Sunday, 13 July 2008

Do 'green' products really help the planet?

Eco-themed products are all the rage, but are they good value, asks James Daley
Saturday, 12 July 2008

Balancing your day-to-day needs with your responsibility to look after the environment is a challenge that most of us find hard to pull off. Taking the train instead of the plane across Europe may be more ecologically responsible, but the additional time and cost often makes it unfeasible. Likewise, while you might like the idea of buying food that's not been imported from the other side of the world, the extra cost and hassle of tracking down locally grown produce may be too great to help you resist simply buying your groceries at your local supermarket.
Ultimately, while most people are willing to make bold statements about their love of the environment, few are willing to make the major lifestyle changes that are required to make a real difference.
Such ethical apathy has helped to create a whole industry built around making it as easy as possible for consumers to soothe their aching eco-consciences – and in recent years, the financial services sector has been quick to jump on the bandwagon.
It's now possible to take out green insurance, green mortgages, green credit cards, green investments... The list goes on. Most work by promising to give a cut of your premium or interest to an environmental charity, or to buy carbon offsets. However, this is often reflected in the cost – with many green products failing to compete with the cheapest on the market.
David Kuo, head of personal finance at, says: "In general, finding good quality financial products is hard enough already, without tying your hands behind your back by saying you want something that's green as well as good value."
Kuo points out that if you can save money by going for a non-green product, there's nothing to stop you putting your savings towards good causes."If you can save money [by opting for a non-green product], you're free to decide what you want to do with those savings," he says.
The green financial services market, however, is not all about gimmickry. Organisations such as the Ecology Building Society play an active role in helping finance green projects around the UK. "Our building society was set up in 1981," says chief executive Paul Ellis, "long before the current wave of interest in all things green."
The Ecology mainly loans money to homeowners who want to make their property more environmentally friendly, or to sustainable housing projects, often providing finance to projects which might otherwise struggle to raise the money they need. The building society raises the money to lend through its range of savings accounts.
While Ellis admits that the society's savings rates are some way below the market's best, he has a good counter-argument to the cynics' suggestion that savers should go for the best possible rate, and then reinvest the additional interest. "It's worth thinking about how the interest rate on your account is generated," he says. "If it's generated by lending to projects that are harmful to the environment, then it may be worth thinking twice."
So which green financial products are really worth the money?
When it comes to the ethical mortgage market, there are more than a few different shades of green. Giraffe, for example, a specialist mortgage lender set up by the Bank of Ireland two years ago, offers a carbon-offset mortgage which, as the name suggests, promises to offset the carbon emissions from your home during the first three years of your mortgage.
While this sounds attractive, you may change your mind once you've seen the rate. For a three-year fixed-rate deal, Giraffe will charge you 7.99 per cent – more than 1.6 percentage points above the market leading rate offered by Nationwide. Furthermore, Giraffe goes about its carbon offsetting by buying up carbon credits, which some environmental campaigners believe to be of little help in the grand scheme of things.
Although Giraffe rightly says that by buying up carbon credits, it stops other polluting companies being able to buy them, there have been many reports of abuse in the carbon credits market – with many of the worst polluters still being given large handouts of the credits, so that they never need to buy them in the open market.
This couldn't be further from the concept behind the Ecology Building Society, however, where you'll only be eligible for a mortgage if you're willing to invest money in making your home energy efficient – or if you're already living in an eco-friendly property. The Ecology has a competitive standard variable rate of 6.45 per cent, but customers who meet certain energy efficiency benchmarks can receive discounts of up to 1.25 per cent – making their mortgages cheaper than anything else available in the open market at the moment.
Next best, in terms of its eco-credentials, is probably the Co-operative bank, which gives money to the environmental charity Climate Care each year for every mortgage on its books. Last year, it donated close to £300,000 – and has helped fund environmental education projects in Madagascar, wind turbines in India as well as conservation projects in Uganda. Although the sums of money aren't huge, Co-op has built environmentalism into its whole corporate ethos, which is becoming an increasingly strong draw for the eco-minded.
Norwich & Peterborough promises to plant 40 trees for each customer that takes out a Green mortgage with it – and its four-year discount rate of 6.35 per cent is not uncompetitive. And Hanley Building Society donates £200 to Climate Care for every green mortgage customer. Again, not a bad interest rate, but, like N&P, the one-off donation is not much more than a token.
"There is a premium to pay for going green and I am not convinced whether it is one worth paying," says Melanie Bien, director at independent mortgage broker Savills Private Finance. "It might be better choosing the best standard residential mortgage and then using any savings made – compared with opting for a green mortgage – to make a donation to an environmental charity of your choice."
Credit cards
There are a number of "green" credit cards on the market, which either make donations to charities for every pound you spend, or who hand a share of their profits out to worthy environmental causes. Barclaycard's Breathe, for example donates half of its profits to tackling climate change.
Furthermore, says David Black, the head of banking at financial consultants Defaqto, it doesn't offer bad value either. "It offers 0 per cent on balance transfers for 12 months, with a 2.5 per cent transaction fee, which is quite competitive," he says. The regular APR is a middle of the road 14.9 per cent, but this reduces to just 5.9 per cent for purchases of public transport tickets (except, somewhat curiously, in London).
Alternatively, opt for a card which donates directly to your favourite environmental charity, such as the Greenpeace Visa. This will donate £15 to the charity when you open your account, plus a further 25p for every £100 you spend. Like most charity credit cards, however, the regular APR of 18.9 per cent is high. Wildlife charity WWF offers a similar card, with a lower APR, and 0 per cent on balance transfers for 12 months.
The Co-operative bank offers perhaps the most competitive green credit card. Its "Think" card has an APR of just 12.9 per cent, and also gives 25p of every £100 spent to an environmental charity – in this case, Cool Earth. Plus, half an acre of Brazilian rainforest will be purchased and protected in your name when you open the account.
Black maintains, however, that for most customers, it makes sense to find the card that fits best with your spending habits and current financial situation. If you need a card with a long interest-free period for purchases, or a low APR, you may not be suited to any of the charity credit cards on the market. But there's no reason not to set up a direct debit to a charity on the same day that you take out your new card. To find the best charity cards, visit
The banking end of the green finance market has so far been the most gimmicky. Many banks will talk about "green banking" in terms of their efforts to wean their customers off paper statements. But this is a serious cost-saving for them – most of which will probably not end up in the pockets of environmental charities. HSBC is currently offering its customers £5 if they move to "green banking", but again, this is hardly a reflection of the saving it stands to make.
When it comes to green savings, Ecology is still one of the leaders. Its cash ISA pays a relatively competitive rate of 5.1 per cent if customers don't make more than one withdrawal during the year. More than one withdrawal and the rate drops to 4.1 per cent.
Although savers could do better, they can at least sleep easy knowing that their money is being used to finance good causes.
You'll also find a growing number of green investment funds on the market – some of which are much greener than others. Make sure you read the literature carefully, and understand exactly how they claim to justify their green status. You can search for ethical funds at
Useful links:,,,,,,,
Insurance and the price of carbon offsetting
The green fad has been slowly creeping into all types of insurance – but for now, there are still only a relatively small number of products available.
Once again, it was the Co-op which led the way in this market, launching a motor insurance policy two years ago, which promises to offset 20 per cent of all customers' car emissions. Today, it offers this to all customers who sign up with it, and also makes other environmental commitments, such as using mechanics who promise to always try and repair a vehicle before scrapping it.
A newer entrant to the market, The Green Insurance Company, goes one step further, offering to offset 100 per cent of your emissions over the year.
Another slightly different approach in the motor market is More Than's Green Wheels policy, which allows customers to put a device in their car to analyse their driving, and provide them with pointers on how they could reduce their carbon emissions. Drivers who accelerate too quickly or drive too fast tend to be the worse polluters – so by examining your behaviour, you could help to cut your emissions, and your petrol bill. The service is free for all More Than car insurance customers.
In the travel market, climatesure, which is backed by AXA, promises to pay for the carbon offsets of any trip you make. While in the home market, the Environmental Transport Association pledges to offset the emissions caused by heating and electricity in the home for all policy-holders.
With all these products, the one thing to watch out for is the price. Climatesure's insurance, for example, is more expensive than buying regular travel insurance – but it can be competitive when comparing the combined cost of separate insurance and carbon offsets. It's always worth comparing green products with plain vanilla insurance, and working out how much you could save.

Giant turbines to make north Windy Central

Northumberland is to get the world’s biggest wind farm Energy machines
Jonathan Leake

The world’s two most powerful wind turbines, with blades up to 500ft in diameter, are to be built on the Northumberland coast in clear view of northeast England’s most renowned shorelines.
One will tower over Blyth, a rundown former shipbuilding centre whose construction yards are being used to assemble the giant machines.
The other will stand in shallow waters just off the town where it will be used as a prototype for the hundreds of machines planned for wind farms in the North Sea.
The two machines are planned to be up to 650ft high, including their blades. At that height they would be more than 200ft taller than the current tallest turbines in Britain. They would also dwarf Nelson’s column, which is about 170ft high, and outstrip the Gherkin office tower in the City at 591ft. Each could generate up to 7.5 mega-watts of power, enough for 4,000-5,000 homes.
Such projects alarm environmentalists who warn that the thousands of giant turbines planned by the government will destroy Britain’s last unspoilt landscapes.
Others disagree. Charles Rose, director of Hainsford Energy, which was last week granted planning permission for the giant onshore turbine, plus six smaller ones, said he believed such machines could enhance the landscape. “These turbines will become icons for the whole wind energy industry,” said Rose. “What’s more, they will be largely built in this country.”
The second giant machine, to be built offshore, has been commissioned by the Crown Estate. Rob Hastings, director of marine estates at the estate, said the aim was to boost the development of tall wind turbines. “This is a great opportunity to help establish a new industrial base to advance the UK’s leadership in renewable energy.”
All the machines are to be built by Clipper Windpower Marine, a California company that runs wind farms in America.
It has taken over part of the former dockyards at Blyth next to the government-sponsored New and Renewable Energy Centre, one of the few sites in the world capable of testing the blades for such big machines.
David Still, the managing director of Clipper, said: “There are great economies of scale in building large turbines. We may eventually go even bigger.”
The sheer scale of such projects shows the opportunities and risks involved with converting Britain to wind power.
The government has said it wants to generate 15% of Britain’s energy from renewable sources by 2020. Since there are no easy substitutes for transport fuels or gas, most of this will have to come from green electricity.
Some hope the project will make the recession-hit northeast the hub of Britain’s burgeoning renewable energy industry.
Blyth is ideally placed. Its deep harbour and shipyards have placed it at the heart of the wind power industry. In 1993 Britain’s first wind farm was built around its harbour.
The nine turbines had a maximum capacity of just 300kW and stood just 140ft high.
Rose plans to replace these with the six new 2.5MW machines, each standing 340ft high, including blades, and generating eight times as much power. The larger “landmark” machine will be sited on a near-by wharf.
For now, the world’s most powerful wind turbines are in Germany where two Enercon E-126 machines were recently installed in Emden. They are about the same height as those planned for Blyth but slightly less powerful at 7MW.
However, some environmental groups warn that the rush for renewable energy could destroy landscapes.
Neil Sinden, policy director of the Campaign to Protect Rural England, said: “Climate change is the overwhelming threat to the environment but it would be madness to desecrate the countryside, one of the nation’s most valued environmental assets, in tackling it.”
Additional reporting: Georgia Warren

So, just how green will the eco-towns be?

The plan to build 10 new eco-towns across the UK has been beset by fierce local opposition and concerns over the state of the housing market. But there has been little examination of the towns' green credentials. Robert Booth went to two of the proposed sites to discover how 'eco' they will be
Robert Booth
The Observer,
Sunday July 13, 2008

By the banks of the fast-flowing Arun, fields of corn ripen in the summer showers and peas soak up the late evening sun. It is a picture of productive plenty on the fertile farmlands of southern England.
But in less than two years all this could be torn up by fleets of diggers to create an eco-town - Gordon Brown's utopian, but increasingly fragile, vision for housing in the 21st century.
On 350 hectares spread between the pretty villages of Yapton, Climping and Ford, a consortium of local landowners and housebuilders Redrow Homes and Wates Developments want to build 5,000 homes in a supposedly carbon-neutral town. Cycle lanes and footpaths will wind between allotments and 'eco-gardens' to zero-carbon homes fitted with solar panels and wind turbines. A vast biomass boiler will produce communal electricity, topped up by hydro-electric power from the ebb and flow of the river. It will be a 'healthy, vibrant and engaged community', the consortium promises.
Rubbish, say many local residents, who have formed a highly organised campaign group to block the plan. They say the eco-town will damage local countryside and wildlife and only create, rather than solve, environmental problems; they claim it will become just another enclave of car dependence.
Ford is bidding to become one of up to 10 eco-towns - chosen from a list of 13 contenders - providing 100,000 new homes by 2020, but problems for the programme, which stretches from Yorkshire to Cornwall, are mounting.
The Observer has learnt that the government's decision on which sites will go ahead has been postponed until the end of the year at the earliest - partly because of problems identified by a panel of experts appointed to scrutinise the bids. 'Some of the sites have changed; they have reduced in size or numbers of houses,' said Caroline Flint, the Housing Minister. 'We are going to have to think about making sure we have a timetable that allows us to do the best appraisal we can, but might have to allow a little more time.' Furthermore, thousands of redundancies were announced this week at housebuilders Persimmon, Bovis Homes, Redrow and Barratt.
Lord Rogers, the Labour peer and award-winning architect who was also a former government adviser on towns and cities, has branded eco-towns as 'one of the biggest mistakes the government can make'. The Local Government Association has said they will be 'eco-slums of the future' if they are built without regard to where residents can get jobs or training. Even the Conservatives, who recently experimented with a rebranding in green, believe that the claim that eco-towns will be environmentally sustainable is 'a sham'. There is a gathering sense that the eco-towns initiative hangs in the balance.
But is the idea, announced by Brown in the buoyant days before he assumed his premiership last summer, really as bad as all that opposition suggests? After all, a YouGov poll at the end of last month showed 46 per cent of adults supported eco-towns and that only 9 per cent were opposed (although, perhaps tellingly, far fewer said they would support a development within five miles of their home).
The good and bad sides of the eco-town initiative are embodied in two proposed sites straddling the picturesque border between Hampshire and West Sussex. Bordon Whitehill, a scruffy garrison town on the edge of the South Downs in east Hampshire, is a leading contender to secure eco-town status. Even the Campaign to Protect Rural England, which has called on the government to go 'back to the drawing board' on the whole project, has given it conditional backing.
That is because Bordon Whitehill is one of the few proposals planned almost solely on brownfield land. Its 5,500 homes - just over the minimum 5,000 needed to qualify for eco-town status - will be built in place of tarmac parade grounds, tank garages and barracks that will be left behind when the army training camp moves to South Wales. Fifteen thousand people already live in the town, which means that the eco-town's infrastructure has a head start. The numerous tattoo parlours and betting shops that serve the soldiers might not be much use for the eco-townies, but the cottage hospital, three churches, schools and pubs will certainly stay. There's even super-high-speed, military-standard broadband already installed.
The emerging vision is for car-free residential streets lined with allotments and gardens, with the area's managed forests used to build prefabricated wooden housing. Existing homes will be retro-fitted with solar panels and wind power.However, if you travel 40 miles east, the canvas is rather blanker and, for opponents of eco-towns, bleaker. The Ford eco-town is proposed for swaths of low-lying arable land and an airstrip between three villages in the Arun district of West Sussex. The plan features 5,000 homes, with at least a third targeted at the area's large ageing population.
Opposition to the proposal is palpable. Hundreds of 'No Ford Eco-town' placards are fixed to gateposts, fences and hedges of the attractive country houses and cottages in local villages. Last month 2,000 people marched in protest at the plan; 10,000 have signed petitions against it; and nine parish and town councils in the area have signed letters of opposition. With an eye to lending their campaign a topical edge, they point out the twisted logic of ripping up fertile cornfields in the name of the environment when there are global food shortages.
'There's a housing shortage, a food shortage and oil prices are soaring - and it all comes together here,' says Terry Knott, co-chairman of the Communities Against Ford Eco-town campaign. A former Royal Marines officer living in Yapton, Knott, adds: 'Gordon Brown has been on the radio urging us not to waste food, so it would be a strange move to rip up these fields. There is enough agricultural land on the site to keep the 26,000 residents of the nearby town of Littlehampton in bread.'
The government is understood to have placed Ford among the least likely proposals to be granted eco-town status. Puzzlingly for a policy that Caroline Flint has said was about alleviating 'extreme pressure both in terms of supply and affordability' of housing, the need for new homes in both areas is far from clear-cut.
'We haven't got a classic housing shortage,' admits David Parkinson, deputy leader of East Hampshire District Council, which is leading the Bordon Whitehill bid. 'A lot of people in Bordon Whitehill have said this will be over-development, but the government has made it so our minimum requirement for eco-town status is 5,000 homes. We want to grow our economy and we want those people who go to Guildford, Farnham and London in the 25-40 age group to come back to East Hampshire. We have an ageing population and it doesn't give us a vibrant economic base from which to build a community long term.'
Over in Ford, the village of 1,400 which gives its name to the eco-town, there is only one houshold on Arun District Council's waiting list, while there are 1,605 seven miles away in Bognor Regis and 861 in Littlehampton, three miles away.
'It makes the 5,000 homes proposed here look like overkill and people are very angry,' said Knott. 'The people on these waiting lists are on relatively low incomes and probably don't have a car. They want to live near their mates and near their jobs, not out in the country.'
Keith Annis, Redrow's regional planning director, who is leading the bid, said rapid public transport connections from the eco-town to Bognor and Littlehampton will solve that problem, making the field and airstrips of the Ford site the best available site in the locality. 'In terms of environmental impact, this is benign compared to a normal housing development,' he said.
Among eco-town supporters, there is a feeling that this should be a time for dreaming of a utopia as much as worrying about housing targets. So that is exactly what Wendy Shillam, the planner in charge of design for the Bordon Whitehill bid (her first job was helping to design Milton Keynes), is doing. On Wednesday she took a hat stand to the town's Phoenix Theatre and asked children to imagine it as a tree under which they had fallen asleep and woken up 20 years later. What would the eco-town around them look like?
The council is keen on such brainstorming. Shillam's boss, East Hampshire District Council chief executive Will Godfrey, pulls out a sheaf of felt-tip scrawlings by a class at Mill Chase secondary school. They want safer walking areas, better youth clubs, a branch of Primark for the girls and Madhouse for the boys, and even skiing and rock climbing.
'We are not trying to create a 1960s new town,' Godfrey insists. 'Over the last 50 years, people have grown up believing it is normal to commute 50 miles, but that is not sustainable for the 21st century.'
The dream is that, by winning eco-town status, Bordon Whitehill will attract a new kind of employer keen to polish the green sheen of its image. Three-quarters of the dwellings will be houses rather than flats to attract economically active young families. Cars will have to be left at the edges of new areas of housing and residents will walk or cycle on 'eco-streets' lined with allotments. A bus service will ply a figure-of-eight through the town. Homes could be built from prefabricated wooden panels sourced from local managed woodlands. Sewage is being investigated as a possible fuel for the biomass power station.
Godfrey said he was determined to involve the local community in drawing up the plan and had avoided publishing any architects' images of what the town might look like. Continuing to consult the community 'is much more important to me than a consultant's report, because this is created by real people who are going to live here in 20 years' time'.
There is strong local support. A poll of 1,161 residents in East Hampshire last October found that 77 per cent believe the Bordon Whitehill eco-town bid is 'a real opportunity to develop a new kind of town'.
'The circumstances of this bid are completely different to a greenfield development,' said Ian Dowdle, 53, the owner of a bike shop on the tatty parade of shops that serves Bordon Whitehill. 'This is about safeguarding our environment. When you think about the price of fuel, eco-towns look the best way there is to live in the future in this country.'
Dan Powell, a 17-year-old carpenter, said the plans offer him hope of affording a home in an area where the average house price is £250,000: 'It would be good to make this town bigger because there's really not much going on. It's really hard to get an affordable house round here.' Jane Wilson, a 54-year-old housewife, agreed: 'The town needs much more development, but there is a feeling that this could amount to empty promises and I don't think the eco-town tag is convincing. The thought of it becoming another Basingstoke with one roundabout after another isn't a good thing.'
Despite the lack of detail, Wayne Hemingway, the fashion designer turned housing designer who is helping to vet the proposals for the government, said Bordon Whitehill has 'strong potential'.
'It is wanted by the locals and the council,' he said. 'It also seems sensible to build on brownfield land and this is in a nice part of the world in easy reach of London.' The Ford eco-town seems less popular. TV presenter and local resident Ben Fogle has become the poster boy of the 'no' campaign. He stood up at last month's march and said: 'For heaven's sake don't get rid of some of the most productive arable land in one of the most built-up counties in England ... At a time when food prices are at an all-time high and we're trying to eat local produce and reduce food's air miles, this government thinks it prudent to build over these bountiful fields ... New Labour may want to turn the countryside concrete-grey, but we will fight for our green, productive lands.'
Gazing over those fields on a sunny evening, Knott said the bid was 'like shoe-horning a size-10 foot into a size-four shoe'. He said: 'They will have to pack so many houses into it to make a profit and in today's housing market nobody is sure a profit will be possible.'
Developers appear to be deciding just that, adding to the sense of an initiative in doubt. Gallagher Estates has withdrawn from proposals south of Bedford and the consortium behind plans for a 5,000-home eco-town called Curborough, near Lichfield in Staffordshire, has pulled out. Flint has also told opponents of the scheme that a decision may not be made on the selected sites until next year and that the government's own advisers were trimming their expectations.
'If they are not good enough, the government should say no,' said Hemingway. 'The idea was to get 10 eco-towns away, but I think that if we could get one brilliant one away that would be fine.'
With Gordon Brown having invested such personal political capital in the scheme, it will take a brave Housing Minister to do that.
The contenders
Pennbury, Leicestershire
Middle Quinton, Warwickshire
Bordon and Whitehill, Hampshire
Weston Otmoor, Oxfordshire
Ford, West Sussex
St Austell, Cornwall
Rossington, South Yorkshire
Coltishall, Norfolk
Hanley Grange, Cambridgeshire
Marston Vale, Bedfordshire
North East Elsenham, Essex
Rushcliffe, Nottinghamshire
Leeds City Region, Yorkshire

Trade minister Lord Jones hits out at green tax on flights

Dominic O’Connell, Deputy Business Editor

Lord Jones, the outspoken trade minister, has attacked a government plan to raise £2.5 billion through a green tax on flights, claiming that it will damage competitiveness.
His criticisms, made in a private letter last month to Angela Eagle, the Treasury minister, are a further embarrassment for Labour over tax policy.
Last week the government admitted proposed changes to vehicle excise duty would leave 43% of motorists worse off. This followed earlier rows over the abolition of the 10p tax band, changes to capital gains tax and reforms of nondomicile rules, a measure Jones also criticised when it was first mooted.
Jones’s letter to Eagle was sent on June 6, six weeks after the Treasury closed its consultation on the tax, which will replace air passenger duty (APD).

Senior aviation industry sources who have seen it said Jones warned that the tax would damage Britain’s “international competitiveness” and “our ability to attract inward investment.” Both areas are part of his remit as trade and investment minister.
He also drew attention to the possible risk of air freight companies such as Federal Express and DHL moving large-scale operations out of Britain.
The Treasury confirmed that Eagle had received the letter but declined to comment further. A spokeswoman for Jones said: “We do not comment on leaked documents nor on the content of private correspondence between ministers.”
Digby Jones, a former director-general of the Confederation of British Industry, was made a minister by Gordon Brown last July in his “government of all the talents” to appoint experts from outside the Labour party. Jones was made a peer and given the trade promotion portfolio but he has not become a member of the Labour party.
The flight levy, which the Treasury says will help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, is proposed as a replacement for APD which has been in place for more than a decade. The duty was doubled last year, with passengers paying up to £80 for a one-way trip.
The Treasury wants to change the basis of the duty, moving it from individual passengers to a per-plane basis – including freighters, which are excluded from the scheme. This will raise £2.5 billion a year by 2010, £500m more than APD.
The tax switch, scheduled for November next year, is opposed by many in the aviation industry who say it will penalise flights using British airports and drive away both freight and passenger business.