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Saving can be just as effective as spending

Naturally everyone is concerned with green issues, but using poorly thought-out plans, or advisors with questionable expertise will not necessarily save the planet says NCE's deputy editor, Jackie Whitelaw

The phone rang. "Jackie, Jackie, I'm going to be later than usual today. I cut myself shaving and I'm waiting for the blood to stop flowing."

As an excuse it was one of NCE's more creative reporter's best. "Oh dear Diarmaid! What happened?"

"Well, I was shaving in the dark….."

The explanation had something to do with listening to the radio and the extractor fan being too noisy, not an extreme energy saving technique. Maybe there's a tip there that the curious bunch of TV presenters, pressure groups and occasional industry professional united in the Eco-Towns Challenge panel might like to pick up on. The panel, which is devoid of engineers is going to be "helping" developers in the design of Eco-Towns. Oh to be a fly on the wall; although I suspect with all those TV people involved there will be a camera in the ceiling and a reality show just around the corner, so not long to wait.

It is perhaps best to pin your hopes on the rather more pragmatic All Party Urban Development Group which is about to start investigating how to cut energy driven carbon emissions in existing buildings. Existing buildings are much less glamorous and headline grabbing than new ones, particularly new ones with eco in their name. But they do create just under half of the country's total carbon emissions so there's a lot to work with.

Encouragingly the MPs on the group do want to hear from you about how to improve the existing building stock, the barriers to reducing emissions, and the penalties and incentives that would help make a difference. But it might be worth taking a look at the biofuel debacle before coming up with plans to plonk new bits of expensive, "looks green now but who knows what might come out in the wash", kit in every nook and cranny.

When the Renewable Transport Fuels Obligation was first cooked up it must have felt like a brilliant plan. Replace 5% of traditional vehicle fuel with fuel from a renewable source like plants – what could be wrong with that? You can't get greener than plants. But in the week the first stage of the obligation kicks in, the World Bank is warning of drastic food shortages as the world's population expands and farmers switch to growing more lucrative biofuel rather than food crops. Suddenly it is starting to look like investing in incentives for fuel saving might have been money better spent than pouring cash into biofuel development.

The same could turn out to be true in any discussion about renewable energy and existing buildings. Retrofit photovoltaics and the occasional showy windmill, or beef up the insulation and turn the heating down a notch? Oh, and switch off the lights, but probably not when you are shaving.

- Jackie Whitelaw is NCE's deputy editor

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