Zero Carbon Britain

Last updated: July 2013


An energy strategy for a zero carbon Britain


The Centre for Alternative Technology explains how their Zero Carbon Britain reports allows us to imagine an entirely possible low carbon future.


The story of humans and energy is a remarkable one: how fossil fuels were laid down over millions upon millions of years, what life was like before we were able to access them – then how we began to use them faster and faster, and how this led to the excess that resulted in today’s consumer-focused, energy-intensive lifestyle.

wind turbine


We may think of it as ‘normal’, but by any historical or geographical precedent the amount of energy used in a typical modern western lifestyle is off the charts. For the first time in our history, and just as demand is exploding across the globe, humanity will soon no longer be able to increase fossil-fuel production year-on-year. In short, we need a total makeover of how we think about and use energy.


Serious threats and common solutions

The threats of serious climate change, diminishing fossil-fuel reserves and rising energy demands are inter-connected problems that demand a common solution. However, there really isn’t any historical precedent for the scale and speed of the challenges we currently face. We lack the psychological and emotional tools to react effectively, which is why so many refuse to believe it is happening. Rising to these challenges is also currently beyond the boundaries of what is ‘politically thinkable’, making this more of a challenge for our society and democracy than it is for our technology.

If people aren’t able to imagine a positive future they won’t be able to create it. This was the inspiration for the Zero Carbon Britain (ZCB) project at the Centre for Alternative Technology: to help give context to our energy use and enable us to re-think how we talk about the future.

ZCB aims to create robust scenarios showing how we can be self-reliant, and transition away from fossil fuels at the scale and speed required to fulfil Britain’s international obligations to deliver on our climate challenges. It aims to stimulate debate and build consensus on this new and challenging terrain, integrating cutting edge knowledge and experience from a wide range of disciplines into a single framework that can be clearly and effectively articulated to endorse urgent action across all sectors of society.


Total energy makeover

To explore what a total energy makeover could look like, our 2010 report Zero Carbon Britain 2030 outlined how Britain could be carbon-neutral by 2030. This is a more ambitious target than the government’s target of 80% reduction by 2050, but it reflects Britain’s historical emissions and gives space for developing countries to become carbon-neutral more slowly.

Achieving carbon-neutrality involves reducing the amount of energy needed to deliver wellbeing by over 50% – we call this ‘power-down’ – while also rapidly developing Britain’s abundant renewable energy sources – we call this ‘power-up’. Powering down involves changes to the design, construction, refurbishment and operation of Britain’s buildings, industry and transport.

Powering up involves a shift to an energy mix of a wide range of renewables, in which offshore wind plays a leading role. This requires balancing supply and demand to ensure that the lights don’t go out when the wind isn’t blowing or the sun isn’t shining.


Changing diets

Diets also change to reduce the greenhouse gases from its production. Land freed up by reducing how much livestock we need is partially used to produce fuel and energy. Together, these changes in energy and land use result in a roughly 90% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, with the remaining 10% offset by the third use of our land – capturing carbon in trees and other natural habitats.

These changes would not only deliver long-term climate and energy security, but would kick-start the economy and provide hundreds of thousands of long-term jobs.

It is increasingly clear that our 21st century challenges can no longer be met with 20th century approaches, including how we think about the future. It is only when we connect the dots that we can really begin to think differently. Doing this can help us access tools, technologies and techniques that enable us to imagine what it would be like to live in a world were we have risen to our global challenges, and transformed our anguish into empowerment.

In the summer of 2013, the Zero Carbon Britain team will launch its third report on a decarbonised Britain. This report will hone in on challenges associated with a variable power supply – what happens on a cold night when the wind hasn’t blown for a while? – and diet – is a diet much lower on meat and dairy still healthy?

To keep up with our progress, and for information on the launch of the new report, check out our ZCBlog.

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