2050 – ‘How the hell do we get there?’
‘How the hell do we do that?’ and ‘Impossible!’ – are both common reactions to demands to make deep and permanent cuts in emissions whilst providing a secure and equitable supply of energy in the UK. Until recently it’s not been easy to move away from vague aspirations or paralysing anxiety to a solid understanding (backed by evidence, and numbers) of what we should be doing right now.
The publication of David MacKay’s book ‘Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air’ in 2009 was a breath of cool air on a hot topic. A labour of love (MacKay has issued the book free on-line), it sets out what’s needed to get off fossil fuels, by looking at what we consume and what we can generate as two ‘stacks’. Can we, the book asks, make these balance?
MacKay makes no apologies for adopting an accessible, easy style and using back of the fag packet type calculations, on the grounds that its better to get the big numbers right, than lose the sense of what we need to do in the maths. And though he is not afraid to round his numbers, as a physicist his analysis is based on hard science. Green wash, or techno-waffle this is not.
What is shudderingly apparent from the book is just how much effort and new infrastructure will be needed to get UK plc off fossil fuels. As a small highly densely populated country, without a sahara desert or similar resource to exploit, there are no easy answers. And the longer we leave it, the more vulnerable we will be.
And the ‘it’ here is a lot more than a few wind and wave turbines dotted about the UK coast line. This is about covering an area equivalent to the size of Wales with industrial scale infrastructure.
Given MacKay’s record of debunking it was encouraging to hear that he had become an advisor to DECC last year, and intriguing to see if he would survive the transition to a coalition government.
Thankfully, he has, and the impact is already obvious. DECC has published a 2050 Pathways Analysis as a report and on-line, open-source tool. The 2050 analysis looks at different scenarios for achieving an 80% reduction in emissions from a 1990 baseline. It examines what might be achievable in terms of the supply and demand for energy. And it applies four levels of effort from Level 1 – little or no effort to decarbonize, through to Level 4 – effort at the extreme upper end of what is thought to be possible.
Despite the dry title the report adopts a similar style to ‘Without Hot Air’. And it takes account of the projected changes in the climate to 2050, such as the reduced demand for winter heating but increased demand for summer cooling.
The pathway on-line tool enables users to look at the different scenarios for a range of demand and supply factors, e.g. the average temperature in homes and the proportion of energy from nuclear power and see what impact these will have on emissions up to 2050.
Naturally, the tool will be of interest to those whose job it is to plan and test national policy scenarios. But it will also help others such as local authorities who need to develop credible and defensible local strategies and policy to distinguish between what is merely aspiration and what is achievable and necessary.
By: Mark Letcher.
Tags: Climate change policy, tools.
Further information: Sustainable Energy Without The Hot Air, ISBN: 978-0-9544529-3-3