What It Takes to Be Carbon Neutral

A popular newspaper in Scotland, The Scotsman, has detailed what it will take for Britain to be carbon neutral within 20 years. I have said before that despite Al Gore’s pleas, despite the awareness and scientific consensus on Global Warming, I do not see the world becoming carbon neutral as long as there are fossil fuels left to burn. Some highlights from the article drive that point home:

Green Future Demands a Radical Shift in Lifestyles for British

Meat-free menus, battery-operated cars and an end to affordable flights.

These are among the radical visions outlined in a report which says Britain could be carbon neutral within 20 years – but only if major steps are taken to change our lifestyles.

Tumble-dryers would disappear and an “armada” of wind turbines would need to be built around the coast to achieve the goal, says the research by scientists from the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT).

But there is scepticism as to whether any of the scenarios suggested in the report are achievable.

CAT says achieving such a drastic cut in emissions is possible and may be the only way to tackle climate change.

Paul Allen, CAT’s development director, said: “What we are saying is that we need a huge programme, a bit like the US space project in the Sixties.

Now, for some details:

Among the major effects would be that electric, battery-operated cars would quickly overtake use of the internal combustion engine. Households would be forced to invest in ways to make their homes energy efficient, and switch from gas to biofuels or renewable electricity.

But there would also be “negative” effects in terms of the lifestyle that people enjoy. Air travel would become far too expensive unless the industry “pulls something out of the hat” and finds a green fuel.

And the diet of the country would have to change to include much more organically-grown, locally-produced vegetables, and less meat.

The result of the new “carbon economics” would be to cut energy use by half, and this new demand would then be met entirely by a green supply.

Tens of thousands of wind turbines would be built, mainly around Britain’s shores, to provide 50 per cent of the country’s new energy needs. The rest would come from a combination of biofuel “combined heat and power” stations, wave power, hydroelectricity and tidal schemes.

Is that realistic? Tens of thousands of wind turbines. An end to air travel. Fewer steaks. Is it achievable? It may be achievable in a dictatorship, but not realistic in a democracy. People are not going to accept those consequences unless they are forced to.

Also note that this is only for Great Britain, whose 60 million population is 1/5th that of the U.S. Furthermore, consider that UK citizens already only use half the per capita energy usage of the average U.S. citizen, and it soon becomes clear that carbon neutrality for the U.S., or the world, is a pipe dream. All of the Live Earth concerts in the world aren’t going to change that. Carbon dioxide concentrations will continue to climb, and the outcome of this atmospheric experiment is uncertain.

Incidentally, there are a number of reader comments following the original article. If you think there is any possibility of realizing such a scheme, a quick review of the comments should put that notion to rest. I think it is a good plan, but I don’t think it has a chance of being implemented.

6 thoughts on “What It Takes to Be Carbon Neutral”

  1. It may be achievable in a dictatorship, but not realistic in a democracy.

    Well, an early 19th century democracy was perhaps carbon neutral. But they had to put up with famine, pestilence, low life excpectancy, and a number of societal ills which carbon energy has vanquished. Rather than dictatorship, you likely mean socialist or communist state – which is both a political and economic system.

    It is like losing weight, the first 20 pounds or so come off pretty easily. It is the last 5 that cause the problem. We could reduce our carbon footprint substantially, but zero is likely not achievable without some breakthrough technology – maybe nuclear fusion.

  2. Two words: nuclear power.

    Seriously, Britain could probably make some lesser level of lifestyle changes, perhaps cutting 20% off per-capita energy needs. Partial electrification of vehicles is also possible. The electricity could come from a combination of wind and a nuclear program similar to that of France. Liquid fuel needs for greatly reduced ground transportation and heavy equipment could come from biodiesel (although it would probably make more sense to continue using petroleum and accept some level of emissions). I don’t have an answer for air travel, but it’s less than 5% of emissions anyway.

    It might take 50 years rather than 20, but it seems doable.

  3. Mr. Rapier,

    I agree with what you said in the above post. But I would like to point out that even if we could get to the carbon neutral stage it would not be enough.

    China, India, and all the rest of the developing world are not going to stop developing just so that the world will be carbon neutral. And they are overtaking the west in terms of green house emissions.

    Moreover, if we use less fossil based energy, they are likely to use more then they otherwise would (less competition for supply). As I argue here, carbon cutting measures in the West will only change the terms of trade, they will not do anything to cut net carbon emissions.

    But to simplify my argument; If all you cared about was your bottom line, would you build a factory in place that had a carbon tax or in a place that did not?

    I am not arguing that we should not make efforts to cut our energy use. For one thing, we are flushing a lot of money down the drain with inefficacy. For example, I go into a lot of places here in America that would save a lot of money if they upgraded their lighting system. They would be saving big bucks even if they had to borrow the money to do the retrofits at 8%.

    But people who think that carbon taxes or carbon limits in the rich world will help fight global warming are living in denial of the realities of global trade.

  4. This isn’t the only route to carbon neutrality. As Doug notes, nuclear requires no such sacrifices. Wind is already cheaper than natural gas, and solar will be soon. Improved biofuels can handle the few applications that truly need liquids.

    You won’t get far asking people to slash their lifestyle, you need to offer something better. The western world must take the lead, after all we’ve led in fossil consumption for centuries. Once we get our act together we can compel China and India to follow via trade policy.

    20 years is an unnecessarily short timeframe, but there’s no question we can do it.


  5. I’m with Robert on this one.

    As long as there is fuel to burn, someone out there will burn it.


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