Monday, August 23, 2010

Reporting the environment

Ian recently sent me a link to an article on The Register. He often sends me links just to annoy me. I usually read them, feel a bit grumpy, then forget them. This one, though, just about hit my tolerance limit. It's a fabulous example of bad reporting, drawing conclusions that are unwarranted from the information.

The piece is titled, 'People have NO BLOODY IDEA about saving energy' and subtitled, 'Those keenest to be green are most ignorant - survey.' I guess they provide fair warning in their titling that this is not an objective report. It is, however, based on a fairly interesting piece of scientific research and the Register were good enough to provide  a link to the original paper

Having read both the Register's article and the original paper, 'Public perceptions of energy consumption and savings', I can agree what the Register reported was not incorrect but the spin they had imparted to a sober little paper was so strenuous it is probably still reeling. 

What the original article says is that people are not fully aware of the energy used by their various activities, appliances or embodied in the products they use. From the information presented this is true. 

I will even admit, sheepishly, that the contrasting embodied energy costs for glass and aluminium surprised me. I hadn't really thought about it but it seems fairly obvious that this would be the case once I had given it some thought. The melting point of aluminium is around 660C, for glass it is at least 1400C, depending on constituents. From this the Register concludes that 'as a true eco-person, you shouldn't be recycling glass, you ought not to be using it at all.' Well, yes. And no. Unfortunately, at present I am unable to find the sort of wine I want to drink in aluminium cans. Given that I am unlikely to stop drinking wine in the immediate future it is still better for me to send my glass bottles for recycling than not*. 

The article continues, 'Again, when asked what the single most effective thing they could do to save energy, the most popular response in the survey was to turn off lights. In fact lighting accounts for a relatively small proportion of the average person's energy use and almost all of us could save far more juice (and carbon) in other ways - for instance by turning the heating down as little as a single degree, something which many extremely keen lightswitch nazis** refuse to do.'

I have an issue with this paragraph. I am not disputing that turning the heating down will save more energy than turning off lights, but there is also no reason not to turn lights off in a room not being used. The Register seems very keen on either/or choices. It might surprise them but it is quite possible to turn the heating down by one degree and turn lights off in unused rooms. 

They go on to quote the original paper that states 'participants estimated that line drying saves more energy than changing the washer's settings (the reverse is true)'. My concern with this statement is twofold. One is that I always wonder when I hear such loose phrasing. 'Changing the washer's settings' could mean anything from reducing the temperature by 10 degrees to reducing it from 90C to 30C or more. Looking at the paper's Figure 1 it is quite possible that, depending on what that phrase means, line drying may be a better saver. Difficult to tell; the graph is small with a logarithmic scale. My other concern again is, what does it matter? Both of these are potentially high energy saving. Change the washer settings and line dry. 

Never mind though, the Register goes on from this paragraph to state, 'Perhaps the killer revelation from the survey is that it is, in fact, the very people who are keenest and most active about reducing their energy consumption who are the most ignorant.' Despite the exaggeration and emotive language this is, in fact, the conclusion of the paper. People are optimistic that what they are doing is having a positive effect. Their perceptions are not as accurate as they could be. This is a problem if for example, you comfort yourself that the impact of your flight to Australia will be offset by turning the lights out and recycling your wine bottles. It may also be a problem if, as a Register reader, you can only take one action at a time so rather than turn your thermostat down, line dry your clothes, boil only as much water as you need and cycle to work you unplug your phone charger. 

The lesson the Register takes from the information contained within the paper is, 'In other words, ignore that earnest friend of yours who recycles religiously, turns off the lights all the time, and unplugs the telly every night... They quite literally have no idea what they are talking about.' Well no, that's not what the paper said. The original paper suggested that better and more accurate information would help to reduce emissions and public information campaigns should focus on behaviours that could have a greater effect - forget the phone chargers and turn down the heating.  They conclude, 'It is therefore vital that public communications about climate change also address misconceptions about energy consumption and savings, so that people can make better decisions for their pocketbooks and the planet.'  The Register, on the other hand, concludes that we should 'ignore the many worth organisations - for instance the Energy Saving Trust here in the UK, which you pay for through your taxes - which have made us all so ignorant.' I took a quick look at the EST website. The top ten tips did indeed include the admonition, 'Don't leave appliances on stand-by and remember not to leave laptops and mobile phones on charge unnecessarily'. It also, however, suggested sorting out dripping hot water taps, fully loading our washing machines, boiling only as much water as needed, changing to low energy bulbs, turning lights off, closing curtains at dusk and draught proofing, turning your water thermostat down (also reduces the risk of scalding small children) and turning your central heating thermostat down. The information on the site would be improved if each tactic was rated on energy saving effectiveness but the tips given were all generally good and do not seem to me to be making us ignorant. The worst that could be said is that it is not as informative as it could be.

I wonder what the Register gains by subverting a worthy piece of research. It makes no sense to me. Unless the author of the piece is still living with his parents who keep turning the lights out on him.

*Ideally glass bottles should be reused. My milkman very kindly takes my glass milk bottles back for reuse. It doesn't need vastly more energy to take them back because he was coming to my house to deliver anyway. 

**As a rule of thumb, use of the word nazi in an article not talking about the german fascist movement of the mid 20th century is an indicator of a lack of objectivity.   

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