Q and A with Euan Murray from the Carbon Trust

Euan Murray

In June 2010, Euan Murray from the Carbon Trust joined us to tackle your questions on green living. Low carbon labels, energy-efficient heating systems and the best way to shop to minimise your impact on the environment were just some of the topics that Mumsnetters wanted to talk about. 

Heating and household
| Shopping and food | Carbon Reduction Label | General questions


Heating and Household

Q. ThingOne: I live in a Victorian house, and I'm very concerned about our carbon footprint. We don't fly but I'm sure all our good work is undone just by heating this house in winter.
Can you get a good carbon label for builders, please? So we can find someone reliable to make our house as good as it can be.

A. Euan: While we haven't given the Label to any builders yet, we are labelling the products they use. For instance, we've recently worked with Cemex to allow them to label their cement and also with Marshalls on a range of paving stones.

If you are thinking of getting a builder in then the best investment you can probably make is in insulation. Around half the heat lost from a typical home is through the walls and roof. Because your house is Victorian you're unlikely to be able to use cavity wall insulation. But, you can cover your exterior walls with a weather proof insulation treatment. It costs around £1,900 and will save you around £300 per year in heating bills and an annual 2.6 tonnes of CO2.

Check your loft insulation (that yellow foamy stuff) as well. If you don't have it then around 15 per cent of the heat from your home could be escaping through the roof. Installing it will cost about £250, plus builders' costs, for the recommended 270mm thickness grade and save you between around £150 a year and 800kg of CO2 per year. Double glazing is also great for reducing heat loss. The costs vary, but you could save £130 a year on bills and 720kg of carbon emissions.

Q. BessieBoots: I live in a freezing old house and need to install some kind of heating. Is there such a thing as cheap, carbon efficient heating?

A. Euan: All new heating systems have to meet efficiency standards but the best available are high efficiency condensing boilers. The price of heating systems varies, but a more efficient boiler will pay for itself in energy cost savings in only a few years.

The good news is that there are some other cost-efficient measures we can all take to keep our homes warm. As I advised ThingOne, improving your insulation gives you the most "bang for your buck", and if your house was built after 1920 then you're likely to have a wall cavity and therefore be able to install wall cavity installation. You can also insulate under wooden floor boards. Bleeding your radiators, installing draft excluders and giving your hot water cylinder a cosy jacket will also help cut your carbon footprint and save you some money on your energy bill.

Q. urbanproserpine: I recently had a new bathroom fitted, and the saleswoman expressed surprise that I would want a sink with a plug in it, and thus with a drainage vent. Surprisingly many new basins don't have this vent hole, especially countertop bowl style ones, and so they cannot have a plug in them: and must have water continually flowing through them for use. This strikes me as incredibly wasteful of both water and heating of water: as you have to run the water for long enough for it to reach your required temperature rather than adjusting the taps as the bowl fills.

I also find that shops are still selling lamps and shades that are not designed for energy efficient bulbs to look good in them. This means lovely lamps with terrible light. Why aren't shops designing for the future, and making well designed lamps that make the best of the bulbs (reflecting light and filtering through shades rather than bare visible bulbs). Do you address the integral design of products as parts of their carbon impact?

A. Euan: What they are both about is manufacturers considering carbon efficient use in their products – whether they're bathroom suites or lamp stands – during their design. Yes – this is something we encourage all manufacturers to do. There are some fantastic examples of innovation in this area.

For example, we recently awarded the Carbon Reduction Label to Dyson for their Airblade hand dryer. What really makes that product stand out is that they have designed a digital motor which uses up to 80% less energy than warm air hand dryers and dries your hands in just 10 seconds. We are also working with Morphy Richards to help them design lower-carbon irons, as well as reducing the footprint of the ones you can currently find on the shelves.


Shopping and food

Tescos Carbon Label

Q. urbanproserpine: Many food retailers price in such a way as to make it difficult to buy 'just' one of anything. By this I mean, for example, that food from Marks and Spencer is often drastically cheaper per unit if you buy three packs, particularly with fresh fruit and veg packs. Sometimes this makes it economically stupid to buy one, but negates any packaging saving buying in bulk might provide. Sometimes I find the mountain of plastic trays left is enormous. This could not be addressed by assessing the carbon cost of an individual packet; so how will you encourage retailers to assess the impact of their sales strategies?

A. Euan: While retailers have come a long way in cutting back on packaging, I agree that the issue hasn't yet been solved fully and that there's more work to be done.
But of course, we all take advantage of supermarket offers and the best advice I can give is that where you do BOGOF (buy one, get one free) then do your best to use the food and don't waste it. It's a simple message but many people don't consider the environmental impact of that extra salad, loaf or chocolate bar that often goes to waste.

"A low carbon product has less energy used and less waste and therefore there's no reason for it to be more expensive."

Q. ItsAllGoingToBeFine: In theory I think carbon reduction labelling is a great idea. In the past I always made an effort, like by buying locally produced fruit and veg. However, now that I am skint I need to buy the cheapest possible and that often means doing things like buying apples from South Africa. While I applaud your efforts, do you not think that, like buying organic food, it is something that only the well off can afford?

A. EuanNo I don't think that's the case at all. A low carbon product has less energy used and less waste and therefore there's no reason for it to be more expensive.
We want to see everyone doing their bit to cut their carbon footprint. That means getting everyday products like bread, milk, light bulbs porridge to cut their carbon footprint – you wouldn't expect those products to cost more would you?

At the end of the day it's all about choice. The Carbon Reduction Label lets each of us see, at a glance, that we are buying brands that have committed to reducing their carbon footprint. We can all use that information to make an informed choice about what we buy.


Carbon Reduction Label 

Q. frakkit: Is there an equivalent of a Carbon Reduction Label in other countries?

Carbon Label

A. Euan: You can actually find our very own Carbon Reduction label on products in the US and France. Aldi are about to start using it in Australia and Dyson are using it on their Air Blade hand dryer across Europe, the US, Canada and New Zealand – so we are ourselves reaching out internationally.

Labelling schemes are also being developed in other countries including China, South Korea, the USA, and Canada, so, as you can see, carbon labelling is going world-wide. We're working closely with all these schemes to make sure that the carbon footprinting process is consistent and leads to genuine carbon reduction around the world. 

Q. pebblejones: How are companies able to get this carbon reduction labelling for their produce? If it is simply they have made some tiny bit of effort to reduce their carbon footprint during manufacture then I am not interested and won't bother seeking it out! However, if it identifies products that genuinely have low carbon footprints and are local then maybe I would pay more attention.

A. Euan: Measuring the carbon footprint of a product involves finding out which things in its life have the greatest carbon impact. For some products – like a can of fizzy drink – the packaging makes up the biggest bit of the footprint –this is where recycling can really have an impact. For others, like crisps – how the farmers grow the potatoes and how the crisps are made in the factory are the most carbon impactful stages.

Transport doesn't always have as high an impact on the carbon footprint of a product as you might think. For some products it is significant but that's not always the case. In fact, for most of the products we have looked at transports is actually quite a small part of the overall carbon footprint. For example, only 10% of the carbon footprint of a bag of Walkers crisps comes from transport and for a smoothie, made with fruit from India and the Caribbean, transport was still only around a quarter of the carbon footprint.

In order to carry the Carbon Reduction Label, businesses must work with us to have the entire lifecycle of the product footprinted and then commit to reducing that footprint within two years. Walkers have met that commitment and recently recertified to use the Label. In two years Walkers made a 7% reduction in the footprint of their crisps. They also saved £400,000 which they are investing to reduce their footprint further. The Carbon Reduction Label let's you know which brands are reducing their footprint and helps show your support for those that are committed to tackling climate change.

Q. hobnob57: I'd be much more impressed if products had low carbon label rather than a 'commitment to reduce carbon' which could, in effect, mean that their footprint is huge but getting smaller. However, I realise that the footprint varies depending on how far away from source you are so it's not very simple logistically.

Now, if supermarkets could have low carbon shelves stocking locally sourced goods, that would be ace. They could even label them with the stickers in store? Or would that be too much like hard work these days and increase the footprint due to the huffing of the storeperson charged with the sticky label machine?

A. Euan: Low carbon labels would be a great place to get to and something we hope to see in the future – as you say though, defining something as ‘low' can be difficult. Even seemingly similar products can have quite different carbon footprints. What's important is whether the manufacturer is taking action to measure and reduce it.

That's why we developed the Carbon Reduction Label – to help brands understand the carbon emissions associated with their products and to help consumers recognise those brands that are doing something about it.

You also suggested that supermarkets have low carbon shelves – love this idea! And completely agree with you. A lot of the brands we work with are working hard to increase the visibility of the label in store. We're actually working with Tesco at the moment to plan an in-store event in one of their London stores over the summer, and this is something we're keen to more of

"The more people that hear the term 'Carbon Footprint', use it and think about it every day the better. We can't rely just on companies or governments or environmentalists to solve climate change for us."Mustrunmore: Why have I hardly noticed the Carbon Reduction Label? I checked at home and it's not on anything I've bought. And I can't say as it stands out to me in shops. Also, if I order food from Tescos online, will it tell me if a product has one or not? 

A. Euan: Your best bet of finding it is in Tesco. They have it on a whole host of their own brand products. Elsewhere we are on Quaker Oats, Kingmill Bread, Walkers Crisps, Tate and Lyle sugar, a range of Morphy Richards Irons. We're pleased that in just two years we're on so many products. But there's certainly more to do and in the next five years we hope to be on products across the high street. Tesco online doesn't tell you which products have the Carbon Reduction Label at the moment but if you buy any of their own brand products that display the Label including milk, orange juice, non-bio washing detergent and light bulbs or any of the other brands I've mentioned above they will, of course, come with the Label.


General questions

Q. Mustrunmore: How can you make a carbon footprint measurement seem 'real'? I know ours is 182-192kg, which I was told is equivalent to the carbon for nine bags of sugar or something? But is that good or bad? It's just a hard concept to grasp the reality of. 

Why are the emissions from the London Underground slightly different to Newcastle metro? Aren't all electric trains the same, diesel trains the same, busses the same, and so on?

Half our carbon emissions come from our food and drink in this house. But doesn't that mean our travel is superb? We don't overeat or go to restaurants very often. 

Also, on a more general level, don't you think that the term 'carbon footprint' is so overused these days that it's at risk of losing all meaning? I know things like this help raise awareness, but it's getting to the point where it's assumed everyone understands it.

A. Euan: Well done on taking up our Carbon Footprint Challenge! First of all you should be really pleased with your carbon footprint measurement. I've looked at the results and your carbon footprint from travel is below the national average and you have already taken important action such as installing energy efficient light bulbs.

What always comes as a surprise is just how much of our carbon footprint comes from the food we eat – in fact roughly half of our household carbon footprint is from the food, groceries and other household products we buy.

As you know, we have a group of mums taking part in the Carbon Footprint Challenge and each have a different carbon footprint. The lowest is 169kg per week and highest is 212kg per week so your results compare pretty well.

You also asked how we can make such a measurement ‘real'. So putting 182-192kg into some kind of context: the average car emits something like 320g of Carbon per mile travelled. So 190kg is the equivalent of a journey of about 590 miles! It seems a lot, but remember that it does capture everything that you and your family are doing. But it also indicates that, if we do want to get our overall carbon footprint down, right across the UK, we've all got to do our bit, so it's fantastic you're on here doing yours!

You also asked about the differences between the emissions on London underground and the Newcastle Metro. I admit that it's perplexing that seemingly similar products – even electric trains – can have different carbon impacts. Where trains are concerned there's a whole host of little things that make a difference such as the power source, average number of passengers per journey (which is likely to be higher in London) the weight of the train etc which will affect emissions and hence they are slightly different. The most important message here is that there's no simple fix and it's a combination of small changes that add up to a big reduction. That's true of the London Underground and it is true of your own carbon footprint too. Well done on your efforts so far and thanks for taking part.

About whether the term 'Carbon Footprint' is becoming too familiar, I think the opposite – the more people that hear it, use it and think about it every day the better. We can't rely just on companies or governments or the "greenies" to solve climate change for us – it's going to require all of us to do our bit and the first step is to get everyone familiar with the terms.

I think that carbon footprinting is really going 'mainstream' when Dermot O'Leary is talking about it on the X-Factor, as he did in the last series after some particularly outstanding pyrotechnics. We don't expect everyone to become climate scientists – that's our job- but we do want people to be more aware of their carbon footprint and look for the Label as a way to reduce that impact. It's about everyone doing their bit. 

Q. SpeedyGonzalez: What new, earth-friendly inventions, technologies or advances do you think have the potential to change the way we live in the next 20 years or so?

"Just 10 years ago recycling was a bit left field – now it's just something everyone does"

A. Euan: Well, crystal ball gazing is a dangerous thing to do! But I'd suggest there are three main areas where we could see the biggest developments in the future: how we generate energy, how we use energy and our general lifestyles. 

In the next 20 years I would expect to see a much more low carbon energy generation, including on-shore and off-shore wind, hydro and land fill gas collection. We'll also see newer technologies being used, such as wave, tidal and even algae power!

How we use energy will also change. Products will be redesigned across all aspects of our lives to use energy in a more efficient way. Standby buttons on TV's and electrical goods will become a thing of the past and we'll see more electric cars on the road. We'll still be able to live our lives in the way we're used to but technology will help us do it in a lower carbon way.

Finally, our behaviour will become more and more moderated by our understanding of environmental impacts. Just 10 years ago recycling was a bit left field – now it's just something everyone does (or I hope everyone at least tries to do!). I expect to see most people making these sorts of simple, low-cost changes to their lifestyles and thinking – it is the right and normal thing to do.

Last updated: 9 months ago