 1.95. Order on-line at www.yorkshirepostbookshop.co.uk