Climate Emergency

The climate emergency is something that concerns many members of Sustainable Warminster. In February, Chris Goodall came from Oxford to talk to us about what we can do about it in the UK. Here is a report on it from Sustainable Warminster member Liz Shephard.

The Climate Emergency: Solutions Are In Our Hands

Violent gales, torrential and lashing rain, life-threatening floods, power cuts, damage to trees and buildings, severe transport disruptions. Storm Ciara gave Wiltshire a very gentle foretaste of climate chaos, following the devastating and catastrophic fires over recent months in Australia, the US, Europe and even the Arctic Circle. Meanwhile the ice caps keep melting.

Climate change is happening – and accelerating. Experts agree on the culprit: man-made emissions, chiefly of carbon dioxide. If we do not curb our use of CO2-emitting oil and gas, in our transport, energy, food and agriculture systems, far worse is to come. If we are to avoid the doomsday scenario, of unstoppable runaway climate change – we must act urgently to implement steps to cut our carbon emissions to zero. Now time is running out; within the next ten years we must have these changes in place, following the scientific consensus – everyone from David Attenborough to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The UK must now take the path to zero carbon energy. This is not only technically possible, but can be done in a way that makes the country both prosperous and more equal, with better living standards for all.

In ‘What We Need to Do Now, for a Zero Carbon Future’, Oxford energy expert and economist Chris Goodall set out an important series of steps in Warminster’s Civic Hall on to an audience of 86 on Friday 7th February.

Back in the 1990s the UK began to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by decarbonising electricity, moving away from coal, and starting to tap into wind and solar. The UK’s untapped resources of renewable energy are vast – and the price of renewable energy has tumbled dramatically. The prices are continuing to reduce to far below that of other sources. Renewables are not only the cheapest way to produce electricity, but create no greenhouse gas or air pollution, and are available indefinitely.

Renewables actually create surplus electricity which can be stored as hydrogen (via a reverse electrolyser) on a major scale. The potential here is enormous. Hydrogen is adaptable, and wide-ranging enough to meet all our economy’s energy needs. We should build enough capacity to make full use of it.

Hydrogen has been used for years to power fuel cells in a fleet of vehicles used by the Metropolitan Police. It can be used to power heavy vehicles: very large ships are now being designed to run on fuel cells. A hydrogen power station is being built in the Netherlands, and that country, Germany and other northern European countries are looking to store hydrogen on a large scale for the long term, eg in disused coal mines. On a small scale, the island of Orkney, with a surplus of electricity generated from the wind, is storing it through hydrogen and demonstrating how an economy can be run on electricity integrated with hydrogen. In Britain the next generation of domestic boilers combines hydrogen and natural gas. (The old “town gas” was about 50% hydrogen; more is pumped into it now).

Yet the greatest single solution for the UK lies offshore. In the North sea we have plenty of capacity to capture enough wind energy to meet all our future energy needs. Dogger Bank offers very suitable shallow waters for wind generation. To raise further capacity, a collaborative network involving neighbouring countries is envisaged, and the Dutch are already building a network of islands.

A 20-fold expansion of renewable energy is needed, to create more electricity than we used previously. Turn that surplus into hydrogen, to provide for the remaining energy demands of the UK. This country has the technological expertise to do this, if only the politicians begin to recognise the opportunity.

What is needed to stabilise our climate, for the technological shift to reduce CO2 emissions from the burning of fossil fuels, involves not only those at the policy level. To reach the decision makers we need practical lifestyle changes with personal activism, and enhanced collective action, from lobbying the powerful to setting up new social inventions.

For a start we should avoid flying except where vitally necessary, and fuel-guzzling vehicles like SUV’s. Both have driven the major increase in greenhouse gases from transport in recent years. We can car share, but the best way is to use and invest properly in public transport. In this country our public transport has to be radically improved and scaled up. Although electric cars are gaining ground (eg the 200 mile range VW ID3) most pollution from cars is in their manufacture, and to power every UK car would take a third more electricity. We have the means within reach, to retreat from diesel and petrol.

Decent public transport serves a growing number of car-free cities and towns across Europe such as Pontevedra, Spain, car free for 30 years; Utrecht in Holland with bicycles; or Dunkerque, France, with free buses.

To swerve the overwhelming devastation of climate change we need to properly insulate homes; most UK homes are badly insulated. Nottingham Council, as one example, has deeply refurbished council homes, heated by a communal ground source heat pump and solar roofs. The RIBA prize last year was awarded to a whole street built on energy-saving principles, from passive solar to full insulation.

As individuals we should avoid throwaway fashion, clothes worn once or twice. Clothing has a high carbon footprint. We can all re-use, take care of, revamp or recycle clothes. Cotton and polyester take high CO2 use. Eco alternatives are available. Tencel fabric is made from wood; bamboo fabrics are low carbon. Hemp captures carbon as a crop.

25% of greenhouse gases are emitted by agriculture, 10% by cattle alone. People can switch from beef or lamb to chicken; use plant-based or vegan protein foods. The demand and supply are both rising.

Chris Goodall’s book “What we need to do now for a zero carbon future” was published (Profile Books) at £9.99 in February 2020 and is “superbly researched” as well as “delightfully readable” (Mike Berners-Lee)

Chris Goodall writes for The Guardian, and his website tracks the progress of solutions to climate change.

See Chris Goodall’s previous three books for further essential information:
Ten Technologies to Save the Planet
How to Live a Low-Carbon Life
The Switch

by Liz Shephard February 2020