Transition Culture

An Evolving Exploration into the Head, Heart and Hands of Energy Descent

Transition Culture has moved

I no longer blog on this site. You can now find me, my general blogs, and the work I am doing researching my forthcoming book on imagination, on my new blog.

10 Aug 2007

Centre for Alternative Technology’s ‘Zero Carbon Britain’ Report.

catI didn’t get to many talks at the Big Green Gathering, but I did get to one excellent, and very important one, given by Paul Allen and Richard Hawkins of the Centre for Alternative Technology. The talk was to introduce the wonderful piece of work they have just completed, a report called Zero Carbon Britain. I think it is the most important piece of work CAT had ever produced, and is very important for Transition Initiatives too. In essence it is the first draft of an Energy Descent Plan for the UK, although its focus is largely on energy. The two of them presented the report, how it came about, and what its aims are, in a very accessible way. Here, reconstructed from my notes, is the general gist of their presentation.

**Paul Allen:** ‘Zero Carbon Britain’ is intended to be a framework to evaluate all of the ideas that are out there for how we might achieve a zero carbon economy within 20 years, the timeframe the scientists are telling us we need to do it in. We need a structure than can get the various strands to talk to each other, the biofuels people and the land use people for instance, and then present a vision to all sector of society. We want to create agreement on the science, on what a ‘carbon descent curve’ might look like.

There are no silver bullets, we need to be looking at utilising technologies that already exist, rather than waiting for new ones. The aim of this report is zero carbon in two decades. In 1977, CAT produced an Alternative Energy Strategy for the UK, this is a revision of that. Is there a probability that we can get back to a cooler climate, or at what point does that become impossible? There are climate thresholds that once passed, unleash feedback loops that mean that from then onwards we are only moving in one direction.

The Government argues for 60% cuts by 2050, this will not do the job that climate scientists tell us we need to do. Our emissions are a detanator, a trigger, creating larger and larger feedback loops, for example, sea absorbs heat better than ice, and warming seas release methane hydrates, which have a far higher impact on climate. To avoid runaway feedbacks, we need zero carbon in 20 years. Alongside the climate challenge is peak oil. We’ve got through half of the world’s total reserves in 150 years. Another pressing issue is global equity. It is morally unacceptable that the rich get richer while the poor get poorer.

**Richard Hawkins:** At the moment, Government policy is part of the problem, for example the Department of Transport driving expansion of aviation and extending roads, it fails to understand the problems. Some people are unengageable, and while Government can force engagement, it needs to be in a global context, and the best framework for that at the moment is Contraction and Convergence. This sets a target for equal per capita global emissions. The best way to make this happen on the ground is Tradeable Energy Quotas.

In this system, developed by David Fleming, 60% of national emissions go to industry, and 40% are distributed on a per capita basis among the population. They can only be used when buying fuel of energy of some kind, and would not cover goods. For these, TEQs will be embodied in these, and they will make local food cheaper. TEQs also force businesses to innovate towards low emissions. Each industry, for example transport or agriculture, is best placed to sort itself out, and TEQs can make that happen. What we tried to do was create an energy model for Britain.

**Paul Allen:** Our attitude in the UK to energy is terrible. We need more and more. We are subject to what we might call the Firestone legacy, where cheap oil has allowed us to develop terrible living arrangements. There is no robustness built into our systems as they are presently designed to maximise profit. We need to be thinking way beyond low energy lightbulbs.

Industry by industry we need to be coming up with fresh concepts and this report is a fresh concept for energy, starting with a vision and then backcasting. The report has two aspects, Powerdown and Powerup. Powerdown is the need to cut emissions by 50%, and Powerup is the generation of the remaining 50% by renewables, which we think is achievable.

The report looks at electric transportation, a diversity of storage options, the role of food production, and argues that the UK could become not only self reliant for energy, but could also become a net exporter of energy. We see wind meeting about 50% of the UK’s energy needs, and a good deal of that is offshore wind. We see the recommendations in this report, which form the basis for a move towards zero carbon in 20 years, as being scientifically urgent, economically inescapable and technically achievable. However, the key question is whether it is politically thinkable? Can we think long term?

This report however is not being offered as a concrete plan, but as a framework for discussion. We know where we are now and where we need to be, we want to explore these scenarios over time, this is a document that will be revisited every year and revised accordingly. It can be reframed at different levels. This plan works, politics is in the way. In the UK we have huge problems debt, fitness and no real sense of common purpose. We are all a bit bored, and need a mission, a renewed sense of purpose. I think this report gives us that.

For further reading, here’s a great piece from the Guardian and a piece from the Telegraph.

Comments are now closed on this site, please visit Rob Hopkins' blog at Transition Network to read new posts and take part in discussions.


Tom Atkins
10 Aug 10:45am

Thanks for the summary Rob – saved me missing a pint of cider! Best of all thanks for the link to the report. I’ve just read most of it and fully agree that it’s a fantastic piece of work and really goes to show what we could achieve if government and the population shared the vision. I’d love to see a similar report for Ireland where given the small population and incredible wind resources the task should be an order of magnitude easier than for the UK.

I guess the only thing I don’t share is any belief that even a fraction of this vision will be realised. So much of it needs top-down coordination. Better to stay focused on localised resilience projects like Transition Towns than getting excited that something inspirational will be instigated at a national or international level.

David Taylor
10 Aug 2:05pm

I agree with Tom.

It is an incredible document and well done to all involved in it. Very impressive. This document cannot be read widely enough.

There’s always a ‘but’, isn’t there? The but is the optimism in the report. Twenty years is a very short time and of course the clock’s ticking. (Or is it a bomb?) There’s a great use of the auxiliary verb ‘will’ where other reports would have used ‘would’ or, more likely ‘could’.

Examples? “Virtually all vehicles will be electrically powered,” “the year 2027 when emissions will drop to near zero.” Fair play to them for being so positive!

While reading it, I kept thinking, these lads should be in government. At the top. This is exactly the up-beat assessment and proposal that the planet required. I kept shaking my head, telling myself this paper is serious.

Sadly, like Tom, I simply cannot be so optimistic. The magnitude of what is required of this paper means it needs to be implemented yesterday and tell me, what is really happening as we speak?

Apart from a few local initiatives, zilch.

Martin Kemp
11 Aug 3:02pm

Thanks for the supportive comments.

In regard to the local or national approach, I don’t think they are mutually exclusive. In fact they can be very complementary.

National leadership via Tradeable Energy Quota’s (TEQ) will guarantee reduced emissions and ensure access to energy for all in an energy constrained world. There are already plans for implementing TEQ in 2011. Naturally there will be hurdles before this can happen.

One of the key hurdles is political will. If there was a way to beautifully demonstrate to government that we are aware of the problem and willing to make the lifestyle changes needed we would be well on our way to overcoming this hurdle. I believe Transition Towns is that incredible demonstration of community ability.

However government can’t lead nationally without a clear Energy Decent Plan for the UK.

In a TEQ world the importance of transition towns would be greatly increased. As everyone would be increasingly aware of the issues and have a personal energy allowance.

Rob discusses Local verses national including support for carbon rationing in his interview from Lewis available on youtube. TEQ where also listed as part of the solution in his great presentation at the Big Green Gathering.

Alex Smith
11 Aug 5:51pm

Gregory Greene’s new film “Escape from Suburbia, Beyond the American Dream” has several answers for relocalization, and getting out.

You can hear an in-depth interview with Greene at Radio Ecoshock – I just did a one hour feature program on the film for CFRO radio in Canada (find that at – all free mp3 downloads of course.

David Smith
16 Nov 1:51am

The best way for many householders to reduce their carbon footprint is to replace their old oil or gas-fired boiler with a wood or pellet-fired system: you can see a comprehensive list of pellet & boiler suppliers on PelletBase (