Carbon neutral is possible

Smart people are breaking through – they see the possibilities of getting off carbon.  Is it just in time?

A New, Bold Plan for a Carbon-Neutral UK by 2030

Alex Steffen and Amanda Reed,

Carbon neutrality by 2030 is the new standard for climate policies, and again the UK is leading North America in the climate debate with a bold national-level proposal about how to get there. The Centre for Alternative Technology just launched zerocarbonbritain2030 (ZCB2030), a collaborative project showing one possible scenario for making the entire UK carbon-neutral by 2030.

ZCB2030 is a well-researched, well-written, and well-designed report on a set of possible pathways to a zero carbon Britain by 2030 (The goal, though bold, is not unique: Alex Steffen called for a very similar position for Seattle, a target which the Seattle City Council has included in their legislative priorities this year; and a variety of other nations and cities are approaching the same target, from Copenhagen to New Zealand). In 384 pages, CAT presents a comprehensive look at the kind of systemic changes needed to achieve dramatic emissions reduction in just 20 years in such areas as farming, energy generation, building codes, transportation planning, and economic frameworks. This report truly addresses the scope, scale and speed of the climate crisis and the solutions needed to create a bright green future.

It’s great to see the ZCB2030 report take the idea of “zero, now” so seriously and thoughtfully. Sir John Houghton, former chair of the IPCC said of the report: “The authors of ZCB present a timescale for action that begins now. I commend their imagination with their realism, their integrated view and sense of urgency.”

The report is divided into five sections (via CAT FAQs):

  • Context presents the evidence on which the report is based: the science that lies behind our need to change our path towards zero net emissions in the developed world in the next 20 years if we wish to see a leveling off of global emissions by the middle of the century, how much needs to be done, and how quickly.
  • PowerDown examines how we can reduce heat and electricity demand largely through new technology, efficient design and behaviour change. It looks in depth at two key sectors: the built environment, and transport.
  • Land Use and Agriculture identifies the emissions originating from rural land use (essentially, agriculture and forestry) and how these can be reduced. It also examines how we can use the land to provide resources to help the other sectors to decarbonize and sequester carbon to balance the residual emissions likely to be left after even the boldest 20 year effort.
  • PowerUp highlights the potential for renewables in the UK and demonstrates how energy demand can be met through the use of renewable sources and new technology by 2030.
  • Policy and Economics discusses the international agreements and national legislation and incentives that can support changes in energy generation and use, and examines the job creation that will come with it.

You can download the full PDF report here. A complete bibliography is provided at the end of each major section of the report, and technical appendices on the land use, agriculture, and energy sections are available for download on CAT’s website. It’s a formidable resource.

The report’s authors intend to demonstrate that “Britain has the potential to become a global leader in sustainable technology and policy” — that climate action is an economic development strategy — and spur discussion and debate on how “greenhouse gas emissions could be completely eliminated from a developed society,” a necessary goal that still involves asking a lot of questions.

ZCB2030 presents a lot of opportunities for debate and discussion.

First, there’s the extent to which a British model can serve as a template for countries like the US, Canada and Australia which are much less densely populated and much more politically conflicted about climate change. Climate consensus (though perhaps now being undermined by the Tories) has allowed much bolder action on energy than has happened in most other Anglophone countries, while the UK’s greater density is a major part of why its per capita emissions are already about 40% lower than America’s.

Second, there are some major flaws and questionable assumptions in the report. One flaw is that it almost completely ignores urban issues, concentrating on green building and transportation, but ignoring planning, infrastructure and the role of services in a bright green city. We know that urban land use is the single biggest determinant of emissions in the Global North, largely defining transportation patterns and having large impacts on infrastructure, housing and consumption. Even with the UK’s comparative national density, it still includes many communities which are low-density and auto-dependent, and many denser communities which could be better planned and improved. Without a major push to change those land use patterns, some of the other transport goals seem unlikely to succeed. In less dense nations, trying to reduce climate emissions without rebuilding urban areas is next to impossible.

Third, there are some assumptions about behavioral change that seem difficult to imagine being possible, like the declaration that “domestic aviation is eliminated and international aviation decreases by two thirds,” or the assumption that meat consumption will be reduced to 20% of its current level. Both of these (and there are others) are huge changes to the way people live, and not likely to be easily achieved (the air travel is perhaps not likely to be achieved at all in larger countries where air travel is regarded as a necessity for connecting distant families). It’s unfortunate that the report essentially punts on how this will happen, providing a long chapter on the theory of behavioral change instead of more concrete ideas about the kinds of policies, design changes and cultural/political campaigns needed.

Finally, the report really suffers from the lack of concrete portrayals of the society it describes analytically. This makes the zero carbon future hard to envision, makes the transformation involved feel less real, and makes the report a somewhat dry and wonky read. It would be terrific to see this level of brilliant analysis combined with equally brilliant anticipatory journalism and visioning.

Yet, despite these shortcomings, ZCB2030 is a landmark effort. The folks who put this together deserve a big round of applause. As the report itself notes,

Whilst it is the nature of scenarios that they are rarely followed precisely by actual events, zerocarbonbritain2030 has effectively applied a ‘backcasting’ approach to demonstrate that at least one set of policy options and technical measures exists to eliminate carbon emissions whilst simultaneously enhancing our quality of life. We now need the political leadership, public consensus, and ongoing scientific support to turn possibility into reality.

— Professor Graham Parkhurst, Centre for Transport and Society, University of the West of England. (zerocarbonbritain2030, p. 4)

If you’ve been following the climate debate on a nuts-and-bolts level, you need to at very least browse ZCB2030. If you’re working on national or local climate policy, you should be shamelessly stealing some of the authors’ great ideas. We need a lot more efforts like this one.

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