Donnachadh McCarthy: The Home Ecologist

'Why can't carbon emissions be printed on our utility bills?'
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The Independent Online

Joan Ruddock, the Climate Change Minister, recently wrote us a letter in response to our column about how to calculate home carbon footprints. She suggested that readers could instead use the "Act on CO2" calculator on her department's website. But I suddenly thought, why not eliminate both my calculations and her department's online calculator, and simply have the carbon emissions printed on our utility bills?

While the calculations of a home's carbon footprint may seem easy to an eco-auditor, frankly, most people are not going to convert the cubic meters of gas or kilowatt hours of electricity from their bills using a conversion value that changes every year into tonnes of CO2 emitted. So why not get the utility companies to do it for us? Once they have installed the necessary software, there should be very little cost involved, yet it would be a huge step forward in educating people about their emissions.

Excited, I contacted Joan Ruddock's office to see what she thought. In true Yes Minister style, I was told that the Climate Change Minister's job was to help consumers calculate their carbon footprint online, but she could not comment on whether utility companies could help by doing it for us, as that was actually another minister's responsibility.

I finally got a government quote that, hilariously, said that having the carbon footprint on domestic bills "may also be confusing and time-consuming for consumers", which having to take the kilowatt hours to a website and calculate it there isn't, presumably. The shadow Climate Change Minister, Greg Barker MP, was more optimistic, saying: "Energy suppliers must begin to give customers the information they need to make a more informed decision. This sounds like a very interesting idea that should be seriously looked at further."

Believing that it is better to ask nicely than to curse the power companies, I thought I would ask them myself. A quick survey of British Gas, NPower, EDF Energy and Scottish & Southern revealed that none were yet considering this, but nearly all of them thought it an interesting idea.

I finally went to the industry regulator, Ofgem, to see whether they would ask the utility companies to provide this help for consumers. Again, they hadn't given it any thought, so had no formal policy, but helpfully said that, in principle, they thought the idea was good providing that research was done to see if it was useful and what the cost implications were.

Having persuaded London Energy, way back in 1997, to break ranks with the industry and become the first utility to buy metered solar energy from my home in London, I would love to repeat the feat by tempting a utility company to become the first to provide carbon-emission information on its bills. The lucky CEO who rises to this Home Ecologist's challenge will get our Eco-Hero of the Month award – the prize being buying me a nice, cool organic cider!

Donnachadh McCarthy is an eco-auditor, and is author of 'Easy Eco-auditing';