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05 Jan 2011 12:01:16

The sustainability of the festive season

by Dr Fionnuala Costello

It would be easy to dismiss Christmas as a sustainability nightmare – the season of consumption where everyone eats too much, buys too much and burns through many multiples of their normal electricity consumption. But looking at it a different way, Christmas could also be a model for how we should live the rest of the year.

For a start, we may all be sitting in brightly lit, warm houses in front of the television – but least we are in front of the same television. Families tend to come together, rather than heating and lighting and powering separate homes. On Christmas Day, very few people go to work so the carbon emissions from travelling are greatly reduced. The energy used to run all those offices, shops and factories is saved – as long as the lights are turned off for the Christmas break. The commercial centres of big cities should be entirely dark on Christmas Day, with the stars clearly visible in the sky because there's no light pollution. I'm not naive enough to think this will happen this year. But one way to achieve it in future would be by installing movement sensors and systems that default to 'off' when nobody is there.

Then there's the food. A lot of the traditional food eaten on Christmas Day is sourced and grown in the UK – things like root vegetables and brussels sprouts. And we all eat turkey sandwiches – the tradition of leftovers is a fantastic way of reducing waste. That's in stark contrast to our everyday habits, when people expect to have strawberries flown in throughout the year and together UK throws away one third of all food grown, enough to create 60 million lunches each day, every day from our waste.

Shopping for presents is undeniably good for the economy, which is more important than ever right now. Nothing makes you feel richer than spending money on things to give away – it gives us a glow of wealth and generosity.

Sustainability campaigners in the UK have tended to take an anorexic attitude to carbon use, promoting abstinence and criticising anything that's fun. If we are to covert the majority to sustainable living then we have to make it attractive and desirable for the many in society not just the enthusiasts. We will never persuade anybody to be eco-conscious by selling an image of lack and restriction. Why not invent new technologies that are desirable? Rather than advocating two-minute showers, we could sell the sensuous experience of a low-water mist shower.

As for the many lights that bedeck our streets and homes for the Christmas season, they do use a lot of energy. But, on the other hand, advances in lighting technology and the sale of long-lasting LED Christmas lights have two big benefits. LED lighting benefits the economy as people replace their old lighting, and it's very energy efficient – LED Christmas lights use around 2% of the power of normal incandescent lights. They're still using energy, but if it's only 2%, you can have 50 times more lights than before without increasing energy use. So we might no longer criticise people who decide to have a blow-up Santa and thousands of lights on the front of their house.

I am willing to admit to driving around my neighbourhood in Bristol to view the houses famed for their Christmas lights – I think it's a cheerful thing. It would be nice if new technologies allowed people celebrate at a cold, miserable time of year. That's the kind of thing that technology should be enabling to continue. Now all I need for Christmas is an electric car to make getting to those houses eco too...

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