Absolute Zero Carbon Britain

What is the best plan for how we can transition to a Zero Carbon Britain that faces up to the climate emergency? Zero Carbon Britain and Absolute Zero. This review contrasts the zero carbon plans in Zero Carbon Britain and Absolute Carbon, bot published since the UK committed to zero carbon by 2050

Review of 'Zero Carbon Britain: Rising to the Climate Emergency' Paul Allen, et al. Centre for Alternative Technology, 2019 and
'Absolute Zero: Delivering the UK’s Climate Change Commitment with Incremental Changes to Today’s Technologies' Allwood, J, Dunant, CF, Lupton, RC et al. UK Fires. 2019

The Centre for Alternative Technology, a UK charity, first published Zero Carbon Britain, a plan to decarbonise the UK by 2030 back in 2007. The first Zero Carbon Britain report was seminal, demonstrating how the UK could shift its energy supply to be powered 100% by renewable energy generation. In doing so it answered a key question:

Question 1 - How much energy can we realistically produce from renewable generation and how does this compare to current levels of energy use?

Their answer to this question then, is still true today. We cannot generate any way near the same amount of energy from renewable sources as we currently use. So reaching zero carbon means transforming both our energy consumption and supply – which they describe as powering down our energy demand, whilst powering up renewable energy generation. This means demand reduction and different energy generation and storage solutions must progress hand-in-hand, which in turn means that decarbonising the economy cannot simply be viewed as a series of technology choices, made within economics and politics as usual.

Subsequent Zero Carbon Britain reports demonstrated how a combination of different renewable energy sources (notably solar, wind, biomass and hydro) could combine to produce a reliable electricity supply; what changes in land-use and diet are required for us to realise zero carbon lifestyles; and how we might bring about the wider political and cultural changes needed to make this happen. These elements are all interwoven and updated in the 2019 Zero Carbon Britain Report. I would recommend this as essential reading for every council officer or councillor (as well as community activists and business champions) drafting climate emergency action plans.

However, this latest Zero Carbon Britain report still does not tell the whole story.  To create a Climate Emergency Plan for the whole UK economy it is vital that we include, and plan to fully decarbonise, the carbon impacts of our industrial production and international trade and travel. So we can’t shy away from looking at our dependence on global supply chains, high-carbon industries and the impacts of these outside the UK. This was recently quantified in the WWF UK carbon footprint report, which shows that over half the UK’s climate impact comes from emissions released overseas to satisfy UK-based consumption. Yet there remain precious few plans that attempt to set out how this, all the UK’s carbon emissions, can be reduced to zero. One notable exception is Absolute Zero a report published in late 2019 by UK FIRES, a research council-funded collaboration between five universities. ​

Absolute Zero summarises academic research to explore how best the UK economy could completely decarbonise by 2050.  They rationalise that whilst the UK carbon reduction target is for net zero by 2050 we should really, on grounds of global equity, be aiming to eliminate all emissions by this date, as unless all countries can do this, we won’t actually be achieving zero carbon, except perhaps on paper. Thus, they title their work absolute zero. This means that as well as contrasting the scale of potential renewable energy supply against current demand (see question one above) their research on how to achieve zero carbon is framed by a second key question.

Question 2 - What existing technologies can be commercialised and scaled-up and how long will it take unproven and theoretical technologies to be mainstreamed?

This includes technologies that can be used to decarbonise industry, buildings and infrastructure and global transport. Their response draws not just on research on the best available technologies but their likely rate of commercial adoption.

The conclusions of the authors of Absolute Zero are far reaching. They surmise that not only must we reduce the overall scale of energy consumption to fit within what can realistically be produced in a zero carbon manner (they estimate by 60% by 2050) but that to do that we must also shine a light on our persistent use of high-carbon technologies now. The authors say it would be rash and wishful thinking to base a plan to completely decarbonise our economy on technologies either not invented or unlikely to be commercialised at scale by 2050. So they rule out carbon capture and storage (no current research in the UK), electric air travel (only two-seaters so far), blast-furnace steel production (not zero carbon without such carbon capture), alternatives to concrete (not yet zero carbon at scale and mostly using waste products from blast furnace steel production and burning coal), long-distance shipping (currently only nuclear power has been proven, in military submarines) as well as calling for a rethink on where and how our food is produced.

Thus, this mainstream piece of research based on the government’s inadequate target of decarbonisation by 2050, has resulted in a set of truly radical conclusions. The report opens with a flowchart setting out what achieving zero carbon will look like – which includes some show-stoppers for business-as-usual, such as no lamb or beef production, no aviation or long-distance shipping as we know it, phasing out use of concrete and only making steel from scrap already in the UK.  

Absolute Zero sets out a far more ambitious view of what a zero carbon economy entails than implied by recent calls for the economy to adopt a Green New Deal and to Build Back Better from the coronavirus crisis. It should be a clarion call for us to be more honest in celebrating the extent of current ‘successes’. For example, recent press articles highlighting how the UK is no longer reliant on coal for power have tended to either gloss over or fail to mention its continued use for making steel from blast-furnaces which is driving yet more plans for coal mining in the UK, including open cast near Durham and a deep mine in Cumbria,, or the link between fossil fuel extraction and burning and our extensive imports from China. Whilst decarbonising electricity supply is now argued to be a no-brainer as costs of renewable energy have fallen, ensuring we also decarbonise everything else requires a rethink of how the global economy works. Naomi Klein didn’t call her book about the climate emergency  ‘this changes our electricity supply’, but ‘This Changes Everything’!

Yet the real ambition we need must combine both reports – the width of focus of Absolute Zero, with the 2030 deadline of Zero Carbon Britain. Such a matching of the reality and the complexity of the transition was summarised to me a couple of weeks ago, in a roundtable on rethinking industrial strategy hosted by Green House’s Dutch partners Groenlinks. Many of the roundtable participants suggested that there is a dual challenge: of creating a circular as well as a zero carbon economy.  It is not the national zero carbon target (of emissions within the borders of one country) that is the hardest challenge, but scaling down and transforming our energy and material industrial production and transport to that which can be reproduced within our environment’s planetary limits.

This means we must create a climate emergency economy for the whole UK, leading a global shift to avoid the climate apocalypse now, not continue to prevaricate because our self-declared (and inadequate) targets remain a decade or so away. So, please take a deep breath, and consider both Absolute Zero and Zero Carbon Britain as required reading, as guides to just how wide and deep our response to the climate emergency needs to be.

Image of the Green House Think Tank logo