‘What We Need To Do Now’ and Zero West’s zero carbon modelling

In 2019, I constructed a zero carbon scenario for the West of England region. Since then, Chris Goodall published his excellent new book “What We Need To Do Now“, which details a range of decarbonisation strategies in different sectors. Reading this provided some interesting perspectives on decarbonisation pathways, and this blog offers some of own reflections on the work I did for Zero West in light of Goodall’s book, and in light of the rapidly developing global situation.

Firstly, I would highly recommend this to anyone seeking to understand and work with the present situation. Over ten years ago, I read another major book: David MacKay’s “Sustainability Without The Hot Air“, and both stand as clear-headed statements of the technical possibility of decarbonisation. Over a decade apart, they were written in different eras: MacKay’s book reads as an extensive “back of the envelope” calculation as to the feasibility of decarbonisation while Goodall’s book is a series of detailed strategies stated in light of the extreme urgency of the climate crisis (as further highlighted by the latest IPCC reports). Climate change was an urgent issue decades ago of course, but it is only recently that it has become perceived as such. Moreover, in this time various new technologies have become mainstream, and permit a much more sophisticated approach to decarbonisation.

The work of the Center for Alternative Technology (CAT) is also of great interest, and in particular their Zero Carbon Britain reports from the previous decade or so provide a comprehensive vision of achieving zero carbon through both food and energy systems. Their treatment of land use in the UK is particularly interesting, and it is unusual in that it starts from what is required for a healthy diet, and addresses decarbonisation from there, rather than the more common (and somewhat problematic approach) of lensing land use exclusively though the consideration of climate change.

Zero West’s strategy is based on three strands: infrastructure projects, community action and data modelling. In the last of these, the purpose of constructing a zero carbon scenario for the West of England was to provide a sound basis for all of their work. This work, together with an overview of CAT’s work, was presented at the Zero West AGM in 2020. My slides are available here.

In constructing a regional scenario, it clearly emerges that some adaptions are meaningful at a regional level while others are not. In particular, the challenge of renewables is balancing supply and demand at different times, which requires both daily and inter-seasonal storage. Hydrogen has enormous potential in this regard, and Goodall explicitly states that he cannot see how a renewables based energy system can function without it. Hydrogen is remarkable in the various energy vector integrations it makes possible: it can be synthesised by the electrolysis of sea water with renewables; it can be burned directly in place of fossil fuels; and it can it can be combined with carbon from biomass to synthesise fossil fuels. There is a great deal of research and development in these areas, including the use of hydrogen in various industrial processes (especially cement and steel). One way of seeing it is that what makes fossil fuels so effective is their energy density, while what could make hydrogen so effective is its versatility and ability to connect the crucial sectors of power, heating and transport, as well as industrial processes. Clearly, hydrogen infrastructure goes beyond local scenarios.

Another key thing that emerges in decarbonisation scenarios is the need for complex integration of sectors, including through hydrogen as outlined above. More generally though, power, heating and transport (in domestic and industrial contexts) have to be treated as a single system. This has two basic implications. Firstly, a far more sophisticated energy system is required, some of which has begun to emerge and much of which has yet to be worked out. Secondly, far more renewables are required, for the basic reason that transport and heating are predominantly fossil fuel based and this energy also needs to come from renewables. This was evident in Zero West’s regional scenario, where only a fraction of the available renewables where shown to be utilised while many more were shown to be needed. Chris Goodall suggests that we need ten times more renewables. Crucially, such an increased uptake is possible, and what matters is realising it. The limiting factor is not availability but adoption. Of course, Zero West’s detailed estimates for the potential of the West of England region are available to support renewables adoption.

Beyond this, a further conclusion of zero carbon modelling is that the adaption entailed involves many levels: financial actors, corporate actors, government policy, utilities, local government, university research, NGOs, community groups, and civil society. And of course this is across many countries. It is often observed that no one is leading, or can lead. Government policy is generally massively inadequate, while more promising signs come from finance and the changing situation around fossil fuel investments; innovative projects by major companies (especially around energy system integration; see Goodall’s book and also newsletters); and civil society and especially the Extinction Rebellion movement.

Returning to hydrogen, and to illustrate this complexity, this recent article from Drill or Drop shows how for all the promise of hydrogen, the whole sector could be hijacked by ‘business as usual’. (Another source of hydrogen is via fossil fuels with carbon capture, but this misses the potential of a hydrogen based energy system and serves vested interests.) But as Chris Goodall points out, most people working for fossil fuel companies want to see action on climate change, and what fossil fuel companies do best is large infrastructure projects so their expertise could well serve the huge challenges ahead.

A positive approach requires, amongst other things, concerted government policy around decarbonisation, which in the UK has so far been a failure: in the greatest crisis of our time and perhaps all of human history, the UK and many other governments have failed to perform their basic remit of governing. For this reason, and as a result of the many actors and levels of actors in the response to the climate crisis, the fundamental response is and will be ad hoc. There are many possible pathways to zero carbon, and the paths that will and won’t be taken are subject to profound uncertainty. In the face of this, it is my belief that community, which has been so degraded in the modern era, matters more than ever. Whatever lies ahead, community will matter. Here community groups can play a crucial role, building community both around resistance to the status quo and the creation of alternatives.

Land use and food systems also play a vital part in climate change mitigation and adaption, and through regenerative agriculture they have the ability to heal: to restore soil, sequester carbon, protect water, increase biodiversity, provide healthy food, create rural economies, sustain physical and mental health, and in a more abstract but also very real sense, provide a point of connection in a desperately sad and terrifying global situation.

Zero West is one of many community groups that seeks to create stronger community and take practical steps in the face of the climate crisis. I have tried to emphasise the extensive work available on routes to decarbonisation, and in particular Chris Goodall’s recent and excellent work. Zero West’s modelling was a regional scenario, that also showed the limitations of regional modelling. The complexity and uncertainty around decarbonisation is very great, and these themselves can work against the agenda, but to my mind the value of this work is not to come up with simple answers, but to better face the scale of the solution as well as the scale of the problem, so that we can face the future more honestly.

Tom Stedall
September 2021

Author: Zero West