The first fifty percent is easy!

We must reduce our CO2 output by 90% within the next 5 years, says George Monbiot, long time environmental editor of The Guardian in England.

More challenging is to see if we can do this with the minimum change to our quality of life. A number of colleagues and I have spent the last ten years pursuing this goal, and our experience shows that it is not as hard as it seems.

Much of the best information available is explored in great detail by George Monbiot in his book “HEAT – How to stop the planet burning”. While his analysis is invaluable, it is not directed primarily at Joe Public, but rather at policy makers. A problem in achieving results in the tight time frame of five years is that policy makers are almost invariably politicians. Politicians are followers; until most of the public tell the politicians that they want it to be done, the politicians will not change policy. We do not have time to wait for politicians to find politically acceptable large scale solutions by the “normal” processes; we have to enact the many and varied solutions needed, and then hope that what the politicians do supports them.

We need to think about and change our family’s CO2 production, quickly. To help you achieve the same results as we have, we need to start with some rough assumptions, and then deal with each area in turn.

Let’s assume that a typical family’s CO2 production is highest in transport, then electricity use, then food, then building and then clothing, and that the ratio of CO2 produced in each of those areas is something like 35/30/20/10/5. It is logical to spend most of your time and your resources looking at the two or three major areas, for the most significant reductions.

Reducing Transport Emissions:

We must look very broadly at this issue – at the transport of all the things that come and go from our house, as well as the people. The best thing that could happen to reduce transport CO2 emissions would be to just about ban transport of anything by aeroplane. The environmental cost of flying is multiplied dramatically by the fuel droplets and other gaseous materials left high in the atmosphere, so think seriously about doing your future travel by the internet. If you reduce your international purchases and air travel to 10 – 20% of your previous level, you will achieve a huge reduction of CO2 emissions in the transport area.

We have to break this “global” habit, and look to support local manufacturers and producers, if only as a defence against the incredible drop in internationally transported goods when aviation fuel prices go to five to ten times what they are now, and then there is a CO2 tax on top of that. I predicted sixteen years ago that when the fuel price hike came, there would be a “dead cat bounce” in international trade; down quickly and then flat.

The next focus is to stop regarding your car as an excuse to not think about whether to go to the store or not. Carefully plan your car journeys, coordinate shopping with other activities, look at car pooling, and then car sharing. One ute may well be enough for ten or twenty families. One campervan may be enough for ten. If that is too hard, think about the smallest car you need for 90% of your travel, and hire for the rest of the time. The savings could well be significant, because you have to do a lot of kilometres to average out the costs per km of maintenance, licensing and insurance. Research shows that on average, 95% of journeys are within 30 kms of home.

You could even go so far as to set out what the major activities of your family are going to be over the next ten years, and then buy a house as close as you can to those services, facilities, or physical features. Such careful positioning makes the use of walking, cycling, and public transport more sensible.

Only after rethinking, and then reducing the number of kms you drive, is it worth looking at increasing the kms/litre, because the CO2 and dollar savings available from the former far outweigh the latter. I have noticed a difference of about 1.5 kms/litre before and after a service and tuneup; regular servicing may be a saver for you too. Reducing the rate of acceleration can have a dramatic effect – as much as 20% – on your fuel economy.

The best purchase option for country people at the moment is a small car with a turbo-diesel motor. The benefits of hybrid motors are mainly for urban drivers, where more frequent braking generates electricity. The Hyundai I30 has won green car of the year for 2007 and 2008 – it consumes just 4.7l per 100 kms on the standard test regime.

In summary: buy local; live local; use alternatives; own as small a vehicle as possible; drive it gently and maintain it well.

Reduce electrical emissions:

The first fifty percent (or more) of savings in the domestic electricity area are achievable and economic NOW. It can take up to two Kilowatt hours generated at the power station to get 1 KwHr to your house. So every KwHr you do NOT consume, can save as much as 2 KwHrs of CO2 production. In the country, this saving is even higher – line losses can be very high. In 1993 Western power received a report that through regional WA, it cost the government 93c to provide 1 Kw Hour to the consumers. So you are paying somewhere else for highly subsidized power in rural areas. The price will not stay that low!

If you go as far as we have, and generate your own power, then you have achieved a 100% reduction in your domestic electricity emissions. In some areas, and for some systems, you can get a subsidy of 55% from the government. The nature of the system and the rebates have to be determined locally. The system configuration also impacts on your costs. For instance, the system we first set up in 1996 is totally stand-alone. We chose that deliberately. There were and are environmental and economic factors that made that decision very easy.

By designing developments with houses that are not reticulated – no power, no water, no sewerage, no drainage (offsite), no telephone land line – planners and developers can locate the house lots where they should be for environmental and aesthetic reasons. They are not driven by the need to minimize the distance required from the mains source onto the various lots, and so the expense of the links.

Recently a development that would have doubled the population in the Ravensthorpe area was dropped because the Shire’s planners said the developers would have to make a contribution to the upgrading of the power distribution infrastructure in the area. To allow the developers their “satisfactory” profit, the people who buy off them would have to pay about double for the actual costs of wiring etc on their lot prices, then go on paying the rates needed to increase the production of power.

But there is a better alternative! If Western Power had insisted that we provide power to each house when we were getting development approval in 1997, we would have been better off to pay for solar power systems for each house (at about $13,000 per household) than to put on mains power. In those days the cost of providing underground power was much greater than the cost of a generous solar power system. Now it costs over $100 per metre just to dig the trench for underground power lines in our rocky ground!

If you are already on the mains grid, there are solar power systems that use the grid as the battery. At the upper end, you can build a system that generates more than you use, and feed power back to the grid, and get paid for it. A midpoint is a system that generates enough for most of your needs, and which most importantly protects all your valuable electronic equipment from spikes and surges, while being able to draw some power from the grid for high demand times or uses. Timer switches so most of your refrigeration loads are off peak could result in further reductions of the need for peak power and so generation needs.

Solar Hot Water heating was pioneered in Western Australia over sixty years ago. It can save considerable electrical or gas consumption for water heating and so CO2 emissions.

Reduce Food emissions:

Reducing food emissions overlaps substantially with transport emissions. The best way to reduce food related CO2 emissions is not intuitively obvious. I was startled when some years ago at Tone River, John Croft informed us that to get one calorie of “food” on an American plate was consuming 1500 calories, mainly in transport, with most of the balance in packaging, processing, and chilling. This is totally unsustainable by any measure.

We need about 4 Kg of food and water a day for a healthy body. Can we produce half of that ourselves, for another 50% reduction?

Probably over 2 Kg of our daily consumption is water, so the easiest solution is to install a water tank, first for your bodies’ water demands, and then, if you have the space and cash, for your garden and animals.

The best thing for your family’s health and the health of the planet is fresh local food. Every purchase, every mouthful makes a difference. Feeding people will not be sustainable until we replace the world-wide commercialisation of food in a dysfunctional market system with local, fresh, in season produce.

Transporting, packaging, chilling and freezing add exorbitantly to the cost and wastage of food and energy. If you start to grow your own food, you make a major contribution to reducing CO2 emissions. Start with some herbs, some salads, and one or two easy-to-grow carbohydrate sources. The best match between our skill, climate and soil type seems to be broad beans, potatoes, pumpkin, beans, and peas, in that order. Add some fruit trees, and you could quite soon get to be producing over half of your food needs. Add a source of meat and you can produce even more of your own food. We have found pigeons the easiest and most resilient.

If you are not a good gardener, the best thing you can do is find a good gardener near you and offer to help them in exchange for produce. There are always peak periods where an extra two or three people are needed; in a well designed system, this is mainly harvesting, processing and preserving.

Reducing Building Emissions:

You can only reduce CO2 emissions in the building process for your next house, or when you do a major refit. How and what we build of are remarkably culturally determined. In the southwest, we have progressed over the last twenty years to fast wall bricks for our double brick homes. For most of the other regions of Australia, double brick is almost unheard of.

We also need to look at the key factors that support longevity of our designs and building products. The key point here is that house location is more important than spatial design. A healthy environment is the most important, and the key environmental factor is clean air; you can do things about making your soil and water healthy if you live in clean air. Then proximity to services you need, such as schooling, transport, shops, employment, particular forms of leisure activities, and public open space is on the next level of important.

Passive solar design is too neglected; in a mild climate, heating and cooling costs and associated emissions can be eliminated. Draft proofing is the first easy step. Trombe walls and solar closets and attics can be retrofitted. Straw bale and stucco walls are fantastic! Check in your area for an eco-friendly designer; they have a greensmart logo to identify them.

In summary, start with insulation improvements, and draft proofing, put on another jumper instead of turning the heater on, look at temporary double glazing of southern windows and build a file of passive solar design ideas for your next house.

Reducing Clothing Emissions:

How long after you buy an item of brand new clothing is it second hand? How much are you paying for that one or two seconds? There is as much unsuitable clothing in the brand new shops as there is in the second hand shops. Clothes in the second hand shops are meticulous cleaned, but they have not been starched, glued, and otherwise tarted up for sale to make them look different from how they will be after their first or second wash. Start a clothing pool for children with a group of families and you will have the fun of seeing quality items gracing six or seven or ten kids as they grow through a particular stage.

This question about second hand clothing illustrates the key issue; changing our thinking is the hardest part. I hope the perspectives above have got you thinking along a slightly different path.

What might it all cost?

Prices are as current as I can get them, at March 2007.


Anything you do to reduce CO2 emissions in this area will also save you money. For most of us it will be post-tax dollars too. It will also reduce your health bills if you walk or ride.

Food production:

Again, after the first year or two of fumbles and setting up costs of say $1000, you should save money. Again, the interest and exercise are good for you.

Dry Composting Toilet:

Save water, get good compost, protect your health, and cut annual water use and perhaps sewerage costs. After direct experience of eight commercially available systems, we recommend either Rotaloo 600 or Rotaloo 950: the latter is available for about $4300.

Water Tanks:

Concrete tank 9m diameter for 135 Kl: $11500 + GST, 7.3m diameter for 90 Kl: $8000 + GST. Plumbing for tank collection: allow $1500.

Electricity Systems:

The key here is to work out your needs. We used a smallish system for eleven years, and it ran everything: It has 1.25 kw max rated output of panels, a 3 Kw inverter, and 1330 amp-hours of batteries for a 24v system; this is 32 Kw Hrs of storage. Rebates may be available. The current cost of a similar system is around $24,200 – see the Earth suite at

Solar Hot Water Systems:

With a 300l tank: $3800 + installation less a $400 rebate.

With a 200l tank: $3600 + installation less a $400 rebate.

We recommend Smalls Solakleen.

Woodfired slow combustion stove:

approx $4000. For a high quality version of the English AGA, check out

Thermalux Stoves Pty Ltd. 63 Harrow Rd Somerton Park SA 5044. (08) 82988093.

Food production:

Seeds, pot plants, trees, soil for them, good basic garden equipment: say $1000.

This totals $51,650.

As well as reducing your greenhouse emissions by around 60%, and so contributing to saving the planet, you will save

Electricity bills – currently ………………………………:………………….

Excess water bills – currently…………………………….:…………………

food costs – say 60% of present………………………….: …………………

Health costs – say 50% of pharmacy items, gap…………:………………….

Fuel and other car costs – say 35%………………………………: …………………

Your possible savings each year are ……………….

If your mortgage’s rate of interest is 7%, and all of your costs are after tax, you only have to save $2,530 per year to justify these capital costs through an increase in your mortgage, or a reduction of your other investments. ($2530 is after tax. If you pay 31% tax, then this sum is 69% of what you have to earn to be able to pay the bills; you need to earn $3667; this is a 7.09% return on the $51,650).


If you want some help applying this sort of analysis to your situation, or implementing any aspect of this low emissions strategy, we are happy to help, for an appropriate fee.

Copyright 2009

Warwick Rowell M.Sc, B.Comm. Hons, Dip. Perm. Des. is a management consultant and Permaculture designer. He designed and established an eco-village in Western Australia. For more information, email to or call 08 97566766 or 0447994885.

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