Science

How long will it take for the UK to meet its carbon neutral goals?

A combination of old-school frugality and cutting-edge technology is likely the way forward.

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Image Credit: Anders Hellberg

As Extinction Rebellion protesters announce an end to their activities in London and stoic 16-year-old school striker Greta Thunberg meets with influential politicians across Europe, climate change has never been more newsworthy. It is undeniable that we need to act fast and strike hard (even as corporations and governments continue to deny it), but is it really possible to meet the ambitious goal of going carbon-neutral before it’s too late?

Based on current pledges made under the Paris climate agreement and signed by 195 countries, it is predicted that we will still fail to keep global warming below the ‘safe limit’ of 1.5°C before the end of the century. There is a frightening lack of urgency among world leaders when it comes to making the large, sometimes radical changes needed to achieve change. This is understandable on many levels – rapid and large-scale changes to infrastructure are disconcerting for many, and not a popular way to win votes. Our political and economic systems are not yet set up for the changes that need to be made.

But rapid change has happened before, and many believe it can happen again. In the early 1930s President Roosevelt laid the groundwork for his New Deal, a response to the Great Depression, in the first 100 days of
his presidency. A few years later, at the outbreak of World War II, UK citizens could not have imagined the changes which played out in almost every aspect of their lives over the next six years. They consumed less, radicalised gender roles and emerged with the confidence and clarity of vision that defined the post-war boom. Within the living memory of even our youngest politicians, the 2008 financial crisis is evidence that governments are willing to invest vast sums of money to revitalise economies in the face of impending danger.

What could a carbon neutral UK look like, if our government were willing to assign adequate resources to implement structural change? Changes would happen across the board and almost undoubtedly affect each of us. Massive subsidies will be needed to ensure taxes do not hit the poorest hardest, while more aggressive taxing of corporations who do not play ball will undoubtedly be unpopular.

The biggest changes would almost certainly be seen in the energy sector. Numerous reports have indicated that the UK already has the technology and natural resources to meet all its energy needs with renewable energy, allowing us to consign fossil fuels to history. The government would first need to increase subsidies for renewable energy systems, but further changes are needed to ensure demand can be met. Renewables have a variable energy supply, so we need to implement energy storage solutions such as insulated heat storage and industrial-sized batteries. Government initiatives would also need to encourage consumers to minimise their energy usage through rewards and subsidies. Tax breaks to oil and gas initiatives would be cut, and businesses who do not reduce their usage could be taxed.

Transport, too, could change beyond recognition. Flying would become a luxury, something only called upon in an emergency. A first step towards this would be cancelling the already controversial Heathrow expansion and imposing greater taxes on frequent flyers. Better urban planning and increased investment in public transport networks would help make driving less attractive than alternatives, while a concerted effort to improve electric car charging networks might aid the long-awaited rise of the electric car.

We would need to see a shift in attitudes towards diet, with most scientists agreeing that we need to move away from our meat-centric diets in favour of plant-based alternatives with a lower carbon footprint. Intensified taxing of meat products (and subsequent subsidisation of UK-grown agriculture) would result in a reduction of grazing livestock. Agricultural policy would also need to change to support farmers to use land more effectively and grow a wider range of produce, including pulses. A shift from intensive farming practices towards more diversified ‘agro-ecological’ systems would improve the carbon-storing ability of soil and improve nutrient efficiency, freeing up some land for reforestation and biofuel crops.

We might also notice a difference around the home, with many calling on the Treasury to subsidise the retrofitting of tens of thousands of draughty UK homes to improve heating efficiency. New buildings would need to conform to strict super-efficient standards. Geothermal heat pump technology, which draws up heat from deep below the ground, could be installed in homes across the nation in an attempt to curb our soaring gas usage.

So which of these changes would you be willing to accept into your life? A carbon neutral future will certainly look different from our current state of affairs, and some of the adjustments will take some getting used to. A combination of old-school frugality and cutting-edge technology is likely the way forward. We are more robust to change than we think – we just need to hope that it doesn’t take a depression, a war or a recession to galvanise our politicians into action.

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