Sharing zero carbon solutions worldwide

CAT’s Paul Allen joined the International Network For Sustainable Energy (INFORSE) in Denmark to share the latest Zero Carbon Britain research on a global platform. The 25th anniversary meeting brings together organisations from across the world to explore the transition to sustainable energy, community power and the development of new initiatives and projects.

Continue reading “Sharing zero carbon solutions worldwide”

Student open space day tackles barriers to Zero Carbon Britain

Students from the Centre for Alternative Technology’s (CAT’s) Graduate School of the Environment held an interactive Open Space day to discuss barriers to bringing about a rapid transition to a low carbon economy. The outcomes of the day are being fed into the Zero Carbon Britain – Making it Happen research currently being undertaken by CAT.

ZCBstillextraction

The open space style of the event meant the day started with 40 people but no agenda. The participants came up with and held 16 smaller group discussions on a diverse range of topics during the day. This 2-minute film gives a flavour of the day.

The 16 discussions covered a broad range of topics, but the structure of the day allowed each session to be focused, and useful for developing the research. Topics covered included:

  • Reaching a wider audience, including reaching out within workplaces
  • Using the resources of new build property developers and retrofitting existing buildings
  • Community energy, and how you create strong community groups
  • Political action, both local and wider
  • Creating an inclusive movement, that is founded on equality and diversity
  • Looking at a more individual level, at setting personal goals, behaviour change, valuing resources and handling both ‘eco-guilt’ and bad news on climate change
  • Values and learning from nature
  • Having a hopeful vision that inspires us

If you are interested about finding out more about CAT’s next research project, you can read about Zero Carbon Britain: Making it Happen initial findings online, or come along to our short course on the 28-29th April, which is just before the Machynlleth Comedy Festival, meaning you can combine the two for a stimulating long weekend in Machynlleth.

Analysis: Why we can’t choose fracking

So, we already know why we don’t need fracking, but there are very good reasons for saying we quite simply can’t have it.

“Shale gas is categorically not compatible with the UK’s obligation to make its fair contribution to avoiding the 2°C characterisation of dangerous climate change – the maths on this are clear and unambiguous.”

–  We really can’t sum it up any better than this comment from Kevin Anderson, a professor of energy and climate change at the University of Manchester and ex-director of the Tyndall Centre, the UK’s leading academic climate change research organisation.

But others have said it too:

“The world should not be searching for new sources of fossil fuel. We can’t even burn all of what we already have. We need to keep the coal, oil and the gas in the ground” says Simon Bullock (of Friends of the Earth) on releasing a report on ‘unburnable carbon’ last year.

The Carbon Tracker initiative, looking at fossil fuel reserves already listed by the top 200 coal, oil and gas companies on the stock exchange, state that “just the listed proportion of reserves in the next 40 years is enough to take us beyond 2°C of global warming.” And that these are just 27% of known conventional fossil fuel reserves, not including those from most unconventional sources like fracking.

Economist Dieter Helm sums up the issue: “The problem is that we have too much fossil-fuel  resource, not too little – enough to fry the planet several times over.”

Budgeting our carbon

Kevin Anderson explains what the problem is, when commenting on the shale gas report released recently by the House of Lords: “Climate change is a cumulative issue – it is about the build up of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The 2°C threshold between dangerous and acceptable climate change comes with a carbon budget; i.e. how much CO2 we can emit into the atmosphere.”

The global carbon budget is pretty well defined (here, in the most recent IPCC report see details on ‘cumulative carbon emissions’ (see page 27), and a useful explanation here). We can say what chance we have of avoiding that 2°C threshold given the amount of carbon we release into the atmosphere in total – cumulatively. The less carbon we release, the higher our chances of avoiding ‘dangerous’ climate change.

But how we share the global carbon budget out amongst countries is a little more tricky. One way to do it would be to say each person in the world gets the same share, starting now, which means a country’s allocation would just be based on its population. But this doesn’t take account of the fact that people in the UK have benefited from being a high emitter in the past . Since most emissions remain in the atmosphere for hundreds of years, a substantial amount of what is now in the atmosphere is ‘ours’. We can choose to divide the global carbon budget into countries’ shares from different dates – the earlier the date we divide it up, the more responsibility we take for emitting more than our fair share historically.

The chart shows some examples of this:

Figure 1: Comparison between UK’s share of the global carbon budget for different chances of avoiding a 2oC global average temperature rise (orange; red) and the emissions associated with burning various known fossil fuel reserves in the UK (grey, blue). Note: These figures are are calculated excluding emissions from international aviation and shipping, and are in gigatonnes carbon-dioxide (GtCO2), to make data comparable to those for fossil fuel reserves. They do not, for example, include methane (CH4) that may be released in extraction or distribution of gas. in Zero Carbon Britain: Rethinking the Future, conventionally we use gigatonnes carbon-dioxide-equivalent (GtCO2e) which encompasses all greenhouse gases. For this reason, the budgets used here do not appear the same as those in the latest ZCB report.

The figure above shows exactly what the problem is for the UK – comparing various potential ‘carbon budgets’ to our remaining and potential fossil fuel reserves (both conventional and unconventional). We can see that with a decent (80%) chance of avoiding 2°C, and taking historical responsibility for our emissions back to just 2000 would mean that burning even those conventional fossil fuels projected by UK government would take us way over the 0.4 GtCO2 budget.

If we relax our morals and take almost no historical responsibility, we still can’t burn everything we plan to before blowing our larger budget of 3.4 GtCO2.

In fact, even with a 50/50 chance – which is no better than flipping a coin to see if we will avoid 2°C, and taking almost no responsibility for our actions in the past (bringing our budget to 8.2 GtCO2), we still can’t burn all of the potential conventional fossil fuel reserves in the UK. In fact, Carbon Tracker states in its report “London currently has 105.5 GtCO2 of fossil fuel reserves listed on its exchange”, and that “just one of the largest companies listed in London, such as Shell, BP or Xstrata, has enough reserves to use up the UK’s carbon budget to 2050”

And thats before we even start talking about carbon from unconventional fossil fuels like shale gas from fracking.

Friends of the Earth say “The UK plans on producing far more than a reasonable share of the world’s burnable carbon. Shale gas is just adding to a huge unburnable carbon problem.“

And they’re totally right – no carbon budget for the UK which holds any moral, or ethical sway stretches far enough to be able to start getting at unconventional fossil fuels like those from fracking.

The lesser of two evils?

But isn’t gas better than coal from a carbon perspective? Shouldn’t we be fracking for gas so we can get rid of coal power stations? What about gas as a ‘bridging’, or ‘transition’ fuel to a renewable future?

Professor David MacKay’s report on shale gas for the UK government Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), reiterated in evidence he submitted to the Committee preparing the Lords’ report (see pages 353-4), states that “If a country brings any additional fossil fuel reserve into production, then in the absence of strong climate policies, we believe it is likely that this production would increase cumulative emissions in the long run. This increase would work against global efforts on climate change.”

Shale gas, like any other fossil fuel, emits carbon dioxide into the air when burnt to produce energy. As such, Anderson comments, “In that regard it is certainly not a transition fuel and if we are serious about our explicit climate change commitments the only appropriate place for shale gas remains deep underground.“

[Note: there are countless more detailed arguments against exploiting shale gas and other unconventional fossil fuels as a ‘bridging’ or ‘lower carbon’ fuel. Some can be found here, here and here.]

A better option

It simple: as Bullock states: “The UK should call a halt to new oil, gas and shale gas exploration, and invest in energy efficiency and renewable power instead.” We know this works, and we know we will, regardless of what carbon budget we stick to, have to transition to a zero-carbon and carbon-neutral energy system like that outlined in CAT’s Zero Carbon Britain: Rethinking the Future. We show that we have all the technology we need already, and transforming our society in this way, without fracking for gas, gives us the best chance possible of avoiding that 2oC threshold.

CAT’s course in Renewable Energy and the Built Environment teaches the real solutions for eliminating greenhouse gases from our energy system. Apply now to start in September.

Rapid decarbonisation in a conservative state

This is the fourth instalment in a series of blogs by Paul Allen as he travels across the USA talking with numerous grassroots groups about CAT’s Zero Carbon Britain research project. The first blog explains the purpose of the trip and the second blog details his time in Boston. For the third blog, Paul was in Ohio. Now he is in Utah, the mid point of his journey.

ZCB US research trip: Stop 3 – Salt Lake City, Utah

The next stop in my research program was Salt Lake City Utah. Both Boston and Oberlin had been mainly liberal social / political landscapes, so to get a more comprehensive overview, I also wanted to see if rapid decarbonisation scenarios and interdisciplinary perspectives of sustainability could thrive in a more Republican environment.

Paul at HEAL Utah

My first point of contact was Steven Burian of the University of Utah’s innovative ‘Global Change and Sustainability Centre’ (GCSC). The centre was established in 2009 with the goal of bridging departments and disciplines to facilitate interactions among social scientists, natural scientists, engineers, and policymakers who are interested in understanding the complex challenges and dynamics in both natural and human-built systems.

I was invited to make a ‘Zero Carbon Britain’ presentation to the GCSC. What struck me immediately as the post-presentation discussion got underway was the power of bringing together an interdisciplinary group who, once they all got to know each other, could offer an exciting range of academic perspectives. They explained that they see the sustainability challenge as a very deep and complex one, so it seems a very logical approach to bring together a wide range of disciplines to map and explore the dynamic interactions and interconnections that exist within those systems, and to explore the role of humanity in both creating and helping solve the problems.

From the point of view of my research, rapid decarbonisation touches many parts of our lives, so a cross-disciplinary perspective such as that offered by the GCSC would be essential in mapping how it can actually be delivered. I was very impressed by their research, so I decided to explore one of their programmes in more detail to see an example of how their interdisciplinary approach is evolving.

Steve kindly hooked me up with a programme led by Associate Professor of Communication Danielle Endres exploring ‘how low-carbon energy scientists and engineers talk about the social, cultural, and political implications of their work and how they influence policymaking’. Previous research to date had suggested that scientists and engineers primarily use technical scientific forms of reasoning in their internal conversations and then switch to non-technical, or value-based, forms of reasoning when interacting with the broader public. This new research sets out to discover whether (and how) engineers and scientists blend technical and non-technical modes of reasoning as they navigate the interface between science and decarbonisation policy. I was invited to attend Prof. Enders’ presentation of her initial findings, although the project is only about a year into its three-year duration. Using a range of methods her team had begun collecting and analyzing the ‘internal’ discourse between groups of engineers working in wind energy, nuclear energy power and CCS (carbon capture and storage) technologies. Perhaps their most interesting analysis arose from a technical conference where CCS was being re-branded CCUS (Carbon Capture, Utilisation and Storage). CCUS involves the use of captured carbon dioxide to force the heavier, thicker oil out of wells that have past their peak production. Their analysis revealed a much higher percentage of ‘non-technical’ or value-based arguments amongst the internal technical group than would have previously been expected. It is early days for this project, but clearly an interesting and innovative line of enquiry.

Using the university’s campus as a Living Laboratory

The University of Utah also operates a ‘Sustainability Resource Centre’ that fosters the living, learning laboratory concept, where academics interact directly with ‘campus operations’.  Working in close collaboration with the GCSC, they guide, support, and enable the transition to a ‘sustainable campus’ whilst also enhancing educational opportunities and supporting student engagement through the use of the campus as a ‘living lab’.

I explored several examples of this work. Their programme to reduce car use includes employing a ‘bicycle officer’ to support cyclists, and offering free bus/tram passes to all students. However, as the campus is dispersed over several miles, the university is in the process of installing an innovative cross-campus electric bus. My hosts very kindly arranged for me to take a ride – it uses wireless power charging points between vehicle and roadway to reduce battery size and extend battery life, and so reduce costs.

Paul learns about the electric bus
Wireless charging for the electric bus

Another part of their living lab concept is the ‘Sustainable Campus Initiative Fund’ (SCIF), which provides funding for student-led projects across campus. It works like this: as part of his or her admission fees, every student at the University pays $2.50 per term into the SCIF. Any student or group of students can then apply for funding to support projects with a positive environmental impact that can also help to educate the campus about sustainability. In order to ensure academic outputs are robust, students must collaborate with a faculty or staff member to deliver their projects. Projects have included a living roof, bee-keeping on the roof of a campus library and secure ‘cages’ for storage of bikes on campus.

Bee keeping on Utah campus

In 2010, the University of Utah released a Climate Action Plan with a goal to be carbon neutral by 2050. However at time of writing no detailed ‘scenario’ had been developed.

Key learning from University of Utah:

  • Interdisciplinary cross-fertilisation of ideas works very well – it is essential in increasing engagement and getting to grips with both the drivers and barriers to change.
  • Practical on-campus ‘living lab’ work is engaging and motivating and can have very positive academic outputs plus physical real work benefits.
  • Infrastructure is important but so is ‘culture’ – car habits are still proving hard to break, despite: bike parks, bike lanes, a bike officer, free student pass for all public transport plus the electric bus.
  • Little or no integration with the other two big local players (City and Church) limits the sphere of influence and synergies in comparison with Oberlin.

Research outside the University – HEAL Utah

In addition to exploring the activities at the University of Utah, I also made time to meet the Healthy Environment Alliance of Utah (HEAL Utah). HEAL is housed alongside other non-profit organisations in the new Artspace Commons, the first net zero mixed-use building with onsite solar production in the state. I arranged a lunchtime meeting with staff followed by a public ZCB presentation for their members and supporters in a local library.

Like many others I have met on this trip, rather than just oppose what they feel to be wrong, HEAL decided to develop a positive vision to show what they actually wanted. Their ‘eUtah’ scenario illustrates how renewable energy resources such as solar, wind, and geothermal can deliver the state’s energy needs, demonstrating what happens when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing. Rather than address all energy as ZCB does, eUtah only looks at electricity. An enthusiastic and diverse audience attended my ZCB presentation, and the room was buzzing with conversation by the end of the evening. Several invitations materialised including one to a lecture by leading climatologist Michael Mann as I make my way through Salt Lake City on the train back to Boston.

Lessons from HEAL Utah

  • Having a ‘solutions scenario’ like eUtah keeps up momentum, makes it easier to build links locally and helps engage with a wider public through a positive focus.
  • Engaging with ‘energy utilities’ is vital – their work developing comparisons of the percentage of wind turbines on promotional material compared with the percentage of wind in their power mix offered a useful perspective.
  • HEAL recognise the need to engage with utilities on their comparable constituency areas, which don’t always fit with state boundaries.
Paul meeting Chris Thomas from HEAL Utah

ZCB US research trip: Stop 1 – Boston, Massachusetts

This is the second in a series of blogs on Paul’s trip to the USA to talk about CAT’s Zero Carbon Britain research with a range of grassroots groups. The first post, explaining the trip, can be read here.

Travelling by train can often offer us time to catch up on a number of the things we have been meaning to get around to doing, from background reading to sleeping. In my case it was a chance to watch the movie ‘Gas Land’. As proponents of fracking claim a wide range of positive outcomes from the US experience and as fracking is now being re-proposed for a number of sites across the UK, it seemed timely to explore an alternative view of the US experience. The story opens as filmmaker Josh Fox receives an unexpected offer of $100,000 for the natural gas drilling rights to his property in the Delaware River Basin, on the border of New York and Pennsylvania – fortunately he resists the urge to accept! Instead, he embarks on a cross-country journey to investigate the environmental and human impacts of agreeing such a deal. As the story unfolds, Fox discovers that fracking was exempted by the Bush-Cheney Energy Policy Act of 2005 from the United States’ most basic environmental regulations, including the Safe Drinking Water Act and the Clean Air Act.

The movie had a number of surprises. I had not really grasped that the fracking fluids used in the process were actually a chemical cocktail consisting of 596 chemicals, including carcinogens and neurotoxins, diluted in somewhere between one and seven million gallons of water. Another aspect I had not yet realised was the sheer scale of the drilling required to deliver meaningful quantities of fuel. There are approximately 450,000 wells in the U.S., and Fox estimates that 40 trillion gallons of water have been infused with chemicals for drilling, much of it left seeping or injected into the ground across the country. The US wider public remains unaware of the potential dangers of hydraulic fracturing, while state and local environmental agencies do not have the resources to fully investigate or regulate the industry. Anyone able to secure compensation from the gas companies must sign non-disclosure agreements that prevent them from bringing lawsuits or informing others of their experiences. Gas land was highly gripping, well worth watching and a great way to open a US research trip!

Following the shortest air flight from the UK, the stop-over in Boston was meant to allow me to get used to the four hour shift in the clocks and to prepare myself for the coast to coast train trip. However, a friend pointed me towards the Better Future Project based in nearby Cambridge. As their website carried the phrase “Envisioning and building a better world free from the burning of fossil fuels” I thought they would be well worth a visit.

Paul Allen meeting members of the Better Future Project in Boston

I quickly arranged a meeting with their Executive Director, Craig Altemose. We had a lot in common and time flew by very quickly. It turns out Better Future Project was founded a couple of years ago by a student leader, a community leader, and a faith leader to integrate their various activities into a powerful, unified movement. Having collaborated here and there, they decided there was a need for a new organisation that would work across silos to engage a range of stakeholders in this important work. They recognise that there are many, many reasons to move beyond fossil fuels – health, security, and justice foremost among them – and they seek out any and all partners who share their goals, even if they are motivated by a range of values. They provide support, structure, and staffing to students, mothers’ groups, churches and volunteer activists, offering the three main processes of empowering, connecting and activating. At the end of our discussions, after I had outlined the key findings of CAT’s of Zero Carbon Britain research, Craig suggested it might be mutually beneficial if I were to make a longer presentation to the state-wide volunteer group 350 Massachusetts that evening in a nearby church. I know from experience that organising a public talk early on in a visit attracts those who are interested in the rapid decarbonisation topic area, enabling me to build links and find out a lot more.

Paul Allen about to enter a public meeting in Boston

The group I presented to was highly focused and well organised, working on legislation to protect drinking water from hydraulic fracturing and to support ‘divestment’ of funds from fossil fuel futures. However most of their work to date seemed to have been built around working to stop the stuff they didn’t want rather than assembling a picture of the future they did want. But I soon learned this had actually given them a powerful appetite for developing a zero carbon 100% renewable model for their future. That very afternoon they had been exploring how they could develop the Massachusetts scenario from the 50 States – 50 Plans set of 100% renewable visions from The Solution Project, with whom I will be meeting in San Francisco later in the trip.

Key lessons from Boston:

  • Allocating a relatively small amount of resources to bringing together a range of groups seems to be working well, particularly in helping focus the energy of volunteers.

  • There is a growing appetite for a positive vision to help ‘envisage’ the world people want to see. Yet despite being on the doorstep of many universities including Harvard and M.I.T. (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), there seems to be little available for their home state. However ZCB certainly got the group excited about building a similar detailed vision for Massachusetts. The 50 States – 50 Plans Project offers a suitable framework that can be populated by more detailed local knowledge, crossed with some methodology from ZCB.

  • Once the meeting switched from trying to pass legislation to ban the bad, to ALSO building a picture of the positive future the group wanted, they clearly began to operate in a different way. Building a positive picture of what you want seems to change ‘how people think’.

  • There is still a large gap in politicians’ awareness of the need to lower emissions. The BFP (Better Future Project) is working to build relationships with candidates in advance of the upcoming state election, in an effort to ensure that the future governor will already know about the issues – and that the issues are discussed between candidates in the run-up to the election.

  • The BFP sees a carbon tax as a useful tool for lower emissions – but they emphasise it should be ‘revenue neutral’, meaning the funds will be released for other purposes rather than remaining in government coffers.

  • Similar to CAT, the BFP sees the value of arts for getting ideas across. Independent members of the group wrote a short theatrical piece to be performed outside the state capitol, comparing the carbon “bubble” to previous bubbles, namely dotcom and real estate. They also held a “funeral for our future” and marched into TransCanada’s office (the main company developing the Keystone pipeline) singing an original song: “Digging us a hole”.

  • Members of the group were clearly motivated by the ZCB model, and the chair of the meeting said, “I’ve worked in solar energy, and this is the most sophisticated vision of a zero carbon future that I’ve seen yet.”

CAT runs masters programmes in Renewable Energy and the Built Environment, Sustainability and Adaptation and Sustainable Architecture. Find out more at our open day.

Zero Carbon Britain Event 9th April: Join us online here!

ZCB FBOn the 9th April, the Zero Carbon Britain team from CAT will be hosting an exciting evening event to present their latest research and practical solutions for a zero carbon future. We’ll be joined by Duncan Clark, Owen Jones and the latest from the IPCC meeting in Berlin that week.

Details and registration here: http://bit.ly/Ov6XIr

The event will take place in London between 6.30 and 8pm (with drinks and informal discussion until 9pm), but will also be broadcast online for all of those who’d like to take part from elsewhere.

How to join the online event

We’ll be broadcasting it live here, so simply make sure you’ve got internet signal and come back here for 6.30pm on 9th April!

Social media

Slides from the event:

Input from twitter will appear in this box below. Use the hashtag #ZCB or tweet @centre_alt_tech to propose questions for the panel and join the discussion.

Hosting a screening

Some people are hosting ‘screenings’ in their area, which is absolutely great! If you’d like to do that too – even if it’s just your friends and family – please go for it!

There are no issues about licensing or anything to worry about – and if you’d like a number of hard copies of the ZCB report to do in a ‘sale or return’ fashion we can sort that out too.

For more information or any questions, please get in touch with Danielle at danielle.paffard@cat.org.uk

Please don’t forget to spread the message to your friends and networks. Thanks!

ZCBlog: Zero Carbon Britain Event, Wed 9th April, London

On the 9th April, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) will be finalising their latest report on managing climate change and the emissions reductions needed to ensure a stable climate future.

But can we cut emissions on time? And what would it look like here in the UK?

Join the Zero Carbon Britain team for an evening of practical solutions, safe futures and thinking big as they present their latest research on creating a zero emissions modern society, using only currently available technology.

Date: Wednesday 9th April 2014

Time: 18.30 – 20.00, followed by drinks and discussion until 21.30

Venue: St John’s Waterloo, London, SE1 8TY and live broadcast on the web

Register here: http://bit.ly/Ov6XIr

‘Zero Carbon Britain: Rethinking the Future’ is the flagship research project from the Centre for Alternative Technology. The latest report contains the most detailed work to date on ‘keeping the lights on’ in a 100% renewable energy system, and feeding ourselves well on a healthy, low-carbon diet.

Chaired by Owen Jones (columnist, commentator and author of ‘Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class’) with an introduction and scene-setter from Duncan Clark (Guardian environment consultant editor, director at Kiln and author of ‘The Burning Question’), researchers Tobi Kellner and Alice Hooker-Stround will present their work, and how we can use this.

Presentations and speakers will be followed by Q&A and informal discussion. A bar and light snacks will be available throughout the evening.

This event will be broadcast live for all those unable to attend in person.

Register here to attend the event or receive the livestream link.

If we cannot imagine the solution, we will surely stay stuck in the problem. Please join us for what promises to be an informative and inspiring evening.

ZCBlog: Does coal have a role in reducing emissions?

CC. Flickr. Kentucky Photo File.

Coal use for electricity production today

Currently in the UK, around 80% of all our annual greenhouse gas emissions come from producing and using energy. Burning coal, gas and oil emits carbon dioxide (CO2) and contributes to climate change. Together, these fuels provide around 90% of the UK’s primary energy supply. Some of these fossil fuels are used directly – petrol and diesel (oil) in our vehicles for example; but some are burnt to produce the electricity we use. Although the burning of coal in fires to heat our homes directly has reduced dramatically over recent decades, we still rely on it to produce most of our electricity by burning it in power stations. If we are to play our part in tackling climate change in the UK, and reduce our greenhouse gas emissions swiftly and sharply, it is clear that our methods of energy production must change. There are many ‘lower carbon’, ‘carbon neutral’ and even ‘zero carbon’ methods of energy production that offer us better ways of producing energy, (especially electricity) in the UK.

Replacing or changing coal use in the UK?

In Zero Carbon Britain: Rethinking the Future (the report launched in July 2013 by the Zero Carbon Britain project at CAT), we opt for 100% renewable energy production – wind (onshore, and offshore), solar, hydro, geothermal, wave, tidal, and others – all ‘zero carbon’ or ‘carbon neutral’. With these, and ‘carbon neutral’ synthetic fuels, we can produce enough energy for the UK at the right times – making sure our energy demands are met at all times. In the UK today, however, high on the energy agenda is the conversion of our current coal plants to biomass (see article here about why this is a bad idea), but also about fitting current coal power stations with ‘Carbon Capture and Storage’ (CCS) systems. In these plants, coal is still burnt to produce electricity, and most (but not all) of the carbon dioxide emitted is ‘captured’ before it gets into the atmosphere, and then ‘stored’, usually in old oil and gas fields under the sea or underground. This means electricity made from coal plants fitted with CCS can be classed as a ‘lower carbon’ energy source. So, why then, was there outrage from campaigners and environmentalists at the recent COP19 summit – the UNFCCC international negotiation on climate change – when the International Coal and Climate Change summit took place in Warsaw at the same time? Especially since the World Coal Association stated that the coal summit was meant as a contribution, not an alternative, to the UN talks? And why don’t we include coal and CCS in our Zero Carbon Britain scenario?

What is wrong with coal and CCS?

First of all, current standard methods of producing coal, for example mountain top removal for open cast coal mining, are extremely destructive locally and can be very dangerous. Also, coal (or any fossil fuel) power coupled with CCS does not provide a solution in the longer term. There are limits to the CO2 storage capacity of old oil and gas fields, meaning that in the longer-term they would have to be phased out entirely, and replaced by other energy production systems. Whilst it might seem sensible, or cost-effective to use the current infrastructure we have for burning coal, and simply add CCS, it is likely that this will raise the cost of coal-generated electricity, and increase the requirement for energy by at least 20%. We would have to produce far more energy to make CCS systems work, increasing our demand, potentially for coal itself. Furthermore, storage locations for the carbon captured through CCS, must be monitored indefinitely to minimise leakage. We would need to continually pay to keep the carbon safely locked away. This implies unknown costs and effective risk management long into the future, which cannot be guaranteed. And will it really be safely locked away? Whilst abrupt gas leakage events might be seriously damaging to local eco-systems (especially if the storage is underwater), diffuse leaks can be more difficult to stop and would, at least in part, reverse the effect of capturing the carbon dioxide in the first place, making it questionable whether or not coal and CCS would really provide the carbon reductions it promises.

CC. Flickr. Sidibousaid60.

Electricity is easy with renewables!

Finally, the thing that strikes us most when creating our Zero Carbon Britain scenario is that electricity – what we currently use coal to produce – is what is produced by almost all renewable sources – wind, wave, hydro, solar PV. It’s easy to produce plenty of electricity from renewables, and its much more efficient than burning coal where lots of energy is lost in the conversion process. In fact, given all the estimated resources in the UK, Zero Carbon Britain research suggests we can produce much more electricity than we require from renewable sources – even if we electrify lots of our systems like transport and heating. So, since not all the greenhouse gas (or carbon dioxide) emissions are captured from an electricity-producing coal plant, even when fitted with CCS, why opt for an electricity production method that is only ‘lower carbon’ (and is less efficient) when there are so many options that are more efficient, and truly ‘zero carbon’? Renewable electricity generation technologies offer larger and more secure greenhouse gas emission reductions. They will last us long into the future, provide jobs, and would allow us to be in control of our own energy production. The UK is blessed with great renewable resources – we are located in one of the windiest places in the world – and our future energy system should play to these strengths.

ZCB and the 21st Century Office Worker

Achieving a zero carbon world, starting right here at home with the Zero Carbon Britain initiative, requires some pretty fundamental changes to the way we live our lives. The ZCB report gives some brilliant insights into this, and as part of the project CAT asked for additional papers which would neatly complement the main report.

As someone who is passionate about the environment, because I love the natural world and all its wonders, I can see a direct link between my line of work – communications – and fundamental changes which can lead directly to significant reductions in our energy use as a nation.

Whilst the Government continues to expound the benefits of HS2 – a rail link which could prove significantly more environmentally sound than solo commutes over increasingly long distances, yet which relies for its business case upon passenger numbers and expectations of regional economic growth – I think that as a society we’re moving in a direction which will make regular business travel far less necessary for a large number of us.

I have worked on voice and ‘unified communications’ solutions for nearly 20 years, and in that time there has been a slow shift from office-based working to remote working. Businesses increasingly are happy to accept employees working from home, coffee shops, or, of course, whilst sitting on a train, because in return they get access, regardless of geography, to the employees who can perform best for them. Employees who can mix work and personal time flexibly are happier and more likely to stay with their employer in an increasingly mobile job market. Indications are that they are also more productive: certainly any amount of time reclaimed from the daily commute can always be put to better use. Not all workers can work remotely, but huge numbers of us are now office workers who, with the benefit of a good communications system, can work just as effectively at home – or elsewhere – as in the office. Gone are the days when “out of the office” meant “out of contact”: from home, given the right tools, we can talk to, see, and collaborate with our colleagues wherever they themselves may be.

So what if we went a step further: what if our government took definite steps to vastly increase home working in order to reduce the need for office space and, consequently, reduce travel, and hence congestion? How would a reduced need for office space and reduced commuting contribute to a better world for our children?

This is the topic that I explore in my paper, ‘ZCB and the 21st Century Office Worker‘.


Mike Barnes is a consultant specialising in business communications. His passion for using modern communications technology to oil the cogs of the workplace, driving information both within and between organisations, led to the publication of the book “An Infinite Number of Monkeys: A Guide to Effective Business Communications”. You can find him online at www.mike-barnes.co.uk.