[tweetmeme] We all love these facts: If mobile phones chargers were left plugged in and switched on they would consume enough electricity to power 66,000 homes for a year. It sounds good. It sounds like you could make a difference by switching chargers off. But if this were the solution to a sustainable planet, it’d be law – much like the speed limit, or murder. It isn’t. So why isn’t it the law to switch off mobile phone chargers?

Let’s do the maths: 66,000 homes is just one quarter of one percent of the 25 million homes in the UK. So switching chargers off would save one quarter of one percent of all household electricity consumption.

It’s nothing.

If everyone makes one quarter of one percent difference, then we’ve made a combined difference of one quarter of one percent . There’s no avoiding it. The tricksy bit is when we reconfigure the one quarter of one percent into a number (ohh, big!) or re-imagine that a small section of society had made a 100% change (ohh, free pass).

Big numbers

But it doesn’t matter how you pile up your chips – you don’t have any more than you have (I know, what an elegant phrase?!?).

The problem is the huge amounts of energy we consume. Or, more to the point, the problem is that we are simply unaware of the huge amounts of energy we consume.

Here’s some more brain-scrambling things that make you realize just how much energy we consume, and where our efforts should really be.

Plastic bags

The total energy burden to make your yearly supply of plastic bags (before you started using your ‘bag for life’. You do have a ‘bag for life’ don’t you?) can be offset by driving only 15 miles less per year.

I don’t know either.

Perhaps put more succinctly in Sustainable Energy—Without the Hot Air by MacKay when he says that the energy you save by switching off your phone charger for a whole day is used up in one second driving a car. To focus on the phone charger is like

“bailing the Titanic with a teaspoon”

(For further reading George Monbiot has a similar take on the subject)


The aviation industry is trialing a new GPS system that effectively gives pilots a 3D version of a TomTom Sat Nav. It replaces the existing WWII Radar technology that – although safe – prescribes flight directions in zig-zag patterns and height instruction in crude steps. Amongst other savings it’s these descent ‘steps’ that can be replaced by a gentle glide – allowing the use of minimal throttle. These CDAs (Continuous Descent Approaches) are being trialed at the UPS main hub in Louisville, Kentucky and are reckoned to save 40-70 gallons per landing.

Are we back in the land of the one quarter of one percent again?

Yep. If you take one long return flight a year (from London to Cape Town, say), that trip will use the same amount of energy as running a one-bar electric fire, day and night, all year round ( Sustainable Energy—Without the Hot Air)

UPS delivery vans

ups-logo3UPS delivery vans don’t make left turns anymore – not if they can help it.

According to UPS spokesman Dan McMackin a new route planning technology eliminated all right turns for their delivery vehicles. In the US right turns involve crossing on-coming traffic, which causes delays and stop-start driving. Simply removing this turn and replacing it with left turns (three left runs and you’ve effectively made one right turn) has trimmed 464,000 miles from UPS’ cumulative delivery mileage, saving more than 51,000 gallons in fuel, and reduced carbon dioxide emissions by 506 metric tons over an 18-month period.

They know that two wrongs don’t make a right, but three rights make a left.

It’s a cute idea (and safer for the drivers too), but makes only a small dent on fossil fuel usage. And look at those ‘large’ savings – they only highlight just how much delivery vans use, daily. They’d be better off trialing electric delivery, no? (what happened to electric milk floats in the UK btw?)


It’s vital that we focus on actions that make a significant difference, and put those actions that make very little difference at the end of the list.

Seriously now, if your friend came to help you move house and you found him holding a thimble full of rice and proclaiming himself ready to ‘drop off the first container at your new place’ your first thought wouldn’t be ‘every little bit helps’. You know how much stuff needs to be moved, so you can put the thimble of rice into context. We all need context.

Sustainable Energy—Without the Hot Air explains which actions make a significant difference and which make very little. The Economist described the book as “exemplary” and the place to start “for anyone seeking a deeper understanding of the real problems involved”. It can be downloaded free (www.withouthotair.com).

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