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Zero Carbon Britain

As the recent Cancun summit fails to produce some much needed answers, Bill Gething looks to a desired form of politics a little closer to home…

Up until its final moments, the recent UN climate change summit in Cancun looked as though, far from sealing a global deal on what to do about climate change, might even signal the end of international attempts to reach any such agreement at all. Right at the eleventh hour the process was saved and we were at least left with the hope that it established a basis for more concrete progress to be made next year in Durban, when the whole circus reconvenes once more.

What we did get was yet another re-statement “that climate change is one of the greatest challenges of our time”; that countries should “take urgent action to meet the challenge of holding the increase in global temperatures below 2°C” and that “…deep cuts in global greenhouse gas emissions are required” in order to achieve this.

So, we all agree that we need to change – but what, practically, do we do about it?

As one of the countries that led the world into the Industrial Revolution, you might think Britain should be in a position to lead it out of it. Unfortunately, while we may lead in terms of policies (for example our legally binding target to reduce our national CO2 emissions by 80% by 2050) we have no real idea of how to go about it. In the words of Professor David MacKay, Chief Scientific Advisor to the Department of Energy and Climate Change, the government does not have a “plan that adds up.” It seems to be being left to individuals and nongovernmental organisations to come up with visions of our low carbon future.

Professor MacKay (in his previous persona as Professor of Natural Philosophy at Cambridge University) has himself produced a range of scenarios for meeting future energy demands using low carbon sources (see www.withouthotair.com) that illustrates the scale of the problem and some of the choices that might be open to us. How much of our energy demands can realistically be met using UK renewable resources? Do we need nuclear generation? What resources from overseas might we rely on? Solar driven steam turbines producing electricity in North Africa or biomass from Canada?

A more comprehensive vision, Zero Carbon Britain 2030, was published by the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT) in June this year. This looks at a broad range of lifestyle issues rather than just energy, covering everything from electrical and heating energy use, transport (including shipping and aviation, conveniently forgotten in most such studies), to land use, agriculture and employment, the built environment, farming, economics and policy.

It has its origins in CAT’s 1977 report: An Alternative Energy Strategy for the UK, produced just five years after the Centre was set up in a damp, disused quarry in Mid Wales. In those days before mass communication, just 12 copies were bound up and sent to a youthful Tony Benn, at the Ministry of Energy (in the days when government departments did what they said on the can). Predictably dismissed at the time as the rantings of unrealistic idealists, in fact, its predictions of future energy consumption turned out to be considerably more accurate than those of the energy industry at the time.

30 years on, in 2007, CAT produced its first Zero Carbon Britain report; a thoroughly researched, integrated vision of a zero carbon lifestyle within 20 years that set out the logic behind the vision so that it could be interrogated and tested. The current report develops the thinking and was launched at Portcullis House in Westminster; this time with a copy given to every MP.

The report was also the topic of this year’s Schumacher Conference in Bristol, an annual event run by the Schumacher Society which exists to promote the wisdom and insight of E.F. Schumacher, author of Small is Beautiful, “to inspire a new generation who are seeking relevant and practical solutions to heal a world in crisis and build a sane, humane and ecological society”. Next year will be the 100th anniversary of his birth.

Zero CarbonThe audience in Bristol was rather different from the Westminster Village. While there was an element of preaching to the converted, a different selling job was required to convince the stauncher proponents of an alternative lifestyle that CAT had not sold out to Mammon. As CAT director Peter Harper was at pains to point out, the basis of the work was that there should be no absolute taboos in order to reach a realistic balance between mainstream energy expectations (that there should be lots of it, that it should be cheap and that there should be no power cuts) and environmental prohibitions (protect rural uplands, no nuclear, no tidal barrages, no offsets, no geo-engineering, no biofuels, etc., etc.) … and, of course, no lifestyle changes.

The 2030 scenario is based on a combination of “Power-Down”, reducing our energy consumption by 50 per cent, including electrification of transport where possible, reducing air miles by two thirds, reducing heating energy use by 70 per cent, a radical change to agriculture to produce all our own food and “Power-Up”, a switch to renewables, particularly offshore wind. Producing all our own food would only be possible by reducing meat production very significantly – it takes a thousand times as much water to produce a kilogram of beef as a kilogram of grain and 11 times as much grain to feed a man if it passes through a cow first.

The timescale of 20 years, although extremely challenging, is intended to move the debate from short-term fixes tweaking “business as usual” to a considered understanding of where we eventually want to end up and then working out how to get there. To bridge what was described by Peter Harper as the “yawning chasm” between frantic efforts to find low hanging fruit, which might lead us down blind alleys, to a long-term strategy that might even mean increasing emissions in the short-term but will pay dividends once a new framework for a genuinely sustainable lifestyle is established.

Technically, the transformation is demonstrably possible; however, there remains huge gaps between the vision and what we currently regard as reality (a lifestyle supported by cheap energy equivalent to having an average of 40 “energy slaves” each).

Economically, the Zero Carbon Britain team acknowledged that the price of carbon would need to be set at £200-400/tonne rather than its current price of just over £15.

Realistically this would need to be set by global agreement; a depressing prospect given our inability to make concrete progress at Cancun.

Politically, it would need a series of governments prepared to sign up to an overarching long-term framework in the confidence that the electorate wouldn’t turn on them for making tough decisions.

Is this perhaps the future face of Coalition politics?

For extra information:

David MacKay’s book: Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air can be downloaded from www.withouthotair.com

CAT ’s Zero Carbon Britain 2030 Report can be downloaded from: www.zerocarbonbritain.org

A DVD of the Schumacher conference can be ordered from www.schumacher.org.uk Information on the Centre for Alternative Technology can be found at www.cat.org.uk

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