Decarbonisation possible, but politics is barrier

wind turbine

The UK has the technology to create a ‘modern, decarbonised’ energy sector now, but politics and society are holding it back, the Zero Carbon Britain (ZCB) project has found. 

Led by environmental charity the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT), ZCB has today (16 July), unveiled the third version of its proposals for countering climate change and decarbonising the UK’s energy scene in a launch at the Houses of Parliament. 

The ‘Zero Carbon Britain: Rethinking the Future’ report was launched at the final sitting of the All Party Parliamentary Climate Change Group, and outlines that the UK ‘needn’t rely on any promises of future technological developments’ as it already has the appropriate level of technology available. Instead, the report argues, government needs to focus on creating policies to bring this to fruition, and to mitigate climate change. 

Key findings 

According to ZCB, although the UK has all the technology needed to build a ‘modern decarbonised UK now’, the hurdles in achieving this are ‘political and societal’, rather than technological. 

Indeed, despite the Coalition government’s pledge to be the ‘greenest government ever’, it has been criticised for dragging its feet on decarbonising the electricity sector. ZCB points to the fact that government failed to bring forward a decarbonisation target in the new Energy Bill, and the fact that current UK emissions targets (80 per cent reduction by 2050) ‘do not adhere to a carbon budget required for a good chance of avoiding a two degree (Celsius) global average temperature rise’. 

The report suggests that UK greenhouse gas emissions reductions of ‘over 90 per cent’ are achievable ‘without development of any new technology, and without detrimental impact on quality of life’. ZCB argues over 50 per cent of the annual energy could be supplied from wind with the rest ‘covered with carbon-neutral synthetic gas and liquid fuels derived from biomass grown in the UK’. This, along with smart [energy] demand management’ could reportedly wean the UK of its reliance on imports and ‘provide for some transport and industrial processes that cannot run on electricity’.

Large biomass role 

Indeed, despite concern that increasing use of biofuels is undermining food security and that mass-burn biomass power generation could be ‘dirtier than coal’, ZCB advocates biomass as one of the key renewable energy sources for the UK’s renewable energy future. Crucially, ZCB only advocates using second-generation energy crops grown on UK land, and it also advises that it be used for ‘back-up generation’ in order to ‘keep the lights on’. The report reads: ‘Shifting demand helps reduce the amount of time supply does not meet demand, but back-up generation is also required [15 per cent of the time]. This can be supplied using surplus electricity and biomass from UK grown energy crops to produce carbon neutral synthetic gas, which can then be burned as and when necessary in gas power stations. The flexibility of this back-up generation is important. Baseload power only leads overproduction of energy at times when demand is already met.’ 

However, these biomass sources may have to come from non-food related crops (such as organic waste), if draft legal measures to cap biofuel production from ‘traditional’ food crops is accepted by the EU Parliament. 

As well as changing the energy scene, the report urges government to increase the amount of carbon captured, citing that a ‘small amount of remaining emissions (from agriculture, industry and waste management) can be “balanced out” for the rest of the century using safe, reliable carbon capture methods such as planting forests and restoring peatlands’. These measures could also help build resilience against unavoidable climate change impacts, ZCB says. 

Other findings listed in the report include: 

  • promoting a healthier average diet (such as decreasing meat and dairy consumption and increasing consumption of fruit and vegetables) could lower greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture by almost 75 per cent;
  • making changes to travel methods, creating more energy-efficient buildings and changing the heating systems of transport and buildings to renewable sources could see a reduction in UK energy demand of ‘about 60 per cent’;
  • UK land released by the above dietary changes could be used to grow biomass crops; and
  • repurposing land use could double the forested area in the UK, and makes more space for wild, conserved or protected areas. 

ZCB says that implementing these proposals could generate over a million new jobs. 

The report concludes: ‘The key difference between this future scenario and that for which we are currently heading is that we have responded with the urgency demanded by current climate change science, taking a physically realistic perspective rather than adhering to what might be politically or socially palatable today. It is unethical to treat fundamental needs in the future, and the needs of others in the global community, as equivalent to our lifestyle preferences in the West today.’ 

Report is ‘major call to action’

Speaking of the report, ZCB Project Co-ordinator Paul Allen said: “A lot of Britain's energy infrastructure is coming to the end of its design life. We need to replace it and we do not want to lock ourselves into the wrong energy path. Now is the time to have that critical debate about what are our energy sources and the means of using energy that we will need for the twenty-first century. 

“The fact that we can demonstrate rapid decarbonisation is possible with current technology and without significant lifestyle changes should be a major call to action.” 

‘We must create grassroots pressure on politicians’ 

Indeed, writing in the foreword to the report, Joan Walley MP, Chair of the Environmental Audit Select Committee and All Party Parliamentary Climate Change Group said that the report was ‘essential reading for politicians, policymakers and anyone interested in developing effective solutions to our climate problems’. 

She said: “By setting out what a low-carbon world would look like, [the report] shows that the solutions to our problems do exist and all that is needed is the political will to implement them. We must create grassroots pressure on politicians to recognise the scale of the problem and to rise to the challenge. Not only is this essential for a sustainable future but vital for our sense of wellbeing. 

“The challenge is to resolve the growing disconnect between what scientists tell us is needed and what policymakers tell us is possible. It is worrying that as the scale of the problem increases, public concern seemingly falls, and the disconnect grows ever larger.” 

Walley added that she will do “all [she] can to raise awareness amongst parliamentary colleagues…to make whatever contribution they can to ensure we pass on a sustainable world to future generations”. 

Read ‘Zero Carbon Britain: Rethinking the Future’.