Sustainable Building Courses at CAT

One of the great things about the Centre for Alternative Technology is the sheer quantity of architectural and design features around the site.

View from the Wigloo
The funicular Cliff Railway
Eco cabins

Indeed, it’s a rare treat to see modern design juxtaposed with the rugged Welsh landscape.

All of our buildings, old and young, demostrate how ecological design pays attention to both form and function.

These buildings serve as practical exhibits which show ways that ecological architecture and design take care of both the environment and wellbeing.

We run a number of courses which are connected to design and architecture,  varying from short courses on timber frame construction to a Professional Diploma in Architecture.

For more information about our short courses:

and graduate level courses:

Build a tiny house…

tiny house1We are so excited about our tiny house courses – new from us to you!

Running three times this year, spaces are filling up fast.

Learn how to make a beautiful and bespoke tiny house from the ground up: including the timber frame structure, interior and renewable systems.

Carwyn Lloyd Jones, our very own master craftsman (and TV star!) will guide you through an inspiring and practical week where you’ll learn how to:

• Build a timber frame tiny house (approx. 6ft x 10ft)
• Clad the walls
• Build different roof shapes (including pitched roofs, curved roofs and green   roofs
• Install windows and doors
• Fix the structure to a trailer base
• Create simple, functional and smart fitted furniture
• Integrate Solar PV and thermal for electricity and hot water
• Harvest rainwater
• Include a compost toilet

Jam packed with practical hands-on exercises and talks from experts, this course will give you the skills and enthusiasm to build a tiny house of your own – whether it’s a little off-grid home, outdoor workspace or a glamping pod for summer getaways.

8096918469_1098dc91a6_mCarwyn will also give you a tour of his very own tiny house caravan as seen on George Clark’s Amazing Spaces.

Book here, before it’s completely sold out!

Need more inspiration? Read this blog, written by a CAT graduate who is building a tiny home on wheels in Australia.

Rammed Earth Vault – a world first?

I have spent time over the last couple of months building a vault out of un-stabilised in-situ rammed earth.  Without known precedent, it is believed to be a world first.  Although there is a pre-cast example built in Austria by students under the supervision of Martin Rauch, there are significant challenges relating to the in-situ construction process that I was testing.  The vault is a 1:5 mock-up of part of my Final Major Project proposal for sustainable Greenbelt Development outside Edinburgh.


The full size vault would be 11 metres wide and 9.5 metres tall at its highest point and extends 20 metres to form an open air hall aimed to encourage a respect for the earth that we rely on to grow food and that can also provide another of our basic needs: shelter.  It would also be occasionally used for events relating to the small scale, sustainable farm work that takes place on the rest of the site.

The principle behind the rammed earth vault lies in the structural properties of rammed earth, which has significant compressive strength but cannot withstand tensile stress.  When flipped to form an arch, a catenary curve – following the path of a chain as it hangs in tension from two fixed points – creates a structure that is entirely in compression.  Whilst the structural principle is ancient and simple, the construction implications of angled ramming and formwork design were unable to be proven possible until the removal of the formwork. The revealing of the finished vault on the 16th of December was witnessed by CAT students from across the REBE, SA and Prof Dip courses.

I would like to put out a huge thank you to the staff and long list of students who helped me and to Rowland Keable, whose advice on the removal of formwork (which can be a risky procedure) was invaluable.

Here is a video showing the formwork being removed:


This blog is by Tasha Aitken, a final year student on the Professional Diploma in Architecture: Advanced Environmental and Energy Studies course; the Part II Architecture course at CAT.


Roundwood Timber Framing course at C.A.T. – guest blog from the team at Ty Pren

Roundwood-timber-framing-1Last year was full of firsts for us and a great coming together for all involved in the company. The first residential self-build frame for the county, the honing and strengthening of skills and relationships, and a great new website!

The movement towards low impact living is really gaining momentum with more and more people looking for alternatives to the mainstream. Questions about how we can live a more carbon neutral lifestyle are being asked, and there are so many people doing amazing things to answer them.

It always takes time for new ideas to filter through, and one of the aims of Ty Pren is to bridge the gap between self-builders and local councils. Roundwood timber framing provides a strong framework for affordable, low impact homes that are sustainable, beautiful and a big step in the right direction towards  a zero carbon Britain.


With this in mind Jamie and Ray will be teaching a five day roundwood timber framing course at the Centre for Alternative Technology in Machynlleth in May.


We’ll also be at a number of festivals over the summer doing workshops and talks, so keep an eye on our blog for more details.

Have a great 2016.

The Ty Pren team.

Eco-Refurbishment Course at CAT

The August bank Holiday weekend saw CAT’s annual Eco Refurbishment course, covering all the theory and practicalities of how to get your house towards performing better than many new- build properties. The course consists of classroom theory sessions and hands-on practicals, as well as tours of CAT’s own drainage, sewerage and water-conservation  installations and its renewable energy set-ups.

Tutor Nick Parsons said: “The practicals are an essential part of the course, giving students a chance to apply the knowledge they have gained in the classroom sessions to practical situations. These sessions would not be possible without the support of the companies which provide materials and reference material free of charge

A group of eager DIY-ers have been busy learning about eco-refurbishment at CAT. Over the past few days they’ve learned about ecological improvements you can make to existing buildings through practical exercises and specialised guided tours of CAT.

The developments in environmentally conscious building are coming along in leaps and bounds, but as it currently stands few people in the UK will have the opportunity to construct their own new eco-home. Refurbishing existing housing stock can make a massive contribution towards reducing our carbon footprint and lowering our wider environmental impact.

As the week draws to a close we would like to say a big thank-you to Recovery Insulation, Natural Building Technologies, and Clan Insulation  who provided materials free of charge for the practical sessions on the Eco Refurbishment course. Thanks also to Sally and Keith Hall at Green Building Press who donated copies of the Green Building Bible for the students. Nick Parsons, the course tutor, said: “it’s great to have samples of a wide range of materials – particularly insulation materials – and to be able to work with them. Students have found this particularly valuable, and we really appreciate the generosity of the suppliers”.

You can find out more about our autumn short courses on our website.

#SeeMeJoinMe Women in sustainable construction – a week with the Architecture Part II’s

Gemma Temlett is a student on the Professional Diploma in Architecture (Part II) programme at the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT). Here she reports on the March module, gives a flavour of why studying at CAT is so special. She also talks about what the group is doing to support the #SeeMeJoinMe campaign to promote gender equality in the construction industry. 

We started the March week a couple of days early with a trip to Wolves, the context of our current design project. The aim was to get to grips with the city and Claire our heroic driver was first up, put to the test of navigating off Wolverhampton’s formidable ring road on the way to our first stop, a local Passivhaus school by Architype. While we had various visits planned in and around the city, we booked out a national trust bunk house in the surrounding countryside and set to work making giant pizzas and working on our presentations to be made on Monday. We turned the bunk house into our studio, Andy working away on his 1:200 models and the rest of us working on our laptops, in an industrious buzz around the big dining table.

Architecture students spinning pizza
Mario and Luigi spinning the pizza bases at the bunkhouse

Over the weekend we explored the house at Whitewick Manor, a fully furnished example of the Arts and Crafts Movement, and inspected it’s Victorian heat recovering ventilation system while taking in the Pre-Raphaelite art collection. It was a soggy Sunday measuring up the amended site boundary and a chat with the client before we headed to CAT.

It being International Women’s Day, another task for our Sunday on site had been to take a picture representing Women in Construction. Fellow student Kirsty Cassels had raised earlier the RIBA campaign to drive out gender inequality in the industry #SeeMeJoinMe. Immediately keen to partake, with my recent memories of taking my CV into offices and choking on the aftershave, we planned to complete the task in the week. CAT actively encourages women to work in male dominated trades and buildings scattered around the site were built by Cindy Harris, CAT’s builder for 17 years.

Monday was a day split into two groups for catching up on our project progress and marked presentations to hone our communication skills. Many an exCAT student that has come to lecture has renewed our confidence in the grooming process. Our group was tutored for the day by course tutors Trish Andrews and Pat Borer.

Trish in her Part 1 in the late 1980s at Strathclyde University had her own inspiring female tutor, Krystyna Johnson. One of the founders of the Scottish Ecological Design Association, Krystyna Johnson had been involved in Glasgow in the tenement improvement program, public participation in the 70s and pioneering architectural services within a community based housing association in Glasgow. James Irvine’s post from the October week talks about community participation and Ceinws where Trish was instrumental in forming a Community Land Trust.

After the last presentation of the day was given we breathed a sigh of satisfaction mixed with relief and caught up with the Masters students in the bar.

Lectures kicked off on Tuesday with a brilliant start. Lucy Jones talking on energy flows and thermal mass, former director of Earth building UK with a wealth of practical knowledge.

Dr. Lucy Jones at CAT
Dr. Lucy Jones in the rammed earth lecture theatre (image: Paulo Santos)

The next day was an air-tightness and thermal imaging marathon with Diane Hubbard, a former CAT student. This was a hands on session, checking the WISE building for thermal bridges. We moved to the self build accommodation to de-pressurise the whole building and watched as the cold air poured in the leaks! Diane helped us make sense of small signs that could be misinterpreted.

Dianne Hubbard Thermal Image
Thermal image of Diane Hubbard, demonstrating the deceptive effect of a sheet of glass (image: James Nolan)

This week there were Masters students weaving in and out of our days doing thesis tutorials and presentations from past modules. A few of them courageously chose to do their presentations in the main lecture theatre and invited us along. This is the enjoyable flexibility that is CAT. Another MSC student and untapped source of PV expertise, Corneila Peike, shared with us a short talk on design opportunities with PVs, on her last module at CAT.

Duncan Clarke Explains Timber Frame Principles
Planning for Thursday in the courtyard (image: Andy Hales)

Thursday had arrived, finally! We started on our timber frame building that brought with it the satisfaction of learning by doing, getting grubby and the feeling of real hunger at the end of the day. Our team is working on the sandwich frame, using OSB sheathing to stiffen the two 95 x 50 timbers, creating a stronger box shaped beam. From the relative comfort of the Pole barn we watched the tenacious team building the Segal method frame in the rain. They quietly finished in a few hours and dispersed while others chiselled away into the night.

Timber Frame construction stop frame animation by James Irvine

Architecture part II timber frame
Flipping of the sandwich frame (image: Andy Hales)

The guest lecturer in the evening was Pippa Goldfinger from the Frome independent council, ifF. Pippa’s inspirational presentation was on the fun-loving council’s people-lead processes and achieving sustainable solutions for the town.

Pippa Goldfinger from ifF
Pippa Goldfinger from ifF at CAT (image: Paulo Santos)

CAT brings together amazing people, gathered round the dining tables or coffee in-between lectures. We get to pick their brains and the practical, experimental nature of the people involved creates such a wonderfully relaxed atmosphere for sharing.

Fellow student Catrin organised the Friday night. Traditional Welsh cuisine from our much loved kitchen, music and fun was thrown together in our own mini CAT Eistedfodd, a Welsh celebration of the arts.

At the end of the week I jumped at the chance to get to know North Wales a little more with some classmates, partners and friends. Our trip ended in Felin Uchaf, an educational centre for young people, community, natural heritage and more that had brought some of our classmates together to build, years before the course at CAT.

Fellow student Kirsty Cassels at Felin Uchaf, Llyn peninsula
Fellow student Kirsty Cassels to the right of the crown post at Felin Uchaf, Llyn peninsula (image:

Spot the Women in Construction photos?

–> See more blogs from Part II Architecture students at CAT 

Getting to grips with thermal comfort

John Butler reports from the latest module of the MSc Sustainability and Adaptation courses at CAT. John is a student on the MSc Sustainability and Adaptation in the Built Environment course. He normally blogs on his site and you can follow him on Twitter @the_woodlouse.

The March module of CATs Sustainability and Adaptation MSc was part B of Energy Flows in Buildings. Part A (in February) introduced us to ideas of thermal comfort and its relation to heat transfers from the human body to its surroundings. This was tied to the implications of maintaining that thermal comfort, and the impact on energy use. We learnt about calculating U-Values (used as a standard measure of the thermal efficiency of a building element), and daylighting: making best use of natural daylight in a building and calculating the resulting energy savings.

educational building
The view from a bedroom in the WISE building, home of the MSc and Part II Architecture students

Part B expanded on this getting into more detail about limiting the flows of energy through a building, whilst addressing issues around ventilation and movement of moisture. A sustainable building should maintain a comfortable environment – comfortably warm in winter, comfortably cool in summer, ideal humidity levels, good air quality – with minimal energy input, and without moisture ingress causing degradation of the building fabric. Throughout the week different elements of possible means to achieve this were discussed.

A recurring theme throughout the week was retrofit – upgrading the thermal efficiency of existing buildings to reduce their energy use and related CO2 emissions. The most commonly stated best-estimate is that around 80% of existing houses will still be in use by 2050; the potential contribution to reduced energy use and emissions from such a large number of buildings is huge, but presents a challenge. There are advantages and disadvantages to various approaches, from aesthetic considerations (eg: changing the appearance of a building when externally insulating it), to practical (eg: loss of space when internally insulating), to technical (eg: the risk of condensation forming at the meeting of new insulation and existing structure if it is not carefully considered). Planning and conservation concerns can also influence or restrict choices for retrofit.

viewing insulation retrofit
MSc students examine mockups of internal and external insulation, for solid-wall retrofit

There are also issues and trade-offs surrounding choice of insulation materials – the most highly efficient materials may have a greater overall environmental impact than some less efficient materials. Some are more breathable (open to passage of moisture vapour) than others, which can have both positive and negative implications, depending on application.

Another recurring theme was the need to account for future changes to our climate in both retrofit and new build. In particular, too much emphasis on designing to conserve heat could lead to overheating further down the line when atmospheric temperatures increase. Careful attention to placement of glazing and shading to control solar gain can help address this, allowing direct sunlight in to provide warmth in winter when the sun’s path is lower, and sheltering the building from the most intense direct sunlight in summer when the sun is higher.

The role of thermal mass in regulating internal temperatures was discussed in a number of lectures. Depending on climate and design, thermal mass may hang on to winter day-time heat, releasing it within the building through the night – or assist cooling by absorbing excess heat in summer, if combined with effective ventilation to purge that heat at night. Used inappropriately thermal mass may add to overheating, so its use must be considered carefully.

thermal image
Thermal imaging shows hot heating pipes (bright) and cold area where air is coming in around cables (dark areas)

A practical in the second half of the week provided a demonstration of heat loss through unplanned ventilation (ie: draughts). This was linked to the need to provide controlled ventilation (whether through opening windows or via mechanical ventilation), and highlighted the difficulties of achieving airtightness (eliminating draughts) in some existing buildings. The practical involved carrying out an air-pressure test to establish the air-permeability of the timber-framed selfbuild house on the CAT site (ie: how much air moved through the fabric of the building at a certain pressure). In groups we surveyed the building with thermal imaging cameras, before and during the test. The resulting images clearly showed how the cold incoming air cooled surrounding surfaces, demonstrating the impact of air infiltration on energy use. A scheme to retrofit the selfbuild house at CAT would have to include a means to reduce this.

air pressure test
The door-fan, used to de-pressurise a building to identify air-ingress

The end of the week saw us discussing Passivhaus and visiting the Hyddgen Passivhaus office/community building in Machynlleth, with the building’s designer John Williamson. Some myths about Passivhaus were busted (for instance: you can open windows), and the physics-based fabric-first approach was explained. The standard is based around high comfort levels combined with incredibly low energy input. While on site we investigated the MVHR unit (Mechanical Ventilation with Heat Recovery), which removes stale air from the building, and uses it to heat fresh incoming air. These are a common feature of passivhaus, as they allow the removal of moist air and other airborne contaminants and it’s replacement with fresh air, whilst minimising heat loss. This system has been the subject of some heated debates with fellow students at CAT, due to questions about the amount of energy needed to run the system and how user-friendly it is or isn’t. We were shown that when installed correctly, the system recovers more energy than is needed to run it.

Hyddgen Passivhaus in Machynlleth

As ever, throughout this course connections were constantly drawn between all the different areas covered (the inescapable interconnectedness of all things!). Nothing stands in isolation; each decision in one area can have repercussions in another. The different elements of building physics and materials must be balanced with each other and with the effect of any action on the wider environment.

temperature recording
Measuring the air temperature in MVHR heating ducts at Hyddgen, prior to calculating the overall efficiency and heatloss/recovery of the the system

The immersive learning environment during module weeks at CAT is highly effective, and very intense. It’s a wonderfully stimulating and supportive place to be, but at the end of the week that intensity needs a release in order for us all to return to our normal lives without winding up our friends and family when we get there. That takes the form of the vitally essential Friday night social, which this month was themed around a Cyfarfod Bach, a laid back Welsh social. We had beautiful music and singing, comedy, artwork, silliness, a rousing rendition of the Welsh National Anthem (not too shabby, considering only a handful of people were Welsh speakers or had any idea how the tune went in advance) and finally a leg-shattering amount of dancing, ensuring we could all go home in physical pain but happily and calmly buzzing.

See more blogs about the MSc Sustainability and Adaptation course. 

Easter Eco Events At the Centre for Alternative Technology in Wales

pond dippingCome and join us for an action packed Easter holiday for all the family, events will be running from the 30th of March through till the 10th of April. From daily guided tours to eco activities for children, talks, workshops, music and exhibitions there is something for all ages. There will be a daily guided tour of the CAT visitor centre exploring some of CAT’s history, renewable energies, organic gardening and sustainable architecture. Our straw bale theatre will be open for children’s eco activities from 11-3 pm everyday including Easter treasure hunts, crazy inventors, bug hunting, eco games,  storytelling and our specially designed zero carbon tours.

Specialised tours of CAT’s unique and sustainable gardens and renewable energy systems will take place throughout the week, check the visit CAT website for tour specifics

Our woodlands team will be demonstrating and teaching visitors simple woodland crafts using traditional woodworking tools.  Paul Allen and members of our zero carbon Britain team will be giving talks around current environmental issues and our zero carbon britain project.

For up to date information on our Easter events please check out

CAT is the UK’s leading eco centre and runs a 7 acre visitor centre, courses, graduate school and information department. We are open throughout the year for day visitors and groups.

Digging beneath the surface of buildings energy assessment

Toby Whiting is a student on the MSc Renewable Energy and the Built Environment course at CAT. He is studying the course alongside working as a buildings energy consultant. Here he reports on the module from October, which focuses on energy use in buildings. 

Another great week at CAT has flown by. As a domestic SAP and Code for Sustainable Homes assessor, this week has covered a lot of the areas that I’m familiar with. So was it a waste of time? No certainly not! Believe it or not, as a SAP assessor, I have never taken the calculation apart and played with it in a spreadsheet – it was always one of the things that I wanted to try but never made the time for. I’m pleased to say that this course has ‘ticked’ another box and allowed me to look at where the ‘numbers’ are drawn from and made me look at the SAP process from a new perspective.

High and low points of the week: Delivering my powerpoint in a session where students give presentations based on their essay topic; and the trip to an office designed to Passivhaus standard -I’ll let you guess which was the ‘high’ and which was the ‘low’ for me (but it wasn’t the one where I had to stand up and talk).

People can confuse and transpose terms like ‘Passivhaus’ and ‘Zero Carbon’ so it really has been good to get out and visit a building designed to consume less energy, rather than offset the carbon produced. For me nothing beats the experience of walking around a building like this.

Canolfan Hyddgen: an office designed to Passivhaus energy standards

Working as a consultant can be difficult because I spend a lot of time researching and advising others on the most efficient or cost effective solution and the flow of information is often one way. This course reinvigorates me and allows me to mix with like-minded individuals (both students and lecturers) and exchange ideas.

I have been able to challenge my opinions over a wide range of building performance related areas and learned some fascinating things from other student presentations. I’m a part-time student and won’t be back now until January – and I’m pleased to say I’m looking forward to it!

thermal image
Using a thermal imaging camera on the module


This Changes Everything: a chat with Naomi Klein

Storming past the publishers who said climate change wouldn’t sell, Naomi Klein’s new book is breaking barriers on both sides of the Atlantic. Kim Bryan, media officer at CAT  had a conversation with the author about publishing, powering-down and what’s next for the climate movement.

Naomi KleinIt is rare for a book about climate change to find itself on TheNew York Times best sellers list but Naomi Klein’s book This Changes Everything, released in November 2014, has done just that. In her most provocative book yet the author of the global bestsellers The Shock Doctrine andNo Logo tackles the most profound threat humanity has ever faced: the war our economic model is waging against life on earth. Extremely well researched and written the book exposes the myths clouding the climate debate, arguing that it is not just about carbon but about capitalism.

The convenient truth is that we can seize this existential crisis to transform our failed economic system and build something radically better.”

1. In an interview with the Guardian when This Changes Everything first came out you said, “We tried it your way and we don’t have another decade to waste.” How do you see the climate movement developing quickly enough – how can we make this movement bigger and better?

I think that the truth is we needed this movement yesterday; what we are hearing from climate scientists is that we need to be cutting our emissions dramatically. The climate scientists that I relied on for the book – Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows-Larkin from the Tyndall Centre – talk about cuts between 8-10% per year, and they have being saying this for a couple of years. The urgency is huge.

But the idea that the environmental movement alone could become powerful enough to turn this tanker around is a fantasy. My approach is based on the premise that this kind of movement building can only happen through a convergence of existing movements as opposed to building up one movement. My hope, and this is based on seeing this start to happen, is that particularly because the next round of climate negotiations is happening in Paris at the end of the year is that we are going to see a convergence of movements. For example in the UK at the moment the Green Party are growing rapidly yet at the same time Labour abstained from the fracking moratorium vote. This is the tremendous cost of movements being overtly siloed, a really tragic example of the cost of divisions between the labour movement and the environmental movement.

9781846145063Currently the huge anti-austerity movements in Europe have tremendous momentum: Syrzia have won their first election victory in Greece and there is similar momentum behind Podemos in Spain. The Paris climate negotiations could be a moment where there is a convergence between the climate justice, anti-austerity and labour movements. And – unless we see that coming together of movements and that convergence – we don’t stand a chance

2. The book is a call for an economic transformation away from the capitalist system, yet it is on The New York Times best sellers list. What’s your formula for being able to take radical material, chuck it into the mainstream and people being able to hear it?

There are many books that are well written and researched that do not end up on the best sellers lists; a lot of it is about luck. I got lucky with my first book, No Logo [a look at branding, advertising, marketing and market dominance], and that created a situation where I could get good book advances to spend on research, set up a mini think tank and spend 5 years writing and researching; it is an amazing privilege. It’s also about hitting the moment and not believing the nay-sayers who tell you that this will never sell…The feedback from a lot of publishers was that no one wants to hear about climate change, that climate books never sell…I guess the publishers took a risk with me because of my previous books. I discovered quite early on that publishers know what they are talking about. With No Logo I could not find a US publisher for a very long time; I have a stack of rejection letters telling me, “I really like this book, but Americans just want to read memoirs of eating disorders.” There is just this ongoing pattern of cultural gate keepers who decide what books to sell, buy and invest in and give the kind of advances that allow people to hire research teams. These people are in the business of deciding what the public wants, which is why every explosion of social movements comes as a surprise to our media outlets: they perennially convince themselves that the public is apathetic, and then something like Occupy happens.

3. What are some of the main critiques that you have heard about the book that you take seriously?

This Changes Everything is about making connections and movements, and my genuine, deepest hope for the book is that people will pick up the thesis and improve it and add to it. We launched a blog to go alongside the book, which is wide open to people to add to the thesis. That includes pointing out things that I should have done much more. I knew when I was writing the book that there should have been a whole chapter about the intersection between feminism, women’s rights and climate change. I know there could have been, should have been, a whole chapter on militarisation and war.

Some of it is the limits of time and space but I also see this is an ongoing project. The idea behind creating these spaces and tools is so the topic can be debated. I take those critiques to heart but I try not to beat myself up about it as I know the limits of what one book can do. I find it a little depressing if the spirit of the critiques is about berating me. I feel like: yes, do it, add to it, be part of it. That said, I think there have been really smart critiques about the ideological inconsistencies within the book. Part of the book is more transformational in terms of talking about needing a post-capitalist system and there are other parts talking about changes which are feasible within a mixed economy, which are about building up the public sphere and the commons within a system broadly resembling our own – changing it dramatically but not overturning it. I think those critiques are smart, I find them interesting but I think some of them come from a more academic place from the one that I write in. I am not looking for the purity of my politics and I do take an attitude of ‘whatever works’ and that we should spell out these ideas. The critiques are interesting but they don’t make me want to have written a different book. I think the truth is that radical and reformist ideas can co-exist and create space for one another.

4. One of the main projects at CAT is Zero Carbon Britain, where we show how we can power down through energy efficiency measures and meet that reduced energy demand with 100% renewables. We have listened to what the science is saying, proving that the technology says we can – as have many other groups and organisations. What are the main reasons you attribute towards the reluctance of politicians and industry to make the transition to a zero carbon future?

Firstly, it is really important to continue to make that case; the truth is that message still has not got out there. There has been so much misinformation about renewable energy, and all of these talking points about how unreliable it is and about how it’s not ready. Yet in the last year there has been a huge shift, a massive leap forward: for example, some of the changes that Germany has been making over the past decade are finally piercing the public consciousness. That is not a paper that is being produced; it is something that is happening in a large economy which those in the north can relate to. Just because CAT have been saying it for a long time, it is not a moment to be discouraged; it is a moment to do everything you can to popularise this research.

The other part of the answer I explore in the book is this hugely unfortunate case of bad timing for the climate crisis. It is possible for us to change the fundamentals of how our society functions, but when we talk about moving away from fossil fuels we are talking about the underpinnings of our economy – our societies are built on fossil fuels – so these are not small shifts. The fact that we are talking about making them within the context of a triumph of neo-liberal ideology has been absolutely debilitating; this is what the book brings to the debate that has been missing. It is something we can only see in retrospect, the extent to which neo-liberalism has undermined what governments thought of their very role. So yes, you can do it, but you have to roll up your sleeves and plan the kind of society and economy you want to have. That very idea became heretical in the period when it most needed to happen. We don’t have politicians that think that way, we have politicians that see their role as getting out of the way of business so they can maximise their profit. Then the politicians can brag about GDP growth as the measure of progress. That’s what they do, they don’t think about what sort of societies we should have and set out to deliberately plan them in ways that would require a huge amount of intervention. That’s why at the centre of this book is an argument that we will not win this battle unless we are willing to have a full-throated battle of ideas about the role of government in society, the role of collective action, the role of planning – because that’s underneath this failure of action on climate change. Put in another way, yes it’s possible but it will never be as profitable; it’s not that money can’t be made in a post-carbon economy but you are never going to have the kind of super-profits that have been the prize of the neo-liberal era. The core point is that it requires a radically different view of the role of government than the one we have.Climate March in New York

5. CAT aims to inform, inspire and enable practical solutions for sustainable living. As part of the release of your book you have created a website called Beautiful Solutions; what are some of the projects there that stand out to you?

There are so many. When we were doing research about gold mines in northern Greece (which was one of the responses to the economic crisis in Greece: the government started auctioning off its public assets, as so often happens, including its water systems in many large cities). In Thessaloniki, as a response to this, rather than simply defending a public state institution model for controlling the water, they came forward with a different ownership model based on the water as commons.

There are also recuperated work places, which was a subject of a documentary film that we made during the financial crash in Argentina… Instead of accepting unemployment due to workplace closure, workers form horizontal assemblies and ‘recuperate’ (take back) their workplace, resist eviction, and begin producing again. Many recuperated workplaces organise horizontally and with equal remuneration. This phenomenon has been spreading, from the South to the North, with recent recuperation in Greece, Italy and France. These are really good examples of an organic solution that, in the context of the right kind of planning and coalition-building, is also a climate solution. A lot of these factories are being re-imagined as not just workers’ co-ops but also as green workers’ co-ops.

We don’t see our role as laying out a ten-point political plan but I do think that is a role that social movements need to do democratically together in this political moment. It is not enough to point to a beautiful solution pocket here and there; we need more ambition in this political moment. We need to remember we are not starting from scratch. We are starting from a great position of being able to point to solutions that work. Some are even working on a large scale like the German energy transition, but it’s about being able to bring everything together. In Germany it’s working on the transition side but it is not working on the emissions side. The support for renewables is not being coupled with a strong ‘leave it the ground’ legislative response to coal. The oppositional work that is being done, fighting the pipe lines and the extractive industries, is the flip side of this inspiring alternative work. There are those that say we can just drop the resistance and work on our beautiful transition, but we don’t have that luxury; we have to work on both at the same time.

6. When was the last time you felt overwhelmed and like there is no way we can do it? What do you do to get over it?

I feel most overwhelmed when I take on too much myself, and I feel it least when I am reminded of how many of us are doing this work. It was wonderful that the book launch coincided with the week of the huge climate convergence in NYC, with 400,000 people marching in the streets. I have been able to carry that with me through the bleaker moments. One of the things that happens when you go out and talk about this stuff is that you are confronted with people’s despair. It happens many times at Q&A sessions where people stand up and vent their heartbreak and their hopelessness. Particularly in the US, where people are up against a political system that is bought and paid for, there are a lot of progressive people that have given up. Particularly of an older generation; younger people have tremendous hope and optimism and they can’t afford to give up, but someone standing up in a room saying, “I use to believe I could change it but I don’t any more” – that is contagious. I understand why people feel this way but it kills me that people don’t understand how dangerous it is to publicly give up in front of another generation that has not given up. So, for me, I have found it critical to not try to do this in any way alone. The best events I have had are when I have shared the stage with local activists who are doing the work. I am doing an event in Berlin, and speaking alongside me will be someone to talk about the plans to turn Berlin’s energy grid into co-op and someone fighting coal extraction in Cologne. The feeling in the room will be totally different if they hear from people doing the work rather than just talking about it… The combination of theory and practice is what people are hungry for, and that helps me.

We need to be articulating a very clear vision for the next economy, [with] a justice-based transition away from fossil fuels

7. 2015 is a big year for the climate, with the talks in Paris, yet it is quite hard to remain hopeful as so many climate talks have failed in the past. What would be a good outcome?

It is important not to set up a similar dynamic to Copenhagen, where unreasonable levels of hope were projected onto a single meeting. It was almost a supplicant relationship to political leaders – appealing to their consciences and responsibility to future generations. My hope is that what happens at the Paris climate talks is much less to do with what happens inside and much more about what can happen outside in terms of building the convergences between the climate justice and anti-austerity coalitions. We need to be articulating a very clear vision for the next economy, [with] a justice-based transition away from fossil fuels. If the movement can articulate that during the Paris climate talks then we can get a lot done in the years after. It’s less about hoping that our leaders are going to have an about-face and it’s about what we do in the lead up and outside and afterwards.

“There is a lot of excitement about new political configurations in Europe and Paris is an opportunity; is a time to bring together that convergence. The responsibility is with us and not with the leaders to build that counter power – and eventually we will take power.”

8. I agree that it’s a very exciting time… Thank you very much for speaking with us today, Naomi.

Thanks so much for all your work; I think CAT is amazing.

About the author:

Kim Bryan is a media officer at the Centre for Alternative Technology; she also writes freelance articles on energy, environmental and social justice issues.