Energy use and carbon dioxide emissions per unit of enjoyment: how environmentally friendly is folk dancing? What are the environmental overheads of keeping a dog compared with going to dances?

Despite not being a 'natural born dancer' I have become quite proficient. My dance diary for 2016 shows how much fun and exercise can be had for a few hundred pounds a year.

Highlights of my dance year in 2016 are here - see if they encourage you to take up the hobby!

Since taking up dancing over 10 years ago I estimate I have danced about 30,000 times and with hundreds of different women.

Principal links to folk dance material on this website.

This is an additional webpage on folk dancing to pick up the points at the bottom of this page, and centred on energy use and carbon dioxide emissions per unit of enjoyment.

(Draft text.)

The point has been made in my dance diary that more and more people are staying at home rather than getting out to dance halls, table tennis clubs and the like.

Energy costs and carbon dioxide emissions for various types of activities and hobbies can be estimated.

For example, for people sitting at home searching the internet, their main use of fuel (and their main environmental impact) may be from home heating. But if the house is kept warm for other inhabitants, the overhead may be zero.

Energy use from computing world-wide is considerable - computers are a major user of electrical energy. Google has made large progress in its desire to save energy (and money) by making the power supply systems for its banks of data servers more efficient. It has been calculated that a Google search produces 0.2g (0.2 gram) of carbon dioxide - this figure is derived by calculating the energy use ascribed to the data server that handled the request.

Interestingly, data servers and other large computer systems world-wide are estimated to account for 2% of world energy use - about the same as the world-wide aviation industry.

Comparison of energy use between sectors is complicated owing to differing impacts of different energy types. For example 'clean' nuclear or wind energy (with a low CO2 overhead) cannot be compared directly with energy from either a 'clean' fossil fuel such as refined petrol or with 'dirty' diesel of the type used in ocean-going liners. The latter is hugely polluting - the fuel would never be allowed to be burnt on land owing to the local pollution it would generate. Fuel burned in the upper atmosphere has a different environmental impact to that burned at ground level. And so on. Cruise ships that take passengers on arctic expeditions have been accused of contributing to the destruction of these pristine systems by polluting the ice surface with particles of carbon - the ice then absorbs more sunlight and the rate of melting increases. There is now a vast literature on arctic ice melting - and increasing concern that the threat is being downplayed by governments, who wish to promote the 'business as usual' scenario for as long as possible.

Scientists who have for decades spoken out against the 'business as usual' option have found their positions in some universites untenable and have even been monitored by the US NSA (National Security Agency). One talk by a leading university professor is here - it is longer than an hour but in my view well worth watching.

In assessing whether folk dancing is an environmentally friendly way of combating loneliness for example (a topic covered in my folk dance pages) it would be necessary to calculate the energy use of dancers travelling to their local club, to a distant festival, or overseas, and to normalise this per unit dance or per unit of enjoyment. The cost of unit enjoyment could also be calculated. This could then be compared to other 'pleasurable activities' such as going on a cruise or keeping a dog for company - which so many people do.

This is not a trivial topic: keeping large pets is very bad for the planet. I first noticed the study by Profs Robert and Brenda Vale years ago. I remembered it because I recognised their names as people I had met, maybe once, decades ago, when they were research scientists at Cambridge (UK). They now live in New Zealand. Their study was mocked at the time but has largely been verified. It is now widely quoted, for example here. The environmental impact of keeping a dog is broadly equivalent to running a large car - owing to the food consumed, etc. This leads to the suggestion that  various hobbies and pastimes should also be assessed on a 'like for like' basis. So is it more environmentally friendly to own a dog or a cat to help combat loneliness or would it be better for the planet to drive to a few folk dances?

Some initial figures and ideas: people who surf the web all evening may consume energy for home heating (in the winter months) and electricity for their computers and for the data centres that handle their page requests. Google has estimated a carbon dioxide production of 0.2g per server request. This is a tiny environmental overhead compared to driving to a dance - the carbon released by a car including the overhead of the energy used to manufacture the car has been estimated at 15kg (15,000g) of carbon dioxide per gallon of fuel used. The actual energy content of fuel is around 44kWh per gallon. Some energy conversion calculation I did a decade ago for folk dance showers powered by propane are here!

So, once we know the distances travelled to dances, the fuel used for home heating, the fuel saved by switching off the heating when you go out for the evening (itself quite a complicated calculation and a function of building type, insulation level and heating system design) the energy expended in dancing, the energy used in heating the dance hall and a multitude of other factors we could calculate whether folk dancing was more environmentally friendly than (say) saving up money to go on a cruise twice a year instead.

You need also to calculate a factor that is often omitted - the marginal propensity to consume. If you didn't undertake a certain activity what might you do instead? If you buy a fuel efficient car as opposed to running an old gas guzzler, you tend to drive more miles, simply because you can afford to do so - once you've paid off the car-loan.

These are interesting calculations for a world where we are promised more and more leisure time. Ideally people would be encouraged to participate in activities that had the lowest possible impact..... in the meantime my folk dance diary gives some idea of enjoyment per unit cost at disparate venues.

One factor is clear - if all types of fuel were taxed at a rate that reflected their environmental impact then the actual cost of an activity might more accurately reflect its energy overhead and thereby its environmental impact. The same is true of competing sources of energy - an argument that has been raging for several decades. Fuels are not taxed equally at the point of use - road fuel is heavily taxed, home heating fuels in the UK are taxed I believe at 5%, and (absurdly) aircraft fuel is not taxed at all. Final clean-up costs of nuclear power are not (so some people argue) included in the energy price. All of this makes comparisons more difficult. 

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