The first fifty percent is easy!

Warwick Rowell, March 2007

We must reduce our CO2 output by 90% within the next 5 years, says George Monbiot, long time environmental editor of The Guardian in England.

More challenging is to see if we can do this with the minimum change to our quality of life.

What we have been doing at Rosneath Farm over the last ten years shows that it is not as hard as it seems.

To help you achieve the same results, we need make some rough assumptions, and then deal with each area in turn. Much of the best information available is explored in great detail by George Monbiot in his book “HEAT – How to stop the planet burning”.

While his analysis is invaluable, it is not directed primarily at Joe Public, but rather at policy makers. The problem is policy makers are almost invariably politicians. Politicians are followers, and so until the majority of the public say what is needed, and demonstrate to the politicians that they want it to be done, the politicians will not change policy. We do not have time to wait for politicians to find politically acceptable solutions; we have to enact the many and varied solutions needed, and then make the politicians support them.

We need to think about and change our family’s CO2 production.

Let’s assume that a typical family’s CO2 production is highest in transport, then electricity use, then food, then building and then clothing, and that the ratio of CO2 production between each area is something like 35/30/20/10/5. It is logical to spend most of your time and your resources looking at the two or three major areas, for the most significant reductions.

Reducing Transport Emissions

We must look very broadly at this issue – at the transport of all the things that come and go from our house, as well as the people. The best thing that could happen to reduce transport CO2 emissions would be to just about ban transport of anything by aeroplane. The environmental cost of flying is multiplied dramatically by the fuel droplets and other gaseous materials left high in the atmosphere, so think seriously about doing your future travel by the internet.

We have to break this habit, and look to support local manufacturers and producers, if only as a defence against the incredible drop in internationally transported goods when aviation fuel prices go to five to ten times what they are now, and then there is a CO2 tax on top of that. I wrote an article sixteen years ago talking about the probable dead cat bounce of international trade: To paraphrase a current supermarket slogan in Australia: “Down and staying down”.

If you reduce your international purchases and air travel to 10 – 20% of your previous level, you will achieve a huge reduction of CO2 emissions in the transport area. Then stop regarding your car as an excuse not to think about whether to go to the store or not. Carefully plan your car journeys, coordinate shopping with other activities, look at car pooling, and then car sharing. One ute may well be enough for ten or twenty families. One campervan may be enough for ten. If that is too hard, think about the smallest car you need for 90% of your travel, and hire for the rest of the time. The savings could well be significant, because you have to do a lot of kilometres to average out the costs per km of maintenance, licensing and insurance. Research shows consistently that 95% of car journeys are under 30 kms.

You could even go so far as to look at what the major activities of your family are going to be over the next ten years, and buy a house close to those services, facilities, or physical features. Such careful positioning makes the use of walking, cycling, and public transport more sensible. We had a townhouse near the hospital where Gill worked, the University where I was studying, the city where I was walking, across the road from a huge 64 acre playing field, 200m from King’s Park and buses, and the yacht club….

Only after rethinking, and then reducing the number of kilometres you drive, is it worth looking at increasing the kms/litre, because the savings from the former far outweigh the latter. I have noticed a difference of about 1.5 kms/litre before and after a service and tune-up; regular servicing may be a saver for you too. Reducing the rate of acceleration can have a dramatic effect – as much as 20% – on your fuel economy.

In summary: buy local; live local: use alternative transport forms; drive as small a vehicle as possible; drive it gently and maintain it well.

Reduce Electrical emissions

The first fifty percent (or more) of savings in the domestic electricity area are achievable and economic NOW. It can take up to two Kilowatt hours generated at the power station to get 1 KwHr to your house. So every KwHr you do NOT consume, can save as much as 2 KwHrs of CO2 production. If you go as far as we have, and generate your own power, then you have achieved a 100% reduction in your domestic electricity emissions.

In some areas, and for some systems, you can get a subsidy of 55% from the government for solar panels. The nature of the system and the rebates has to be determined locally. Also the system configuration impacts on your costs. For instance, our system is totally stand-alone; we have nine days of battery storage. We chose that deliberately. There are both environmental and economic factors that made that decision very easy for us. Like frequent power outages at the end of a line in a rural area.

By permitting and designing developments with houses that are not reticulated – no power, no water, no sewerage, no drainage (offsite), no telephone land line – planners and developers can locate the house lots where they should be for environmental and aesthetic reasons, and not because of the need to have lot layouts that minimise the distance required from the mains source onto the property, and so the expense of all the pipes and wires.

Recently a development that would have doubled the population of a small town was dropped in the Ravensthorpe area because the Shire’s planners said the developers would have to make a contribution to the upgrading of the power distribution infrastructure in the area. Talk about a current example (pardon the pun!) of the Tragedy of the Commons. To allow the developers their “satisfactory” profit, the people who buy off them would have to pay about double for the actual costs of wiring etc, then go on paying the rates for increased production of power. But there is a better alternative! If Western Power had insisted that we provide power to each house when we were getting approval for Rosneath Farm in 1997, we would have been better off to pay for solar power systems for each house (then about $13,000 per household) than to put on mains power. In those days the cost of providing underground power was much greater than generous solar power systems costs, and now it costs over $140 per metre just to dig the trench for underground power lines here!

If you are already on the mains grid, there are solar power systems that use the grid as the battery, of various sizes. At the upper end, you can build a system that generates more than you use, and feed power back to the grid, and get paid for it. A midpoint is a system that generates enough for most of your needs, and which most importantly protects all your valuable electronic equipment from spikes and surges, while being able to draw some power from the grid for high demand times or uses. Make your own assessment of the likely cost and reliability of power, and choose which option suits. Timer switches so most of your refrigeration loads are off peak could result in further reductions of the need for peak power and so generation needs. BE wary of covering your refrigerator or installing it tightly in shelves – modern refrigerators rely on heat transfer through side walls for their efficiency – just placing your fridge in a cool room, with lots of room around it can make a difference. Keeping your deep freeze full of water bottles saves as well – keeping air cold is expensive.

Solar Hot Water heating was pioneered in Western Australia over sixty years ago. It can save considerable electrical or gas consumption for water heating and so CO2 emissions.

Reduce Food emissions

Reducing food emissions overlaps substantially with transport emissions. The best way to reduce food related CO2 emissions is not intuitively obvious. I was startled when some years ago at Tone River, John Croft informed us that to get one calorie of “food” on an American plate was consuming 1500 calories, mainly in transport, with most of the balance in packaging, processing, and chilling. This is totally unsustainable by any measure.

We need 4 Kg of food and water a day for a healthy body. Can we produce half of that ourselves, for another 50% reduction?

Probably over 2 Kg of our daily consumption is water, so the easiest solution is to install a water tank, first for your bodies’ water demands, and then if you have the space, and cash, for your garden and animals.

The best thing for your family’s health and the health of the planet is fresh local food. Every purchase, every mouthful makes a difference. Feeding people will not be sustainable until we replace the world-wide commercialisation of food in a market system with local, fresh, in season produce.

Transporting, packaging, chilling and freezing add exorbitantly to the cost and wastage of food and energy. If you start to grow your own food, you make a major contribution to reducing CO2 emissions. Start with some herbs, some salads, and one or two easy-to-grow carbohydrate sources. The best match between our skill, climate and soil type seems to be broad beans, potatoes, pumpkin, beans, and peas, in that order. Add some fruit trees, and you could quite soon get to be producing over half of your food needs. Add a source of meat and you can produce even more of your own food. We have found pigeons the easiest and most resilient.

Dairy is the hardest thing to produce yourself – cut down, or think about sharing a goat with two or three neighbours.

If you are not a good gardener, the best thing you can do is find a good gardener near you and offer to help them in exchange for produce. There are always peak periods where an extra two or three people are needed; in a well-designed system, this is mainly harvesting, processing and preserving.

Reducing Building Emissions

You can only reduce CO2 emissions in the building process for your next house, or when you do a major refit. How and what we build of are remarkably culturally determined. In the southwest, we have progressed over the last twenty years to fast wall bricks for our double brick homes. For most of the other regions of Australia, double brick is almost unheard of.

We also need to look at the key factors that support longevity of our designs and building products. The key point here is that house location is more important than spatial design. A healthy environment is the most important, and the key environmental factor is clean air; you can do things about making your soil and water healthy if you live in clean air. Then proximity to services you need, such as schooling, transport, shops, employment, particular forms of leisure activities, and public open space is on the next level of importance.

Passive solar design is too neglected; in this mild climate, heating and cooling costs and associated emissions can be totally eliminated. Draft proofing is the first easy step. Trombe walls and solar closets and attics can be retrofitted. Straw bale and stucco walls are fantastic! Our son fitted plastic roller blinds on a verandah and has reduced wood fuel and so emissions by 75%. Check in your area for an eco-friendly designer; they have a greensmart logo to identify them. We have our own on-site people, who have been involved in building fourteen of the structures at Rosneath farm to date: Your Building Company.

In summary, start with insulation improvements, and draft proofing, put on another jumper instead of turning the heater on, look at temporary double glazing of windows away from the sun and facing the cold winds, and build a file of info for your next house.

Reducing Clothing Emissions

How long after you buy an item of brand new clothing is it second hand? How much are you paying for that one or two seconds? There is as much unsuitable clothing in the brand new shops as there is in the second hand shops. Clothes in the second hand shops are meticulously cleaned, but they have not been starched, glued, and otherwise tarted up for sale to make them look different from how they will be after their first or second wash. Start a clothing pool for children with a group of families and you will have the fun of seeing quality items gracing six or seven or ten kids as they grow through a particular stage.

Our reaction to this question about second hand clothing illustrates the key issue; changing our thinking is the hardest part. I hope the perspectives above have got you thinking along a slightly different path.

What might it all cost?

Prices are as current as I can get them, at March 2007.


  • Anything you do to reduce CO2 emissions in this area will also save you money. For most of us it will be post-tax dollars too. It will also reduce your health bills if you walk or ride.

Food production:

  • Again, after the first year or two of fumbles and setting up costs of say $1000, you should save money. Again, the interest and exercise are good for you.

Dry Composting Toilet:

  • Save water, get good compost, protect your health, and cut annual water use and perhaps sewerage costs. After direct experience of eight commercially available systems, we recommend either Rotaloo 600 or Rotaloo 950: the latter is available for about $4300.

Water Tanks:

  • Concrete tank 9m diameter for 135 Kl: $11500 + GST, 7.3m diameter for 90 Kl: $8000 + GST.
  • Plumbing for tank collection: allow $1500.

Electricity Systems:

  • The key here is to work out your REDUCED needs. We have the smallest system on Rosneath Farm, and it runs everything: It has 1.25 kw max rated output of panels, a 3 Kw inverter, and 1330 amp-hours of batteries for a 24v system: 32 Kw Hrs of storage. Rebates may be available. Current cost of a similar system is around $24,200 – see the Earth suite at

Solar Hot Water Systems:

  • With a 300l tank: $3800 + installation less a $400 rebate.
  • With a 200l tank: $3600 + installation less a $400 rebate.
  • We recommend Smalls Solakleen.

Woodfired slow combustion stove:

  • Approx $4000. For a high quality version of the English AGA, check out Thermalux Stoves Pty Ltd. 63 Harrow Rd Somerton Park SA 5044. (08) 82988093.

Food production:

  • Seeds, pot plants, trees, soil for them, good basic garden equipment: say $1000.

This totals $51,650.

As well as reducing your greenhouse emissions by around 60%, and so contributing to saving the planet, you will save

  • Electricity bills – currently ………………………………:………………….
  • Excess water bills – currently…………………………….:…………………
  • food costs – say 60% of present………………………….: …………………
  • Health costs – say 50% of pharmacy items, gap…………:………………….
  • Fuel and other car costs – say 35%:…………………

Your possible savings each year are: ………………

If your mortgage rate of interest is 7%, and all of your costs are after tax, you only have to save $2,530 per year to justify these capital costs through an increase in your mortgage, or a reduction of your other investments. ($2530 is after tax. If you pay 31% tax, then this sum is 69% of what you have to earn to be able to pay the bills; you need to earn $3667; this is a 7.09% return on the $51,650).