Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2009/08/28/met_office_polluting_building_idiocy/

UK media: 'Met Office computer will destroy the world'

By Lewis Page

Posted in Science, 28th August 2009 14:26 GMT

Opinion The UK media has plunged into an unusually cretinous feeding frenzy following the "news" that the Met Office headquarters complex in Devon - owing to the presence of a lot of supercomputing hardware there - is considered to lie at 103rd place in a table ranking nearly 30,000 large UK buildings by carbon-emissions footprint.

The Met Office's high-power computing gear "has made the Met Office one of the worst public buildings in Britain for pollution", we learn from the Telegraph. "It has now earned the Met Office's Exeter headquarters the shame of being named as one of the most polluting buildings in Britain", says the Times. Indeed, referring to one specific new machine, the BBC tells us that "it produces 12,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide a year" (must be one of those coal-powered computers). Most of the articles point out that the Met lads got their long-range summer forecasts wrong to boot, predicting a "barbeque summer" which has actually been rather a washout.

The "green league table of public buildings published by the Department of Communities and Local Government" which all these articles refer to is actually an xls spreadsheet obtained from the DCLG by the BBC's Martin Rosenbaum (not the man who wrote the news report above) and posted on his blog on Tuesday.

The spreadsheet (8.14 MB) holds information contained in the Display Energy Certificates (DECs) which most large buildings in the UK with any public access - not just government ones - have been required to obtain since last October. This includes the carbon footprint in terms of annual tonnes of CO2, part of which is direct (as in the case of onsite gas or oil heating, generators, combined heat-and-power plants) and part indirect (as in the case of grid electricity).

And indeed, if you lift the sheet off Rosenbaum's blog and sort by this figure, the Met Office comes out at 103rd place. The vast majority of the sites with a bigger carbon footprint are hospitals, but there are a few jokers in the pack: Ministry of Defence headquarters in Whitehall, Scotland Yard, the British Library, the Natural History Museum and the National Physical Laboratory - birthplace of the internet.

These would surely be worth a headline or two: "MoD is 46th most polluting building in UK!" "British Library/Natural History Museum is destroying the planet" etc.

Or anyway, they'd be worth a headline if the tonnes-of-CO2 figure meant anything at all, which it doesn't. Naturally a bigger building with more people and/or machinery in it is going to use more energy and be responsible for more carbon emissions than a small one. Hospitals are some of the biggest complexes in the UK which are visited by members of the public, so they dominate the rankings here, but that doesn't mean that hospitals are particularly significant planet-destroyers. A coal-fired power station, not included in this list at all, is a far more serious carbon emitter.

If you want to play this game and single out buildings for being environmentally evil, you should instead look at the operational energy rating. This is a number calculated by government formula comparing the building to others of its type in terms of energy usage per square metre. If you get a rating of 100, you're thought to be average for a building of your sort.

If we sort by energy rating, though, the Met Office has dropped to 215th most evil in the land - not nearly such a good story.

The Tate Modern - source of more than one kind of pollution

Care to guess which building, according to the government energy rating scheme, is the very worst environmental damager in the land?

It's Littlehampton Community School in West Sussex, actually, a rather ordinary secondary school just now celebrating excellent exam results. Maybe the school could stand to get some new insulation or something, but it seems a bit extreme to say it's the worst place ecologically in a country which contains the Drax power station. Other notables in the top 100 enviro-villainy ratings include a police station in Romford, a primary school in Worksop, Durham Uni's science labs, several buildings at Nokia UK's research campus - and yes, some of those evil hospitals again. Best of all perhaps: number 98, far more eco-evil than the Met Office, is the Tate Modern.

Why, it's almost as though energy usage per square metre is also a pretty stupid way to decide how wasteful a building is. Particularly when some people choose to get a DEC for every building, and others get one for a whole campus or complex. And when some buildings have supercomputers in them, or massive dinosaur skeletons, or large amounts of books or modern art, and others don't.

So it's absolutely plain that it's stupid to point the finger at the Met Office in particular here. How did that happen?

Well, it looks rather as though the Telegraph might be responsible. They were first to go mainstream with the story, apparently lifting Rosenbaum's information without crediting him, and they seem to have come up with the Met Office angle. If carbon-warming sceptics have a voice in the British broadsheets it's the Telegraph, and such sceptics are often a bit down on the Met Office these days.

That's because the Met Office has taken up carbon-driven warming not only as its position, but as a key revenue source. In recent times the office has lost a lot of its traditional revenue (from the Ministry of Defence) and opened the Hadley Centre for Climate Change. A lot of people at the Met Office nowadays stand to lose their jobs if global warming turns out not to be as serious as it's painted. As there's actually been a slight dip in world temperatures lately - causing the Met people to angrily reaffirm that carbopocalypse is still definitely on - and this year's forecast of a baking UK summer has also turned out wrong, some people might wonder whether the Office is maintaining strict scientific rigour.

Frankly, there would be a certain amount of irony here if a) one could be sure that the Met Office were definitely allowing their eco-hippy stance to affect their science and b) they actually were being really eco-naughty in some meaningful way.

But the first isn't in any way provable, and the second is evidently not true. You might just as well say that hospitals are destroying the planet, or universities, or the British Library, or the Tate Modern, based on this data - and that would still be wrong because it's a limited and foolishly-organised data set.

The people who're really wasting energy in this (apart from the media) would seem to be those who set up the DEC scheme with its senseless kilowatt-hours per year per square metre rankings. ®