The Zero Carbon Britain project is creating plausible scenarios of a “decarbonized” society to help people imagine the transition away from fossil fuels and the crisis of climate change. The transition is possible, and it can be done with existing technology. The only challenges are cultural and political.
Paul Allen, project coordinator at the Centre for Alternative Technologies (CAT), tells an offhand story about what led him to quit smoking as a way to illuminate our role in the climate change conundrum.
“I saw the picture on the pack of a cancerous lung, and locked that image away in a place that I thought couldn’t hurt me,” said Allen, an engineer whose day job is to test existing alternative energy technologies at the CAT’s large think-and-do tank in Wales.
“Not until I saw my friend who had kicked the habit and taken up sport did I say, ‘I want to look like that.’”
Similarly, Allen is convinced that our addiction to oil will not be kicked by showing people pictures of polar bears on shrinking icebergs.
“We’ve been propagating how happy we are and that we have this abundant, conspicuous lifestyle,” he told an audience at The Cleveland Museum of Natural History on April 2 as part of a U.S. tour. “If we can show an attractive, low-carbon lifestyle and begin propagating that, than we will have a much better chance.”
In the 1970s, the young and ambitious engineers at CAT formed an outpost of research in a former quarry. They provided the hard evidence on which clean, renewable energy technologies to pursue.
“Society was just emerging from the Swinging Sixties, and few people were watching the problems let alone looking for the solutions,” Allen writes in Zero Carbon Britain: Rethinking the Future. “This original community set out to test and develop, by a positive living example, new technologies that could provide practical solutions to problems now worrying the world’s ecologists, economists and energy analysts.”
They eventually created a scenario of how the entire United Kingdom will move off of fossil fuels. The Zero Carbon Britain project has charted what it calls a reasonable and politically palatable course to “decarbonize” or “power down” the carbon from energy in transportation and buildings, the source of 45 percent of the UK’s carbon dioxide emissions.
For example, their goal is to retrofit 20 million buildings in 20 years to be more energy efficient through insulation and sealing air leaks (heating produces 34 percent of building emissions). They estimate it is practical to lower annual energy use per unit from 10,000 to 4,000 kilowatt hours, he says, without sacrificing current living standards.
The creation of systems of renewable sources of energy are the next peg in the plan. The Centre created a computer model of wind and other forms of alternative energy needed for the entire UK, based on real use and existing technology. It exposed many opportunities.
For example, wind power generated at night could be efficiently stored by using the energy to create hydrogen from water. Then the hydrogen could be made into a synthetic fuel to be used when the wind isn’t blowing.
“Smart demand management, plus intelligent use of surplus electricity in combination with biomass to create carbon neutral synthetic gas and liquid fuels, mean that we can meet our entire energy demand without imports, and also provide for some transport and industrial processes that cannot run on electricity,” he writes.
The scenario calls for crops for biomass grown on less favorable land, and a ramping up of domestic food production in tandem with a shift toward a healthier, more balanced diet that includes less red meat, a particularly energy intensive form of food.
Looking at the big picture of a “net-zero carbon” Britain means looking differently at the chasm that separates what is physically possible and what is politically expedient.
“Trying to figure out where to go from here can be restrictive,” he writes, “as it means operating within the systems and constraints we recognise and know. But, figuring out where we want to end up is both exciting and overwhelming in equal measure.”
Allen says that CAT’s research doesn’t point to a future of living “in caves eating bugs off of walls.” Current technology assures that we won’t have to sacrifice -- rather, we’ll have to make some decisions such as, how we “spend” our annual carbon budget as individuals and nations.
To illustrate the choices that are possible, he told Cleveland another story, the inspiring example of what Norway did when oil was discovered off its shores in the North Sea.
“Other nations spent the oil profits on cars. Norway took a different approach. They said, ‘this oil is an inter-generational asset’ and kept profits from it in an endowment fund for Norway’s energy future.”
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