Carbon-counting websites, environmental profiles, tax breaks for investors in renewable energy… Good ideas? Well, only if they're thought up by the right people
About five years ago, my colleague and I were asked to the RIBA to discuss our possible involvement in an environmental conference. The organisers' idea was that as structural engineers we might like to design some furniture made from cardboard. At the meeting, however, conversation soon moved on from cardboard furniture to a carbon-counting website. We left feeling totally enthused and, in the 10-minute walk back to the office, thought up a whole series of possible site names.

Back at our desks, we dived into to see if any were available. To our surprise, our favourite – – was unclaimed. For a few pounds we bought it, along with some other memorable domain names.

In the six weeks before the conference, a small team worked up a website that allowed individuals to rate themselves from red to green, much like a fridge might be rated from A to F.

All told, it cost about £5,000 to build. What is nice about the site, which is still operating, is that it not only rates people environmentally, but also allows participants to test out the best method of becoming more benign. We can also use the results to develop a distribution profile of all the participants. As the next step, we would have liked to add postcode data to allow this profile to be used on a regional basis, with the data possibly being useful for commercial projects.

This is all good stuff but hardly the mainstream business of a firm of structural engineers. So, not surprisingly, little has happened, apart from meetings with environmental campaign groups such as the government-led Are you doing your bit? campaign. The organisers of the campaign liked what they saw and promptly went away to invent their own website. Behind the concept of the website is a more serious ambition, which has to do with how we all expend carbon. This is about individuals quite simply being able to count their own carbon consumption, much as they might do calories. Products and fuel could be labelled with their carbon content, counted through the bar code at the checkout and collected in the same way as one collects Air Miles or Nectar points. Monthly statements could be managed by, say, Powergen.

However, counting is one thing. Establishing one's position on the scale of good to bad – or A to F – is quite another. Economists tell us that, after tax, the wealthiest 20% of households in the UK are four times better off than the lowest 20%. I have been trying to research a similar profile for carbon consumption, but it would appear that nobody knows. The poor are not necessarily the least benign, nor are the rich the greatest consumers. In terms of carbon consumption, is the multiple between the lowest 20% and the highest 20% eight, or 80? The latter could be more likely when you factor in business travel alongside exotic holidays.

We are all involved in making more environmentally friendly buildings, but the lifestyles they support are often unsustainable

Why this interests me is that while we are all involved in making more environmentally friendly buildings, the lifestyles they support are often far from sustainable. For example, offices come with large car parks and, in one particular case, a low-energy house in Wales was occupied by a couple who spent the week working in Scandinavia. Buildings can and should be made better, but there has to be a point at which it becomes more appropriate to focus on reducing the carbon consumed through lifestyle choices rather than through the building's energy consumption.

At the moment, for instance, we are looking at a project on the Isle of Wight. For £X we can build an excellent building – and maybe for £5,000 more we can make it exceptional. However, in regions such as Scandinavia, it is possible to invest this £5,000 in a renewable energy scheme, such as shares in a woodchip power station or a wind farm. The dividends, which equate to the total cost of the energy consumption of our 'exceptional' building, are not only tax-free but come with a further 50% tax allowance. If such a scheme were in place here, our building could now be a zero-carbon building: something we could never have achieved had we invested the £5,000 in the building itself. Furthermore, our clients would future-proof their energy bills.

We have been to the Treasury with this idea and followed it up with conversations with ministers such as Paul Boateng. Clearly the idea works in Scandinavia; in Denmark alone, there are more than 2200 community-owned wind turbines. But back in the UK, it gets the same old "don't phone us, we'll phone you" response.

The sense we get from dealings with the government is that everyone knows what they are doing but, be it an idea for a website or a tax break, the response to a proposal that did not originate in Whitehall would be the same as if one had come up with a whistling sweet.