Podcast: where is society going?

In this talk to students on our MSc Architecture: Advanced Environmental and Energy Studies course, External Relations Officer and Zero Carbon Britain 2030 Director Paul Allen puts our current environmental challenges into an historical context. Paul tells the story of human beings and energy – beginning with the sun, and tracing our industrial history through the discovery of coal, to our learned dependence on oil, and ultimately, to where we are today.

You can stream the podcast here, or

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ZCBlog: How do we feed Britain and eliminate carbon emissions?

Laura Blake is Zero Carbon Britain’s food and diets researcher. Here, she looks at the main issues facing the food and diets team when proposing their scenario for a decarbonised 2030:

The ZCB scenario proposes some significant changes to land use in the UK.

However, the proposed reduction in meat consumption (particularly red meat) has raised many questions regarding livelihoods of farmers that specialise in livestock. ZCB also has to look at land suitability for other products such as food, biomass and woodland. Is it possible for livestock farmers to adapt to different industries in a scenario such as ours?

For me it also raises important questions about what we would eat. How would eating less meat affect future diets in the UK and what repercussion would this have for health?

It is generally accepted that we in the UK, and developed countries in general, are consuming higher amounts of meat than is recommended.

Current recommendations advise that individuals consume approximately 55 grams of protein per day. The UK average for 2011 was around 76g of protein per day and meat is one of the largest sources of protein in our diet. It has also been found that our diets contain too much saturated fat and meat contributes over 50% of our saturated fat intake.

Therefore, the proposed meat reductions in ZCB could have a significant health benefit for the population. A recent study on red meat, for example, found that reducing red meat consumption by just one serving per week could lower mortality risk by up to 19%.

Another study found that a reduction in livestock products could significantly reduce the risk of premature death from ischemic heart disease. Having said this however, the reductions in numbers of livestock that are required to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to the levels required in ZCB may mean that we are left with a significant gap in our supply of protein as well as various other micronutrients such as iron and vitamin B12.

What can be used as a replacement of meat to fill this gap?

Plant sources of protein may be much more plentiful within the ZCB scenario but plant proteins are less easily absorbed and sources of the above micronutrients are limited. Today, many vegetarians use meat alternatives such as soya products to replace nutrients found in meat, but soya cannot be grown in the UK. So what could we use instead?

The proposed changes in our diet also raise questions of palatability. Bearing in mind the current diversity of eating habits within the UK, is it really possible to provide everything necessary to supply the UK population with a healthy diet within ZCB?

Land use and diets need to be considered when discussing the elimination of carbon emissions, especially in a scenario such as ZCB. But as you can see, there are so many questions that face this line of research.

We do not know the answers yet but that is what the new ZCB report will address come the summer!

For more information on food and diets please contact me at laura.blake@cat.org.uk

ZCBlog: Zero Carbon Britain 2013


2013 is here! Paul Allen takes a moment to assess what lies ahead and his hopes for the new year…

I have recently received an analysis from a group of my colleagues working for the International Network for Sustainable Energy who presented at the COP18 Climate summit in Doha, Qatar. The outcomes do seem to open new doors for climate action, but it is not the breakthrough that we need to keep global warming to sustainable levels (i.e. global warming not above 1.5 – 2 degrees C).

I was most relieved to hear of commitment to a second period of the Kyoto Protocol, from 2013 to 2020, and although there are clear loopholes that allow carry over of unused emissions credits from the first period, there will also strict limits to their use. There was also a call for Kyoto Protocol countries to review their emissions reduction targets by 2014 at the latest. While there are no guarantees, this decision gives a moral obligation for these countries to increase their emission reduction targets before 2020 and provides opportunities for them to do so in the climate negotiations.

A second phase of the Kyoto Protocol was agreed to cover the period 2013-2020 with reduction targets for European countries and Australia. Unfortunately the reduction targets are not ambitious, e.g. EU only committed to reduce 20% from 1990 by 2020, a target the countries almost have reached today. Another problem is that the countries with reduction targets only emit 1/7 of the global man-made greenhouse gases (if Russia joins it will be more, but still only a small part of global emissions will be included).

So as we say goodbye to 2012, we know the limited reductions committed at Doha will not lead to the reductions required for the rate of decarbonisation demanded by the science. It is therefore vital we rest and get ready to take up the cause afresh in the New Year. There is still hope for improvement as the Doha talks agreed a review of commitments by Kyoto Protocol countries, where they will propose new, hopefully more ambitious emission targets in 2014. The new targets should include much more rapid decarbonisation targets from the long industrialised countries to keep global warming below 2 degrees C.

Much more action is needed, from the countries in the Kyoto protocol, but also from major emitters outside the Kyoto Protocol, including USA, Canada, and China. We hope that during 2013, as we draw together the most recent work from a range of academics, universities, think tanks, NGOs and business and industry into the new report and launch a round of communications we hope the ZCB project will help catalyse a change in how the we think about rapid de-carbonisation, bust myths, highlight hidden benefits, break through misunderstanding, and stimulate urgently-needed economic and political debate around how we think about the future. Leaving it to the ‘powers that be’ is clearly not going to be enough!

Paul Allen

Project Co-ordinator

ZCBlog: Zero Carbon Britain 2012

As Christmas fast approaches, Paul Allen looks at the past, present and future of Zero Carbon Britain…

This time last year we were all still reeling from the paradox of the UN climate conference in Durban. After the disaster of Copenhagen, and little better in Cancun, expectation on any form of deal, and the future of the entire UN process, was not high. While governments avoided disaster in Durban, they by no means responded adequately to the mounting threat of climate change. The decisions adopted fall well short of what is needed.

This time last year a key major stumbling block was delays in agreement over the extension of the Kyoto Protocol post 2012. The final compromise allowed countries to hold their positions by agreeing to further negotiations at the next exciting instalment in Doha, Qatar. This slow progress highlights the difficulties with international climate negotiations, made very apparent from the Copenhagen conference onwards. Delegates (and even presidents) with the best intentions can only act in accordance with how people think about rapid de-carbonisation (at least in democratic states), otherwise any bold promises made at the UN negotiations won’t make it through domestic political systems.

This time last year we knew it was important to build on the previous Zero Carbon Britain reports. We wanted to develop a much more detailed positive vision to get people excited about what it could actually be like if the negotiators did what they were actually meant to do – developing a signed an agreement capable of keeping us below 2 degrees. But back in December 2011 the new research was all just a vision, we know that so much had happened in the three years since the research closed on the last edition of the ZCB2030 report that a lot needed updating, detail needed delving into, areas needed correcting and the energy model required development.

So a member’s appeal begun for a new report and we waited for your support to arrive…

The final response was amazing and very moving personally for me. So many people had valued the impact of the last report that they were committing to help us do it again. Not only individuals – trusts, universities and other charities were coming on board and offering support.

By the end of March we know we had enough to press on so the new ‘Research Co-ordinator’ position was drafted and advertised. Excitedly we short listed five likely candidates and after a gruelling couple of days, and despite some very strong candidates, we were all unanimous on selecting Alice Hooker-Stroud, for here academic rigour, co-ordination skills and meticulous attention to detail. Within a week Alice was helping us interview the rest of the team in time for research to begin in July.

At this point it also became clear that several other organisations recognised what we were trying to do and offered very practical strategic collaborations. Arts Council Wales are thinking ahead of the curve and have offered to support three residencies at CAT, the first of which was to be based in the ZCB team. Our aim was not to do the research, then hand it to an artist to interpret, but rather to embed the artist in the research team to join us in our inquiry into what a truly sustainable future would be like to live in. We were pleased to recruit Joanna Wright to the team in this new and exciting role.

One of my clear highlights of the year was September when CAT hosted an ‘Emergence Summit’ to integrate CAT’s work on Zero Carbon Britain with the arts and creative practices in a crucible of ideas and visions for exploring a sustainable vision of the future. Another exciting collaborator – Swansea’s Volcano Theatre Company, conceived the Emergence concept with the aim of linking the arts with sustainability, not just in terms of reducing the impact of each performance, but also in the concepts into which they engage. We have the technologies we need: the main challenges now are much more cultural! The five day ‘Land journey’ and three day ‘Summit’ formed an inspiring, creative, emergent space to break through the silo’s and bring together key thinkers and change makers from the sustainability and the arts sectors to explore how we can work together to ‘create the future’.

Nick Capaldi Chief Executive of Arts Council Wales summed it up well:

As I, personally, grapple with the difficult issues, I’ll be depending on the arts for those projects and initiatives that will help develop within me the imagination and intuition to begin focussing on dimensions of learning and experience that (for the moment at least) remain beyond my grasp. So I look to the artists amongst us to use their best imagination, their most inquisitive curiosity, their most forensic inquiry, to search more intensely, and to reveal more eloquently the insights that will lead me to a deeper and more rooted understanding. What I understand I can engage with. And what I can engage with I can change.”

As the year draws to a close the first gleanings from the new research clearly indicate that next year is going to be a very exciting and a very busy time both for us here at CAT, and across the wider green movement.

Paul Allen

Project Co-ordinator


A statement in response to the announced Energy Bill

On Thursday 29th of November, The Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) is expected to publish the new Energy Bill. It should be a step towards a sustainable future for Britain but the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT) believes this energy bill represents an opportunity missed.

1. Decarbonisation Targets

DECC have delayed the all important decision on decarbonisation targets. Without steadfast targets to decarbonise the power sector by 2030 the UK cannot hope to reach the level of reduced emissions agreed for 2050. David Kennedy, the CCC chief executive, said:

It is important to set [a 2030] target because investors need a signal of the direction of travel beyond 2020, without that we will not get investment now that we need. There is a high degree of policy uncertainty at the moment and that needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency.”

2. Grid Upgrades and Investment

Whilst 7.6 billion a year will go to fund low carbon energies, DECC also confirmed that UK energy bills will rise. Government funding of low carbon electricity was citied as the primary reason but Britain’s ageing energy grid needs investment regardless. Whether the energy mix is gas, nuclear or renewable many parts of the grid need upgrading and investment. Furthermore, renewables are a front-loaded investment. You pay more initially but your expenses are comparatively low. Tobi Kellner, energy modeller for Zero Carbon Britain, said:

The high proportion of cost in fossil fuel energy systems is from the price of the fuel itself while the overriding cost of clean energy is upfront capital. Expenses for renewable technologies are largely for manufacturing and skilled engineering work. This is all work that can be done in the UK by British firms. Therefore all the money spent stays in the country, except for the raw materials we cannot produce domestically, and creates jobs. The costs for constructing a renewable infrastructure over the next decade may look exorbitant compared to the current model but this is an upfront investment that will benefit the economy for years to come. Reliance on dwindling fossil fuels cannot continue.”

3. A Clear Message is Needed

To avert a global temperature rise of more than 2 degrees, the UK must reduce carbon emissions to zero by 2030. CAT’s Zero Carbon Britain report shows that a carbon neutral UK is possible by 2030.

It is imperative we take action now to avert climate change. But by pushing the date for an agreed target back to 2016, which is after the next national election, decarbonisation becomes an election issue. Instead of delaying, Britain needs strong leadership to show clear direction and tackle this grave threat head-on. As a long industrialised nation the UK must lead by example and should be doing more than the minimum required to meet its targets. We must pioneer a shift toward renewable resources, which we can continue to rely on in centuries to come – unlike rapidly dwindling fossil fuels.

ZCBlog: A round-up of last week’s wind news with added gas!

Oh boy, was last week a blustery time for the future of British energy! Wind is a free resource and the sheer abundance of it across the UK during the past seven days highlights how important renewables can be for future energy strategies.

Over 9% of the UK’s electricity was generated by wind turbines on the 19th , 20th and 22nd of November. However, the total amount would have been higher because this value does not take into account turbines connected to local grids. On the morning of 22nd November, energy generated from wind-farms was more than gas. Indeed, wind power on that morning contributed over 4GW to the national grid, which is equivalent to four nuclear power stations.

This percentage of the UK’s daily electricity demand equates to around 90 GWh. That is as much as you get from burning 30,000 tonnes of coal, which would produce 90,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide because coal is pretty much pure carbon. When burning it, carbon atoms are combined with two oxygen to make a CO2 molecule. One carbon dioxide molecule has the atomic mass of 3.7 carbon molecules. Therefore by burning 1kg of coal you produce more than 3kg of CO2.

Wind is already making a valuable contribution to our energy supply. The growth rate is impressive. There is now over 6 Gigawatts of capacity compared with 2 Gigawatts in 2007. However, to create the type of low carbon energy system described in CAT’s Zero Carbon Britain 2030 report, we will need to see continued rapid deployment of onshore and offshore wind. And further changes to our energy system will be required, such as storage so that wind power can continue to supply ever greater quantities of clean energy.

Sceptics often claim that wind farms are not nearly as carbon efficient because wind needs to be backed up by burning fossil fuels. They argue that when the wind is blowing, gas turbines will have to be switched to a lower efficiency that negates any carbon savings. Combined cycle gas turbines (CCGT) are one of the most efficient gas-fired turbines in use. In a recent study, Loughborough University researched how different operation profiles influence the energy efficiency of a modern 800MW CCGT. The results show that when the turbine output modulates between 400MW and 800MW then the carbon footprint of the gas turbine per unit of electricity produced is only increased slightly compared to optimal constant operation at full 800MW capacity. This illustrates that when the wind blows harder and wind turbines produce more electricity we can reduce the amount of gas we use in turbines without having to pay a significant penalty in terms of turbine efficiency.

The evidence suggests that when we have more wind power we burn less gas and emit less CO2. The truth is that for every megawatt hour of wind generated energy, gas-powered electricity is reduced by the same amount. But how would the variable nature of wind fare during times of high demand if it became a primary resource? Well, current work by the ZCB team suggests that even with offshore wind farms spread all around the UK there will be times when almost no power is produced, and sometimes this will happen at times of high energy demand. On the other hand, it is worth noting that the UK is Europe’s windiest country so a lot of the time energy production from wind will exceed demand.

The ZCB team are busy researching methods of storing this excess energy chemically in the form of hydrogen or methane. Electrolysis can be used to split water into hydrogen and oxygen, using renewable electricity. The benefit of this is simple. It produces an energy store that can be re-used when demand requires it. Unfortunately, hydrogen is more difficult to store and handle than the natural gas (mostly methane) our gas grid uses today. The good news is that there are chemical processes to produce ‘synthetic’ methane gas from hydrogen and CO2. Methane produced in this way could be a great substitute for natural gas, which is a fossil fuel, and could be used as fuel for backup gas power stations to keep the lights on when the wind doesn’t blow. The Department of Energy and Climate Change(DECC) certainly seem to think this solution has potential as they have just awarded ITM Power a research grant to investigate this exact process. ZCB are very excited by the possibilities of synthetic methane. You can read more here.

And to end on a bit of extra good news – A major wind turbine manufacturer is now planning to open a factory in Scotland. The country is the windiest in the UK and politicians there have previously spoken out in defence of wind-farms. This deal is expected to create 750 jobs so let us hope this bolsters more interest in British wind power and aids further job creation within the renewable energy sector.


Climate change: It’s even worse than we thought

On Monday November 26th the international climate talks open in Doha,  an article published in the New Scientist this week carried the startling headline, Climate Change: It’s even worse than we thought. Climate change is happening faster and quicker than expected. Artic sea ice was not expected to melt to the end of the century but current trends indicate it could happen a lot quicker than that, the loss of sea ice means sea level rises. Weather events are more unpredicatable than imagined, with superstorm Sandy topping the bill after a year of heatwaves, droughts, floods and blizzards. The world is heading for an average 3-5 deg C temperature rise this century barring urgent action.

A faster response to climate change is necessary and possible,Doha must make sure the response is accelerated.” UN climate chief Christiana Figueres

Continue reading “Climate change: It’s even worse than we thought”

Podcast: creating a sustainable economy

How can we develop a sustainable economy? In a lecture to students on CAT’s Advanced Environmental and Energy Studies masters programme, Blake Alcott outlines the ideas of Ecological Economics, and explains how many of our ideas for making society more sustainable – from increasing efficiency to reducing population – are misguided.

Part one:

Part two:

You can stream the lecture here, or download the mp3 files for

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Further reading: Alcott makes reference to Kenneth Boulding’s 1966 classic essay, The Economics of the Coming Spaceship Earth as well as an animation (There’s No Tomorrow) by the Post Carbon Institute.

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