Mukti’s Blog

I live a low carbon lifestyle and connect with individuals and organisations at the forefront of the field, and various people have suggested I write a blog. I hope you enjoy it. Mukti Mitchell


Sunday 17th January 2010

When I set off to sail around Britain in 2007 our MP for Torridge & West Devon, Geoffrey Cox, came to the launch and gave me a great send-off speech. He invited me to Westminster and while I was there, he distributed 1,500 copies of my book “The Guide to Low Carbon Lifestyles” to every MP and Lord in the Houses of Parliament. When he invited me to be an intern in Parliament I thought this would be a fantastic opportunity to see the world of politics, the governance of our country and the lives of our MPs, from the inside.

In time I expect this blog to be weekly, but to begin with as I am visiting the Houses of Parliament for two weeks I am going to write daily, to keep you informed of my impressions. It should be an exciting time being pre-election, and Tony Blair may face the Chilcot enquiry in the house while I am there.

I am now on the train to London Waterloo, and look forward to starting tomorrow morning in Westminster at 9am.

Monday 18th January 2010 - A Surprise

Pleased with myself in my suit and tie I strode out beside Twickenham Park for the 809 to London Waterloo. The London Eye disappeared into the mist and all was white and grey and the street lights still shining as I rounded County Hall and crossed Westminster Bridge. The fantastically detailed and magnificent gothic buildings of Parliament loomed out of the mist as if in a black and white film of Oliver Twist. I snapped a photo of Big Ben with my Blackberry and proceeded to the St. Stephens entrance.

Geoffrey's assistant Ed Thomas took me through security and into the ancient stone buildings that positively breathe history. Here Oliver Cromwell formed parliament and Guy Faulkes set his kegs under the 600 year old wooden arches of the vast Westminster Hall.

We took coffee and wound our way up to Geoffrey's Office. I replied to invitations, filed letters and then Ed Gave me letters to write to constituents. It was nice to be here in London writing to people from just up the road in Devon. MP's receive hundreds of letters from constituents on every subject under the sun, all of which need replies and for many there is research to do. I wrote about tax return deadlines for filing on line, and Anjem Choudry's benefits.

Next Ed Asked me to draft two Parliamentary Questions. These can be asked to a minister during their minister's question time in the commons chamber. Each minister has one hour of questions once a month. I wrote two questions about the effectiveness of new provisions for awarding the cold weather payments.

After lunch Ed took me to the gallery of the chamber of the house of commons. The commons is fantastic with it's carved panels, green leather and guards in tails. We listened to the home secretary Alan Johnson presenting the new crime bill to parliament. There were two or three dozen MP's and to begin with it went well. But as MP's intervened it began to take party lines and descended into cross party slanging. I felt that the party rivalry was completely detracting from the issues. Oh no, I thought, this two weeks is going to be heavy going, my fears of the immaturity and shallowness of politics surfaced. Ed and I went back to the office and finished off a few letters.

As the commons sits until 1030pm on Mondays and Tuesdays I planned to go back to the gallery after work. While I am here I should take the opportunity to listen and learn, I thought. So I got a tea time sandwich and flapjack and Ed escorted me back to the gallery where I gave my coat, bag and phone to the guards and when in.

The special gallery looks down at the commons through a massive screen of bullet proof, sound proof glass. But it is very well done and all the sound is piped through so you feel very much inside the commons. The huge glass panes are held up by vast metal arms that are tastefully curved and blend somehow smoothly with the intricate carving and detail of the chamber.

The space is magnificent and at once large and small. It has 470 seats for 650 MPs yet with a dozen or two in the room it is small enough to feel like a huge living room. The MP's sprawl out over the benches as they see fit and at moments it has an air of a comedy scene from Shakespeare with the formal language and the smiling speaker.

I sat and listened and became absorbed. What was taking place before me was the second reading of the Crime and Security Bill. A bill is normally heard three times in parliament, each hearing being around four hours. MP's can speak for around 15 minutes with support and objections to the bill, allowing for around a dozen short speeches after the minister presents the bill. After that the bill goes to the Lords and if passed becomes law. Just a few dozen short speeches decide a raft of laws that will send people to jail, award people compensation, protect people from abuse and affect the lives of thousands. So these few short speeches are important.

As I was drawn into the unfolding of law before me, the making of history, the steering of our nation, I became moved by the members of parliament. They were humble now, serious, time ticked by marking the few hours for this one of many bills entering and passing through parliament and into law to be acted upon by police and judges around the country in years to come. And a humanity came out. Privileged, white middle class men spoke gently, passionately and from the heart on behalf of battered women, misjudged black youths and threatened children. They spoke softly, they allowed others to intervene, they gave respect to their opposition party members and it was clear to what lengths they had gone to consider and construct their feedback on laws that would affect others living in their constituencies for years to come.

I was surprised, I was moved and a tear came to my eye. In this sitting room of debates, a chamber of philosophy, elected individuals with accents from Oxford, Edinburgh, Sheffield and Kent showed the best of human qualities and I was humbled. It may not be perfect, it may not always hit the nail on the head, but there is great beauty and great humanity here and that is wonderful to behold.

Tuesday 19th January 2010 - Up on language

Today I began by attending the Environment Audit Select Committee who were questioning the Environment Agency and Tyndall Centre on the effectiveness of the government climate change adaptation strategy. The Wilson Committee Room, which holds a dozen in a central circular panel, half a dozen civil servants either side and two dozen press and public, is in the new buildings opposite parliament in Whitehall, which are wonderfully light, spacious and attractively finished in oak. Clerks note every word and remotely operated cameras film all proceedings.

The committee is chaired by Tim Yeo and includes Joan Walley, Colin Challen and Desmond Turner among others. The Environment Agency was represented by its head and deputy (I couldn’t see their names) and Neil Adger and Tim Rayner represented the Tyndall Centre.] I have watched this panel interview James Hansen of NASA a year ago or so and they are pretty with it and serious. But once again I was pleasantly surprised.

The general thrust on adaptation to flash and coastal flooding and heat waves is mundanely practical and has to been done, whilst it will only be of use for a short while if emissions carry on at present levels as things will soon become to extreme, and both the EA and Tyndall Centre were aware of this.

But what surprised me was how up to date the speakers were in new language. The Chief of the Environment Agency used the word “resilience” as coined by Rob Hopkins and widely published in The Transition Handbook only a year or so ago in reference to localised community self sufficiency. Nobody in the room batted an eyelid illustrating all were completely au fait with the term. He also mentioned how moving from the traditional use of GDP as an indicator of success to using indexes of human well-being instead would assist in making climate change adaptation more viable and faster implemented. I apologies to parliament, but I did not think they were this up to speed on latest terms and thinking coming from small pockets of avant-garde thinkers in recent years. Given the restrictions inherent in large bureaucratic institutions and the necessary hindrances of democracy I was thoroughly impressed by the proceedings, and felt all the members present were playing their roles extremely well.

Ed collected me for lunch and we discussed the strengths and weaknesses of the current political systems. After lunch I wrote letters to constituents on subjects from tax deadlines to new EU subsidies for dairy farmers.

At five o-clock fingers crept around the door and Geoffrey arrived in a swirl of energy with a warm handshake. His great deep voice and charisma filled the small office with the exciting tones of the political world. I gave him a copy of Resurgence with my article on Climate Friendly farming, and he invited me to lunch the next day.

Then Ed took me to the commons gallery where I sat once more from 530 until 8pm gripped by the drama of history unfolding like Shakespeare. The honorable gentleman, of course I give way, I thank the honorable gentleman from Becclesfield for his intervention, but this house knows full well the consequences of such an action, and whilst I do not agree with the minister I do support his general intention in this respect… and so on and so forth two dozen members of the house of commons debated constitutional amendments with great intelligence, mutual respect and calm, painting a picture not unlike ancient Greece where Socrates, Plato and Aristotle debated philosophy. For is not politics law, and law philosophy? Until a certain amendment could not be agreed upon and a member said he would not agree until it was put to the vote at which point the speaker exclaimed loudly, “The ayes on my right!” to which a crowd cried “Aye”, “The Nos to me left” at which a crowd cried “No!” The speaker cried “Division! Clear the lobbies!” and everybody jumped up and made their way out of different exits while the general energy rose and MP’s started appearing in greater and greater numbers appearing in one entrance and disappearing from another. 15 minutes later the speaker cried, “Lock the doors!” and two guards closed the two far opposite doors and stood firmly in front of them and a person dressed like a Beefeater came in and read the count. “The Nos 276, The Ayes 244” so five hundred MPs had appeared from nowhere in 15 minutes and disappeared again! The amendment was not passed.

Three dozen or so MPs continued on the next issue of debate and I left half an hour later at 8 o-clock and headed for Twickenham and my friend Chris’s place. Once again I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of proceedings in the Houses of Parliament. But how was my prejudice formed? It occurs to me that the media may not do the houses of Parliament justice in their conveyance of impressions of the politics to the general public. Those high quality, moving debates are hard to convey interestingly in shorter form. It is the partisan tussles that provide exciting clips.

Wednesday 20th January 2010

Today the Select Committee on Energy & Climate Change were investigating government proposals for national policy statements on energy. The morning session interviewed the Renewable Energy Association and the British Wind Energy Association. Once again I found the level of awareness high. Both associations welcomed much of the proposals. There was also discussion on winning the hearts and minds of locals in regions where wind farms were proposed.

After the session Ed and I went to meet Geoffrey who had arrived at parliament on his electric bicycle. It was an excellent machine, British made and looked better equipped than models I have seen before. Geoffrey took me over to Prime Minister’s Questions for half an hour. The house was full and the debate of a completely different quality to the ones I had previously heard. Perhaps necessarily it was considerably more rushed.

Geoffrey, Ed & I went to lunch in the press gallery. We discussed the role of the media in politics, my plans for the future, how business can accelerate the move to a low carbon economy and James Lovelock’s views on Nuclear Power.

After lunch the Select Committee on Energy & Climate Change were hearing from the Nuclear Industry Association and the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority. It was great to see and hear the nuclear representatives in person, to put a human face on the nuclear industry. Their answers were pretty down to earth and to be fair reasonably based on contemporary scientific views. For example in response to the question on whether new proposed stations can be protected adequately against flooding from sea level rise they said yes. I know from earlier hearings that worst-case scenarios for sea level rise are up to six or seven meters in the next 100 years. However I am also aware that if Antarctica melts that will cause global sea levels to rise by 63m (around 200ft) and so far the ice caps have melted 30 times faster than predicted. I wonder if the power stations can be protected from being completely submerged under 200ft of water?

The panel then heard from Deiter Helm, a Cambridge academic expert on energy and climate change. Whilst commending the intentions, Deiter tore the government proposals to pieces saying that the objectives and approach were flawed and unrealistic. 30% renewables by 2030 was not a sensible target he said and throwing £100bn at wind energy would not achieve the targets. Whilst giving the impression that he had a better approach unfortunately he did not explain what this was, at least while I was in the session until 5pm.

In the evening I bought a new white shirt from T M Lewin of Jermyn Street, on of Britain’s best shirt makers, for just £25 from their shop in Waterloo. Fantastic. I bought a new silk tie from Tie Rack next door with a swirling pattern of greens and blues that invoke the sea.

I then went to a middle-eastern restaurant called TAS to meet Chris Lloyd, the author of “What on Earth Happened?” and “What on Earth Evolved” two fantastic new books from Bloomsbury that put the whole of history, human and non human, together in one tomb, from the big bang to the present day. It was such a pleasure dining with Chris, who is wonderfully down to earth, fun and incredibly perceptive. We talked about the best ways to introduce the wider public to my experience that low carbon lifestyles are fun.

Thursday 21st January 2010

The 804 from Twickenham was as usual tightly packed with the commuting throng. The morning trains run every three minutes into London carrying rivers of people into the city. The side exit from Waterloo takes me on a raised walkway through a tower and over the road to pavement level where I walk across the park to the London eye. From there it’s five minutes along the Thames and over Westminster Bridge to parliament. I chat with the policeman at the entrance who grew up just down the road from me in Tintagel. I’m getting to know some faces around parliament. The attendants put me in the spacious side of the commons gallery. Some of the MPs in the Select Committee on Energy & Climate Change have noticed a face that has been turning up to every session this week.

Ed is a star, he takes me to all the committees related to low carbon, and picks me up afterwards. 9 o’clock kicks off with the Select Committee on Energy & Climate Change reviewing the new Energy Bill. Attending are the 14 members of the select committee, Joan Ruddock, the secretary of state for energy & climate change, Charles Hendry on behalf of the Conservative shadow secretary, and Simon Hughes the Lib Dem shadow secretary.

Committee room number 10 is in the House of Commons, a large, regal chamber with oak panels and tables, red velvet walls and black leather upholstery with huge brass studs. It looks out over the Thames. A mini replica of the Commons Chamber, two facing banks of seats for the leading and opposition parties are faced by a panel consisting of the chair person, civil servants and clerks. A policeman sits inside both doors.

Each committee is made up of 13 or 14 MPs that represent the political parties in proportion to their representation in parliament. When an MP calls for it, a mini vote occurs mirroring that in the House of Commons. The chair asks for vocal ayes and nos and if the majority isn’t obvious he exclaims “Division!”. At this, both policemen open the doors, shout into the corridor “Division in 10!” (in case any members have popped into the corridor). The chairs says “Lock the Doors!” and the assistant names each MP in the room to which that MP says “aye” or “no”. The votes are then counted and passed to the chair, who says, “The Ayes have five, the nos have nine; the nos have it, the no’s have it. Unlock the doors!” The policemen move away from the doors and the debate continues. In the afternoon session today there were four divisions. One MP almost got trapped outside as he had nipped out to make a call. Another, who had popped out for a few minutes, rushed in and all laughed when she had to ask a colleague whether to say aye or no since she had missed the question of the vote. The MPs all found this very entertaining.

The democratic process at work. The daily life of MPs. Each representing their 100,000 or so constituents, they steer the evolution of our society by debating and voting in the commons chamber and committee rooms, every day, sometimes many times a day. And from most of what I have seen, they do it with great civility, mutual respect, wisdom, intelligence, humanity and good humour.

The early part of the morning session includes discussion of carbon capture (the new bill aims to capture 90% of CO2 from all new coal fired power stations, the process of which consumes about a third of the produced energy), carbon emission performance standards, attracting investors to clean energy, and carbon trading. Scepticism on the solidity of climate change science voiced by one MP is fairly rapidly quashed telling me that consensus is almost but not quite complete on the matter. The debate covers all the issues I would hope for, and gives due consideration to the coming and following decade as well as some attention to the coming century.

The afternoon session includes insulation grants - the bill aims to provide grants of £6,500 to homes experiencing fuel poverty (i.e. homes that spend more than 10% of their income on fuel), house energy efficiency SAP ratings, levels of ambition in the move towards low carbon, smart metering, incentives to encourage acceptance of wind farms by local communities (such as cheaper electricity), and the price of carbon for trading.

After five hours of meetings today my feeling is that parliament and government have broadly got it all covered. There isn’t much I would add. They know what the score is, have the right intentions and passion and know what all the options are. (The Select Committee on Energy & Climate Change is thought to hold the greatest expertise on this subject in the UK; they have interviewed the heads of every related organisation.) Strategy is being created as fast as anyone could do it. One can argue with this detail or that detail, this decision or that decision, but they basically have all the ingredients. Frankly, there isn’t much I would add.

“So where’s the problem?” asks Chris when I get home. Well, in the democratic triangle of government, media and public, there is one very un-democratic element. My feeling is that the media does not give an accurate or fair representation of the activities of government and parliament, nor climate change science, or for that matter anything. But what can one do? Would a state controlled media be any better? And do audiences want fair and accurate representations anyway? Drama sells papers. Aggression, fighting, disagreement and war make drama. The right honourable labour MP agreeing with the right honourable conservative MP and working smoothly towards solution X on the nitty-gritty detail of legislation Y is too dull to read about. Catch 27.

Friday 22nd January 2010

Not to lay all the blame on the media. In fact not to lay any blame on anyone. The full list of reasons why the response to climate change has been slow includes:

  • Time taken for scientific consensus on climate change – understandable given complexity of science, in fact I think it is a miracle that we have any clue what’s happening.

  • Contradictory media messages on climate change science.

  • Difficulty for democratically elected governments to suggest changes not wanted by the majority of the population.

  • Difficulty in making low carbon products competitive against those manufactured with cheap fossil fuel energy.

  • Time required for de-risking renewable technologies to attract investment.

  • All of us being reluctant to let go of the “American Dream” of cheap energy, cheap products, machine-assisted lifestyles and resource extravagance, even though many people know from experience that none of these make you happy?

  • In modern life, having to run so fast just to stand still that finding time and energy to change is more than we can manage most weeks, even though we really want to?

Parliament doesn’t sit today. The MPs all went home to their constituencies last night. I do some research for replies to letters for Ed, then work on an energy saving brief for the shadow home secretary. Greg Clark had expressed and interest in Resurgence magazine through a friend of my father’s, so I thought I would see if there is an opportunity to meet him while in parliament. I thought I would write a quick concept document on how Britain could reduce its carbon emissions by 80% by 2020 through saving wasted energy, and give it to him if there is a chance to meet.

Back in Twickenham I pass Waitrose thinking “I’ll just see if there’s any nice little organic shops around here”. I come to Holland & Baratt where I find organic rice, museli, salted cashews and rye bread. Across the road is a small grocers where I am served spinach, tomatoes, fennel and mangos with warm cockney charm (see The Guide to Low Carbon Lifestyles – free on the downloadables page - for an explanation of why there is room for treats like mangoes in a low carbon lifestyle). Asking them for a bakery they direct me around the corner where I purchase a loaf of organic wholemeal bread and two custard strawberry tarts for £1.90! Er, that’s not possible! The loaf and two tarts should each have been £1.90! I could never have got that in a supermarket, and freshly made on the premises too.

On my way home I see a giant. No kidding. The tallest person I have ever seen. A young man, probably about 17, whose shoulders were literally higher than everybody else’s heads. He happened to take my route for a while, 20 yards ahead, confusing my brain about scale. He looked like a child walking along small streets until an adult went past well below shoulder height and the brain went “Whoa! Eh? No compute, no compute.”

Cheers ‘till Monday and have a nice weekend.

Monday 25th January 2010 - The Lords

Strange truths no. 423: I kid you not. On Saturday I was standing on the corner of Portobello & Westbourne Grove when I saw a person with two heads. I was naturally gob-smacked and zoomed in to see if either of the heads was obviously fake. The only person with two heads I have come across is Zaphod Beeblebrox in The Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy, which is fiction. But both heads had complete human detail and expression. They were a blonde and mouse coloured woman around the age of forty, and looked slightly annoyed, probably because of unwanted attention. I have subsequently looked this up on google and these people do exist. They are considered as two people with one body, and have to take separate driving tests.

I also went to see Avatar 3D, which was recommended by my father, and which I thoroughly enjoyed. It has quite a strong environmental-spiritual aspect, bringing together themes of environmental destruction with reverence for and connectedness with nature. And it has a happy ending.

Today in parliament I helped Ed with research for letters and did some filing. I also finished off the brief I have written for Greg Clark, the shadow secretary on energy and climate change, on how to cut Britain’s energy use by 80% by 2020. (This is a concept document based on 12 years experience of carbon footprinting but not specifically researched. It is ambitious but I believe possible; aim for the moon and you hit the mountaintop. I plan to post it on this website in the new articles section being created soon.)

Then Ed took me on a tour of parliament. Westminster Hall was built around 1250 and is the largest and oldest medieval hall in the world. The wooden roof with its stunningly impressive vast buttressed wooden arches is original. The rest of parliament was destroyed by fire and rebuilt in its majestic gothic style, which was finished in 1868.

Both the Commons’ and the Lords’ chambers are remarkably small and combine the facets of both being able to hold several hundred members of parliament yet feeling like a large sitting room and quite intimate for debates between a couple of dozen members. The entrance lobbies are stunningly formed of decorated stone pillars arching into octagonal domes, with statues of kings, queens and prime ministers. Two of the four existing hand-written copies of the Magna Carta hang unassumingly on walls at eye height in the Lords. The chamber of Lords is red leather in contrast to the green of the commons, but is much the same size and layout. The Queen’s throne with its vast decorated over-structure that must be made from a tonne of gold, sits at one end.

After lunch I sat in the gallery of the Lord’s chamber and listened to the debate for a couple of hours. The Lords are generally fairly senior citizens, bringing a gentler atmosphere than the commons. There were around 80 Lord’s in the chamber, debating the new equality bill. The only one I recognised was Norman Tebbit who spoke briefly. There are a thousand or so Lords in total, but whilst some hereditary Lords attend regularly, most Lords only attend parliament when there is a subject of particular interest to them being debated. Ed pointed out that when Lords were hereditary there was a greater cross section of society as many of them had inherited a title but had no money whatsoever, where as now most Lords are very successful people.

I was once again touched and impressed by the sincerity of the debate. The Lords have no chairperson to manage the debate as they are considered to be mature enough to manage themselves, which appeared to be the case and it most unusual in human beings today. To me it is moving to hear someone from a privileged background, in a conservative establishment institution such as the house of Lords, speaking with great concern on behalf of a gay female cleaner who had been discriminated against by the church, and who would be protected by the new bill. There are also benches for bishops in the Lords and the Bishop of York, who is of African origin, spoke on behalf of the Church saying how it too must have the freedom to express itself in not appointing sexually active gay bishops if that is against its own doctrine. The Lords debated the bill in the hope of finding a solution that both allows freedom of expression and avoids discrimination by sexual orientation. The quality of the debate was very high, and once again I was most impressed and felt I could not have added anything, in fact the competence, experience and wisdom of these people is more than I could bring to the debate. It is a wonderful thing to sit in these rooms which are at the very top of the hierarchies of our society, the last level above which there is no other, a find that there is a wise, compassionate, considerate group of individuals, elected or chosen through societies systems by the rest of the nation, debating and steering our nation in a calm, intelligent, considered way with a philosophical debate much like I imagine the ancient Greeks, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle to have held. This is warming to the heart.

That evening I met my friend Paul Dickinson, CEO of the Carbon Disclosure Project. CDP are a fantastic international organisation to which 80% of FSTE100 companies have disclosed their carbon emissions. The have recently engaged Microsoft and Google as partners. The process of disclosure engenders in companies an awareness of their carbon emissions and an understanding of how to reduce them.

Paul and I sat in the Commons Gallery for an hour and listened to the debate. We then went for dinner in The Red Lion in Whitehall, and discussed 21st Century magazines, trans-ocean passenger sailing lines and the potential for a British home-insulation installation company.

Tuesday 26th January 2010 – Sorting out the Banks

The Treasury Committee on Financial Institutions too Important to Fail took evidence from Mervyn King, Governor of the Bank of England in the Thatcher room today from 930 until 1230, which I attended. They discussed lessons to learned from the financial crash and what could be done about it.

The problem is quite simple, as outlined by Mervyn. High-return investments carry high risk, and low-return investments carry low risk. High-risk investments can go wrong. These days people want high-return investments that are guaranteed. As banks compete with each other for highest returns they move into higher risk investments and when these go wrong, because banks are so important to our economy, the government calculates that the cost to our economy of letting them go bust is higher than the cost of bailing them out. So the taxpayer bails them out.

UK, US and EU banks spent $14 trillion bailing out the banks in the last 18 months. That is ¼ of world GDP. UK banks are worth five times UK GDP. So we have small governments trying to prop up huge banks.

A solution proposed by Mervyn is to separate out banking areas according to their level of risk. There should be at least one type of low-risk, low-return, utility account for users who need it to receive wages or benefits. Low-risk accounts should be guaranteed by the government, and high-risk accounts should not. This should be stated clearly on the packet, and investors in high-risk accounts should understand that they could also loose their money. When a high-risk bank crashes - and some banks in high-risk investment will sometimes crash (otherwise there would be no risk) – the government should definitely not bail them out.

One current problem is that banks know they are too big to be allowed to fall, they know governments will bail them out, so they take stupid, increasing risks until they crash. They have to do this to compete against each other for the shareholders. The system is currently almost guaranteed to fail. It has also been destabilised by the recent massive rapid growth of eastern economies and trying to manage funds brought onto the world market has caused them to have to take increasing risks, some of which eventually went wrong.

Mervyn said that it is important to have a proper and unrushed debate on how to restructure the financial system, which has evolved to its current structure over centuries. He suggests a three-legged stool approach of capital, resolution and structure. He said that the re-structuring of the banking system should be done steadily over the ten years so that a new system is built that has the resilience to withstand the occasional crashes that are always going to occur without the burden falling on the taxpayer.

My assessment is that the people involved, Mervyn King, the Treasury Committee and the Government have got it all sussed. They are entirely aware of the problems, have intelligent solutions, have a sensible attitude to restructuring schedules and bring to this a vast amont of knowledge, wisdom, and concern for the needs of the person on the street. The problems in the system are problems that have evolved over a long period of time, and for which each and every one of is responsible. We all influence the market and the economy with our desires and buying habits. We all want high-returns with no risks. We all want to be bailed out. We all put our money into the cheapest products, the highest return investments. The government is not in control of nor responsible for the state of the nation. But by my assessment they have the greatest pool of competence I can imagine, combined with a genuine concern for the common good, so are doing the best that I believe anyone could do today to steer the nation in the best direction. I certainly could not do better. They are also quite modest and humble, and the last statement from the Governor and his aides was “There is a lot to learn”.

Ed and I and some other parliamentary assistants had lunch in the Lords River café. I spotted Lord Rupert Redesdale of Northumberland, who I know from previous meetings, and went over for a chat. Rupert is a very interesting character. He is very into squirrel trapping and has developed traps that kill or keep squirrels alive. He has trapped tens of thousands of Grey Squirrels and is re-introducing the red squirrel in Northumberland. He advocates Squirrel cuisine, as recommended by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. Rupert has also developed a computer called the Cranberry that is a small box, which you can post back to the manufacturer when it goes wrong. It is the lowest-energy computer requiring just 5 Watts to run. I asked him about his plans to develop a comprehensive product carbon calculation and labelling scheme. He is talking to potential partners such as Google, and was interested in the Farm Carbon Calculator I recently wrote.

After lunch I went to the Environment Audit Select Committee on adapting to Climate Change, who were hearing from Hilary Benn, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Professor Robert Watson, Chief Scientific Advisor, and Robin Mortimer, Director of the Adapting to Climate Change Programme. I was sat about four feet behind Hilary Benn.

They were discussing the plans and current implementation of adaptation measures including flood defences, heat-wave response and food security, and had some interesting facts and figures. I didn’t know that Britain is currently 63% self-sufficient in food and over 70% self sufficient in grain. Recent tests have found that if you water strawberries at exactly the time that they need watering, you only need one seventh of the amount of water. Imagine the implications of this for gardeners all over the country!

After work I went up to Waterstones in Piccadilly and bought five copies of Chris Lloyd’s wonderful book What On Earth Happened – in Brief (the paperback version) to give as presents. This book is fantastic reading – I have been reading it on the train – and through history gives a fantastic integrated understanding of how all elements of nature work together.

I then went to the Japan Centre and asked for the best Green Tea in the shop. Naturally I came out with the most expensive, at £19 for a packet of loose-leaf tea. Oh well, I used to spend this much on drink in one evening, and now I don’t drink anymore so I decided to have some other treats instead. It is very special tea. It is the best, freshest leaves, which are covered two months before cropping to protect the leaves. The assistant was very helpful and translated all the instructions on the packet, which are in Japanese. Green Tea should be made with water at 60 degrees, not 100 degrees centigrade, otherwise it goes bitter. Putting in one teaspoon of leaves for one to two people, the leaves should be stewed for two to three minutes. The pot should then be swirled around, before pouring out half the tea, half filling each cup. The pot should then be swirled again before pouring out the rest of the tea. Mmm, this is going to be good.

Wednesday 27th January 2010 – Demonstration

I saw a large fox as big as a collie in a street garden this morning on the way to the station.

The Select Committee on energy & Climate Change heard from four bosses of energy companies his morning. About half and hour into the proceedings a group of four in the audience staged a demonstration by unrolling a banner in front of the table where the energy bosses sat and beginning a spiel about the dangers of nuclear power. I think the policeman by the door must have had a tip off because as soon as the unfolded the banner he opened the door and said to colleagues waiting outside “come in please”. They rushed over to the demonstrators and said “can you leave, please”. When the demonstrators did not respond the police led them out one by one in arm-locks. One lay on the floor for a minute or so but eventually responded perhaps partly due to the weight of human intention in the room. Another policeman arrived at the door very out of breath – I assume he was a superior who had rushed over from another part of the building. The interlude lasted about five minutes before the session continued as before.

It was an interesting experience. On the one hand I sympathised with the demonstrators, as they are young, radical people who feel strongly that nuclear power presents high risk to human health, which I agree with. On the other hand the way the demonstration was conducted was a complete affront on the integrity of the energy bosses and MPs present, and I have got to like the MPs over many committee sessions and feel they work hard to consider all aspects of the issues to find the best solutions in the interests of their constituents and society as a whole. I thought that if the demonstrators could have expressed their views in a way that wasn’t an affront to the efforts of the people in the room it would have been much better received and listened to.

At 11 o’clock Ed, Geoffrey and I had tea with the chief of South West Water in the grandeur of the Purnel tearooms. Geoffrey was listening to the concerns of the SWW who are receiving reduced budgets while their responsibilities are being extended to parts of the network that are currently private. He also expressed concerns on behalf of residents in Torrington and Holsworthy about flooding of waste water systems. It was good to see into the world of MPs and the work they do finding solutions spanning business, the public and regulations.

At 3pm the Energy Audit Committee hear from public action groups protesting about nuclear power stations in their localities. Some of the MPs looked less comfortable than they had in previous meetings in the face of presentations by members of the public, some of whom voiced links to the morning demonstrators. I felt the best received presentations were those who presented the evidence calmly without a sense of blaming the MPs of the panel.

The evidence against nuclear power was quite strong. There was a poem by a Sellafield Foreman who had been silenced by the industry and died of a cancer related illness last year. Sellafield is a closed-down nuclear power station that no longer produces any power. To keep the reactors cool, it uses five million tonnes of water every year. To pump this water it spends £30 million a year on gas. It continues to have 12,000 employees. One of the witnesses was a retired nurse who said that unofficially local health practitioners know that there is a problem with leukaemia in the Sellafield area. I would like to do a quick investigation into the cost per kWh for electricity produced over the complete life cycle of nuclear power stations. I have heard reports that the costs and CO2 emissions are higher than conventional power stations.

But in favour of nuclear power is the simple fact that if we want to continue using as much energy as we do today, and we are running out of oil, then where are we going to get the energy from? And I think James Lovelock, for whom I have tremendous respect, would say that a few cases of leukaemia, whilst being terrible for those involved, is an insignificant problem for the planet when compared with global climate meltdown due to CO2 emissions from conventional power.

To produce the amount of power we currently use from renewables would literally require us to plaster the entire country in windmills, and these will take a lot of energy to manufacture in the first place. My own view is that we waste 80% of the energy we use due to inefficiencies such as poorly insulated houses and poorly organised transportation to name just two examples. Therefore a massive energy efficiency drive would reduce energy consumption to 20% without changing lifestyles. Renewables could realistically meet 20% of our energy needs. In fact the energy bill currently going through parliament plans for a massive expansion of wind energy to meet 30% of current national energy use. But to achieve these levels of energy efficiency requires some considerable effort on the part of every individual in the country, and the question is whether we are going to personally get this together. Unfortunately the government can’t force or pay everyone to do it, so they have to plan for continued high-energy use. They have to decide whether to commission nuclear power now, as it takes en years to build a nuclear power station. Nobody knows what the outcome will be, and only time will tell.

The great unknown – what will we do, which way will we go?

Thursday 28th January 2010 – The Penultimate Day

I was discussing with Chris this morning if there were other more harmonious ways demonstrators could be affective in communicating their message. I was thinking if they came with wonderful gifts for everyone present, like home made jam or soaps, and said to all the MPs and officials “We would like to thank you so much for your great and dutiful work and please allow us to present you with some gifts to show our great appreciation of your great service to society. We would ask you to hear our pleas very briefly for two minutes. Our dear friends have suffered terribly from the loss in value of their properties and from cancer related diseases contracted in the vicinity of nuclear power stations so we beg you to consider the terrible side affects of nuclear power on behalf of all those who are affected but have no voice…” And then leave politely with the policemen. I think all the MPs and officials would be left feeling very pleased with their gifts and compliments and would want to know who the campaigners were and where they came from. And every time they ate their jam or washed their hands with their unique natural soap they would think about the pleas of the campaigners.

I researched letters to constituents this morning. There was a very challenging one about a complex case of a tax fines made under previous laws that have now been changed due to being unjust but someone who was not aware of their error was issued the fine before the law changed. A law student called Sarah who works for Geoffrey part time was in the office so I worked in the members’ centre of Portcullis House. Portcullis House is a wonderful new building with a vast glass-covered courtyard with tress, plants and ponds in it. It houses many committee rooms and members’ offices as well as computer rooms and libraries, and is a wonderfully light and spacious building with masses of beautiful oak panelling.

After lunch I went to the committee room in Westminster Hall, the largest committee room in parliament with a double-horseshoe arrangement of seats and tables that can seat 56 members along with around the same number of civil servants, attendants, press and public.

Around ten MPs attended for the hearing on the government response to the Climate Change Committee’s report on Carbon Capture & Storage.

CCS as it is known is a new technology for capturing the CO2 emitted by coal, oil and gas power stations and storing this in the underground mines and wells that the fossil fuels were originally taken from. Because coal represents around a third of energy in Britain, half in the US, two-thirds in India and three quarters in China, CCS is seen as an essential way of bringing down global carbon emissions. In the 2008 Climate Change Act the UK has agreed to legally binding cuts in CO2 output against 1990 levels of 80% by 2050 and 34% by 2030. The components of CCS technology are all proven, and current studies are testing the use at large scale and linking up capture with transportation and storage. Capture itself takes around a third of the energy produced by a power station.

It does seem like a very good idea. My own question would be that if you take neat carbon from a mine or well (fossil fuel is almost neat carbon) and add two parts oxygen to it to make CO2, how can that fit back in the space which the carbon came from? Of course there may be lots of empty space to fill from fuels mined but not captured over the last few decades. But as a system it would not appear on the face of it to be sustainable. One of the great laws of physics that I came to understand by studying the A Level is there is no such thing as a free lunch. However in the transition to a low carbon economy CCS may be an important temporary measure for capture of emissions from fossil fuel power stations until renewables are widely rolled out. Fossil fuel power stations, unlike nuclear, can be powered up and down at short notice to meet demand, and in this sense they make a good partner to renewables such as wind, as they can supply energy at times when the wind isn’t blowing.

I left at 5pm and went straight home, completely exhausted. My stomach isn’t too good for some reason, and this combined with long days has wiped me out. I am impressed with the stamina of MPs. I went to bed at 8 o’clock and was out like a light

Friday 29th January 2010 – My Last Day

I got up at five and wrote the blog for yesterday, then packed my bags. Chris and I had breakfast at seven and then Chris drove me to the station as it was raining and with suitcase, laptop and briefcase, I didn’t have a spare hand to hold an umbrella. It was the last commute from Twickenham to Westminster, and I would miss it a little. I walked down the platform at London Waterloo with the moving crowds, out through the side entrance to the left and past the Polish Big Issue seller calling “Big Ish-yew, Big Ish-yew maadam,” as he did every morning. It had stopped raining so I continued over the walkway and across the park to the London Eye, following the Thames from there past City Hall and across Westminster Bridge towards Big Ben. I had enjoyed my two weeks of city working life, but two weeks was about right, the learning curve had levelled off.

I researched some letters for Ed, wrote a goodbye note to Geoffrey and sent a letter and copy of Resurgence magazine to Greg Clark, Shadow Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, who had expressed interest in the magazine through a friend of my fathers. Tony Blair was giving evidence to the Iraq Enquiry on the television, which I found quite interesting. I find it interesting to study the facial expressions, body language and tones, and find Blair quite hard to read. There’s great skill and years of experience in his presentation, and he certainly conveys complete conviction in his actions.

Ed and I had a last lunch with another parliamentary assistant, Rick, at the Press Gallery. It was “Fry-Day”, so Rick & I had fish and chips followed by rice pudding and jam. It wasn’t that fantastic - I think I should go back to only eating fish straight out of the sea in Clovelly. My stomach had been feeling increasingly unhappy over the last 24 hours and when I mentioned this to Ed he said he didn’t think the food in the House of Commons was reliably hygienic. He had caught a bad case of salmonella in the autumn. What a shame, even our MPs in the highest debating forum in the country can’t have decent, reliable, healthy food. I can’t wait to get back to decent food again in Clovelly.

I gave Ed a copy of Chris Lloyd’s book “What on Earth Happened – in Brief” in thanks for looking after me so well, answering all my questions about parliament and politics, and arranging for me to go to so many committee meetings. Ed carried my suitcase to the Westminster tube exit from the Houses of Parliament, and we said goodbye.

I took the northern line up to Kentish Town to visit my Grandmother for my last night in London. She asked me who I had seen in parliament and I tried to think of the MPs or Lords she might know that I had passed in a corridor: David Cameron, Jack Straw, Keith Vaz, William Hague, Nick Clegg and Norman Tebbitt were the best known ones I could think of. It’s nice to hold the door for one of these characters going about their business, and see them as simple human beings. I think we expect so much from people of authority. They are often impressively competent, but how much more can we expect from them than we could do ourselves?

My grandmother drank brandy and ginger ale and chatted to me while I longed on the chaise longue nursing my stomach and glancing at More Sex and the Single Mother on the t.v. I don’t have a television at home so it’s interesting to see where it’s at from time to time. The style seems to be going more tabloidy. The adverts are for pawning gold and debt management. My grandmother who is 93, but was always a great sportswoman, says Andy Murray has done some serious homework in the last year and just might win the Australian Open.

After cheese on toast I go to bed at six and read Power & Sex, a fantastic book by Scilla Elworthy on the relationship between power and sex. She interviewed people in charge of nuclear weapons and found them talking in terms of “soft lay downs”, “deep penetration” and “releasing 80% of our megatonnage in one orgasmic whump”. Hmm… the state of the nation with regard to sex… oh well, a subject for another day.

I’ll be going home to Devon tomorrow. So many avenues of possibility now present themselves to me, and now I feel I should move to concentrating my efforts in just one or two areas. Low Carbon and Sailing Boats are the two great themes of my life so far. Lets see how these unfold now. After my time in London I feel I can say that politics is in good shape, and working perfectly. If the country is not as we want it, that is because we are not each of us making our own lives as we want. Scilla Elworthy put it very well on page 70 of Power & Sex:

The threats to the planet stem from decisions all made separately without consideration of their cumulative affect and without a sense of responsibility for their cumulative affect.

But we are all waking up and the future starts right now! I look forward to sharing it with you.

I plan to continue my blog once a week, thank you for reading it, and I hope you have found it interesting.