Sunday, January 31, 2010

10:10 Carbon saving tips: Step 1: Location, Location, Location

In 2006 we took the first big step towards a lower carbon lifestyle by moving to Belgium. Not that Belgium has an inherently lower carbon lifestyle than the UK.

Perhaps I should explain….

Our house in the UK was a stereotypical Victorian farmhouse 20 miles from Cambridge in a beautifully rural setting. We originally bought the house because of its low price; there was no way we could have afforded 4 four bedroom detached house set in 1/3 of an acre in, or close to Cambridge. At that time the 20 mile commute to work did not seem too bad. Of course in the 15 years we lived there the number of cars on the road doubled and the price of petrol tripled. Our two cars were clocking up over 30,000 miles per year between them and we were filling them with petrol almost weekly. The commute had gone over the (for me) magic half an hour barrier and was becoming a chore. I know thousands of people have much longer commutes, that’s partly down to personal choice, but I would argue that more than half an hour is not only bad for your lifestyle its almost certainly bad for the environment too.

When I took a job in Belgium we were determined not to have a long commute. Luckily house prices in Tervuren, the “Surrey commuter belt” of Belgium are around the same as Cambridge. We were able to rent a house a 7 minute cycle ride away from the British School of Brussels so our daughter replaced the 5 mile school bus run with a short cycle to school. My first job was in Leuven and it was a 20 minute, 20km (~12.5 miles) drive from home. We took the opportunity to change my right hand drive petrol car for a left hand drive diesel (diesel is significantly cheaper than petrol in Belgium) and in one stroke took 60% plus off our commuting carbon footprint.

So is Belgium doing better at being “carbon friendly”. Yes and no. Its true that the house prices are lower, but Belgian taxes are cripplingly high so the average Belgian’s ability to afford housing close to Brussels (where most of the work is) is no better than the average London commuter. However the high taxes do allow the Government to put its money where its mouth is, with better grants for home insulation and other subsidies, unlike (it would seem) the UK Government.

Personally I have never understood why so many people must literally waste their lives (and fossil fuels) commuting vast distances to work and back each day. Perhaps if all the London firms were forced to pay wages high enough that all their staff could live within walking distance of their office they would think again about the “economies of scale” of being there. The commuters are, in effect, subsidising the companies by allowing themselves to be exploited.

I would like to see Government take the lead in encouraging businesses to deploy several regional offices rather than huge, monolithic offices in the city. Moreover, if the wealth was spread more evenly around the country and not just the overcrowded south east, house prices would balance out and everyone would be better off. In the computer age there simply isn’t a need for all this travel – let the data do the travelling, not the people. I can choose to share my extra half hour per day with my employer, be more productive, save the planet, and still have more leisure time – a real win, win, win!

1 comment:

kate.ellwood said...

I will follow your musings with interest. We can all make small changes if we have a mind to. Every little helps!