Zero Carbon – the conservative way.
Zero Carbon – the conservative way.
Many people look on in dismay as the Extinction Rebellion mob take a worthy cause and make it unpalatable. XR types think that preventing further climate change is worth destroying the institutions the support the modern world. It is easy to see how many of today’s problems are the products of consumer habits associated with the success of capitalism. But many of us also believe capitalism, conservatism and conservation can hold the answer.
Conservative are the natural party of environmentalism and conservation. As Roger Scruton has described most beautifully, it doesn’t require big state solutions to solve the climate issues we are storing up for ourselves (although of course there is a role for the state). Quite the reverse, we need the innovation, investment and creativity of the private sector to thrive. Green technology a fast-moving and innovative sector. We need it to be that way to find the solutions to today’s most pressing concerns.
As a key strand of our commitment to the environment the UK has committed to net zero carbon emissions by 2050. But we are still realising the magnitude of the task, and working out how to get there. If we are serious about this we need more clarity on how we might do it.
This legal requirement to reducing our UK emissions is both stick and carrot, giving an imperative to do things differently, and attempt to set a precedent for other countries. This only works alongside other policies that deal with mitigation of the inevitable effects of environmental degradation and a now inevitable increase in temperatures.
I am an engineer, so am naturally inclined to think of solutions, the ‘how’ to the question of climate change and reaching zero carbon. As a conservative I want to do it in a way that doesn’t make life unbearable for people to live now, and better for those living in poverty.
Focussing in on the biggest source of CO2, we must address our demand for energy. It stands to reason we can do more with what we already have – search for more efficiency, seek to reduce demand. But realistically we can’t eliminate the need for energy completely – and we are going to need to drastically increase the amount of clean electricity to replace fossil fuels - so we must clean up the supply of what’s left.
The demand for clean electricity is likely to be double what we currently produce, as ‘dirty fuel’ sources convert. The contribution from renewable sources is increasing steadily. Offshore wind is the most exciting new sector. North sea wind now has a competitive strike price. But we cannot expect it to double our current capacity, even if we can find a way to store it. This all indicates that new nuclear must be part of the answer. But even a small reactor takes around 12 years to build which means we need to get building new nuclear plants now.
In an international context we must try to lead the way, but we also need to understand the needs for less industrialised countries to have access to safe fuel sources, which may for a time include fossil fuels. There will therefore be an increase in (less clean) global energy consumption before a decrease is justifiable.
Energy storage is the holy grail. We still don’t have batteries that match the old answer to energy surges – which is to release water previously pumped up to a reservoir, which converts back to electricity on demand. Elon Musk’s 100MW battery farm in South Australia is showing the way storage of intermittent renewable production can be overcome. But battery technology has been the subject of intensive investment for decades, and still the problem is largely still with us.
The transport sector, which counts for around a third of UK energy use, has been slower than manufacturing (which has mostly shifted production abroad) to reduce emissions. We can reduce travel distances and frequencies by personal choices to walk or cycle or use public transport. But these are simply not an option for many people, especially elderly, rural populations, and the need to travel is not going to go away. The corona virus epidemic has shown people in a new way how much we depend on freight and supply chains – so we need to look at how best to decarbonise the sector.
There are two main transport technologies that are anticipated in a zero carbon world, electric vehicles and hydrogen vehicles. If we are going to increase the number of electric vehicles, which are less polluting at street level, we need to make sure the energy they use is clean. If the energy they use is emits zero or low carbon, then electric vehicles are going to play a big part in our zero carbon future (other issues such as rare metals extraction and ‘range anxiety’ are also significant hurdles requiring investment but not insurmountable). Hydrogen-powered vehicles will be part of the solution, but the production of hydrogen also requires significant clean energy. Hence the prediction that clean energy production will need to double.
On the way to zero carbon, there is a lower-carbon ‘transition state’. I think that hybrid technology, especially for cars, will help us to transition to a zero carbon world.
New digital technologies have a great part to play. Big data will help us if we set it up right. There is a whole world out there developing an intelligent mobility ecosystem of interconnected and more autonomous vehicles. There are exciting new fields in microtransit, ride hailing, e-scooters, e-commerce and autonomous delivery vehicles reaching viability in the very near future.
Domestic housing uses a third of energy produced in the UK. Clearly we need to reduce the energy demand from our homes, and also shift to clean energy sources. Luckily much of current gas technology is compatible with hydrogen, so when hydrogen fuel becomes viable on a large scale we can switch easily.
Things are moving in the right direction. About 10 years ago I designed a new zero carbon house for a far-sighted client to live in. There was very little precedent in the UK. Sadly the technology proved to be too expensive, and intrusive such that the local council objected. I like to think if we were to try again today, it would sail through Planning.
There is a decisive role for local government in this, and planning rules need to be continually revised to take innovation into account. We also still need to develop good benchmarking tools to design sustainable physical infrastructure, good whole life carbon assessment tools. This includes the vast urban infrastructure we are going to need to supply more electricity (car charging points on the streets and higher voltage supply to homes) and more hydrogen.
There are now good examples of new zero carbon housing, and there are much more affordable solutions. A much bigger problem is our existing housing, as around 80% of 2050’s building stock already exists now. It is certainly more sustainable (and achievable!) to retrofit existing buildings with serious insulation and draft exclusion than to pull down and rebuild, even if the result is imperfect. So long as the energy we use for the residual needs is zero carbon, and there are opportunities for offsetting, then this is a good outcome.
Even if you don’t share all the environmental movement’s concerns, there are strong reasons why conservatives should own this issue. We need to acknowledge the enormity of the challenge, and foster all the entrepreneurialism we can to develop the best resources. Then not only achieving zero carbon, we will achieve better biodiversity, better use of resources, reduction in waste and landfill, less pollution, energy security and species conservation. We can do all this without resorting to drastic political upheaval.