Island Britain: UK Energy Strategy Calls For Zero Carbon in Twenty Years
14 July 2007
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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