The digested read: What We Need to Do Now for a Zero Carbon Future

Witnessing the global effort to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, many people are asking why the same urgency is not being given to addressing the climate emergency. Some see the current situation as the ideal opportunity to press the re-set button. In fact, according to the BBC, more than 200 top UK firms and investors are calling on the government to deliver a Covid-19 recovery plan that prioritises the environment.

This raises the question, what would that recovery plan look like? Chris Goodall’s What We Need to Do Now for A Zero Carbon Future proposes one possible answer. It’s a must read – but if you don’t have time, here are the top seven things you need to know.

1.There’s a carbon budget – and it’s shrinking

Scientists agree that if we want to avoid the worst effects of global warming, we need to stop global temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels. To do this we need to keep within a carbon budget. This is because, once released, CO2 typically stays in the atmosphere for 100s of years. In other words, it’s not enough to reach net zero by 2050. We need to make sure we don’t use up our budget before we get there. The longer we delay action, the more urgent it becomes.

2.The energy fix – renewables and hydrogen

Electricity generation represents 15% of the UK’s carbon footprint, and demand is set to grow. We should increase our renewable electricity capacity by a factor of 20. This would enable us to meet our current demand, and also provide enough for the future electrification of heat and transport. Most of the time there would be a surplus, and we should convert this into hydrogen, which is easy to store and can be quickly converted back into electricity when needed. This would resolve the major issue with renewables – intermittency of supply. The surplus hydrogen could also be used to heat homes, power transport and even be converted into synthetic fuel for aviation.

3.Be green – eat more greens

To get to net zero we need to look at all aspects of our lives – and that includes what we eat. Around 40% of global emissions come from food – the largest sector after energy. As individuals, the biggest contribution we can make toward achieving net zero is to eat less meat – especially beef and lamb, which are the most carbon intensive. Surprisingly, says Goodall, organic food is not always better for the planet, and food miles are not the biggest issue either (except when products are transported by air). Other solutions proposed in the book include certain types of organic farming and a move towards efficient indoor cultivation of plants.

4.Tricky fashion choices

One of the toughest areas to tackle on the road to net zero is the fashion industry. According to Goodall, this is ‘the linear economy at its worst’. Most clothing is thrown away while still wearable and virtually none is recycled. Unfortunately, the answer isn’t as simple as switching from synthetic to natural fibres, as there are environmental issues with the production of both cotton and wool. We need to buy better quality clothing and wear it for much longer. He also suggests short term rental and sharing, to reduce the amount of clothing that we need to own. There are some more environmentally friendly clothing options – such as fleeces made from recycled plastic bottles and cellulose-based material, which can be produced from wood. The conclusion, however, is that we do need to buy less clothing if we’re serious about tackling climate change.

5.Constructive criticism

The construction industry is another major obstacle on the road to net zero. Steel and cement each make up 7% of global carbon emissions and are difficult to decarbonise for their own reasons. Steel production relies heavily on coal, but Goodall proposes moving to clean hydrogen as the source of heat. This is already beginning to happen – three companies in Lulea, Sweden have joined together to build a hydrogen-fuelled steel making facility. A move towards using wood, rather than steel, in construction products would also help. Cement is trickier. CO2 is released as part of the manufacturing process – not just from energy used in its production. Carbon capture technology is needed to overcome this. This would significantly raise the price of cement – and therefore construction – but there is really no alternative. For this reason, Goodall argues for a carbon tax. This would incentivise manufacturers to capture the carbon rather than release it.

6.If you can’t cut it – capture it

However hard we work on reducing our emissions, there will be stubborn areas that we won’t be able to completely resolve. This means some form of carbon capture will be necessary. Goodall proposes reforesting large areas of the UK, especially low-quality grazing land, as part of the solution. The UK is currently well behind many European countries in terms of the percentage of land that is forested, and we are a net importer of timber. The wood from these forests could be used in a number of ways, including, for example, as an alternative to concrete in construction.  He also suggests that we need to invest in methods of direct air capture (DAC). Here again a carbon tax would help by incentivising businesses to invest in capture carbon schemes and offset their own emissions.

7.Geo-engineering

Finally, Goodall discusses the controversial issue of geo-engineering. Many see these solutions as risky, but Goodall argues that faced with catastrophic climate change we need to consider all options. One proposed solution is cloud whitening, which involves creating artificial clouds over the sea to reflect sunlight. Stephen Salter of the University of Edinburgh is one of the main proponents of this plan. He claims that a fleet of just 300 boats criss-crossing the oceans releasing tiny water droplets could ‘wind back temperatures by about 1.5 degrees’. So why aren’t we doing this? For one thing, geo-engineering projects are unpopular with many environmentalists as they have concerns about unpredictable effects. Another reason is the lack of a financial incentive. Here again, Goodall proposes that a carbon tax would be effective in incentivising businesses to do the right thing. Much more so than legislation, which can too easily be avoided, or ignored.

Conclusion

There is certainly a lot that needs to be done to achieve net zero. What We Need to Do Now sets out an ambitious but achievable plan that will require investment from governments, innovation from scientists, commitment from individuals and action from businesses and corporations. It presents a daunting challenge yet takes an optimistic view. The solution is within our grasp – but we need to act now. Let’s hope the government heeds the call.

 

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