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Zero carbon Britain

Kim Bryan examines a new report that sets out to show that it's possible to make Britain 'zero carbon' by 2030

July 25, 2010
5 min read


Kim Bryan works for the Centre for Alternative Technology in Machynlleth, Wales.


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All human societies have had to face challenges of one sort or another. But the scale and scope of the challenges today is perhaps greater than in the whole of recorded history. A changing climate, diminishing fossil fuel reserves and rising energy demands are inter-connected problems that demand a common solution.

The Centre for Alternative Technology set itself a task in 2007: to work out if it was possible to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2030 in order to help avoid a critical 2° global temperature rise and provide energy and economic security. Published in June, the result is Zerocarbonbritain2030, a 400-page brick of a book, produced by NGOs, academics, scientists and industry.

The report is consciously framed in the context of the existing economic paradigm and while there are undoubtedly bigger issues that underpin a transition to a greener society, the authors set out to show that greenhouse gas emissions could be reduced to zero within 20 years without resorting to nuclear energy or international carbon offsetting. As such the report does not address issues such as international trade, neoliberalism, the politics of growth capitalism or class, gender and equity issues in anything approaching enough detail. However, it makes clear that embracing a zero carbon future would mean a deliberate reconstruction of the UK economy, ensuring climate and economic stability, increased energy and food security and millions of new, permanent jobs.

To secure a 70 per cent chance of staying below a 2° temperature rise, global greenhouse gas emissions will need to approach zero by 2100. The Zerocarbonbritain2030 report takes into account the UK’s historical responsibility for carbon emissions and argues that it should therefore take on a greater share of the burden to allow the majority world a longer period to decarbonise.

Power down to power up

Zerocarbonbritain2030 is the first fully integrated solution to climate change in the UK. The report is divided into five sections: the climate context, ‘power down’, land use, ‘power up’, and policy. ‘Power down’ demonstrates how we can reduce our energy demand by 57 per cent through energy efficiency and saving measures and ‘power up’ renewables to 100 per cent to meet the reduced demand.

The report’s proposals include:

n Buildings: It demands a deep refurbishment of existing buildings and highlights the needs for a code of sustainable refurbishment to cover the industrial and commercial sector. By constructing new buildings from wood, straw and other natural materials we can lock away millions of tonnes of CO2.

n Transport: Electrification of vehicles and a major shift to walking, cycling and public transport could produce a 63 per cent reduction in energy use for transport purposes. Contentiously, one third of current aviation could be maintained by growing sustainable bio-fuels in the UK.

n Land: One of the most controversial sections of the report is its land use scenario. The report shows how Britain can provide for its own essential food and fuel. But to do so would require a huge reduction in grazing livestock, which currently uses 83 per cent of agricultural land, generates 82 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions and produces less than 30 per cent of the nutritional value of domestically-produced food. These changes, while radical, could be very positive for rural life, generating 93,000 net jobs.

n Renewables: The report demonstrates that all our energy needs, at all times, can be met with 100 per cent renewables. With the right mix of energy in different locations we can meet the challenges of variability in supply. Most would come from offshore wind, a huge resource, which could create thousands of jobs in manufacturing and installation.

A zero carbon transition could create millions of jobs in wind and solar power, and energy-efficiency programmes. For it to work, an international agreement on tackling climate change is vital, with ongoing climate negotiations taking a new direction that brings about swift action and a fair global agreement.

What would it be like?

The report offers one possible scenario that tries to balance what we are used to with what we need to do to reduce emissions rapidly. But what would a a zero carbon Britain look like?

We can imagine that people would be healthier as bikes and pedestrians dominate the roads and diets are largely made up of fresh vegetables, fruit and grains. There would still be cars, aviation and meat, but a lot less.

Rural areas would be repopulated as British farming is revitalised through changes in land use that bring new jobs. Smart appliances and energy efficiency would be buzzwords in the home; heating bills would dive as insulation became the norm and fuel poverty a thing of the past. Internationally a global agreement on climate change would mean that resources are equally distributed and a constant supply of infinite renewable energy would foster international security.

The solutions to create a zero carbon and a high well-being future for all exist. What has been missing to date is the political will to implement them. Zerocarbonbritain2030 is a practical approach to the biggest challenge that humanity has faced. It’s not perfect, but it’s a good beginning. n

Download the report: www.zcb2030.org

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Kim Bryan works for the Centre for Alternative Technology in Machynlleth, Wales.


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