Sunday, 22 April 2012
White is the new green
ACCORDING to a national headline: “Big energy firms ‘treat consumers with contempt’.” The report, based on market research by the pollsters YouGov, suggested that people get more annoyed by the companies’ big profits than their own big bills. Which is odd, but perhaps says something interesting (and uncomfortable) about human nature. Whichever way you look at it, though, it’s clear that the big energy firms could do with buffing up their public image. How apt, then, that facing that critical report should be a full-page advertisement for Scottish Power, claiming that they are “making a world of difference”. By “listening”, being “socially aware”, and by commitment to “renewable energy solutions”. All thoroughly admirable commitments. And all claims you will hear repeated, in one similar form or other, by a host of companies from BP to Siemens – never mind those rapidly proliferating firms that actually specialise in renewables. These days, clearly, every company with even a passing interest in power wants to paint itself green. Which is a good thing, if they’re consistent and honest about it. But perhaps they’d be better off painting themselves white. It’s long been known that the melting polar ice-caps have a vicious-circle effect on global warming. The more ice melts, the less white there is to reflect back the sun’s rays, and the more dark sea to absorb its heat – causing more ice to melt. And so on. The warming effect of black surfaces is why tarmac roads get shimmering, meltingly hot in summer. Put together the black roads and the black tiled or felted roofs and you’ve got one of the reasons why cities tend to be a degree or few warmer than the surrounding countryside. Why in summer, towns and cities can become almost unbearable. Two years ago, US energy secretary Steven Chu suggested that if roads and rooftops were painted white, it would reduce the need for air-conditioning. Now scientists at Concordia University in Canada have come up with some startling figures on the subject. They suggest that increasing the solar reflectiveness, or “albedo”, of roads and roofs – essentially by painting them white – could reduce a city’s power consumption by ten per cent. And that if it was done worldwide, the total effect would be to provide a CO2 offset of between 130billion and 150bn tonnes – the same as taking every car in the world off the road for 50 years. It sounds easy. It also sounds too good to be true. They say: “Increased albedo can decrease atmospheric temperature and counter some of the anticipated temperature increases from global warming.” So all we need is a bit of white paint. Well, a lot of white paint actually. And an awful lot of political will and international co-operation. Which might not be quite so easy – but surely worth trying.