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One banana, two banana…measuring carbon footprints with Banana Theory

By news editor, on 1 June 2012

Jamie Bull, PhD student in UCL Engineering

On 21 May, a group of EngD students from UCL and MA students from Chelsea College of Art launched an art installation in the parade ground of Chelsea College.

EngD researchers from the Urban Sustainability and Resilience centre had spent time developing ideas for communicating their research to a wider audience through the medium of an art installation.

The winning team came up with Banana Theory, the idea of using the seemingly omnipresent QR codes as a kind of carbon barcode for products. This was tied in with the book, How Bad are Bananas? which uses the humble banana as a unit of carbon. A box of QR-labelled bananas was then on hand at the launch event to be handed out to the audience.

The main part of the art installation, though, is a giant QR code cut into the turf in the centre of the parade ground.

The author of How Bad are Bananas?, Mike Berners-Lee, was present for a panel discussion chaired by Fred Pearce, science journalist, which also featured Richard Jackson, our new Head of Sustainability at UCL; Tia Kansara, researcher and consultant working on sustainable lifestyles; Chris Church, sustainability advisor to the GLA; and land artist, David Cross, who worked with the team members to shape their piece.

Embodied carbon
Mike Berners-Lee’s book is about embodied carbon emissions – those generated by purchase of goods and services rather than directly by using fossil fuels or electricity. It covers things at a whole range of scales, from bananas to wars.

Embodied carbon studies are often carried out in quite a rough and ready way, but that is often enough detail. Mike gave the example of being asked whether it was better to use paper towels or an electric hand dryer…by someone who made seven transatlantic flights per month!

The next speaker was Chris Church, who moved from bananas to P.I.E. That’s Policy, Infrastructure and Engagement. He argued that the UK has the policy in place, with the infrastructure not quite adequate to meet those targets, and the missing link is public engagement.

More carrot, less stick
As more than one speaker noted, you can’t scare people into caring. Chris suggested that it is more important to speak to people’s values, give them alternatives and make them see what they have invested in the positive side of things. It’s about more than just providing information – and, arguably, an excess of information can be part of the problem.

Tia Kansara then spoke about the tri-annual survey in Bhutan, designed to measure Gross National Happiness (an idea that has seen some recent popularity in UK government) and also touched on the valuation of ecosystem services – valuing what nature provides to those who live in it.

Next Richard Jackson, a fairly recent appointment as the first Head of Sustainability at UCL, spoke about his experiences working on delivering sustainability at the Olympics. He described how an initial focus on in-use energy consumption and carbon emissions moved towards including embodied carbon and bringing suppliers and contractors on board with supply chain and procurement improvements.

Art with purpose
The final panellist was David Cross, a landscape artist and academic at Camberwell College of Arts. His discussion began with the question “why do art?” This project was all about art with a purpose – communicating a specific message about sustainability.

David’s talk ranged from market research and surveillance culture, to bananas as a symbol of colonialism. It was a fascinating insight into the thought processes that went into producing this project and the history of similar engagement and artistic endeavours.

The panellists’ talks were followed by a Q&A session with lots of interesting questions from a diverse audience from UCL, Chelsea College of Art and beyond.

Taking reponsibility
In the world of embodied carbon assessment, there are ongoing debates on whether impacts are allocated “upstream” to the producer or “downstream” to the consumer. Before Mike Berners-Lee dashed off to catch a train, he had time to give a brief answer to an audience question about this question of consumer vs. producer responsibility.

His take on it is that it’s not an either/or situation, and that the question is typical of those he hears from groups saying “but isn’t it the responsibility of [insert scapegoat group here]?” In fact, both the producers of products and those who use them bear responsibility.

Another topic raised by an audience member was limiting greenwash. Richard Jackson spoke about how the ODA has tried to do this by bringing in more transparent processes – part of the legacy of 2012. One area where this Olympics is certainly doing more than previous Games is on measuring embodied emissions.

One could see Banana Theory QR codes helping with such processes. Imagine a QR code on each pallet of bricks or on the paperwork for each delivery to a building site. This could be scanned upon receipt to build up a record of the embodied carbon emissions of the project.

Terms of engagement
Richard Jackson as well as Fred Pearce and the Banana Theory team themselves all mentioned “green” or “sustainable” as potentially negative terms – ones that can actively discourage people from engagement.

It is a huge area of concern, raising questions about how we can rebrand the technologies, ideas and discoveries that come out of engineering and scientific disciplines in ways that speak to consumers and producers. This collaborative project is a way of trying to make that step.

The lasting impression of the launch was of a spirited discussion of our effects on the environment, and of who bears the responsibility for the embodied impacts of consumption.

The project members intend to take their concept elsewhere in London, and then globally. Here’s hoping that the Banana Theory project will go on to spark many more lively debates like the one at the launch.

Images: © D. Stefan 2012

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