Does the UK Already have the Technology to be Zero Carbon?

The Campaign against Climate Change believes that net global emissions of greenhouse gases must be reduced to zero as quickly as possible and that this should be the main goal of the entire global community working together through a fair and binding international climate treaty.  

Some sections of the global community have a greater responsibility to reduce emissions more and faster than others. Being part of the richer developed world the UK, which has a higher per capita level of greenhouse gas emissions as well as being the pioneer of the Industrial Revolution has an enormous historical carbon footprint. They believe that the UK can and should do its fair share to reduce global emissions and be prepared if necessary, to lead the way. Britain was indeed the first major nation to propose cutting greenhouse gas emissions to zero, promising to do so by 2050.

The Campaign against Climate Change is calling for a target of around zero net carbon and zero net greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 in the face of an immense threat from catastrophic destabilisation of global climate. They cannot be certain that this will be enough to prevent catastrophe and they do not pretend that it will be easy, but they are sure that with political will and an abundance of urgency and determination it is possible. 

The Centre for Alternative Technology in Wales has been working through its Zero Carbon Britain Project on a strategy for rapid decarbonisation of the British economy for many years.

CAT has produced a report which says that a net zero-carbon Britain is already possible without having to rely on future developments. According to this new report greenhouse gas emissions can be eliminated in the UK using only the proven technology available. This way the UK can do its part in addressing the climate emergency.

The report, ‘Zero Carbon Britain: Rising to the Climate Emergency’ shows how this can be done by changes to energy, buildings, transport, industry, diets and land use. These changes cover reducing energy demand by 60%, providing 100% renewable energy and cutting emissions from agriculture and industry at the same time as capturing natural carbon through reforestation and peatland restoration.

The Powys based charity, CAT believes that changes to buildings, transport and industry could help significantly reduce energy demand to 60% in the UK.

Project Coordinator, Paul Allen said:

“We have the technology to combat climate change and we can start today.”

The Centre for Alternative Technology claims that making changes to energy, diets and land use could help provide 100% renewable energy at the same time as cutting emissions from agriculture and industry.

The amalgamation of ‘powering down’ energy use by increasing efficiency and behaviour change, ‘powering up’ clean renewable energy supplies and transforming land use could lead the UK to being able to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions without depending on as yet unproven technologies such as carbon capture and storage or direct air capture.

Project Coordinator, Paul Allen went on to say:

“Relying on speculative future technology to get to net zero risks overshooting the remaining carbon budget, resulting in the very real possibility of global temperature rises of 2°C or more.

“By modelling a zero-carbon scenario using only technology that is ready to be rolled out at scale, CAT’s research shows that there is no good reason to take this risk. We have the technology to combat climate change, and we can start today.”

Mr. Allen said that using alternatives to already proven technology that is ready to be rolled out at scale was “not worth the risk”.

The UK government, however, has described carbon capture as a ‘game changing technology’ in addressing climate change and has said that the country’s first project should be operational by next year.

Some of the key features of the Zero Carbon Britain model include having high ‘Passivhaus’ standards for new buildings, retrofitting all existing buildings and improving temperature control. Doing this could cut energy demand for heating by around 50%. Passivhaus is a building performance standard that anyone setting out to build a low-energy home might be interested in. The universal features of this building performance standard are massive insulation (average depth 300mm), triple glazing with insulated frames, extreme airtightness levels (must score better than 0.6 air changes per hour) and mechanical ventilation with heat recovery.

Another of the key features of the Zero Carbon Britain model involves transport and advises reducing how much we travel and changing how we travel. Suggested ways of doing this are, making more use of public transport, walking, cycling, switching to efficient electric vehicles and cutting down air travel by two thirds. It is thought that this could reduce energy demand for transport by 78%.

CAT said that new houses should be built to high Passivhaus standards that could reduce energy costs to just £15 per year by using insulated masonry and concrete, triple glazing, LED lighting and air-source heat pumps. Some of these changes could also be fitted to existing buildings to improve temperature control and potentially cut heating use by around 50%.

The report illustrates how it is possible to supply 100% of the UK’s ‘powered down’ energy demand using renewable and carbon neutral energy sources without ever needing fossil fuels or nuclear energy.

Many different renewable energy sources are suited to the UK including, solar, geothermal, hydro, tidal and others. These sources could be used to produce electricity and heat with wind energy providing around half of the energy supply. Most of the energy (around 66%) in a zero carbon Britain could be supplied by electricity.

An important part could be played by using carbon neutral synthetic fuels where it is not possible to use electricity. Examples of where it might be required are in some areas of industry and transport or as a back up for the energy system.

It is possible to fully match the UK’s entire energy demand, based on the past decade’s weather and energy use by using renewable and carbon neutral energy if CAT’s recommendations are adhered to according to their report.

To make sure that energy is always available CAT’s researchers analysed 10 years of weather data to see how much energy could be captured by renewable energy systems. By matching this to 10 years of energy demand platforms, adjusted to take account of the modelled energy savings researchers were able to plan for possible shortfalls. 74% of the time the hourly modelling shows a surplus of energy with energy provided at other times by shifting demand using smart appliances and by storing energy.

Batteries, pumped storage and heat storage can be used for short-term energy storage over hours or days, whilst hydrogen and carbon neutral synthetic gas (for quick dispatchment into the electricity grid when needed) can be used for long-term energy storage over weeks or months.

CAT Chief Executive Officer, Peter Tyldesley said:

“CAT’s research shows how the UK could achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions in a way that also helps improve our quality of life and enhances biodiversity. What’s now urgently needed is a UK Zero Carbon Action Plan with policy frameworks and large-scale investment to support the roll out of these solutions as quickly as possible.”

The CAT report highlights the multiple additional benefits that not only improvement in air quality and a reduction in fuel poverty can bring but improvement to health and well-being via better diets and more exercise. Further to this, other benefits include the creation of green energy and an increase in biodiversity both through tackling climate change and through freeing up land to allow nature to thrive.

CAT is urging politicians to come up with action plans with policy frameworks and large-scale investment as a matter of urgency.

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