Zero Carbon Britain

Abstract from a talk by Peter Harper at the Gaia Foundation, February 2008. Written by Stephen Frank.

Peter Harper has been a pioneer of the alternative technology movement since the 1960's. His main interests are in horticulture and low-carbon lifestyles and he runs his own home as an experimental 'lifestyle lab'. Today he is Head of Research and Innovation at the Centre for Alternative Technology. He has worked there for 25 years with occasional time off as a visiting professor in Japan.

Like many people, Peter Harper sees the Apocalypse coming. But where he is different is that he keeps thinking and planning what can be done to survive it. For him global warming is no longer a hypothesis but a fact. He would like to see governments the world over take immediate and urgent action to reduce their carbon emissions to zero, because, he considers that if we carry on putting more greenhouse gases into the environment than we are taking out it will soon be too late for all of us.

No one has been able to work out exactly where the tipping points are or even if we have passed one already. For instance, the white ice caps reflect the sun's heat back out of our atmosphere. As global warming reduces them in size they reflect less heat and consequently more of it is retained. The more heat retained, the more the ice caps melt. The world may already be caught in a number of these feedback loops.

Most of the problem is about energy. We want it nice and warm, we want light, and we want our computers and all of our appliances to function efficiently. In order for all of these to operate we need specific amounts of energy. However, it is the use of this energy that creates most of the greenhouse gases. Over the decades - and especially after the oil shocks of the early 70's - we have become more efficient and reduced the energy required to run most of our services. But despite this reduction, we keep creating new things that demand energy. So, in spite of efficiencies, the amount of energy we use continuously rises.

There are a number of possible ways forward:

- We can put a ceiling on services and at least not increase the total amount of energy required to run them.

- We can replace the energy supplies with ones that do not have carbon in them and therefore do not emit greenhouse gases. Obvious choices are nuclear and non-carbon energy technologies like wind, tidal, solar.

- When we burn fuel, we can grab the CO2 before it goes off into the atmosphere. For instance, we can store heat in the soil in summer and use it in winter - a so-called heat pump - thus saving carbon emissions and taking heat out of the atmosphere.

- We could also simply reduce the level of energy services, until we get through this difficult transition. For a time then, in some ways, life would be similar to the way it was in the 1830's before everything began to develop and expand.

In the new economy, anything containing carbon - such as fuel - is going to be expensive. Driving will become much more expensive and there will be a huge shift towards electric transport. We will be producing electricity everywhere and will need lots of pylons and transmission lines if we want a continuous supply. Lots of storage will be required for when the wind stops or the sun isn't shining. Harper sees the millions of cars plugged in all over the country charging up on electricity as a country-wide battery. If there is a sudden shortfall, the electricity company might take back half your battery's worth to bridge the shortfall. If transport remains expensive, moving things would become more difficult and there could be a great move towards providing locally

Everyone will have an allocated carbon entitlement and will be able to spend it in any way they want.

To reduce our energy usage, 'smart meters' will orchestrate things in our houses. When watching television, we need a continuous flow of electricity. But for many things, a continuous flow is not really necessary. If the freezer went off for a bit at night it wouldn't make any difference. Washing in the machine can be done another time. If we continue wanting things on demand, we'll pay for that. If we sign up to a flexible tariff, we'll pay less.

Presuming every single person on the planet has the same worth, the rights to emit greenhouse gases will be allocated to each country on the basis of the sum of their population - this is 'contraction and convergence' and is considered the only fair way and the only way ever likely to get international agreement. There will be a budget and there will be a world cap - the sum of all the individual caps for each nation. Everyone will have an allocated carbon entitlement and will be able to use it in any way they want - spend it all on that trip to Mauritius or spread it out amongst low carbon products. We will also be able to trade our entitlements so that countries or individuals who don't use theirs will be able to sell them to others.

Like fossil fuel, bio-energy is the one renewable energy that can be stored. It just sits there full of energy. We will need lots of it, and this will take up a lot of land. Land will also be used as sinks to try to mop up CO2. Land will be in great demand and therefore very expensive.

Cows and sheep produce a lot of greenhouse gases - they are net emitters. According to Harper, under the new carbo-economic rules we will be 'punished' for net emitting. You can 'fix' a coal power station by closing it down and using windmills instead. However, there is no technical alternative to a cow. It will be very expensive to run a herd of cows or sheep. To a large extent market forces will drive animals out of the system and as a result the whole British countryside will look quite different. Animals now occupy 60 - 70% of the area and their reduction will release a huge amount of land. Farmers will be rewarded for growing trees and biomass crops and with land at a premium they will become honoured again for saving the world.

Because, historically, labour has been expensive and 'goods' cheap, for decades we have tried to minimize the use of people. But once anything containing carbon becomes expensive, labour will be seen as relatively cheap. This could mean that many people will move to the countryside to work the land for good wages. Nevertheless, most people will feel better off in the city, where people are less scattered and transport is much easier.

Harper is hopeful that we can reach a new era of 'stability' if we begin concerted action now. He foresees we need 50 - 60 years to make the transformation and he envisages possible technological fixes - some of them high risk - to buy us the extra time: parasols in space that deflect the sun and stop it warming things up; covering half the Atlantic with Styrofoam to reflect the sun; throwing lots of iron filings into the ocean to increase algae. These will absorb CO2 and sink to the bottom. Risky as these ideas are, they won't be as bad as the Apocalypse. Kyoto is due to be ratified in 2012. Harper believes that unless the whole world is working towards a common goal soon after 2012, it will be too late! If we don't do anything, the effects of climate change will inexorably advance from the tropics. However, politicians, fearful of losing votes, may rather choose to adapt as things unfold than make drastic changes in advance.

To keep the Apocalypse at bay, Harper believes we have to get in there and take drastic action. At some point he envisages us going onto a wartime footing to force through the radical changes necessary for our survival. Then there will no longer be a question about windmills or pylons destroying the look of the countryside. As if at war, things like these will be pushed through because our survival will be at stake. One day in the future he would like his grandchildren to look back on this exceptional moment in human history and say, 'God, it was a close run thing, but they did it! And grandfather was there, batting on our behalf!'