Delivering a Zero Carbon Britain

Updated: Aug 13, 2020

At the end of 2019, the Centre For Alternative Technology launched Zero Carbon Britain: Rising to the Climate Emergency, a bold but achievable plan for reaching our net zero targets well in advance of the 2050 deadline set out in the Paris Agreement. By 2030 in fact.

Because we should be under no illusion: 2050 is too late. We have to act now if we're to have any chance of averting ecological catastrophe.

What CAT are calling for is exciting and challenging in equal measure. Exciting, because it is achievable in the here and now, using existing systems and technologies (not relying on innovations yet to be realised). Challenging, because it will involve significant (but not impossible) changes to current behaviour.

But aside from demonstrating that the consequences of climate change are being felt here and now, if there is one potential upside to be taken from our collective response to Covid it's that change can happen quickly and that we can embrace doing things differently. But it needs Government action and leadership. It needs the reasons why and the benefits of change to be clearly communicated. And it needs actionable prompts to behave differently, up to and including the legislative and legal.

So the potential to build back better is very much there, ready and waiting. We just need to grab hold.

Because central to any effective response to the climate crisis, and a drive to net zero emissions, has to be a recognition that our current economic system and way of life is broken; that rampant consumerism, out of control energy use and growth at all costs doesn't just irrevocably damage the world we all share (there is no Planet B) but, beyond a certain point, offers no effective utility: it doesn't make us happier (as has been well documented for many years).

Beyond a certain point, increases in GDP doesn't translate to improved well-being

Which is something Covid lockdown has reinforced: a recognition that a simpler, slower life is entirely possible, and not without merit. And that enough can be enough.

The proposals for accelerating to a zero carbon Britain made by CAT in their report are grouped into 3 broad areas...

  1. Powering down our energy demand

  2. Powering up our renewable energy provision

  3. Changing our land use and diet


A call to reduce our energy use by 60% seems a big ask. But having high eco-standards for new buildings and retrofitting existing ones would make a significant dent in this, particularly the energy demand for heating, with little actual behaviour change required by individuals. The fact it sits comfortably with the current policy of 'build build build' means there's no excuse for the Government to be disengaged either.

Achieving net zero emissions means reducing energy demand by 60%

Similarly, but possibly more challenging, changing how much and how we travel is also a necessary condition of reduced energy consumption. More efficient transport tech will have an important role to play here. But we'll need to reappraise our behaviour too. Although Covid has again demonstrated that this is possible. There is a new found realisation that it's possible to work remotely and not commute. And, for some, a recognition (at last) that foreign travel is a luxury and a privilege, something to be seen as an occasional treat not an everyday human right.

Changing how much and how we travel will be a necessary condition of reduced energy consumption


At the same time that we reduce the amount of energy we use, we need to also change how that energy is generated. Pushing as fast as possible to 100% renewables. Something that isn't just entirely possible, but could have significant economic benefits for the UK, positioning us as first mover experts in an energy future which will soon become the reality for all. Again, something a post-Brexit Government should be supporting wholeheartedly as we look to firm up our stand-alone positioning in the world.

Based on CAT's calculations, 100% renewable is easily achievable in the UK. We are rich in a variety of renewable options: wind, geothermal, hydro, tidal, even solar if recent summers are anything to go by...with off and onshore wind being the likely primary sources.

A zero carbon Britain requires a shift to renewable energy sources

And as I've written about previously, storage tech for intermittent renewables is coming on fast, allowing us to cope with surges in energy requirements (the 'what do we do on cloudy days' question). We can then top this up with synthetic carbon neutral fuels (vital for some areas of industry and transport), which have the same chemical make up as fossil fuels, but with none of the emission downsides.

All of which makes a renewable energy system entirely possible.

A renewable energy system for a net zero Britain


Whilst these first two factors will deliver the bulk of the required GHG reduction, land use and food production still accounts for around 10% of current UK emissions. And also has a significant impact on the related environmental challenge of biodiversity.

As with travel, there will be a need for behaviour change here. But again, this my not be as challenging as it first appears. No one is saying we need to become a nation of vegans. But it will mean eating less (currently our calorific intake is 17% above recommended levels, and our protein consumption 45% over), eating more healthily and, yes, reducing the amount of meat and dairy in our diet: meat and livestock farming can be highly inefficient in land use and is the major contributor of food-related emissions. As with travel, we need to return to seeing meat, and beef in particular, as a luxury not a commodity.

GHG emissions and land use for different food types

But even here, we're looking at an open door that's already being pushed: obesity is a huge concern for people, we want to eat more healthily, interest in local and organic continues to rise, and meat consumption is declining as more people integrate plant-based foods into their diet.

Moreover, dietary shifts along these lines could also help us become more self-reliant in food production, reducing imports from 42% to 17%, delivering not just reduced emissions but the post-Brexit food security which will be imperative as well as. And some 'best of British' pride too, where that matters to people.

So whilst net zero, particularly by 2030, may seem scary and unachievable it's arguably the complete opposite.

All that's needed is collective action.

As individuals, businesses, parliament and Government we need to approach this with a glass half full headset, embracing it for the opportunity it is: a chance to start again and build back better post-Covid, not just to help avert the climate crisis but to create a greener, fairer Britain (and world) with improved quality of life for all.


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© 2020 Something's Happening by Jon Howard

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