SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 175 February 2014

Planning for the future

Zero Carbon Britain: Rethinking the Future • Centre for Alternative Technology, 2013

Available as free pdf download, or as a book (£14.95):

Reviewed by Kate Jones

Socialism Today has pointed out that ‘man-made’ global warming would be better described as ‘profit-driven’, with the biggest businesses – the so-called ‘noxious 90’ – emitting the most greenhouse gases and being the most resistant to change. Governments around the world are in their thrall and incapable of taking any meaningful action on climate change. Tory leader David Cameron, who once claimed he led Britain’s greenest government, today supports opening Britain up to fracking! Is it surprising that some workers are sceptical about global warming and any action to deal with it?

To anyone wanting to counter these ideas, Zero Carbon Britain: Rethinking the Future is a useful tool, as well as an informative, even inspiring, publication for those with an interest in the environment. Produced by the Wales-based Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT), pioneers in ‘green’ technology and education, it details how Britain could achieve zero-carbon status by 2030.

In the 1970s, when depletion of natural resources was seen as the principal threat, the founders of CAT had a vision of an alternative technology which would benefit mankind and the planet as a whole. In 1977 it published An Alternative Energy Strategy for the United Kingdom. Not surprisingly it sank without trace – newly discovered North Sea oil and gas promised a great future for British industry, independent of foreign oil interests, while nuclear power was expected to be ‘so cheap it wouldn't need metering’. A golden future beckoned. Today things look very different, with global surface temperatures predicted to rise, possibly by a very damaging 3°C above pre-industrial levels by the end of the current century.

CAT sets out to show how zero-carbon status could be attained using currently available technology. Unlike some environmentalists, like George Monbiot, who accept nuclear power as a necessary evil, Zero Carbon Britain (ZCB) has no nuclear in the mix. Neither does it rely on future technologies, such as nuclear fusion. It also acknowledges that any road map of how to get to zero-carbon status depends on ‘politics and societal values’.

However, it fits very well into a democratically planned socialist economy, and with the analysis put forward in Pete Dickenson’s excellent book, Planning for the Planet: How Socialism Could Save the Environment. In this review I concentrate on the key issues of energy and transport, but the report also deals with land use, agriculture, forestry, biofuels, waste-processing and the food industry.

Around 45% of Britain’s energy is used in buildings – for heating/cooling, hot water, cooking, lighting and electrical appliances. While appliances have become more energy-efficient, we use more of them, so energy demand has risen in the last few decades. Industry has halved its energy used over the last 40 years, with changes in the mix of industries in the British economy (for example, the decline of iron and steel), as well as improved efficiency. However, if hidden carbon emissions from imported goods are included, real UK carbon emissions have gone up, not down.

To reduce our energy use would necessitate a major shift in thinking and practice. New buildings constructed to the Passivhaus standard, for example, use only 10% of the energy of existing buildings, while retrofitting/renovating older buildings would reduce their energy loss by 50%. ‘Smart’ technology and appliances allow better control, such as only heating rooms which are in use, freezers and washing machines being integrated to the electricity grid and programmed to use less power at times of peak demand. Heat pumps, which convert ambient heat in the air, water or ground and use it to heat water, can deliver up to 2-4 units of heat per unit of energy used, while a mix of biomass and electric heating systems could meet the rest of the energy needs of homes and other buildings.

There is, of course, little incentive at present to promote such technology: capitalist firms like Britain’s Big Six energy companies want us to use more power, not less, and gadgets that can communicate with your fridge or heating system are regarded more as toys than serious energy-saving technology.

ZCB envisages a return to pre-recession levels of industrial output, while population growth will mean an actual increase of output by around 16%. However, what is produced will change. Manufacturing of renewable energy systems themselves would increase, while some energy-intensive practices would be changed – for example, using more wood and less iron, steel and concrete in the construction of buildings. In the ZCB scenario, industrial energy demand is assumed to be reduced by 25%.

Today, 90% of our energy comes from fossil fuels. In the report’s scenario, all our energy needs would be met from ‘zero carbon’ sources, over 50% from wind. Although Britain is one of the windiest places in Europe, wind power is currently a fairly insignificant contributor to our energy supply. In fact, renewables in total generate a mere 10-15% of our electricity, according to government figures.

ZCB envisages big offshore turbine installations, which are not only more efficient but do not arouse such public objections as onshore wind farms. Turbines would be sited not only on fixed foundations in shallow waters, as at present, but in deep seas, with floating turbines attached to the seabed by cables. Prototypes operating off the coast of Norway since 2009 have withstood 90 mph winds and huge waves. With British workers’ experience and skills in deep-sea drilling, such giant offshore wind farms are entirely practical, and could generate up to 1,500TWh (terawatt hours) per year, close to Britain’s total current energy needs.

Offshore wind power would be topped up by onshore wind, wave and tidal power, solar PV (covering 10-15% of roofs), geothermal and hydropower. Additional heat would come from heat-pumps, solar and geothermal, while biomass would be used for gas and liquid fuels. The report outlines numerous ways of storing energy – including pumping or heating water, charging batteries and the making of hydrogen and other fuels – to ensure there is no danger of the lights going out.

Transport currently accounts for nearly 40% of Britain’s total energy use and 25% of emissions. Of this, surface passenger transport makes up 55%, aviation 20% and freight 25%. Petrol, diesel and aviation fuel are all fossil fuels so emit greenhouse gases. ZCB envisages a reduction in road vehicles, with what remains being powered by electricity, with some hydrogen and synthetic liquid fuel. Passenger and freight traffic would switch to rail, powered by green electricity – a 200% increase in rail freight meaning 20% reduction in road freight. Today, people choose to fly because it is cheap and fast, but an expanded, affordable and better integrated rail network could shift a lot of domestic and European traffic from air to rail. Flights would be reduced dramatically, probably by around 60%, and be fuelled by synthetic liquid fuel sourced from biomass.

Pundits who say there is no need to switch to renewables often mention carbon capture as a way of cutting greenhouse emissions – collecting the gases emitted by coal, oil and gas-fired power stations, and storing them, generally underground. However, there is currently no safe way to store carbon. The same goes for nuclear waste. More research is needed in these areas, not least because so much nuclear waste already exists.

The only real way to capture carbon dioxide is by planting trees. Despite reducing emissions by over 90%, we would need to double Britain’s wooded area (currently 12%). Mixed woodland would produce timber for building as well as coppiced native trees (birch, hazel and willow) for biofuels, with the welcome by-product of a more biodiverse and attractive countryside.

The report’s authors state that they are not putting forward a road map for transition, although they do make various suggestions as to how it could be achieved. One is the New Economic Foundation's Green New Deal, inspired by Roosevelt's New Deal to rebuild the US economy in the 1930s. Simply put, this means regulation, "so finance will return to its role of servant, not master, of the economy", combined with a "transformational programme using a mix of public and private investment to restart the economy in a way that will both rapidly decarbonise it".

This is a laudable aim, but there is little evidence of the industry investing in renewables. Indeed, solar panels on people’s roofs currently contribute more to Britain’s renewable output than any one of the Big Six. Far from redressing the balance, the government seems determined to shackle the UK to fossil fuels for the foreseeable future, and the promise of cheap gas from the incredibly harmful technology of fracking.

The report aims to influence government, industry and other policymakers, but socialists recognise that capitalists will only invest the huge amounts needed to redraw our energy map if they can see a profit in doing so. Investors wanting a quick return and a competitive edge would demand massive subsidies and incentives from government. There is no sign of the British government, or indeed any other, making this happen.

Meanwhile, advertising and peer pressure urge workers to ‘buy, buy, buy’ – mostly imported goods made in Asian sweatshops. When they break down or a single component fails, we often have no option but to buy new. Firms compete to sell us nearly identical items. Nothing is planned, the market rules all. But if we remove the profit motive, there are no competing businesses, hence less waste. Think of all those supermarket lorries clogging up our motorways, delivering identical goods to competing stores while emitting greenhouse gases!

In Planning for the Planet, Pete Dickenson advocates taking energy and transport back into public ownership, nationalising the major industries and instituting a system of democratic control over energy generation, distribution and use, as the only way of saving the environment: "It could avoid the duplication of resources, planned obsolescence and the widespread destruction and rebuilding of factories, plant and machinery in capitalism’s boom/slump cycle".

By removing the shackles of the market, the need for incentives, subsidies, bribes and competition – all barriers to a massive switch to renewables, public transport, and a more rational way of living and working – would be removed. Zero Carbon Britain promises a net increase of 1.5 million skilled jobs in industry, transport and land management. How many more could a socialist plan create?

Roman emperor Nero is reputed to have fiddled while Rome burned. Today, the capitalists carry on idling, lying and polluting, while planet Earth, the only home we have, is systematically depleted, ravaged and overheated to an extent that threatens the cities where we live, the agricultural land that feeds us, the water we drink and the very air we breathe. The multinationals that control the world economy – and the global emissions of greenhouse gases – are not prepared to risk a loss of profit for the sake of the planet and humankind. Zero Carbon Britain shows us a possible better future. Now more than ever socialism, with democratic planning on an international scale, shows us the only way to achieve it.

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