Becoming Dr. Love: Part 2 (what occupants do)

Jenny Love, UCL Energy Institute

In my previous post here, I described the process of PhD data collection and some of the odd things which can happen when carrying it out. After publishing that post I went quiet for a bit to concentrate on the small matter of turning the data into a 90,000 word thesis. Having done that, and then recovering by alternating between sleep and eating nutella out of the jar, I am ready to face the world again. So in this post and the next one I’ll be describing some of my findings.


In this post I’ll talk about what light was shed on the complexities of occupant behaviour in the context of retrofit: how occupants change their heating behaviour afterwards, and why internal temperatures increase.  In the next post I’ll report some implications of this concerning whether our current retrofit strategy for social housing goes far enough.

What was I trying to find out?

There is a general concern that retrofit, here referring to insulation of dwellings, doesn’t save as much energy as it should for all the effort of wrapping a house up in a blanket. That’s because it is suspected that instead of what  is ‘supposed’ to happen (i.e. the occupants keep the heating at the same level after the retrofit and save energy), occupants will take this chance to heat to higher temperatures or for longer, and not save much energy after all. This is especially expected to happen in ‘fuel poor’ households: those who before retrofit struggle to heat their home to the temperature they would want, for whom insulation might mean they can be warmer.

As I described in more detail in the last post, instead of looking at just outcomes of retrofit  (i.e. these people saved X kWh of energy, or it was X degrees warmer in their house afterwards), I looked also at what actually happened in the homes: what did occupants think the retrofit was all about; how had they changed their use of heating since; were they using their home differently and was this requiring more or less energy? So the sort of things I was measuring were: their use of radiators, air temperature and humidity, and use of space;  I also interviewed the occupants before and after.

Variety in occupant reactions

When you wrap up a building in a big pink jumper (see photo below), it will lose heat less quickly afterwards, and so its average temperature will increase without the occupants doing anything.


But how occupants then react to this natural temperature increase is different in different households. I found three types of occupant reaction, ranging from occupants practically eliminating their use of heating to occupants using more hours of heating:

1. Temperature increase from the building, counteracted by occupants

Two of the case study households turned down the heating so much that the temperature went down after retrofit. However, they reported feeling warmer. How could both of these phenomena have come about? Here’s what I could gather from my data…

Both of these households had an income cut around the time of the retrofit and were really struggling for money. Also, before the retrofit they were both expecting the retrofit to lead to a warmer house with less heating needed. This could explain why they turned the heating down so much. But why did they feel warmer? I looked in the air temperature data: had the particular rooms they used got warmer at the times they used them? Or had the daily minimum temperature they experienced increased, say, when they got up in the morning? Neither of these had occurred. I had to conclude that there must be other comfort variables at work, like radiant temperature.

2. Temperature increase from the building, no change in occupant behaviour

These occupants carried on using the heating in pretty much the same way as before: they didn’t turn anything down, and they didn’t turn anything up. As was mentioned above and will be further explained below, this still leads to an increase in internal temperature.

3. Temperature Increase from the building, then occupants used more heating

Two different and interesting processes were seen in households who used the heating more after retrofit.

In one flat,  the occupant didn’t really bother with the central heating before the retrofit since the building was so leaky that it didn’t seem to make a difference. He heated the living room with a gas fire and stayed in there. After the retrofit he started using the central heating since it now actually did something.

In another case, even though the insulation made the house warmer, different rooms warmed up by different amounts. This had the effect of making the occupants’ bedroom feel cold, as it hadn’t warmed up as much as some other rooms. So they started heating the whole house all evening, so that their bedroom would be warm enough by the time they wanted to use it.

Turning heating up, down, the same…does that mean that anything can happen?

Yes. I will argue in my next post that with this type of ‘shallow’ retrofit (10 cm of insulation), it’s very difficult to predict the outcomes since you leave a lot of room for different outcomes to be possible, especially when new occupants move in. However we only started to see a glimpse of the range of possible outcomes. With the same people living there after retrofit as before, occupants probably aren’t going to massively increase their energy use after retrofit so we probably aren’t going to see those kind of outcomes.

Also, just because occupants reacted in a variety of ways, doesn’t mean that how they reacted totally determined the outcome. As we’ve seen, the building theoretically has a lot to do with it. We can try to quantify its influence in a few ways…

In most houses there was a temperature increase. What was it mostly caused by?

The answer is not the occupants but the building itself. How can I know this? By looking at when it occurred…

Firstly, most of the temperature increase compared to the previous year occurred when the heating was off. That is, the times when the heating was off, post-retrofit, were warmer than the times the heating was off pre-retrofit. I had a fancy equation to calculate how much of the temperature increase occurred during unheated hours, and it turned out to be 77-87% across the houses.

Within this, quite a bit of the temperature increase happened at night. It’s possible to see the houses cooling down slower at night, when the heating was off, whilst the occupants are fast asleep and therefore not thinking, ‘I know, I’ll increase the temperature in my dwelling’.

In some houses, the hours in which the heating was on got warmer after retrofit (accounting for 5%-23% of the temperature increase). This wasn’t due to people turning up the thermostats. It was either that the thermostat was at a sensible setting and the building was too leaky to get that warm before retrofit, or the thermostat was at a non-sensible setting like 30C (for whatever reason) and the heating system tried its hardest but still couldn’t reach it.

What to make of all this

The first point is that if the temperature increases in someone’s home after retrofit, it’s not necessarily their fault or their intention. To get the temperature not to increase, occupants would have to shorten their daily heating period by quite a few hours. Even when they increase their hours of heating, most of the temperature increase is still attributable to the building cooling down more slowly. So we can stop occupant-blaming.

not guilty

Secondly, there was quite a large range in terms of how occupants reacted, and whether they turned heating up or down, which makes it difficult to predict outcomes. However, this was a small range compared to what could have happened. I haven’t explained this statement yet, as I explore this further in the next post, where I talk about the effect of new tenants moving in over time –  and how the current way we do retrofit means we can’t guarantee energy savings afterwards.

That’s all for now – but feel free to get in touch with me if you would like any more detail on the sort of mechanisms I uncovered or if you have any questions:

Should we invest in Carbon Capture and Storage?

power station

Jenny Love, UCL Energy Institute

Based on a lecture by Prof Geoff Maitland, Imperial College, London

1. Context

In the energy field, a common saying is, “There’s no silver bullet”. That is, there does not exist a solution to the question of which single clean energy source we should use, since energy demand is too large for any of them to supply on its own and thus we need to combine a lot of technologies. However, when it comes to funding to get these technologies off the ground, there are a lot of possible energy sources and not enough money to fund them all. Therefore the limited money should be used to fund the most promising ones, and this requires a kind of competition between technologies to show that they are more viable than others, in contradiction to our acknowledgement that we need a combination of them.

Carbon capture and storage – the processes of recovering CO2 before it is released into the atmosphere and burying it underground –  entails high costs to bring it to commercial reality. In this context of limited funding, what is its potential, and should we invest in it over other technologies?

The following simple overview is mostly shaped by a recent lecture by Professor Geoff Maitland of Imperial College London, filtered of course through my own interpretation and limited understanding.

2. Some brief science

I won’t talk much about the science of carbon capture and storage (CCS) as it can be found elsewhere if you’re interested. Briefly:

There are three ways to do the ‘capture’ part of CCS (which, by the way, is the most expensive bit). You can capture the carbon before or after the burning of fuel (‘pre- or post- combustion’, or you can burn the fuel in a special way (‘oxyfuel’).

Once captured, the CO2 is transported usually via a pipeline, and injected deep into underground spaces as a supercritical fluid (not too quickly, otherwise the rock will crack). Once it’s there, we have to make sure it stays in – from my simplistic understanding, by a combination of not letting it escape while it’s a gas (‘capillary trapping’), getting it to dissolve in water (‘dissolution’) and longer-term getting it to solidify (‘mineralisation’).

3. How positive or negative are the benefits and disbenefits of CCS?

Maitland argues that after energy efficiency, CCS is the cheapest and greenest way to mitigate climate change. He does not by any means suggest that we don’t need other technologies too – for example he points out that even in theory only a third of our CO2 emissions can actually be captured and buried (10 gigatonnes out of our global annual release of 30 gigatonnes). This is because many CO2-releasing applications are not stationary large power stations, but e.g. moving vehicles and domestic boilers, which it would not be cost-effective to fit with CCS.

CCS advocates often describe themselves as realists, since their premise is that fossil fuels are here to stay, at least while we transition [slowly] to a low-carbon economy, and especially for developing countries. Therefore  CCS is absolutely essential if we are going to mitigate climate change.

Concerns have been raised about the effectiveness of CCS, especially in terms of the energy it takes to do which decreases the overall energy produced at the power station, the safety and guarantee of storing CO2 underground, and the time it will take to get enough plants working. A Greenpeace document, False Hope, lays out some of these concerns. Maitland’s argument is that while these are real concerns, their extent is not is great as purported in the Greenpeace report.

4. What is the current state of the technology?

According to Maitland, the technology is “in good shape and ready for widespread deployment”. Its constituent parts, such as capturing CO2, and pumping gas into underground reservoirs, have actually existed for decades due to their use by different industries.

There are various CCS pilot projects going on around the world at the moment, including:

– An interesting project in Masdar, United Arab Emirates, who are powering the capture process by concentrated solar power, here:

– A plant operating since 2004 in Algeria, here:

– A French plant operated by Total, here:

As for the UK,  CCS is part of the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC)’s heat strategy to 2050. For the moment, the government and the UK research councils are going to help fund the construction of up to 2 commercial projects. Those two look like they will be in Aberdeen and Yorkshire. The decision as to whether they will both go ahead will be made in early 2015.

5. So if the technology is ready, why isn’t it being done commercially?

It comes down to lack of two things: incentives and certainty. Lack of incentives is seen in that carbon is not taxed according to the environmental damage it does; lack of certainty in that the carbon price and future regulation about carbon storage have not been set out. Is is therefore too risky for companies to invest in CCS assuming that it will be economic in the future.

6. Conclusion

I’d like to conclude with the following statement from Maitland’s lecture: “The real cost of energy from fossil fuels is the generation costs PLUS the CO2 mitigation costs”.

In other words, at the moment we’re paying an artificially low price for energy, and any way in which we generate clean energy in the future will come with an increase in energy price. But, remembering the Stern report in 2006, it’s cheaper to pay more for clean energy now then clear up after the mess we make from global warming.

I think we need CCS; I agree with Maitland that we should develop it now but then phase it out if non-fossil-fuel energy can one day provide for energy demand. The main thing we need to get it going is a decent carbon tax, then industry will be falling over to buy CCS and no one will have to wait for government funding.

(More detailed information for keen people here)

A different view of climate change


What do you think of the infographic below? It was created by

Its raison d’etre:” Many of us hear the term climate change, but don’t really know how climate change is changing the environment and what it means to inhabitants of earth. This infographic will show how bad climate change has become and what it means for all of us.”

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Where does our recycling actually go?

Jenny Love, UCL Energy Institute

Let’s face it, we don’t know, do we? In my office, I shove most of my recycling in here (see below), occasionally wondering why it’s necessary to clean food containers, but on the whole glad someone else takes care of my waste:


The story about to be told is a mixed one. Although recycling capacity has dramatically improved over the last decade, I’ll try to demonstrate how the UK’s drive for quantity at the expense of quality has ended up with much of our waste going across the world for reprocessing. I’ll argue that one way to keep it in the UK is for us to put some effort into finding out what we can recycle and taking the advice of that sign in my office –  clean our items.

  1. The sorting process

From your recycling bin, the waste makes its way to a Materials Recovery Facility
(MRF) to be sorted. I live in Wandsworth, London. Our council has a nice and reasonably honest document on recycling:

There I learned that the council has a contract with a private company (like all councils, I guess) to take our waste to the local MRF in Kent.

There are some clever automated techniques used to sort materials. Some rely on size (e.g. broken glass falls through holes as everything else is bounced along a converyor belt), others on weight (a jet of air blows paper off the conveyor belt), some on shape and weight (horizontal shaking sends light flat materials to the top of a pile whilst small denser ones like cans and bottles go to the bottom), magnetism picks up steel, and clever use of electric currents detects non-magnetic metals including aluminium. Many materials then need further separation, including plastics, but it’s not yet done in the UK (see section 3). The final quality control is done by people.

If you’d like to visualise it, here’s a nice video of the sorting process used in south-west England:

However, there are two main factors which muck up this sorting process.  Firstly, incorrect items being put in the recycling. These have to be picked out, sometimes by hand, and put into landfill. If they’re not spotted, they compromise the quality of the reprocessed material.

The other factor is contaminant on a material – e.g. grease on paper, cheese on pizza boxes. This also compromises the quality of the reprocessed material. I had always assumed that materials like cardboard would be washed as part of the recycling process, but it turns out that we’re supposed to do that before we put it in the recycling. It also turns out that the cost of dealing with these contaminants is driving up the cost of reprocessing (the next step after the MRF) so much that we often can’t afford to do the reprocessing in the UK (more on this later). Resource Association chief executive Ray Georgeson said: “The drive for quantity has come in part at the expense of quality, and what might be seen as the delivery of cost savings at the collection end of recycling appears simply to be shifting costs into the manufacturing end of recycling.” That is, allowing us to shove everything in the ‘all waste except food’ bin with very minimal instruction is costing us down the line at the stage when sorted waste is to be made into new products. ( ).

2. What is reprocessed in the UK?

Here’s a nice visual where you can click on a material and see if it’s reprocessed in the UK or not:

We can recycle steel (in Wales), aluminium (Midlands),glass and paper (Cheshire), some types of plastic (various destinations), and paper (all the newsprint made in the UK is from recycled paper).

Something I want to know is: what about mixed-material packaging, like envelopes and
sandwich wrappers? I love buying a Sainsbury’s Meal Deal due to the (entirely false) feeling of beating the system when I only spend £3 as opposed to the sum of the constituent sandwich, crisps and drink. But the sandwich wrapper is lined with plastic and has a film on the front. Surely the label ‘Bag – paper: widely recycled” is untrue?


3. What is not reprocessed in the UK, and why?

Cartons are a relatively newly recyclable item. Therefore they have to go to a plant in Sweden, where the aluminium and plastic linings can be separated from the cardboard, the former being used for energy, the latter recycled.

The material with the most media attention is plastic. It is actually more profitable to send plastic to China for reprocessing than doing it in the UK. This is because China will pay a lot more for our waste than we can pay in the UK! Ways in which their costs are cut down include: plastic being sent on otherwise-empty ships which have come from China to the UK carrying all the stuff we bought from there, migrant workers being paid very low wages, and not always a lot of concern for the quality or contamination level of the plastic we sell to China.

The Guardian states that, “No detailed studies have been done of the environmental costs of shipping vast quantities of waste from Britain to China”

It claims that we only have plastic recycling now because China actually wants our rubbish. Plastic collection wouldn’t go ahead in the UK at all without this Chinese link. I don’t know exactly how true that is but it does seem that some UK reprocessing plants have gone out of business in recent years.

Is there anything to stop our waste going across the world? Not really. Perusing the DEFRA regulation yielded that although we’re not allowed to accept or export waste for disposal, we are allowed to accept or export waste for reprocessing. In fact, it is encouraged; the following is from DEFRA’s UK Plan for Shipment of Waste (2012):

“The Government has two main policy objectives relevant to shipments of waste for recovery:

–  to encourage international trade in waste for recovery where this is of environmental benefit in driving up levels of recovery at national, EU and global levels;

– to prevent damage to human health or the environment occurring as a result of this international trade.”

But my question is this: how do we know the ‘environmental benefit’ of this process if it is true that there are no good studies of the environmental damage from the transportation?

India rubbish picking

Here is some interesting further reading on the social, environmental and chemical factors involved in plastic recycling:

4. What can we as consumers do to help?

A point made over and over again, not just be me but  by experts such as Andrew Potter of MBA Polymers at the Oxford Climate Forum, is that a very important factor in recycling costs is what the consumer puts in the recycling bin, and in what state it is. So, not to labour the point, but

  1. Make sure you put correct items in the recycling.
  2. Clean the contamination off items.

Or, you could stick a sign up in your office like I’ve done here:

Energy Institute recycling bin modified

I don’t know, it might work in my office since in theory I can guilt trip us as we all work in energy. What more sensible things could you do in your office?

In general, I would like to see:

a)      More feedback to consumers in general on how to recycle, so that costs can be reduced by us recycling correctly. Seems like a no-brainer but it doesn’t happen.

b)       Consumers knowing what leaves the coutry, goes to China, etc. When asked, Sainsbury’s reported sending all its recycling there, Asda doesn’t know where its goes, and Tesco refused to comment (see previous Guardian article). I would like to see a study on the environmental impacts of this.

d)      All of us getting involved in some petitions to end irresponsible dumping of waste in Asia:

5. How do I find out what I can recycle?/Is it different in every area of the UK?

Different local councils have contracts with different private waste management companies which in turn have contracts with sorting and reprocessing plants. This is why if you move to a new city you might not be able to recycle some of the things you used to.

There’s a nice postcode finder here for what you can recycle where:;partner=default&partner=default&CFID=78015687&CFTOKEN=31015716

Below is a very interesting and at times counter-intuitive article on why some materials can and can’t be recycled: it talks about wrapping paper, mushroom punnets, biscuit tins and foil. I didn’t know most of it:

Finally, if you learned something from this article, why not paraphrase it yourself and spread the word?

Time to find out about heat pumps…

Jenny Love, UCL Energy Institute

I’ve been spending the last 3 months working on domestic heat pumps –  major players in the debate about future heating for the UK –  but whilst trying to converse with my family about this over Christmas, it became clear that they had no idea what I was talking about.  So I’ve decided it’s about time to make heat pumps known. This article is based around some of the questions you might ask if you’ve never heard of a heat pump and don’t have an unhealthy obsession with thermodynamics. It’s always good to be able to impress your friends or potential mate by pointing out a heat pump when you see one:

air source heat pump

(source of photo:

1)      What the heck is a heat pump?

Normally in Britain you heat your house by switching on your boiler, which burns gas, heats water, and sends it to your radiators. The source of heat is the chemical energy in natural gas. Now, gas may or may not be around to stay – if it is it will only get more expensive – so there is talk about whether electricity will replace gas for heating homes. Electricity is normally made in a power station from heat, a process which loses a lot of energy, so putting the effort in to make electricity only to transport it along a wire and turn it back into heat for your house is quite wasteful. But a better thing you can do with electricity is move heat which already exists – I don’t just mean from one physical location (like the ground) to another (your house) – I also mean from one temperature (cool ground temperature) to another (warm living room temperature).

A heat pump uses electricity to move heat from a cool place to a warm one. When I first heard about this I thought it must be some kind of miracle, but then someone pointed out that that’s how a fridge works (electricity is used to move cold heat from inside the fridge to the warmer exterior, keeping your fridge cool).

Why would you do this – well, if you do the physics, you can work out that putting in a bit of electricity can move a lot of heat (about one unit of electricity can put 3 units of heat in your house), meaning that the energy use from heating your house with a heat pump should be much lower than that from using a normal boiler.

Now, you may not have heard of one of these devices, but David Mackay, the chief scientific advisor at the Department of Energy and Climate Change, recently gave a lecture (at this event: in which he foresaw 20 million of them installed in homes by 2050 (almost one in every property). So maybe it’s time to find out more about them…

2)     In what ways is using a heat pump different from how I normally heat my home?

Heat pumps  work best when the temperature difference between the heat’s original location (e.g. the ground) and its end location (e.g. the living room) is low. This normally translates to the temperature of the thing in the room which is going to give you heat (called the ‘emitter’ – e.g. a radiator) not being as high as we’re used to. Here are a few consequences of this that you might find strange:

a)      Heat pumps work best with underfloor heating instead of radiators.

If the temperature of the emitter is low (e.g. 30 degrees C), you need a high area of emitter to give out enough heat. For example, the area of the floor of the room. It would be silly to have a radiator this big so underfloor heating is often used.

b)      They work best if you have them on all the time.

If the temperature of the heat delivered to the space is low, you can’t get enough heat out if you just have the system on for a bit in the morning and a bit in the evening. Having the heat pump on all the time is something that we’re not used to but is necessary for the right amount of heat, delivered at a low temperature.

c)       They are very easy to operate sub-optimally

Take a normal condensing boiler. Its efficiency (see below for a definition) is probably around 83% whether it is on for a long time, a short time, whatever the temperature settings on it, however it is installed in a property. Boilers are relatively robust against variation in operating conditions. Heat pumps, however, are a very different kettle of fish. If any part of it (e.g. the hole in the ground, the compressor, etc..) is too small, it can’t provide enough heat and a backup electric (i.e. wasteful) heater comes on. If it is too large, firstly it might suck too much heat out of the ground and freeze it; secondly it might switch off and on quite a lot – if it does this more  than once every six minutes ( then this is detrimental to its performance. There are lots of things to set correctly: pump speeds, temperatures in the system such as water flowing around to the emitters, the way it ramps down when the weather outside it warmer (called ‘weather compensation’) and plenty more. The thing is, you probably won’t know whether it is working optimally or not. I would like to see a heat pump which monitors itself as a whole system and tells you that kind of thing.

3)      Do heat pumps actually work, and how would I know?

Efficiency, or performance, of a heating technology is generally defined by heat it provides / energy you put in. This is the source of the 83% mentioned in section 2 (from this report: Now, to measure this, there are two kinds of test. Firstly, lab tests: those done by the manufacturer which say, “oh look, you put one unit of electricity in and move five units of heat to your house, that’s lovely”; secondly, those which are done in real houses with real occupants. The latter are known as ‘field trials’ and have been carried out in the UK – you can read about them here:

or if you are quite used to scientific reports then here:

The moral of the story is that, of course, heat pumps do not work in-situ as well as in the manufacturer’s lab (like anything really), but that they can work well:

–          It has been shown that the whole system is extremely important. To work well, everything about them has to be done correctly: the sizing of the pipes which are buried underground to pick up heat (the ‘ground loop’), the sizing of the actual heat pump box, the insulation of the pipework going into the house, the various temperatures in the system…

–          There is a way of measuring this overall success as opposed to that from lab conditions – it is called the seasonal performance factor. It’s quite simple really – you measure the heat delivered by your heat pump to your rooms/the hot water, and divide it by the electricity the heat pump uses. You’re looking for an answer of at least 3, really, for it to be worth it. The SPF is what the aforementioned field trials were trying to measure. That’s what you should ask the manufacturer about.

4)      When is a good time to buy a heat pump?

In my field, we have a saying: ‘Fabric first’. What we are talking about is this: when you take a building and want to make it energy efficient, the most cost-effective thing to do first is to reduce its heat loss, by insulating the building fabric, sealing up gaps, getting rid of cold bridges, etc. Then only when you have done that should you consider changing the heating system, which will cost you a bit more for the same amount of carbon savings (after that, it’s time to think about fixing solar panels onto your roof). The reason some people do it the other way round is that solar panels are more sexy than boilers, which are more sexy than insulation. (Guess what my PhD is about: insulation.)

scale of sexiness

(image sources:,  my PhD fieldwork)

But in our field we always advise making our house more airtight and better insulated before considering getting a heat pump. There’s a good reason for this: as I mentioned earlier, heat pumps work best when they’re on all the time. If you have a leaky building, then you’re constantly going to be putting heat in, which is constantly being lost to the outside. Bit of a waste.

But if your house is quite well-sealed, then NOW is a good time to buy a heat pump. If you’re quick, there’s currently a discount from the government’s Renewable Heat Premium Payment scheme:

And then later on the Renewable Heat Incentive’s domestic scheme will be launched:

However, it is not yet the best time to install a heat pump in terms of CO2 emissions. If you are on normal grid electricity, and your heat pump performs well, it will cause less emissions than a condensing boiler; if it doesn’t then it may well not. This is because grid electricity is still pretty high in carbon. If you choose a renewable tariff, you can avoid this, but otherwise you may have to wait until renewable generation is a higher proportion of the UK’s energy mix.

5)      Is it possible to be a bit too excited by heat pumps?

It is, yes. The best example I’ve found of this is the following three minutes of video captured excitedly by a phone camera of a heat pump in defrost mode:

I’ll leave you with that…

Motivation and hope in a time of gloom: Part 1


Quite often I get asked, “Where is the hope for the planet?” and “Why should I bother trying to stop climate change when hardly anyone else is?”, two different and highly important questions. When I decided many years ago to devote my career to climate change issues, I knew I’d have to face them myself, and it’s likely that you have faced them too.

So this article and the next one consist of my attempt at answering them, by exploring the world from the point of view of the Christian faith. The first is about motivation; the second is about hope.They are more personal than the articles I’ve written so far on the blog, and won’t treat the question from the point of view of all religions because some of the principles discussed are unique to Christianity. They are meant for everyone to read, not specifically Christians, although one of my greatest desires is for the latter to care more for the environment. If you have any questions or comments then either post them at the end or email me on

Part 1: Why should I bother fighting climate change, when it looks like things are getting worse and I’m only one person?

Let’s not deny it, CO2 emissions are still increasing; indeed very rapidly since the end of the last global financial crisis [ ]

I’m not sure how much damage we’ll have done before the world wakes up and does something about climate change, but it looks like we’re going to carry on warming the planet for a while.

At this point, some people pull out the, “I’m only one person, I can’t make a difference” argument, as an excuse not to do anything (sometimes they then go on to talk about “China and India”, but let’s not go there for now…). It is true that even if we as concerned citizens do a lot, we are outnumbered by people who do nothing or create yet more demand for fossil fuels. The logical conclusion to this is that if our motivation depends on things getting better, we will lose hope. If we can somehow separate our motivation from the end result, we will carry on regardless of the size of our impact.

To borrow someone else’s terminology [1], this can be concisely put in terms on ‘extrinsic motivation’ and ‘intrinsic motivation’, the former depending on results, the latter not.

My interpretation of intrinsic motivation is this: We try to limit our negative impact on the environment, not because we have confidence that it will work, but because it is the right thing to do.

This needs explaining…

Why is looking after the environment the right thing to do?

This might sound like a silly question – however, ‘looking after the environment’ in the context of our current sociotechnical system where flying and driving are totally normal, our food comes from far away and we like air conditioning in our offices when it’s hot,  potentially requires considerable personal sacrifice and sticking your neck out. So there had better be some good solid answers to why we should bother.  Here are some of mine:

a) We have a responsibility to look after a planet which isn’t ours.

The ancient Jewish story of the first ‘people’ on earth records God handing over the planet to mankind, with the following instructions:

“God blessed them; and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”  [2]

What does this mean? The Hebrew word for “rule over” is used in other texts to describe the benevolent rule of good kings over their subjects (so means “have responsibility over”); “subdue”  is related to working the soil and is a command to interact with nature and aid its fruitfulness.[3]

“The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it”. [4]

“Till” is the verb for “work”/ “serve”/ “worship (God)”. “Keep” means protect. So the verse can be interpreted: care for and protect the land in a way that gives life to it [3].

In case this terminology isn’t clear, or like me you prefer things to be explicit:

“The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it.” [5]

And yet, because of selfishness and greed, we prefer to consume instead of protect, often to the detriment of others:

“Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pastures? Must you also trample the rest with your feet? Is it not enough for you to drink pure water? Must you also muddy the rest with your feet?” [6]

These verses do not justify humanity’s greedy consumption of resources since these resources are not theirs to begin with, and our excessive consumption of them  involves “trampling” over others who are just trying to get their share. So how do we turn from this detrimental way of life and go back to what was intended for us?

b)      Jesus gave us several incredible and challenging examples of giving up things to benefit others.

My first example is a story he told, my second is what he did.

The parable of the Good Samaritan, which you can read here if you like [], starts with someone asking for clarification of God’s command to ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’ by posing the question, ‘Who is my neighbour?’ To answer, Jesus tells a story of a Samaritan – looked down upon by the Jews at the time – helping someone he didn’t know and who would have been his natural enemy. I think this is very relevant for climate change in that we are helping people we don’t know – perhaps they haven’t even been born yet – so we’re not doing it to get recognition from those we respect or anything. So often we try to do good deeds just for those we love – this goes way beyond that.

But the most direct example of giving something up to benefit others was Jesus’ death on the cross. Christians believe that this death had a purpose: forgiveness. Not that people deserved it, but it had to happen if people were going to be able to have a relationship with a good and holy God. Forgiveness was brought about through the punishment for our wrong being taken by Jesus when he died. That act of love on behalf of people Jesus never met during his time on earth is an incredible example to us of the love we should have for those we don’t know – and how wrong it is to prioritise our own lives at their expense.

It’s very important not to absolve personal responsibility from causing climate change and say, “I can’t help consuming, that’s just the way the system is”. Jesus got a lot of stick for bucking the trend and loving others over social and religious norms, e.g. going to eat with the ‘bad’ people in society, or breaking a religious rule in order to be able to heal someone. Since he gave us such a radical example of a counter-cultural life prioritising love for others, let’s do the same!

c)      “Life to the full”

Christians are sometimes criticised for looking forward to going to heaven/the next life so much that they don’t care much about the problems of the earth and this life. To our shame, sometimes this is the case. It is totally contrary to how Jesus lived and I would say that his life gives me inspiration to do quite the opposite: that the thought that this isn’t my only time alive means I don’t feel the need to get the most out of it for myself (e.g. touring round on aeroplanes). I can therefore give this life towards looking after others. Please don’t think that I actually manage to achieve this, but this is my aim. Jesus said, “I have come to give you life to the full”. I absolutely don’t think that he meant this to mean just satisfying ourselves, but  being alive for a purpose: to love and be loved by the combination of God, people and the rest of the planet.

What is the role of right and wrong in this anyway?

This might seem a rather abstract/philosophical question to raise at this point. But it’s crucially important for fighting climate change as you’ll hopefully see…

A few years ago I was very involved in an environmental society. The people were truly wonderful. They would give and give and give out of themselves…and not really get anything in return apart from the feeling of doing good. Sometimes they would tell me that it’s very hard to keep giving when you don’t really get anything in return. I agree.

Christians’ motivation to do good is fuelled by what they have already received: love and grace shown to them by God by Jesus’ forgiveness of them. And it is out of this prior-received love that we can joyfully give it away. It’s the opposite of doing good to try and earn some kind of reward or to appease an angry god or to try to increase your chances of making it into some kind of heaven. We would never make it – we acknowledge that. And out of gratitude that humanity’s rescue came from God himself, we are free to love others with no ulterior motive. God’s love is what drives me to devote my life to try to make other people’s lives better via mitigation of climate change.

Conclusion to part 1

So far, we’ve discussed why we should bother when it often seems like we’re not getting anywhere with saving the planet. It has been argued that our motivation will fade if we depend on results and not motivation from somewhere deeper within ourselves. The Christian faith points to the concept of doing the right thing after receiving a source of love that does not depend on our actions and is still there, in fact, despite our often badly-intentioned actions. This receiving of love should then lead to gratitude and freedom to give our lives to helping others. I am sorry if you haven’t had this experience of Christians and I really hope you get to.

Part 2 will attempt to answer the other question, ‘Where is the hope for the earth?’, but until then, I hope you found Part 1 interesting and that it made sense to you.


1. See the first comment on:


3. “Cherishing the earth”, Hodson & Hodson, 2008.