Thursday 25 November 2010

A fascination with numbers

For my 3 day slot, I'd like to talk about numbers. I've become very fond of numbers. It's not always been this way. I started school when I was 5, already a confident reader. When I was 6, I had glandular fever and was off school for quite a while. When I returned, everyone else in the school seemed to have conquered maths. I don't think I ever caught up. I wasn't helped much by a terrifying teacher who reminds me of nothing so much as a skeleton with a very fierce hair-do who barked out mental arithmetic tests and mocked and humiliated me for getting the answers wrong.

Fast-forward a few years and finally numbers are starting to fall into line for me. I've developed a passion for spreadsheets (no, really, they're great. They're like lists with numbers.) and a fascination with the numbers we're presented with every day.

I'd like to share some of the more dramatic numbers with you over the next few days- and see if I can convince you how interesting they are.

A debate seems to go back and forth over whether little things can make only a little difference, or a big one. Magazines advise one to switch off phone chargers when they're not being used. Others snort at such advice. This is where the numbers start to matter. If I switch off all my phone chargers at the socket, and make sure my appliances are not on standby- and be sure to recycle my milk bottles and never take a new carrier bag, surely I am being green. If I try really hard at all these things every day of the year then surely I deserve a holiday. And I fancy Greece this year. While I'm there, I shall join in some sort of turtle-conservation group: just to top up my good green feelings.

Lets look at the numbers, then. Turning things off properly saves around 25kg of CO2 per year. Using reusable bags saves another 5kg*. That flight to Greece causes 1440kg of CO2*. Oh. That's not working out nearly so well as I thought.

George Marshall's Carbon Detox laid these numbers out in an excellent table:

Tip, with kgs of CO2 saved in a year
Never use a new plastic bag 5
Change one standard lightbulb to a low-energy one 17
Never leave your TV on standby 25
Turn down heating by 1 degree 230 (in an average house)
Commute to work by bus instead of car 400 (average uk commute/car)
Become a vegetarian 500
Make one fewer flight 500-12,000 (depending on the flight)

He follows that up with this wonderful passage: “Clearly there is something very wrong with a list of personal actions that have a one-thousand-fold variation in effectiveness. This is highly misleading and … encourages people to adopt a trivial behaviour change and believe they are doing something effective.”

But I've got some more numbers for you- and they bring a whole new factor into the discussion. Lets get back to those standby lights.

“On a national scale, the wastage of energy and emission of greenhouse gas from standby power is simply embarrassing. In Australia, standby power is responsible for over 5 million tonnes of greenhouse gas every year. In America the number is closer to 30 million tonnes... [and] requires the equivalent of 26 good sized power stations”

So, lots of people not bothering to do a thing (which, after all, has only a tiny impact) ends up having a pretty big impact. By my calculations appliances on standby just in America emit one 200th of the total USA emissions- or more than the total emissions of Turkey.

See? Fascinating!

After much wrestling with the numbers, I reached a conclusion. Not a momentous one, nor an original one, but my own, and hard-won:

Lots of people doing a little thing can have a big impact. But not as big as lots of people doing a big thing.

It takes everyone in America (307,000,000 people) switching off their standby lights to reduce emissions by 30 million tonnes. It only takes 3000 people to change their holiday plans and decide not to fly from the UK to Australia this year to reduce our emissions by the same amount. That's 306,997,000 fewer people.

Numbers for standby and reusuable bags from George Marshall (no further details); for flight to Greece from Defra; national standby figures from Climate Change begins at home (references given but not tied individually to facts, making them hard to follow up); country emission data from Wikipedia, flight data from Defra.

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