We have the policies and technology to make Britain zero carbon – so what are we waiting for?

A new report – Zero Carbon Britain: Making it Happen – sets out ‘a policy toolkit for fixing our climate’. It charts a wide range of positive policy opportunities for innovation, both for Britain’s economy and its people, explains Paul Allen

UK climate, energy and land-use policy must reflect the evidence base of our science. To stabilise our climate and stay below the global limit for temperature rise embodied in the UN Paris Agreement, we must rapidly move beyond fossil fuel based energy systems and eliminate our greenhouse gas emissions almost entirely by mid-century. There is, therefore, an urgent need to increase ambition on delivery.

Previous Zero Carbon Britain research by the Centre for Alternative Technology has shown that we already have all the technologies needed to reach zero, and our 2015 report Who’s Getting Ready for Zero mapped 100 peer-reviewed studies and projects demonstrating that we can, technically, reach zero emissions across the globe.

Yet changing how millions of people live is a very special kind of problem, as the forces that shape our lives exist on many different levels. Rather than an unresolved technical challenge, it is increasingly accepted that we face a mix of economic, cultural and psychological barriers

Tackling such a complex global challenge requires a new kind of approach which joins up research and practice across disciplines, borders, sectors and scales.

Zero Carbon Britain: Making it Happen offers a toolkit of policy insights from a wide range of peer-reviewed journals, books, reports and articles from psychology, sociology, political science, economics and other social sciences, as well as faith and spiritual practice, arts and culture.

Expert views from cutting edge thinkers mix with real-life stories of practical projects that have overcome barriers in innovative ways, from community renewables, to mass retrofit, to women’s cycling.

Reaching our zero carbon target will require a combination of policy interventions working together to leverage change. While individual behaviour change is clearly important, it must be seen as connected to the broader policy changes that are required to support it at social, industrial, political and international levels. To achieve this, we need to recognise how we have become locked-in to fossil fuels.

The historical technical, cultural and institutional co-evolution of oil powered energy, housing, transport and agricultural systems creates persistent forces that are hugely resistant to change – despite their impacts being known and despite the existence
 of cost-effective alternatives.

‘Practical projects at a local scale’

For example, the current highly centralised method of providing electricity is not the only way or even the best
way of doing it, particularly when all the impacts are considered.

Yet, it becomes very difficult to change because of the legal frameworks, institutions, financial support, investment models, consumer preferences and practices that have grown up around it.

We must challenge this. For example, by developing practical projects at a local scale, where there is flexibility to experiment and innovate and so help normalise new relationships with transport, food or energy.

Community energy projects are a clear example of how people can come together to overcome carbon lock-in. The Green Valleys (TGV) Community Interest Company is one such example. Set up by community members in and around the Brecon Beacons National Park in 2009, they inspire and support communities to work together to reduce carbon emissions, generate income and deliver social and environmental benefits.

Chris Blake, business development director for subsidiary company TGV Hydro, says: ‘You can argue that perhaps energy is the defining commodity of the last 200 years.

‘Where we get it from, who owns it, how it’s distributed and how it’s used is crucial to our social structure and civilization. Having it local, municipal, socially owned, as it has been in the past, could be very liberating.’

Once proven, such initiatives must have access to the support strategies and resources needed to rapidly replicate or scale-up.

The shift to zero carbon is one of the most exciting policy opportunities in human history. It offers many benefits including better housing, affordable, accessible transport, reduced obesity, improved health, cleaner air and more jobs.

We can transform isolated, stressful, consumer-focused lifestyles and find better physical and psychological wellbeing by increasing our sense of connection with community and nature.

All the necessary technologies and all the necessary policies to reach zero carbon are proven and waiting to go. Although shifting cultural values to support policy change isn’t easy, there are many powerful lessons from history showing that evolution in our thinking can happen over just a few years.

Paul Allen

Paul Allen

Project coordinator of the Zero Carbon Britain research project at the Centre for Alternative Technology – a research and education centre in Wales specialising in practical solutions to environmental challenges

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