30 August 2011

Recommended Reading: 'How Bad are Bananas? - The Carbon Footprint of Everything' by Mike Berners-Lee

In this highly accessible read, Tim Berners-Lee aims to demystify the world of carbon footprints and give the reader an 'instinct for carbon', similar to most peoples' instinct for money. In the same way that you know that a car costs a lot more to buy than a chocolate bar, Berners-Lee sets out how everyday objects and activities relate to each other in terms of their global warming impact, commonly described as carbon footprints.

The book begins with a quick introduction to the measurement (or more realistically the estimation) of carbon footprints and then runs through a list of objects and activities ranging from the humble banana to a nuclear war. Each item is given a range of figures for its carbon footprint depending on how it is made, transported, stored and consumed or disposed of. These figures are then discussed in light detail.

‘How Bad Are Bananas?’ has a few eye-opening findings. It seems that rice production is surprisingly carbon intensive and the milk in a cup of tea can have as much carbon impact as growing, harvesting, storing and transporting the tea leaves then supplying and heating fresh water. There are also contentious statements, although Berners-Lee is quite open about his arithmetic and presents his work throughout as a first attempt rather than a definitive account.

The book's real strength is in doing exact what it sets to do. Whether you read it cover to cover or dip in and out of the subjects most relevant to you, ‘How Bad Are Bananas?’  will leave you with an appreciation of the complexity of carbon footprints and the beginnings of the ‘instinct for carbon’ that Berners-Lee argues will be so vital in the future.

A lecture by the author, Mike Berners-Lee can also be found on Youtube. The presentation neatly summarises the idea behind the book and explores some of the findings.

This book is unlikely to have an immediate impact on your behaviour as a designer, a developer or a consumer. Nonetheless, we recommend it as an excellent primer on carbon footprints, which continue to grow in the public consciousness.