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Zero Carbon Britain: Rethinking the Future

Zero Carbon Britain: Rethinking the Future

Executive summary

describes a scenario in which the UK has
risen to the challenges of the 21st century.

It is 2030. We have acknowledged our historical
responsibility as a long-industrialised nation
and made our contribution to addressing climate
change by reducing UK greenhouse gas emissions
rapidly to net zero.

Our research shows that we can do this without
relying on promises of future technology, but by
using what exists now. By making changes to our
buildings, transport systems and behaviour, and by
investing in a variety of renewable energy generation
technologies suited to the UK (without a nuclear
component), we can provide a reliable zero carbon
energy supply without negatively impacting on
quality of life. Smart demand management, plus the
intelligent use of surplus electricity in combination
with biomass to create carbon neutral synthetic gas
and liquid fuels, mean that we can meet our entire
energy demand without imports, and also provide for
some transport and industrial processes that cannot
run on electricity.

In our scenario the biomass we require is provided
by growing second generation energy crops on
UK land. All our cropland is still used for food
production, and we produce the vast majority of
the food required to provide for the UK population
on home soil. Changing what we eat (mainly a
significant reduction in meat and dairy products,
coupled with increases in various other food sources)
means we eat a more healthy and balanced diet than
we do today while our agricultural system emits
fewer greenhouse gases and uses less land both at
home and abroad, thus decreasing the environmental
impact of our food production globally.

We balance out some greenhouse gas emissions
that cannot currently be eliminated from non-energy
processes (industry, waste and agriculture) by using
safe, sustainable and reliable methods of capturing
carbon. By restoring important habitats such as
peatland, and by substantially expanding forested
areas, we not only capture carbon but also provide
wood products for buildings and infrastructure,
rich environments for biodiversity and more natural
spaces for all of us to enjoy.

An initial analysis shows that, in this future,
our actions have also helped us adapt to expected
changes in climate while increasing our resilience
to unexpected changes; improved upon a number of
other significant environmental problems aside from
climate change; created over a million jobs; and have
had a positive impact on our economy and on the
health and wellbeing of individuals and society.

The key difference between this future scenario
and that for which we are currently heading
is that we have responded with the urgency
demanded by current climate change science,
taking a physically realistic perspective rather
than adhering to what might be politically or
socially palatable today. It is unethical to treat
fundamental needs in the future, and the needs of
others in the global community, as equivalent to
our lifestyle preferences in the West today.
Current UK greenhouse gas emissions targets,
though ambitious in comparison to our international
contemporaries, do not offer substantial enough
reductions to provide a good chance of avoiding
what is now considered extremely dangerous
climate change. Neither do they adhere to what
might be termed the UK’s ‘fair share’ of the global
carbon budget. The most recent climate science now
demands a much greater sense of urgency than the
current mainstream view.

Zero Carbon Britain: Rethinking the Future explores
how we can achieve what is necessary. Building upon
the groundwork laid by the Zero Carbon Britain
project over the last six years, we incorporate the
latest developments in science and technology, plus
more detailed research in two main areas: balancing
highly variable energy supply and demand; and the
nutritional implications of a low carbon diet (see
box). We highlight the need for further research
on adaptation, economic transition and policy that
would achieve sufficient greenhouse gas emissions
reductions quickly and equitably. From a broader
viewpoint, we also highlight the need to incorporate
greenhouse gas emissions associated with our
‘historical responsibility’ as a long-industrialised
nation, and with the goods and services that we
import (‘carbon omissions’), into international
policy negotiations.

Closing the gap between current ‘politics
as usual’ and what is physically necessary to
address climate change will require cross-sector
collaboration and public engagement, framed
by robust international agreements to foster
high-level all-party political commitment. Zero
Carbon Britain: Rethinking the Future provides a
positive and technically feasible future scenario
that aims to stimulate debate and catalyse
action across all parts of society. Through this
project, the Centre for Alternative Technology
(CAT) hopes to inform, inspire and enable
contemporary society to embrace the changes
required to rethink the future.

Practical advice on being part of the transition to
a zero carbon Britain and further discussion papers
written by a variety of individuals and organisations
are featured at the end of this report. We invite you to
explore your own reflections on life in a zero carbon
Britain and to get involved in creating and working
towards a positive future.

Overview of this research phase

Two new pieces of research underpin the development
of this scenario:
1) Hourly modelling of the UK energy system in our
scenario using ten years of weather data to simulate
our renewable electricity supply (wind speed,
sunlight, etc.); and the demand for electricity during,
for example, periods of cold and warm weather

Even with a significantly reduced energy demand
and a broad mix of renewable electricity generation
technologies, supply and demand do not change in
unison – there are times when our energy systems
produce a surplus, and others when they fall short of
demand. Our hourly modelling research shows that
this imbalance can be managed with a combination
of demand management techniques, some short-term
energy storage, and the provision of a small amount of
back up generation.

One important outcome of this research is the need for
dispatchable energy over baseload power. Constant
power output (such as that from nuclear power
plants) is not helpful in balancing a variable energy
supply – it simply leads to further overproduction of
energy at times when renewable systems can meet
demand. We require instead power from generators
that can very flexibly increase or decrease output, or
even switch off completely, depending on whether
or not renewable sources are catering for demand.
Present gas infrastructure, including storage facilities
and gas power stations that can quickly ramp up
output, provide the best solution for this, and can be
made completely carbon neutral – using synthetic gas
created with surplus electricity from renewables and
UK-grown biomass.

2) Modelling of low and minimal carbon diets. Dietary
analysis based on nutritional profiling, food group
balance and government dietary recommendations
enables us to provide a healthy average diet for the UK
while monitoring the implications of various dietary
choices on greenhouse gas emissions and land use

Today’s average UK diet contributes not only to multiple
environmental issues at home and abroad, but also to
an increasingly unhealthy population which suffers
from a multitude of diet-related diseases. Currently, we
in the UK overeat and lack balance in our diet.
The principle outcome of our research is that, in
general, a healthier diet is also lower in greenhouse gas
emissions, and demands less of our land. This win-win situation takes a pivotal role in our scenario,
not only providing multiple impetuses for dietary
changes, but importantly releasing land for other uses
– providing biomass for our energy system, and safe
and proven carbon capture to balance our remaining