Zerocarbonbritain - a new energy strategy

Posted: 13 August 2007

Author: Richard Hawkins and Arthur Girling

Britain must eliminate all carbon emissions within 20 years by halving energy demand and installing massive renewable energy generation, according to a new report from the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT).

The UK Government’s target of 60 per cent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions by 2050 is one of the strictest emissions targets in the world. But if we are to avoid uncontrollable ‘runaway’ climate change, we need to make bigger cuts faster, according to the Zerocarbonbritain report.

In several recent reports, scientists have highlighted ‘climate feedback mechanisms,’ whereby global warming triggers further, faster warming, quickly spiralling out of human control. This ‘tipping point’ is estimated at 2°C above pre-industrial global average temperatures. Zerocarbonbritain also acknowledges the importance of moving away from fossil fuels, as the world passes the point of peak oil production.

UK energy use breakdown
UK energy use breakdown
Zerocarbonbritain is an alternative energy strategy which demonstrates that it is possible to reduce our emissions by 100% within 20 years, if the right policy drivers are put in place. It may seem ambitious, but as CAT Development Director Paul Allen said, “Climate change is now an emergency, so we need a strategy that can reduce our carbon dioxide emissions as quickly as possible.

“Instead of forecasting from within existing attitudes and approaches, we ‘backcasted,’ looking at the reductions we urgently need to make, then seeing how quickly we can achieve them. We are confident that if Britain treated this as the serious emergency it is, we could eliminate fossil fuels within 20 years,” Mr Allen said.

Zerocarbonbritain shows the UK could reduce its total energy use by 50 per cent, and power up renewable energy to meet the remaining demand using a range of technologies including offshore wind, wave and tidal power.

Policy recommendations

The authors have attempted to find an equitable solution which allows everyone access to energy, discarding systems which effectively price the world’s poor out of emitting greenhouse gases. To this end, the report recommends the global framework of Contraction & Convergence (C&C) to drive emissions reductions.

C&C defines a global carbon budget, within which it identifies an equitable portion for Britain. The system allows global per-capita emissions to equalise, while the global cap on emissions is reduced. These emissions rights are tradable, encouraging developing countries to bypass fossil-fuel powered industrialisation and move towards renewable energy sources.

The report also recommends a system of Tradable Energy Quotas (TEQs) within Britain. This system could be as simple as a ‘carbon Oyster card’ that would be swiped when buying fossil fuels, according to the authors.

From Britain’s carbon budget, the report recommends 40 per cent of TEQs should be distributed free to individuals and the remaining 60 per cent auctioned to industry. This split reflects the current direct causes of CO2 emissions. The quotas are reduced every year in line with the C&C targets, providing a strong incentive to reduce energy demand and bring renewable sources of energy online.

‘Island Britain’ – halving energy demand by 2027

But what will life be like in 20 years, if these policies were put in place?

The report explores a scenario showing a possible outcome of these drivers, first ‘powering down’ our energy demand, then ‘powering up’ renewable energy to replace fossil fuels. The authors chose to impose strict constraints in their ‘Island Britain scenario ’ as they call it – where all of the nation’s energy and food comes from within its own borders and coastal waters. They deliberately chose this scenario to demonstrate what was possible – in reality, trading energy and food with neighbouring nations makes reducing our emissions easier.

Carbon budget for Britain
Carbon budget for Britain
Britain's carbon budget - click on image for full-size graph.
Britain’s overall energy demand could be halved while still maintaining high levels of well-being, although it would require some drastic behaviour changes. Domestic flights would be banned and international flights severely reduced, according to the scenario.

Even our diets need to change if we are to reduce our emissions to this level. Zerocarbonbritain recommends moving towards a low-meat diet, as it requires a lot of land to produce animal feed. Under the Zerocarbonbritain plan, much of this land could be used to produce renewable wood fuels for heating.

Some of the biggest energy savings could come from a wholesale switch to electric transport, reducing the annual energy transport demand from 680TWh to 151TWh. Electric motors are more efficient at turning energy into forward motion, and cars without a heavy engine block are lighter.

Buildings represent 75 per cent of Britain’s demand for heat; but with new builds insulated and designed effectively, this would reduce dramatically. The strategy cuts total energy demand from buildings by 38 per cent from 744TWh to 462TWh. It also recommends widespread retrofit, and a programme of demolition and replacement of the worst-performing buildings where appropriate.

Powering up – filling the energy gap

Wind provides the greatest proportion of electrical energy in the scenario, at around 45 per cent of annual demand. This component of the scenario’s renewable mix could come on-stream in the early years of the two decade plan.

The scenario recommends installing around 8 per cent of the DTI’s estimated wind resource for Britain; a total of 274TWh, 90 per cent offshore. Other renewable technologies, such as solar thermal, solar photovoltaic and hydro all contribute to the electricity supply.

Once reduced through efficiency measures, the domestic heating demand could be met with heat pumps and combined heat and power (CHP) plants running on biofuels such as wood chip.

Balancing a renewable-powered grid

The biggest engineering challenge when planning a renewably-powered grid comes when balancing supply and demand – the sun is not always shining, the wind is inconsistent and peaks in demand do not always match moments of high production.

Intelligent appliances that ‘listen’ to the grid can smooth peaks in demand - non-critical appliances such as refrigerators and storage heaters can, within defined limits, switch on and off to help match supply and demand.

By spreading wind turbines around the coast of Britain, the authors have calculated that we can rely on an almost constant source of electricity. Wind power also has the best match to the demand profile; wind energy is greater in winter, when demand is 30 per cent higher than in summer.

If this were backed up with large-scale flow batteries and an array of new pumped storage systems, such as the hydro scheme at Dinorwig, North Wales, the supply problems become entirely solvable.

This scenario is just one possible outcome of the policies the report recommends, but it is useful to see the figures do add up. In fact, the title ‘zerocarbonbritain’ only came towards the end of the project, when it was discovered that energy efficiency measures and renewable energy could comfortably meet to produce a fossil fuel-free Britain.

Britain's energy profile 2007-2027
Britain's energy profile 2007-2027
Britain's energy profile 2007-2027 under the Zerocarbonbritain scenario, showing the phasing out of fossil fuels within 20 years. Click on image for full-size graph.
Many of these systems and technologies are emerging, and require huge investment and research programmes. But what are the alternatives? Business as usual will have an even bigger impact on our society, as climate change speeds up and oil production decreases.

Government policy and Zerocarbonbritain

The recent government Energy White Paper notes the retirement of one-third of the existing capacity from coal and nuclear plants by 2020. To fill the energy gap it advocates replacing them with a combination of fossil fuel, nuclear and renewable energies. In contrast, Zerocarbonbritain demonstrates how it’s possible to totally phase out fossil fuel and nuclear power plants by 2027,replacing them completely with a diverse portfolio of renewable energies.

The Government’s other attempt to tackle climate change, the Draft Climate Change Bill, doesn’t go far enough either. Its emissions reduction target of just 60 per cent by 2050 is “fundamentally inconsistent with avoiding catastrophic runaway climate change,” Mr Allen said.

According to a new report from the Tyndall Centre, a 60 per cent global reduction still points to an 80 per cent likelihood of a 4-5°C temperature rise.

Zerocarbonbritain is not the first report of its kind to come out of the Centre for Alternative Technology. In 1977 CAT collaborated with the renewable energy experts of the day to produce the UK’s first Alternative Energy Strategy (AES). This radical plan showed how an alternative approach could level-off and then reduce actual energy demand, whilst increasing generation from renewable sources, thereby decreasing damaging emissions and preventing resource depletion.

The practical influence of AES 1977’s solutions was limited - the problems it addressed were only dimly and partially perceived. That stands in marked contrast to the present day, when the problems of energy security, global equity and climate change are being drawn with ever-increasing clarity. Thirty years on, the world urgently needs a solution – the policies and technologies outlined within Zerocarbonbritain are here now, we only lack the political leadership to put them in place.

© Centre for Alternative Technology Charity

Download the report from www.zerocarbonbritain.com