The Carbon Cost of Bathing

June 25, 2008

Want to reduce your carbon footprint? Forget about switching off electrical appliances and try showering less and wearing more clothes around the house at the expense of cranking up the heat. These are among some of the obvious conclusions drawn by physicists, such as Professor David J C MacKay of Cambridge University in the U.K. For instance, forgoing one bath will save the same amount of energy as leaving your TV off standby for over six months.

Of course, the rejoinder is that every little bit adds up, but the question is just what needs to be added to what in order to kick the carbon addiction? This is where Professor MacKay’s Ph.D in computational physics comes in handy. Take the United Kingdom, which Greenpeace believes could meet its energy needs without resorting to nuclear or coal-driven power stations. But work the math and the country, as Lewis Page puts it,

would be literally covered with — and girdled by — massive wind farms, tidal barriers and wave barrages, and every sizeable body of water in the land would rise and fall to the strange new tides of the national grid. We would have literally rebuilt the British Isles as a single mighty renewable generator, pouring concrete and erecting steel on a scale so far matched only by human habitation — industrialising the land and sea in a way that would make intensive agribusiness look like a wildlife refuge. And still we’d be importing power.

Biofuel is not much of a solution either. As MacKay notes, to provide one-quarter of Britain’s current energy consumption, 75 percent of the nation’s land mass would need to be planted with biomass crops.

And in case you’re wondering, Professor MacKay is not a paid up member of the fossil-fuel industry, he’s just your average liberal academic who’s worried about global warming, believes we should reduce our reliance on fossil fuels and our overall energy consumption but – thanks to a Ph.D in computational physics from Cal Tech – also believes that to deal with these problems, “we need numbers not adjectives.”

To read more numbers, check out the online version of Professor MacKay’s book, Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air. (Hat tip to The Register, via Arts and Letters Daily.)


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