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A 'zero-carbon' vision for Britain

Tobi Kellner'A positive vision for a sustainable future' was the message of 'Zero Carbon Britain 2030', delivered by Tobi Kellner to an audience of over 100 people at Staffordshire University on 6 March.

Tobi Kellner's presentation on Zero Carbon Britain 2030 outlined a national strategy for drastic cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, while meeting our requirements for electricity and fuel exclusively from renewable technologies. The roadmap, devised by Tobi and his team at the Centre for Alternative Technology near Machynlleth in Wales, hinges on three main aspects: 'powering down' to cut energy demand; 'powering up' by much greater use of renewables, particularly offshore wind turbines; and changing land use to adapt to the needs of a zero carbon future.

Upbeat theme

The upbeat theme of the evening was set at the outset when Tobi acknowledged that our concept of life in the future has completely reversed since the 1950s and 60s. Then people held optimistic notions about heading for an age when machines did all the hard work, human ills were largely cured, and people lived in shiny new cities with aerial freeways and sunlit parks. Now there is widespread apprehension of a future that promises climate chaos, fuel shortages, overpopulation, and environmental mayhem. Zero Carbon Britain offers an alternative, he argued; the prospect of managing society for a better life, based on low-carbon technologies and sustainable use of resources; a plan that has the potential to improve health and well-being and revitalize communities and the economy.

Geof White

Geoff White of Sustainability Matters, introduces Tobi Kellner, currently Energy Consultant at the Centre for Alternative Technology.

Powering down

So just how can this green and pleasant future come about? One essential foundation is to reduce overall energy demand by at least 50%, focusing on the built environment and transport. This entails a far-reaching and intensive campaign to refurbish existing stock of houses, and improve insulation, using natural material wherever possible to lock away carbon. Existing targets for zero-carbon homes and other buildings should be reinforced with clear and consistent standards, and full account taken of embodied energy, i.e the energy used in manufacture of building materials and the construction process.

Electric vehicles and public transport

Turning to the transport sector, which currently produces 29% of the UK's greenhouse gases, the strategy calls for a massive switch from petrol- and diesel-powered vehicles to electric vehicles, mainly cars and light vans. Electric vehicles are already more efficient users of our current fuel mix used to generate electricity, and their CO2 emissions will fall over time as electricity is increasingly obtained from renewables. Currently, however, heavy goods vehicles, ships, airplanes, and heavy farm machinery simply have to run on a liquid fuel, and in a zero carbon Britain, this will be a biofuel. 'Yes', Tobi acknowledged, 'I hear the objections to biofuels; but we can grow a certain amount of fuel crops AND still feed ourselves, if we change our priorities for land use.'

FreiburgTobi cited the city of Freiburg in Germany as a good example of sustainable development. Cars are restricted to the perimeter of new housing estates, leaving the centres safe for pedestrians and cyclists, thereby encouraging residents to use alternatives to the car.

Alongside these changes, many more people must turn from the private car to use public transport, encouraged, for example by pay-as-you drive taxation, better town planning, and greater opportunities for walking and cycling. In aviation the aim is to eliminate domestic flights and curtail international flights by two-thirds. Instead, long-distance travel within Britain and to the near continent will be by train, including high-speed rail. Also, many of the goods currently transported by lorries will have to be carried by train instead. Notwithstanding all this, we should expect to travel less overall.

Powering up

Can we provide all our energy needs from renewables alone by 2030? Well, given the greatly reduced energy demand outlined above, Tobi and the ZCB team say that it can be done, provided Britain makes full use of its great resource: wind energy. The plan envisages massive investment in offshore wind turbines so that they supply over half of all the country's energy needs by 2030. The remainder is generated by a mix of technologies including onshore wind, solar PV, biomass, heat pumps, and wave and tidal power.

'But how do we keep the lights on when the wind doesn't blow?' Tobi asked, reading the minds of his audience. He admitted that extensive modelling showed that given the variable output of wind power, there would be times when amounts generated would fail to match demand, particularly in dull, cold high-pressure spells in winter. Hence, a zero-carbon Britain would require a standby network of gas-fired power stations that could burn a form of biogas and respond rapidly to make up the shortfall in supply. The biogas thereby acts as an energy store, which can be produced from biomass when surplus power is generated in favourable wind conditions.

Land use and agriculture

The major change in agriculture envisaged is a big reduction in livestock numbers, particularly ruminants such as cattle and sheep, and increase in the proportion of land used for growing human food crops and biomass. Alongside this is a target to cut food imports so that three-quarters of our food is home-grown, giving greater food security. Consequently, a change in diet is called for, with people increasing the amount of plant protein they consume at the expense of meat and other animal products. Current recommendations say such a diet is much healthier, besides the environmental benefits.

These measures will cut greenhouse gas emissions from farming, particularly methane from ruminants, and release land for perennial biofuel crops such as short-rotation woody crops and miscanthus. Some arable land that was used to produce cereal or fodder crops for livestock can now be used to grow food for humans. Moreover, changes in land management will help to store more carbon in the soil or in biomass - so-called carbon sequestration. This plays a significant part in offsetting the residual carbon emissions that will still be produced from certain industries, agriculture and other processes in 2030.

Pipe dream or real prospect?

To realise this vision of a 'zero-carbon' Britain in just the next 17 years will be a monumental and vastly expensive undertaking. But, as Tobi pointed out, such rapid transformations have taken place before, notably when Britain was forced to switch to a war footing in just a few years before and during World War II. He was reluctant to draw any strong analogy with wartime, but rather sought to focus on the benefits to society as a whole. For example the massive programme of building refurbishment should be seen as an opportunity to improve the skill base of an entire generation, surely a better long-term investment than paying other countries for importing their gas, oil and coal. Similarly, the changes in food production, land use, town planning, and transport, to name but a few, could all yield enormous benefits for individuals and communities up and down the land. Whatever one's feelings about the practicalities of implementing such a vision, Zero Carbon Britain 2030 should enthuse and motivate all who have a stake in building a sustainable future - and that's everyone isn't it?

The presentation by Tobi Kellner was arranged by Sustainability Matters in conjunction with Staffordshire University, particularly the Centre for Efficient Energy Systems and the Institute for Environment, Sustainability and Regeneration.