An effective response to halt climate change should embrace low-tech solutions and a change of culture, as well as high-tech engineering.
Eight academics at the University make their contribution to the climate change debate.
Development of an industrially highly developed country, like the UK, in a way that is consistent with the UN sustainable development goals will touch every aspect of our society. On how to direct this development, we believe that the Zero Carbon Britain proposals by the Centre for Alternative Technologies (CAT) in Wales are a guiding light.
Signatories: Dr. Kanchana Ruwanpura, Melanie Scott, Professor Hamish Macleod, Dr. Isabel Fletcher, Dr. Hugo Gorringe, Dr. Richard Milne, Dr. David Farrier, Dr. Mark de Vries.
In support of the ICPP recommendations, in July this year the UK’s major Scientific Societies issued a joint statement to our Governments stressing that we must act on climate change now, to keep global warming below 2ºC. To date, the emission of CO2 and other greenhouse gases has caused atmospheric CO2 to rise from 280 ppm to 400 ppm and the planet has warmed by 1ºC. At current atmospheric CO2 levels, we would expect another 0.6ºC over the coming decades, due to inertia in the climate system. There is little that we can do to avoid this, but starting to cut emissions now will be the best way to minimise future warming, and give us a chance to keep warming well below 2ºC. If we fail to act on climate change, there could be severe consequences for ourselves, our children and grandchildren.
This is now understood and accepted by a growing number of people and there is much change on the ground. One instance close-to-home is the decision by the University of Edinburgh to divest from the coal-mining and tar-sands giants Shell, BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto. It might even have contributed (if only a tiny bit) to Shell’s early abandonment of its damaging Arctic oil explorations. For electricity generation the uptake of renewable technologies has beaten most expectations and this has been part of a growing momentum for acting on climate change. Due to technological improvements and economies of scale wind and solar energy are now competitive options. There is also clear potential for further technological developments on efficient energy storage and conversion. For transportation and space heating the fossil-free/low-carbon alternatives, biofuels and wood/charcoal, respectively, are less competitive and their uptake is very low. There are legitimate concerns about deforestation and in the case of biofuels also about competition with food crops, but there is much potential for their use to grow before deforestation and competition with food could become an issue. For example, waste vegetable fat, that can be used as a feed stock for biodiesel, often ends up in sewers. It is true we can’t sustainably produce enough biofuel to substitute all fossil fuels burned now, but that should not be a reason to dismiss them as an option altogether. Electric cars are often considered more favourably, but they are currently not a low-carbon option. A significant switch to electric transportation might also make it more difficult to phase out fossil fuels for electricity generation.
Without rejecting electric vehicles as an option altogether, hydrocarbons are the most tried and tested energy carriers for transportation and for their uptake only small changes to the existing infrastructure would be needed. Likewise, wood and charcoal can provide efficient and clean home heating. It is true that changes in land use will be needed, and, as described in the Zero Carbon Britain proposals, this can be done in a way that also tackles the UN sustainable development goals on human and environmental health and prosperity, diets and inequality at national and international levels as well as tackling climate change. It would, for example, involve a significant increase in forest cover in the UK. These would be highly productive forests, thus avoiding reliance on imports. It should be a great cause for optimism that these plans tell us that, even in a highly-industrialised country like the UK, carbon emissions can be cut down fast enough to give less industrialised countries more leeway. Crucially though, they do require some change in human behaviour.
The Zero Carbon Britain proposals were presented in Edinburgh at a debate on the motion “Can Edinburgh become a zero-carbon city by 2035?“. Paul Allen from CAT presented the proposal, while Colin McInnes, Professor of Engineering Science at Glasgow University argued against it. The debate was not on whether the Zero Carbon proposals were feasible without causing significant disruption – Professor McInnes also agreed they were – but whether we would like to see them as policy. At the end, the majority of the attendees voted in favour of the motion. This may well be a reflection of views held more widely in the University community, with the majority responding in favour of divestment from fossil fuels and arms to a survey on the subject.
One member of the audience considered a 75% reduction in flying unacceptable and was concerned it meant an end to cheap imports from China. These fears are relating to our “normalised” life-styles and they need to be addressed at a cultural level. What if cheap mass-produced imports are replaced with a smaller quantity but beautiful and individually crafted versions? What if alongside cutting greenhouse gas emissions we could slow down our pace of life, reduce stress levels and working hours, and have more time to spend with our families and friends? What if alongside changes in land use and economies becoming more local, we would be freer to live where we want to, near our closest family and friends, instead of chasing the next job? What if with increased equality there is more time and space for culture, spirituality and celebration? Dream on, cynics might say, but even right now these are to a certain extent personal cultural choices.
There is no need for social/cultural/technological changes to be forcefully imposed topdown, through an increase in laws and taxes. Too often, and increasingly so, existing laws and taxes are biased to protect the (unsustainable) status quo. It is therefore not more laws or levies that we need, but different ones; in particular those that take environmental and social costs fairly into account. At the same time we need to rediscover our freedom to do what is right in our jobs, which is not necessarily what generates the largest profit or the largest growth. Do we need incentives to take personal and collective responsibility and promote social justice and environmental sustainability? In an ideal world, without stress, fear and huge inequality, it might be enough to celebrate life on our planet and know, with the help of Science, that our actions are in support of it. It might help to know that not all is lost yet and that, even for the UK, there is a scenario that is not too painful. Perhaps it can also be helped along with incentives such as a Fossil-Free certification for goods and services produced with fossil-free consumables only.