When good neighbours become green
In a new take on reducing emissions, it seems carbon trading, like charity, begins at home.
Neesh Wray and Shaun Murray have just one low-energy light switched on in their Yarraville weatherboard home. It's illuminating the cosy living room, where a small band of locals are drinking tea and talking about catastrophic climate change.
A meeting of the Westside Carbon Rationing Action Group has just begun. "We see it as an emergency," says Murray, discussing new evidence of melting Arctic sea ice. But that's enough talk of gloom and doom for the 32-year-old music teacher. "That's the climate rave done," he says. "Now, moving on, we're here to do something about it."
In Canberra, the Federal Government is absorbing Professor Ross Garnaut's final advice on an emissions trading scheme for big business polluters. In Melbourne, neighbours are taking carbon cutting into their own hands and homes.
Carbon rationing action groups, or CRAGs, were first formed in Britain. There, after one year, a survey of seven groups showed that members had reduced their footprints by almost a third.
Here's how it works: friends or neighbours gather and calculate their carbon emissions - usually covering electricity and gas, as well as car use and flights. CRAG members then set individual reduction targets and meet monthly, sharing tips, stories and progress reports. Some groups even fix fines for exceeding cap, to be paid to an eco charity.
The Westside CRAG has not been so strict. It has met half a dozen times, chatting about how to cut gas and power use, and about the embodied energy in red meat and dairy products.
Murray and Wray have slashed their own carbon pollution and plan to keep improving their habits and their house. "A huge amount of our emissions are the actions of individuals in the way we consume," Murray says. "I think in order not to be a hypocrite it's important that your own life reflects the change that you want to see in society."
Tonight, Steve, a Footscray postman and new member of the group, has brought along a stack of bills. He hands them to Murray, who keys the numbers into an online emissions calculator. As he taps away, conversation simmers over the best brands of green power, the high electricity use of kettles and the efficiency of laptops compared to desktop computers.
Wray explains how she and Murray have cut their electricity consumption to less than a 10th of the national average. A gizmo called a "power mate" helped them work out which appliances use the most power. Another CRAG member, Terry, has done the same in his home and was shocked at the guzzling by electrical goods set to standby. "Fourteen per cent of my power usage was standby power. I was amazed," he says.
Westside isn't the only group of its kind in Melbourne. Across town, the Manningham Council has its own CRAG. Once a month, about 50 residents occupy the council chambers and learn how to make their homes more efficient. Conservation officer Bill Pemberton organises meetings on issues from insulation and double-glazing to green power and carbon offsetting. The council has already facilitated a bulk discount purchase of solar power systems for CRAG members and is doing the same for solar hot water.
The attendees' carbon footprints vary, from well above average to very low. Pemberton says he has seen people "switch on" to the issues, and is sure their next results will be lower. "One of the major benefits of CRAGs is sharing of knowledge," he says, and the sharing spreads beyond the group. "There are people who have gone to their church and now they are setting up audits of their church facilities."
In central Victoria, the Mount Alexander Sustainability Group - boasting about 700 eco-minded residents - is also about to start a CRAG. Committee member Felicity Faris believes CRAGs are the perfect approach for local climate change action. "It's really a good model for community participation because it's supportive and it's self-regulating, and people are working towards something within a group that makes them feel valued."
She is planning cash penalties for CRAG members who do not meet their pledge. The money will go to retrofitting efficient technologies at low-income households in the shire. "We're aiming for a 20% (emission) reduction for each person or household," she says. "We hope there won't be any defaults so, hopefully, at the end we'll be scratching around for some money for the retrofitting anyway."
Back in Yarraville, Steve's calculation is almost in. He sounds a little nervous. "How good am I? Or should that be how bad am I?" he asks. Taking green power into account, which cuts electricity off his scorecard, he registers 4.6 tonnes of carbon emissions in the past year. That's about half the Australian average under this model of calculation, which excludes food and other purchases of goods and services.
Still, Steve is sure he can do better. The group offer suggestions, from adding extra insulation and sealing draughts, to buying a thermometer so he knows how hot his living room is. "I've been overusing my gas heater," Steve says. "I'll have to cut back on that."
A key to the CRAG model is the calculation stage, which is often the first time people understand the link between their habits and their emissions. It can be otherwise hard to connect a decision to leave extra lights switched on with the electricity bill that comes months later.
Yet for the CRAG members the benefit of their new knowledge goes not only to the atmosphere, but also to the back pocket. Wray and Murray now spend more on their electricity connection fee than on consumption.
"For a lot of people it's possible to make massive reductions in emissions," Murray says. "If our household can reduce our emissions by 95% in two years, then why can't government do something about it?"