Living in a low carbon world
Can technology rescue us, or do we need to change ourselves, and our society, radically? An innovative new Palgrave book ‘Living in a low-carbon society’, edited by Horace Herring, argues the latter case, although it says that really we need to do both.
It looks at what a low carbon society might look like, approaching this partly through traditional analysis (with leading academics like Prof. Tim Jackson from Surrey Universities RESOLVE group) and cases studies (with some good examples of domestic projects from Prof. Robin Roy’s OU research), but also through a series of short fictional stories to try to catch some of the subjective reality and the human qualities of what life might be like in the future. That’s quite fun - and is currently popular with some novelists. See for example the excellent ‘Carbon Diaries 2015’ by Sci Lloyd (Hodder), which, like Fay Weldon’s ‘Chalcot Crescent’, uses a grim low carbon ration-imposed future as its backdrop.
Some of the stories in Herring’s book are inspiring (like Prof. Catherine Mitchell’s account of how she upgraded her house in Falmouth), but some of the scenarios in this book seemed very bleak - assuming that technology couldn’t really help much, and that the imposed carbon constraints hit hard. Is that inevitable?
Over the last couple of years scenarios have emerged which have renewables supplying 95-100% of all electricity and most energy by 2050 (for the EU and maybe globally), earlier in some cases (e.g. Scotland is now aiming for 100% of electricity by 2020!).
Obviously this may not happen and certainly we ought to try to cut demand anyway- that makes meeting it from renewables easier. This book assumes some serious energy saving through technical upgrades, to houses, etc, as well as a lot of new green energy transmission and storage infrastructure for grid balancing nationally. But its main focus is on what can be done by individuals and in houses, for energy, plus bits on transport and food. That context of course makes it easier to sustain the ‘lifestyle must change radically’ view, since, with some exceptions, small scale technology is, arguably, the most constrained/constraining green option - it is hard to get major national-level savings that way. Indeed, attempting to attain personal energy self-sufficiency, just with small-scale independent technology, could in some cases (e.g. micro wind) be counter-productive environmentally, since it is not very efficient, and also socially: we don’t all have access to the same resources, and need to share /trade.
Overall, there is the risk of pandering to the view that we can only deal with climate change, if we adopt a frugal lifestyle. The opposite ‘renewables as technical fix’ view is also risky - we do need to make lifestyle changes.
The big issue though is growth - can technology sustain that indefinitely? Obviously, on a planet with finite resources, it can’t forever. But we don’t really know how long it can. Australian green Ted Trainer is convinced we can’t even start out….US energy guru Amory Lovins disagrees…and so the debate goes on. This book gives a good sense of what changes might be required and how they might feel in reality, but the questions however remain, how much change is needed and how soon?
Though this book does swing between optimism and pessimism regularly, it does have some interesting new insights and some of the stories are fascinating. Well worth the read - along with the Carbon Diaries 2015 and its follow up to 2017, even if both the latter are aimed at teenagers!
Definitely not (just) for teenagers and not fiction, the report from the German governments ‘Ethics Commission on a Safe Energy Supply’, set up to look at what should be done after Fukushima, tries to lay out some ideas for the ‘collective effort for the future’ it thinks is necessary, given the decision to exit from nuclear. It’s ‘Energy Turnaround’ report was certainly unequivocal: Germany should and could phase out nuclear within a decade and Germany should commit to a collective effort to develop a new energy future.
Why? Well, it says perceptions of nuclear risk had now changed, due to the spectacle of an advanced industrial country facing a major crisis and being unable to bring it under control-with ‘long helplessness’ in the face of a disaster triggered by forces that had not been planned for, revealing the weakness of assumptions that proved to be wrong. The risks now outweighed the benefits, making the alternatives much more attractive.
Nevertheless, it recognises that there will be major problems making the change - and the potential for policy conflicts. For example, was it morally acceptable for the German government to support the export of German nuclear technology when it was closing down its own industry? A more pragmatic issue is whether German industry would be financially strong enough to build nuclear power stations in the UK, given that they would have more than enough to sort out at home, as a result of the phase out decision. That issue has now in fact been resolved: E.ON and RWE have withdrawn from the UK nuclear programme.
On the energy alternatives, the report notes that the Federal Association of Energy and Water Industry’s claim that, in any case, on current plans, up 30GW of new plant will be built by 2019, including wind, biomass and water projects solar, but also conventional plants. However the Ethics report is more cautious and says that, although renewables like wind and solar, can and should be ramped up rapidly, Germany also needed an extra 10GW to replace the nuclear plants. Fortunately that seems possible. It says that, in addition to wind and solar, 12GW can come from new and some already planned Combined Heat and Power projects by 2020 or perhaps earlier, 2.5 GW from biomass projects and 2.5 GW from conventional plant, plus 4GW from ‘additional energy efficiency measures’: it backs a serious domestic and industrial energy efficiency programme and the development of smart metering. In addition, emissions from new fossil plants would be offset using credits bought in via the EU Emission Trading System, so, overall, Germany would stay on course for it emission reduction targets.
However, it’s not a detailed technical plan: that has emerged separately (see my earlier blogs: http://environmentalresearchweb.org/blog/2012/04/germany—to-the-max.html and http://environmentalresearchweb.org/blog/2012/02/can-germany-do-it.html.
Instead it focuses more on the social and institutional changes that it says will need to be made. That may be wise: Germany has plenty of technical resources, but as Herring et al argue, the social changes will be harder. That is also an issue in Japan, where a new report has claimed that Fukushima was not just the result of a natural disaster, it was also caused by Japanese cultural and social norms- which had to change. Maybe so, but one thing is clear, like Germany, they are now addressing their energy problems vigorously with new green energy technology, as I will explore my next blog.
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