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Carbon will soon start to count in every activity

For most people today paper has little or no value; this can clearly be seen when you consider how often people pick up free papers and throw them away after reading only two or three pages. We have become a throw-away society and it is a major problem.

People do not think there is any energy or associated cost linked to the production and distribution of newspapers because this cost has been met through other financial mechanisms such as advertising. The consumer does not consider the cost of recycling and disposal because this cost is picked up by the local council through the fees paid to waste disposal companies.

But while that newspaper can be recycled, how do we account for the energy embedded in the whole process?

As a society, we have happily ignored carbon costs because energy costs have been exceedingly low. The change by the Government to the Carbon Reduction Commitment (CRC), from a carbon abatement scheme to a direct carbon tax, can be seen as taste of future policy and this will have a direct effect on consumers.

If society starts taking embedded energy costs seriously, then a form of carbon auditing will almost certainly be introduced. Next to declarations of a newspaper’s recycled content, there will be a statistic indicating the product’s embedded carbon.

“A little understood cost of the internet is the amount of energy it consumes”

It will be interesting to work out how you calculate the carbon content of recycled paper. If a calculation of whole-of-life embedded carbon was used, then a newspaper with recycled paper would perversely have higher carbon content figures than a paper made from a sustainable wood source. This may seem laughable but all those that have battled with the EU’s definition of when a ‘waste’ becomes a ‘raw material’ will understand the real problems to be faced by carbon accounting.

The reality is that waste companies really need to start looking at how they assess the carbon content of their activities. The companies that do not could find themselves at a serious competitive disadvantage if, or more likely when, regulations change.

Regulations on carbon are being introduced at enormous speed. With the Department of Energy and Climate Change having a legal obligation to reduce carbon use by 80% by 2050, it will not be long before carbon reduction is seen as a priority.

Of course many could say that this argument would be meaningless if everyone stops reading newspapers and moves to getting their information from the web. But one of the little understood environmental costs of the internet is the amount of energy it consumes. Each email has been calculated to be worth 4g of carbon; downloading a music file could be the energy equivalent of boiling a kettl; 6% of Britain’s energy is used by servers to power the internet.

The discarded newspapers on trains are an obvious sign of our throwaway society. Yet almost everyone reading this will have sent emails with large files attached, without giving a second thought to its cost in energy or environmental impact.

A top tip for Christmas: make the Head of IT responsible for paying the IT electricity bill. The savings could pay for a fantastic Christmas party.

Lord Redesdale is chairman of the Anaerobic Digestion and Biogas Association

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