OK. Let's get something straight right at the outset. I'm no crusty vegan with a chip (no pun intended – see below) on each shoulder. I see myself as practical, direct, even business-minded if I'm going to be hard on myself. I'm not the kind of person who would smash up his TV and recycle the plastic into comfortable clothing. I like my TV. It's mine. Smash your own if it makes you feel better.
But any clear-headed business-minded idiot can see that grinding this planet under our go-gett'em heels does not make good long-term business sense.
When I lived in Bristol, I did my bit. I turned off lights, was careful with water, insulated my loft and windows, bought low-energy bulbs, I recycled. No big deal. But there was never any doubt in my mind that I was anything but a burden to the home-world. Maybe the damage I inflicted was smaller than it could have been, but it was there none the less. And those frequent flights to far-off places didn't help either.
Nevertheless, I slept well. Sure, I saw the same TV programs as everyone else that talked about 'zero carbon lifestyles' but they only served to emphasise how fantastical and impractical that kind of life is. No, you can't live in the real world and save the planet too. C'est la vie, n'est pas?
Now I am lucky enough to live in a beautiful place with lots of space. Lots of space, lots of trees, lots of fresh air. Lots of cold fresh air, lots of driving rain, lots of big horrible gas bills. Yes, finally, ecology has grabbed me by the short and curlies, and I have seen the light. After three winters of forking out huge sums of money because I'm single-handedly burning a big hole in Siberia's gas reserves, I have decided that enough is enough. I cannot go on raping Planet Earth any longer. It's too bloody expensive.
The road to ecological enlightenment
So, no altruistic desire to save tonnes of carbon has driven me to this point, but a simple matter of economics.
However, the scary thing is that once you start along the road to enlightenment, there is no going back. Once you start to do the calculations and realise how positively vile you are being to the environment around you, it's hard to ignore. Sure, I could switch to diesel oil and save a quid or two, but it's no longer enough to save money. Now I want it all. I want lower bills and a cleaner planet.
Read a bit more, study a bit more, and that isn't enough either. Now I know what I really really want. And I want it very badly.
Oh, to be a carbon-negative superhero
Yes, I've made the decision, and that's the end of it. V tries to understand, of course, sympathise even. But then she sees the amount of stress I am under and wonders, rightly, if the very small effect I will have is really worth the effort. Might I not be happier spending more time with the kids, more time on my tractor, more time drinking Chianti? Naturally, she's not actually said any of this. And she might not be thinking any of this. It's probably just the voices in my head. The same voices, by the way, that got me all steamed up in the first place. And they may have a point (so might Verity, but she'll have to tell you that herself – I could ask but I'm afraid I won't like the answer).
But this is what I do. I have big ideas that are very difficult to realise and therefore highly stressful to live with, big ideas that are not always successful. I fret, it stress, I have shout at suppliers, I rant about how unfair life is (see below), stress a bit more, moan a lot more, shout at the kids a bit, and eventually get on with it.
But this time, I may, on behalf of the planet, our children, and our children's children, etc., have bitten off more than I can chew.
OK, those of you who have seen Patrignone know it is quite big. During the summer when we're full, we get through many many buckets of hot water every morning and evening. Sight-seeing is a dry and dusty business, and after a day at the Uffizzi your hair is bound to smell Renaissancey – beautiful but old and a bit smelly. In the winter, it is cold and wet here. Just to heat the absolute essentials means we burn a big tanker full of gas every month or so.
And yet every year we burn small mountains of olive wood from our pruning. For nothing. And the forests have to be kept clean and thinned out regularly to minimise the risk of forest fires. That wood is burned in open fires...pretty, but a total waste. Hugely inefficient.
So, Phase 1: install a large biomass heating plant designed to efficiently burn wood-chips from shredded olive clippings and surplus wood from the 100 acres of forest we own.
And no, burning biomass does not mean we are adding carbon to the atmosphere, because when you burn wood efficiently you are releasing the carbon trapped by photosynthesis. As long as we replace the wood by growing new stuff, then we are trapping the carbon we have released and we will be zero-carbon rated for all our heating and hot water.
Which brings me to Phase 2: install 150 square metres of solar panels to generate 20KW of electricity, all the juice we'll ever need, and more left over to pump back into the grid, so providing clean energy to others.
Put the two together, and it means that we will be completely self-sufficient for all our energy requirements and will have extra energy to sell back to the suppliers to make us carbon negative.
Cool, or what?
And my cunning plan does not stop there, as I plan to reinvest any savings and by more photovoltaic panels, or even a biomass electricity generator, so that I can generate even more green energy.
Not something you can do from a terraced house in Bristol, or a flat in London, or loft in New York, or most places where people live. But I am in a unique position. I have plenty of space and natural resources (sun, trees).
But there is a deep gulf between the thinking and the doing, and this great chasm must be filled before I am deemed worthy of this Holy Grail. And it must be filled with a great deal of money.
Yes, saving the planet don't come cheap. Total cost? Somewhere in the region of €250k to €300k ($350k-$400k) for phases 1& 2. The payback time is around 10 years, which means that going to the Italian banks and borrowing money from them is financial suicide for the project (money in Italy is very expensive). I am applying for EU grants via the local schemes in Florence but they will only pay a fraction of the cost, the paperwork is a bureaucratic nightmare and expensive, and the chances of success are slim.
Selling the dream
So, my next step was to contact a few carbon-offset companies. These companies invest in 'green' projects worldwide, and then sell the 'carbon credits' to corporate giants who need to salve their ecological guilt by buying credits to set against the horrendous damage they are doing elsewhere.
But my project doesn't qualify. For starters, most of these funds have to invest in projects in developing countries. Although Italy is becoming more 3rd-world every day, it's not there yet, al least, not officially. Reforestation project in the Amazon: cool. Renewable energy in Tuscany: cute, but not cool.
Also, my ecological cajones just aren't big enough. The reams of paperwork involved to make sure the funds invested aren't siphoned off to buy arms for the local militia or some drug-baron's new speed boat are severe, which means the projects have to be large before they are worth the overheads. I am a mere snowflake in their eco-blizzard. Simply not worth the effort.
Don't get me wrong. Of course the developing countries should get more help.
But I can't help feeling that something is very wrong. Large sums of money are being paid to agents, monitoring agencies, project managers, and the carbon-offset funds themselves, all of which need to make a decent profit to stay in business, or at the very least, pay for offices and staff to keep the machine working.
And yet, my small project will pay for itself in 10 years or so. That means that the money invested now will be ready to reinvest in a similar project in just 10 years. It doesn't need any special monitoring as anyone can pop in and have a look any time they like (coming to Tuscany is not like popping over to the Congo). And since the Florentine-Sienese wars finished in the 1500's (btw I didn't know this – I had to look it up on Wiki) there are very few risks for a project like this.
Act small, think big
Safe, reliable, sustainable, long-term, and easy when given a bit of cash. OK, small yes, but what if there were 100 farmers like me willing to do the same thing? What if there were 1000? 10,000? There are 2.5 million farms in Italy alone. 10 million + in Europe. 2 million+ in the USA. Farming is hard and largely unprofitable without massive subsidies. And yet what do all these farms have in common? Space, sun and organic fuel or biomass.
Surely some bright spark out there can find a way to get enough cash to just a small fraction of these farms? A safe investment with the capital repaid in 10 years, and you get to help save the planet. Bargain!
That's not a bad deal. If someone had said to me, back when I was living in my terraced house in Bristol, "Hey lard-arse, recycling isn't enough. So how about you put some money in this here 'savings' account? You won't earn any interest, but you can take your money out when you like, and you are actually doing something positive towards cutting greenhouse emissions. Oh, and you get to keep your TV." Being as tight as they come, I might not have put all my savings there, but I might have put some of it.
So where next?
Honestly? I'm not sure. I am determined to make this happen, or have a heart attack trying. If I get a grant I'm 20% of the way there. Getting the rest could be tricky, but I'm not done yet...
I plan to make some noise via Facebook and Twitter, shake a few trees and see if anyone comes up with any bright ideas. Someone has even suggested starting my own fund to collect cash on behalf of small investors and invest them in local schemes, but I think I have enough on my plate as it is.
Anyway, got any ideas?