What’s better for the environment: (a) forcing an entire nation to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, or (b) asking people to voluntarily replace their showerheads? I myself would go for (a), but the Government of Australia thinks it’s the showerheads. I know you may not take my word for it, so sit back and let me try to explain.
A Continent at Risk
Australia stands to lose a lot from the adverse impacts of global warming. Rising temperatures have already led to a major increase in forest fires and droughts, the effects of which are keenly felt in most of the country’s major cities. In Melbourne, for example, “Stage 3” water restrictions are now in place. This means, among other things, that you can only water your garden twice a week, and are prohibited from washing your car with drinking water.
As you would expect, thanks to all of this, Australians have become an environmentally conscious lot. In 2007, they happily voted for Kevin Rudd, a prime minister who ratified the Kyoto Protocol (leaving the US in the cold—so to speak—as the sole non-ratifying country), and promised to introduce a so-called Emission Trading Scheme (ETS), requiring businesses to purchase a license to emit greenhouse gases.
At first, the ETS was to become operational in 2010. Last year, when voters began to realize the ETS would lead to higher prices (after all, businesses would pass most of the cost of an emission license on to their customers), Rudd changed the date to 2011, as reported previously on Ecohearth.
This year—surprise, surprise—voters still didn’t like the idea of paying higher prices, which presented Rudd with the opportunity to postpone the ETS yet again, this time to 2013. A few days after his announcement of its delay by two more years, I received a brochure that introduced a new government-led environmental trading scheme I had not heard about before. It’s called the Showerhead Exchange Program.
Showerheads, Not Emissions
The website of Southeast Water, one of Melbourne’s three water companies, tells you how to save vast amounts of water and energy by participating in the Showerhead Exchange Program.. This is how it works:
- Step 1: Bring your old showerhead to a “showerhead exchange location.” This could be the head office of the water company (in case of Southeast Water, a mere 36-minute car drive from the city center), or—assuming you have registered first as a potential showerhead exchanger—a library or council office. Any showerhead will do, unless your good ole’ showerhead was used in connection with “gravity-fed or some older instantaneous hot water systems.” All you have to do is to bring your old showerhead. Oh, and your water bill, of course, and don’t forget your downloadable water consumption form. You should also have obtained permission from your landlord.
- Step 2: Get a new, water-saving showerhead in exchange.
- Step 3: Install the new showerhead. This is easy to do, unless it’s not. In the latter case, “you can arrange for a qualified plumber to come and assist you.” Indeed, as the website helpfully points out, “Technically the Plumbing Regulations limit this to home owner/occupiers. In all other cases a licensed plumber must do the installation.” For Melbournians who do not hold the environment as dear as the average Ecohearth.com reader, this is a potential deal breaker, because it is not only enormously difficult to find a qualified plumber in Melbourne—as your correspondent, who recently tried to fix his own toilet, can grimly attest—it is also far more expensive than the promised savings of $60 per year.
- Step 4: Reap the benefits. Apart from the 60 bucks, you also save 20,000 liters of water per household per year. That seems quite sizable—until you consider that an average household consumes at least 10 times that much. In good faith, I should add that a participant in the Showerhead Exchange Program saves not only water, but also energy. However, this works only “as long as you don't shower for longer than before!” (If you think I’m making all this up, you have my full sympathy but must nevertheless stand corrected after having read this.)
The 20,000-Liter Question
Why does the Australian government actively support the Showerhead Exchange Program (I received a wonderfully designed brochure in a letter addressed to me personally), but reject the Emission Trading Scheme? I can think of only three possible reasons.
First of all, unlike the ETS, replacing your showerhead is voluntary. If you don’t like it, think it’s too much hassle, or think it won’t help (like me), you simply don’t participate and nobody will ever know.
Secondly, it has no significant impact—positive or negative—so you will be guaranteed not to stir up any interest group. I will use Southeast Water’s own data to back up this claim. It says that showers use about 30% of household water, and that the new showerhead saves 40% of this water. If true (and I think it is), and if a fair number of people participate in the Showerhead Replacement Program (let’s be young and wild and optimistically assume 25%), we Melbournians would save (40% x 30% x 25% =) 3% of household water. What the Southeast Water’s website does not tell us is that household water accounts for only about 10% of total water consumption, so that the showerheads would, at best, save (3% x 10%=) 0.3% of total water consumption in the country.
But the third reason is the most important: replacing a showerhead has a very high feel-good factor. Almost everybody takes a shower every day, and we all feel—with some effort—that we all would be able to replace our existing showerheads with better ones and help the environment. The problem is, as I’ve shown, the actual results would be negligible.
As Carl Sagan once said, “We should think with our brains, not with our guts.”