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Island Britain: UK Energy Strategy Calls For Zero Carbon in Twenty Years

by Jack Rosebro

The Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT) in Snowdonia, Wales has released a position paper and accompanying website titled zerocarbonbritain, which proposes and promotes a strategy to halve the UK’s energy needs and reduce its carbon dioxide output to zero within two decades via a choreographed combination of policy and technology.

The paper cites the recent report by James Hansen and others, which was released by NASA (earlier post), as evidence of the immediacy of the problem, and notes that three general strategies are available to halt man-made radiative forcings of the Earth’s atmosphere and return it to equilibrium:

  1. Raised Outgoing Radiation: In this business-as-usual strategy, which is rejected outright, the planet would be allowed to warm until outgoing radiation could increase enough to overcome the insulation of the enhanced greenhouse effect. Once outgoing radiation equaled incoming radiation, equilibrium would eventually be restored, but with dangerously higher temperatures.

  2. Less Energy Retained: Greenhouse gas (GHG) concentrations are reduced until outgoing radiation equals incoming radiation without overcoming the enhanced greenhouse effect. That effect would then diminish as the planet returns to equilibrium. The zerocarbonbritain report focuses on this strategy.

  3. Reduced Incoming Radiation: By increasing the reflectivity, or albedo, of the planet, less solar radiation would be absorbed by the atmosphere. This strategy raises the specter of geo-engineering, which is unproven and considered dangerous by many scientists (earlier post).

With regard to the third strategy, the authors issue a caveat:

It is recognised, however, that further interventions to increase the planet’s albedo... may also need to be contemplated, depending on how strong the already triggered positive feedbacks have become.

The Zero-Carbon Target

Having established a preferred manner for returning the atmosphere to equilibrium, the authors of zerocarbonbritain acknowledge that the UK government’s target of a 60% reduction in GHGs by 2050 is well ahead of targets set by other industrialized countries, but warn that such a target nevertheless does not appear to be enough of a reduction to avoid the effects of the global warming. Citing then-Chancellor of the Exchequer (now Prime Minister) Gordon Brown’s 2005 remarks that

..the economy and environment must be addressed together and environmental considerations need to be paramount in establishing economic policy...

they express hope that government and industry can work closely together to achieve zero carbon emissions.

In recent months, however, the UK government has come under fire for the ways in which it has set its GHG reduction target. Journalist George Monbiot has argued that rather than seek a stabilization of 550 ppm GHG CO2 equivalent, which means that the effects of all greenhouse gases, including methane, are equal to the effects of 550 ppm of CO2, the UK government now states that the target is 550 ppm CO2 alone. Were carbon dioxide to stabilize at that level, and assuming that other, more potent GHGs were also to rise accordingly, the resultant CO2 equivalent would calculate to 666 ppm, according to Monbiot.

By contrast, last year’s Stern Review Report (earlier post) states that, assuming a 650 ppm CO2 equivalent, the potential for a planetary warming average of 3ºC or more—50% above the 2ºC warming that has been cited as a maximum limit by many governments, including the European Union—lies at a 63% to 99% probability. All of the above estimates are, of course, predicated on the assumption that society as a whole would be successful at meeting a given GHG target, and meeting it on time.

Mapping the Unthinkable

In contrast to such targets, the zerocarbonbritain report counters that a more prudent response is to “map the  unthinkable”—committing to a near-term zero-GHG target—and that furthermore, such a target is realistic:

It is the authors’ belief that if society is motivated to do so, an emergency action plan could achieve this globally within 20 years. Britain must be a part of this process, and has the capacity to take a leading role.

Stating that “Britain is energy obese,” the report recommends that the UK reduce its total energy requirement—not its energy requirement per capita—to 50% of current levels by 2027. This would be achieved through several measures:

  • Britain’s so-called “carbon allocation” would be embodied in tradable energy quotas, or TEQs. Households would be allocated TEQs—essentially, personal carbon permits—free of charge, but businesses would purchase TEQs at auction. TEQs could be traded, and would eventually represent a sort of parallel currency in Britain. Each year, every TEQ would be reduced, driving up its value and encouraging citizens and businesses to complement their quotas with low- and zero-carbon choices.

    Beyond the UK, zerocarbonbritain also raises the possibility of a similar market between countries, with the goal of simultaneously reducing national GHG emissions. The concept, which is often referred to as contraction and convergence or C & C, has been promoted by the Global Commons institute since 2000.

  • A focus on policy over technology. While some emerging and/or speculative technologies are promising, the report notes, there should be “no reliance on [technological] silver bullets.

  • Expanded research and development. It is envisioned that TEQs alone would not be sufficient to drive GHG emissions to zero within two decades; accordingly, R & D would be prioritized toward technologies that have the potential to reduce carbon emissions relatively quickly.

  • A reassessment of “wasteful practices and attitudes”, particularly upstream processes that have been fostered by “years of cheap, abundant petrochemicals.”

Sector by Sector

National heat demand for buildings would have to drop by half, largely through district heating by co-generated waste heat as well as improved efficiency by way of retrofitted insulation. New buildings would need to be zero-carbon after 2012. Electrical demand would be reduced by 10% or more, largely by using information-communication technology (ICT) to optimize building energy demand in real time.

Transport would be electrified—“the most radical and demanding shift”—with policies calibrated to increase the cost of private vehicle ownership and use the associated increase in revenue to vastly expand bus and rail service.

Other policies would increase the cost of fossil fuels and food transport in an effort to spur the development of localized agriculture.

Island Britain

The report“s “Island Britain” scenario calls for a radically revised energy policy that would “power down” traditional energy sources and “power up” renewables in conjunction with improved efficiencies. Dual goals of national self-sufficiency for both energy and food supplies would ensure that the UK “can secure its own energy needs at the expense of no other nation.

Power down. In particular, the UK’s thermally-generated electricity via fossil-fueled power stations lose about half of their energy input as heat. The premise, therefore, is that a national grid supplied by renewable energy could use half the energy as the present grid. While no energy conversion method is 100% efficient, the lower losses inherent in a renewable grid would be offset by conservation measures.

Not the least of the considerable barriers to such a transformation is the careful coordination of supply and demand. Part of this will be achieved through transport:

Virtually all vehicles will be electrically powered, with the capacity to feed into the Grid as well as draw from it. This will be an important component for balancing a renewables-based Grid.

Power up. Setting aside the promise of nuclear power because of its “brittle quality” (e.g. terrorism and waste disposal), zerocarbonbritain proposes a strategic hierarchy of renewable energy sources, with significant resources devoted to capturing transient oversupply for later return via co-generation; large-scale “flow batteries” tied to the nation’s electrical grid; charging of plug-in hybrid vehicles; pumped storage; and other bulk energy storage solutions. The report notes in particular the “technical wind and wave resource off the coast of Britain”, and concludes,

The ‘Island Britain’ scenario gives us every reason for optimism. Even in what initially seems a tightly constrained scenario, Britain is still able to deliver a healthy and exciting future for our society.

About 14% of potential offshore wind power could be tapped by 2027, supplying about half of the nation’s electricity.

Some aspects of the zerocarbonbritain strategy—in particular, the sharp curtailment of aviation transport—resemble components of the strategy that George Monbiot tendered in last year’s book Heat to reduce the UK’s GHG output by 90% by 2030. Heat is scheduled to be released in the United States this month.

Others echo tenets of ecological economics, which has most famously been championed by Herman Daly. In 1994, upon his retirement from the World bank, Daly recommended four fundamental changes to the economic accounting and policies of the Bank, and to economics in general:

  • Stop counting the consumption of natural resources as income. Daly considered this issue “an accounting error.”

  • Tax labor and income less; tax throughput more. Daly argued that taxing the very productivity that society desires, while minimizing taxation of throughputs that cause undesirable effects such as depletion and pollution, was counterproductive.

  • Maximize the productivity of natural capital, and invest in improved productivity.

  • Move away from the ideology of free trade and free capital mobilization and toward national production for internal markets. Daly predicted that this last recommendation would be considered outrageous by traditional economists.

However, sentiments may in some cases be swinging the other way. The Centre notes

This report... is very much a snapshot of what is happening on British soil, which is not to pass judgment on international business, but rather to provide a simplification for accounting purposes... The national policies recommended here sit within a global framework of carbon permits, and we would hope to see similarly changed conditions in our neighbouring countries, near and far.

Political will is seen, not surprisingly, as a key barrier: carrying out the zerocarbonbritain proposals “will require strong leadership and a robust cross-party consensus.”

The zerocarbonbritain strategy was developed over the past year by graduate students at the Centre, under the guidance of lead authors Tim Helweg-Larsen and Jamie Bull, and was inspired in part by the original 1977 Alternative Energy Strategy for the UK, which was also developed at the Centre, and which advocated that energy consumption should contract rather than expand with economic growth.


  • zerocarbonbritain website

  • zerocarbonbritain position paper

  • UK Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs website on climate change

  • UK website on Climate Change Communication initiative

  • George Monbiot’s website



Just talk that totally ignores human nature.

Stan Peterson

Blather, blather, and more blather. I hope that the UK governments doesn't waste any monmey or time on these clowns.


Human nature is quite adaptable but this trait is certainly variable as evidenced by the previous posts. Some people just insist on living like the Easter Islanders no matter what.

Stan and Lucas,

I'm not so sure about that. I don't know all the knitty gritty of UK tax policy, but maybe the public would accept a Carbon Tax, if, in exchange, their income tax or VAT were reduced?

The UK is blessed with tremendous offshore wind and wave energy. They've got much more coastline per capita than the US or Germany. There's also talk of harnessing a lot of the North Sea's tidal energy.

Given that they know the North Sea oil is going to run out, and realistically, they are going to increase nuclear, maybe this makes a lot of sense for them.


Anybody can be a starry eyed, Utopian idealist. They sit around and talk and wish somebody else will do what needs to be done.

Let dreamy eyed grad students come up with ideas that really need to be done and reality goes out the door.

Some things can be done. Some can't. (Or won't be.)



I don't see how they could achieve this in the space of twenty years without some very draconian economic and social policies. They say themselves that they would "Move away from the ideology of free trade and free capital mobilization and toward national production for internal markets." They want to create a command-and-control economy.

These are a perfect example of the "watermelons" I told you about last year. Green on the outside, red (communist) on the inside.

While their goals are laudable, the methods for achieving them reeks of eco-totalitarianism.

Surely we can do much better than this.


Cervus, I never said this proposal was perfect or completely realistic but I suspect anything that might be effective at lowering carbon emissions that involved any kind of economic restraint would probably have gotten the same kind of responses as above.

I'm not sure they want a command and control economy. I agree that last measure doesn't sound great because I think an alternative carbon-market based approach would be much better for shaping international trade and transport. If it ends up that too much CO2 is produced by international transport then let the market show it. But there are a lot of other reasonable sounding ideas there, as the poster " " points out. Its certainly about time market failure in terms of externalities was seriously addressed. Saying its all a dream and impossible because of "human nature" is simply a blanket lets do nothing kind of approach that won't get us anywhere. It says more about the nature of those posters specifically than humanity in general.

Stan Peterson

How does bleeding the economy for a fee that accomplished nothing in producing any alternative energy advance the conversion to other sources.

Hint: It doesn't do a damn thing except retard it. But for the watermelons, they get to SPEND all that bleeding extortion on whatever thwey think they would like.

How about a better bigger limousine? How about a bigger office? How about attending an extra "working session" on discussing how we can get the masses to accept walking; in say Las Vegas, Cancun Monte Carlo, or the Riviera?

Certainly making the maximum sacrifice for humanity




Many of their suggestions, such as the carbon rationing, are not compatible with the free society we live in. I hear a lot from the the left side of the aisle that we shouldn't sacrifice liberty for security. That's exactly what's happening here, though for entirely different reasons.

There are some reasonable ideas out there. The UK does have a vast amount of wind and wave power available. But they can move towards utilizing those resources without carbon rationing or turning the UK into a place completely isolated from the rest of the world.


A few points to be made, I'll be making broad generalities so spare me the nitpicking. Only in America is cutting back on consumption considered such a huge infringement on individual "liberty". Those that claim so should realize how ridiculous it is for Americans to consume the lions share of energy per capita in this world. Don't ascribe to human nature what is very much an American attitude. So much could be saved in the US just by changing habits alone. Japan, UK and Germany's per capita usage is less than half the US yet they aren't living in the stone age. So don't give me this eco-totalitarian watermelon BS, liberty only works when there's individual responsibility, it's not a free-for-all license.


Well said, BlueGreen. And, we've shown before that when all the choices you give American car buyers are good, they will make good choices. Double CAFE over 15 years, again. Sweeten the biofuel portfolio for cars and planes. Sooner or later, BEVs kick in with wind and solar. MIT says Geothermal could be very big. It's a portfolio of answers, and they options will continue evolving past the financial breakeven point.

Rafael Seidl

Bear in mind that the UK is fast running out of domestic North Sea oil & gas. Its has virtually no access to Russian gas, never mind any from the Middle East. There are some LNG terminals, but that is a very expensive way to transport natural gas.

Former PM Tony Blair advocated a renaissance of nuclear power but public resistance to building additional reactors remains fairly strong.

Coal is cheap and imported from friendly nations but it too has fallen out of favor - because of the global warming debate.

The UK's northerly location and famously wet weather sharply limits biomass production capacity. Offshore wind and tidal power are interesting but expensive. Coal is much cheaper in the short run but produces a lot of CO2 per kWh. If those emissions were ever taxed in some form, power from coal could become much more expensive.

Converting the country's vehicle fleet to all-electric propulsion may become technologically feasible over the next 20 years. However, it's going to take a serious oil supply shock to cajole consumers into actually purchasing cars that are far more expensive and feature far shorter range than those powered by ICEs.

The most troubling proposition is to abandon globalization in favor of domestic resources on environmental grounds. Without international trade, the restraints that have kept (most of) Europe at peace for a half-century would gradually deteriorate. Moreover, the continent would lose most of what leverage it still has with the more energy-hungry and belligerent nations of the world. Turning turtle is a truly idiotic idea.


I think the "R" word is the one word most likely to set off the alarm bells of the right wing. But all economies ration; it just depends on how one wants to do it. We ration by what we call the market, or we provide signals to the market which result in a somewhat different outcome. We can raise taxes on carbon and/or we can use cap and trade. Either way, we will get slightly different results in how the carbon producing products will be allocated.

I am not convinced, however, that either taxing or cap and trade will be fast enough in reducing carbon. The other issue is that the poor and even not so poor will be left by the wayside while the rich and near rich continue to consume high carbon products as they damn well please.

Decide on the appropriate level of carbon. Reduce it each year, and at least on the retail consumer level, hand out an equal number of credits to each individual. The poor and the frugal will either not be able to use all those credits or will choose not to use all those credits, in which case they can sell them to the not so frugal and/or the rich. This scheme would cut carbon emissions and reward those who were consuming less.

We do not have unfettered free markets anywhere nor will we ever. The market, as it is, is cluttered with subsidies, favoritism, tax schemes, and pork.

In World War II, we rationed because we were obviously in a state of dire national emergency. The powers that be recognized that the allocation of resources based on the "free market" model would be a disaster. Their simply had to be the resources available for the war effort. I think the current emergency is just as bad.

Chances of pure rationing happening? Fear not, conservatives. The chances are zero despite whatever the perceived dangers are. Instead we will engage in various schemes to cut carbon which pretend to not mess with the free market because of our abject fear of the "S" word socialism. We will continue to do too little, too late, but the illusion of our great free market will be preserved.

Cervus I think bluegreen hit it on the head. As the saying goes 'Your freedom to swing your arm ends at my nose." Which can also be translated as saying your freedom to pollute ends when my environment and future is threatened.


By the way, that was me with that last post. I'm using a different computer to normal (which doesn't fill the name and address automatically) and it seems that right now you can post without filling this info in.

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