A carbon neutral Britain is possible with today’s technology if only the political will can be found, according to a new report.
The Centre for Alternative Technology’s Zero Carbon Britain report, released today, claims a shift to wind power and carbon-neutral synthetic gas combined with a rethinking of our land use policies could reduce the UK’s carbon emissions to zero by 2030 without relying on the promise of future technological developments.
The environmental charity claims recent climate science suggest the current emissions targets of an 80 per cent reduction by 2050 is unlikely to be enough to avoid the feared 2°C global average temperature rise.
But project co-ordinator Paul Allen says the pressure of the next election means governments fear “bolder action” leading to a chasm between the physical realities of the problem and the political realities of what is possible.
“We are at a crossroads,” he said. “Obviously we need to start as soon as possible. What we are calling for is widespread discussions, cross-party discussions, framed around what the science says not what is politically palatable.”
“It might take a few years to get to really get to grips with what we need to do but we need to start rethinking the future,” he added.
A key element to the groups plan is a shift in the way the country provides its power with more than 50 per cent of the annual energy supplied from wind, while the rest is produced from a suite of renewable resources suitable for the UK including tide and solar.
“This country is blessed with an amazing wind resource. We probably have the best wind resources in the world,” said Tobi Kellner, the project’s energy modeller. “The big elephant in the room is can we keep the lights on.”
The team used UK hourly weather data from the last ten years to model electricity demand and renewable energy supplies and even though both demand and supply are highly variable, over the ten years modelled electricity demand was covered over 80 per cent of the time.
To make up for the shortfall the charity suggests that excess electricity in times of high supply can be used to combine biomass from UK grown energy crops with hydrogen to produce carbon-neutral synthetic fuel, which can then be burned in gas power stations during times of low supply or high demand.
The model suggests back-up is only necessary 15 per cent of the time, and provides only 3 per cent of the total annual electricity required by the UK.
“The great thing is, we are using surplus renewable electricity that is otherwise going to waste and almost getting more fuel out of that than we are putting in and producing long-term storable fuel,” said Kellner.
“We can store huge amounts of energy over long periods of time and it really allows us to take the excess energy of a good year and use it in a bad year.”
Reducing energy demand by 60 per cent is also a key part of the model, and though the researchers accept industrial energy usage is unlikely to go down significant reductions in energy usage are possible through electrification and energy efficiency changes.
The key area for energy savings is domestic heating, which currently accounts for 600TWh/yr. Through increased use of electricity for heating, proper insulation and heat pumps capitalising on ambient heat, the model predicts it would be possible to reduce this to 250TWh/yr.
“Just combining all the things we know about already we can take the existing building stock and bring down energy demand significantly,” said Kellner.
The model also calls for significant savings in transport through a 20 per cent reduction in miles travelled 700 to 150TWh/yr, electrification of vehicles, increased use of public transport and getting people to live closer to where they work.
“This is where technology comes to our aid,” Kellner said. “With those car journeys and those bus journeys we now have, if we electrify those we can get three to four times as many miles for the same energy input.”
Aside from changes to the country’s energy system, the report calls for a change in the country’s eating habits and land use.
Changing people’s diets to be in line with UK government health recommendations, rather than the high fat and protein diets eaten that have led to 64 per cent of UK being obese or overweight today, combined with reducing food waste can decrease greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture by almost 75 per cent.
Instead of using almost 80 per cent of UK land for food production, the charity’s model would see only a third used for agriculture allowing land released by dietary changes to be used to grow fuel crops required for the energy system and to capture greenhouse gas emissions by planting forests and restoring peatlands.
Despite the depth of their analysis, the researchers admit that they need to get input from the economic researchers before they can now how much it would cost to get their model off the ground.
But with energy prices predicted to keep rising and the negative consequences associated with climate change, they say doing nothing will be no cheaper.
“It’s very important not to compare the cost of our scenario to cheap energy as it is today,” said Kellner. “The status quo simply isn’t an option in the future, we are not going to have the costs of energy we have today.”
A copy of Zero Carbon Britain: Rethinking the Future is available here.