UKMA slates EU climb down on metrication

The UK Metric Association has accused the European Commission of “political cowardice” because it has caved in to American and European exporters – supported by the UK Government – and effectively abandoned the objective of a single, rational system of measurement throughout Europe.

The Commission has just published its response to the recent consultation on revising the Units of Measurement Directive. It is a badly written and illogical document, and UKMA has commented on it in the following press release:

The following press release was issued on Wednesday, 27 June:
“Pro-metric group slates EU climb-down
London, 27 June 2007.
The UK Metric Association (UKMA) today accused the European Commission of caving in to pressure from European and American exporters – supported by the UK Government – to be allowed to carry on using imperial and American weights and measures in packaging and product manuals. In its response to the recent consultation the Commission proposes that “supplementary indications” should be allowed indefinitely and that the obligation of the UK to “fix a date” for converting road signs to metric units should be removed.


UKMA Chairman, Robin Paice, commented: “This has all the signs of a stitch-up between the UK’s Department of Trade and Industry and the European Commission. The DTI has made it clear that they are implacably opposed to further metrication in the UK, and rather than challenge them, the Commission has bottled out and is proposing to abandon the objective of a single, rational system of measurement used and understood throughout the European Union.”

In its own submission to the Commission*, UKMA had argued that there is a simple solution to the problems allegedly encountered by transatlantic traders in coping with two conflicting labelling regimes (the USA mostly requires dual American/metric units on packages, whereas the EU had intended to require metric-only). All that is needed, said UKMA, is a reciprocal arrangement to accept each other’s labelling for imports and exports. Until such an agreement is reached the EU could unilaterally accept dual-labelling on American imports. Or if that is too difficult, dual labelling could be allowed on all packages and product manuals etc – but not on loose goods priced and weighed out by the trader.

The Commission’s report ignores this last point and attempts to justify its rejection of the mutual recognition argument by suggesting that third countries might complain that it also affected their exports and would be a non-tariff barrier to trade. This argument is clearly disingenuous since it would obviously be possible to devise wording that would accommodate this very minor problem. They thus appear (or pretend) to believe that two systems are cheaper than one.

The Commission has also agreed to support a UK proposal that it should not have to name a date for converting road signs to metric units. Citing both the UKMA cost estimate of £80 million and the Transport Department’s grossly inflated estimate of £800 million, the Commission’s paper comments that imperial road signs have “cultural significance and do not give rise to discomfort which can be considered a major benefit”. They have thus failed completely to understand the benefits of a single system as well as the hidden costs of continuing to muddle through with two systems. They have also ignored UKMA’s argument that the continued existence of imperial road signs is the biggest obstacle to the acceptance of metric measures in the UK in everyday life. “As long as we have miles, yards, feet and inches on the road signs, many people will not adapt to measuring up for curtains and carpets in metres and square metres.”, said Robin Paice.

He added: “Why should the refusal of the Americans to accept the world system condemn the British to endure indefinitely the misery and muddle of incompatible weights and measures in shops and markets. It undermines consumer protection (one of the Commission’s claimed new stated objectives) wastes our children’s education, and just prolongs this “very British mess**.It is a piece of political cowardice.”


*This can be seen at

** “A very British mess”, with foreword by Lord Howe, is published by the UK Metric Association and can be obtained via UKMA’s website at

Notes for editors:

(a) The UK Metric Association (UKMA) is an independent, non-party political, single issue pressure group which advocates the full adoption of the international metric system (“Système International” – SI) for all official, trade, legal, contractual and other purposes in the United Kingdom as soon as practicable. UKMA is financed entirely by membership subscriptions and personal donations.

(b) Further extensive background information can be found generally on UKMA’s website at .

(c) The following are available for interview or comment:

  • Robin Paice (Chairman) on 023 9275 5268 for telephone interviews
  • Roz Denny (Press Officer) on 020 7736 5383 or 0777 039 1581 for interviews in London or by telephone
  • Derek Pollard (Secretary) on 020 83746997 or 01304 375854″

Further comment:

Despite this deeply depressing cave-in by the Commission, there are perhaps two consolations that can be drawn:

  • The Commission has at least not accepted the demands of the extreme imperialists (the so-called “metric martyrs”) to go back to selling in pounds and ounces, nor is the UK Government supporting this.
  • If these proposals are actually enacted. The EU will effectively cease to have any say in UK weights and measures. It will then be possible to separate the metrication issue from the European issue, and it will be possible to make the case for completing metrication on its merits without having to refute silly arguments about Brussels bureaucrats.

Barrels of oil

The media always report statistics of oil production, reserves etc in “barrels”. But how many people know how big a “barrel” is?* Indeed is it an appropriate unit of measurement to use in the context of world energy policy?

The oil industry used to be dominated by American companies, and as with aviation and computers, American units have largely been adopted as the industry standard.

This might not matter since the only people who trade in oil are industry insiders, and arguably the general public do not need to know how big a “barrel” is. They will understand that if OPEC reduces output by x million barrels per day, that’s a lot of oil, and price rises can therefore be expected. In any case, outside the USA, they will still buy the end product in litres.

Yet although it is not a consumer protection issue, there is a problem. Any departure from the International System of Units should be discouraged, as it results in dual labelling, conversion errors, the need to know two systems when one will suffice – and of course general incomprehension.
More particularly, the “barrel of oil equivalent” is used as a
measure of global energy production and consumption. For this, all energy sources (m3 of gas, tonnes of coal, etc.) are converted by energy content into the equivalent energy available in a barrel of crude oil.

BP produces an annual report of world energy consumption and has just produced this year’s. See
I notice that they are now using the tonne of oil equivalent alongside, or sometimes in place of the barrel. Whilst this is clearly an improvement, it doesn’t really give you what you’re looking for. If you’re talking about world energy consumption, rather than just oil, then surely joules (or gigajoules – GJ) are the unit they should be working with? I can see some logic in using a quantity of oil to measure reserves, and refinery throughput, but if you’re comparing nuclear and gas, for example, what has oil got to do with it? The joule only gets a mention in the conversion tables – 1 tonne oil equivalent ~= 42 GJ.

*A “barrel” is 42 US gallons (equivalent to approximately 159 litres)

A new definition of the kilogram?

A new method of defining the kilogram is being sought by various teams of scientists around the world. However, it may be some years before a decision emerges. (NB – this will obviously not alter the actual size of the kilogram). This article, contributed by Martin Vlietstra, will be of interest to the more technically minded.

The kilogram is an anomaly in the world of physical constants – its current definition relies on a particular artefact or object – the prototype kilogram that is held by the BIPM on behalf of its “shareholders”, its subscriber governments. Every other physical constant is defined in terms of one or other physical phenomena that can, in principle, be measured in any laboratory in the world. Ever since the retirement of the prototype metre in 1960, scientists have been looking for a means of defining the kilogram by means of a scientific experiment and yet maintaining the accuracy that can be obtained using the prototype kilogram

One of the projects to redefine the kilogram is to define it in terms of a sphere of silicon. Such spheres are currently being produced in the laboratories of the Australian Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (ACSIR) – See

Once the sphere has been manufactured, there are a number of problems associated with defining the kilogram. Firstly, the diameter of the sphere must known to an accuracy of better that one part in 10^8. If the sphere has a mass of exactly one kilogram, its radius will be approximately 93.58 mm, so its diameter needs to be known to better than 1 nm (which is approximately two wavelengths of light). Details of some of the scientific techniques used and the participating laboratories (Australian, Belgian, British and German [in alphabetic order]) can be found at

In addition to measuring the diameter, the scientists concerned will need to identify which is the more practical – to define the kilogram in terms a specific number of silicon atoms or to define it in terms of the mass of a sphere of specified radius. Part of the experiments currently under way is to decide which of the two techniques give the better results.

This is not the only experiment that is being developed to redefine the kilogram; another is the Watt Balance which is being carried out by the BIPM. (See ).

Who will decide which experiment is the better? This will ultimately be decided by the CGPM on the advice of the CIPM and is likely to be some years off.

CGPM = Conférence Générale des Poids et Mesures / General Conference on Weights and Measures, a body consisting of representative of the governments that have subscribed to the Convention of the Metre.

CIPM = Comité International des Poids et Mesures /International Committee of Weights and Measures, a body of 18 eminent scientists elected by the CGPM.