How Bad Are Bananas? – The Carbon Footprint of Everything, by Mike Berners-Lee

Andrew Lang reviews Mike Berners-Lee’s How Bad Are Bananas? – The Carbon Footprint of Everything.

I sometimes browse the science/environment section of a bookshop just to get a laugh (it is as recommended for lightening a gloomy mood as reading the herbal and fruit ingredients of hair shampoos in a supermarket).

And the reason why it cheers me up is that most books on ‘greening the environment’, ‘reducing your carbon footprint’ or ‘saving the planet’, are simultaneously so politically correct and scientifically hopeless that they give me a good laugh. So it was really encouraging to find a book that passed all my tests in an airport bookshop. And it did this despite being written by an English academic.

How bad are bananas? is split into sections according to amount of CO2e emitted. So the chapters are excitingly named ‘Under ten grams’, ‘10 to 100 grams’, and so on, up to ‘100 tonnes to 1 million tonnes’, and ‘1 million tonnes and beyond’.

Sensibly, before all this comes an introduction about why such a book is necessary. As Mike says, the book is to help you pick your battles by developing an idea of where particular issues/things fit in the scale of emissions, and why. One example he gives is of a friend who flies many times a year between the UK and the USA, but whose overriding concern was about the carbon emissions of drying his hands.

At the start there is also a short beginner’s guide to terminology, including what CO2e is (carbon dioxide equivalent), and some of the key issues. For instance, a person’s carbon emission for an air flight is usually just calculated by the fuel burned in flight divided by the number of passengers. But Mike points out that high altitude burning of fossil fuel has a far greater impact on global warming than burning it at sea level. His figure given in the book factors this in and includes emissions involved with the extraction, refining and transport of the fuel, and for manufacture of the airplane.

This all might sound a bit daunting, but it isn’t. As Mike suggests, it is a great book to keep near the toilet for a ‘quick dip’. He calculates emissions for all sorts of things that are part of our daily lives (including a roll of toilet paper), and usually provides two or three optional levels to consider. For example, you can boil a litre of water in a well-designed kettle on a gas stove at low heat, in a lidless saucepan on a gas stove at full bore, or in an electric jug. The wastage or transfer efficiency of the heat is one input factor, and the source of the heat (gas, electricity, wood) is another.

Anyway there are 500 examples over a diverting array of things and activities; from cheese through bottled water, a dozen eggs, a pair of trousers, being cremated, a computer, a new car and the World Cup. The rating of solar PV panels and small wind turbines, and the information on these, was a primary reason I decided this man was working from first principles, without fear or favour. My only criticism is that he is weak on use of wood (a Finn, Austrian or Swede would have nailed this aspect).

Oh, and for those who can’t immediately find the book locally, bananas are good (as are apples). He actually gets quite excited about bananas (in a restrained English scientist sort of way) on page 27.


Feature image: Organic bananas at Rhubarb, Rhubarb Organics at Preston Market, Preston, Victoria. 

Mike Berners-Lee’s How Bad Are Bananas? – The Carbon Footprint of Everything is readily available online.


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