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News 28 March 2017 Updated 26 January 2021

Report offers guidance in zero carbon quest

The UK is legally committed to an 80% reduction on our carbon emissions by 2050.

But to make sure we get there, and to play our part in global decarbonisation, many organisations argue that what we should be aiming for is a fully Zero Carbon Britain. Sounds great, but how would we do it?

The Centre for Alternative Technology‘s (CAT) Zero Carbon Britain project has produced Making it Happen, an interactive document spelling out, well, what it says on the cover.

The woes of conventional economics?

The report takes the view that conventional economic approaches prevent us tackling the big barriers to slashing our carbon emissions: economic, psychological and cultural. From fossil fuels dominating the energy sector, to high animal protein consumption in our diets, car dependency and old homes, the report insists that while we have the technology for a zero carbon society, we need to change the economic basis of our society to make it happen.

And with 214 densely typed pages covering topics ranging from “What about replacing meat with ‘cultured meat’?” to the advantages and disadvantages of personal energy quotas, no-one can accuse CAT of not looking at the issues in detail.

Plenty of good ideas

Many of the ideas discussed are increasingly part of the standard approach promoted by Energy Saving Trust and other organisations. The importance of the many successful community energy projects out there is noted, as well as making zero carbon options like walking and cycling more convenient and attractive.

The report endorses the potential of local authorities to play a role in positive sustainable change and the home energy efficiency suggestions are eminently sensible: reducing energy demand by half by a mass programme of retrofits, exploring low carbon heating options, bringing energy storage to the mainstream and considering the embedded carbon of building materials.

In another section, ‘Stories for Change’ brings to life case studies of what can be achieved in areas like locally-produced food, net zero energy house building, and encouraging new users of low-carbon transport options. Interesting too is the report’s examination of how to communicate climate messages to the public in a positive way.

This includes matters like preferring real people over staged photo opportunities, to handling protest imagery more carefully. It also suggests that focusing on the potential for group action can reduce feelings of individual helplessness.

Is it the right approach?

All in all, Zero Carbon Britain is a uniquely detailed take on how we could transform our society. For those who believe there is scope for a radical new green policy, it’s a useful manifesto.

This report focuses on radical system change, rather than working within the current political environment. To give just one example, while local authorities have a key role to play, the current cuts to council staff and budgets mean there’s currently a limited scope to how much they can promote action on carbon reduction.

There are creative local and policy solutions to that challenge: most notably the increased focus on use of local health funding to support home energy efficiency programmes. But those approaches to working within our current policy environment are not featured in the CAT report.

No time to lose in sustainability fight

It’s great to see CAT making this sort of argument – they’ve been at the forefront of the ecological movement since the 1970s. Their report is robust and the vision of a low carbon society is powerful.

But the issues at the heart of this report need to be urgently addressed, and this means we need both radical visions and to find solutions that we can promote to policy makers right now. These options need to show how a low carbon society can be delivered cost-effectively, and highlight how low carbon can make today’s imperfect society and economy better.

Root and branch societal change isn’t going to happen overnight. But step-by-step, well considered changes from here onwards in areas like energy, travel, consumption and behaviour can be a catalyst to a deeper shift in the thinking of decision makers and the public, in time.

It’s clear that if we’re to get the UK on a path to meeting the challenges of climate change, energy and food security, while supporting those struggling to pay their bills, we can’t wait for a new economic and political framework. It’s certainly not to say that one isn’t possible, but for now, idealism will need to be delivered with a healthy dose of pragmatism.

Last updated: 26 January 2021