What would it look like if we took global warming seriously?

About a quarter of our emissions come from transport

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The publication today of the latest IPCC report on the projected impacts of a warming world is the latest in a long line of wake-up calls. Last November's report on the physical science of climate change made clear that we are currently following the scenario with the highest risk - and we need to make a break with business as usual if we are to avoid the worst impacts. So what would it look like if we took climate change seriously and acted to keep global warming below 2C?

Professor Kevin Anderson, deputy director of the Tyndall Centre – the UK’s leading climate policy research unit involving the collaboration of eight different universities – says that if we followed the science through and honoured the commitments we’ve made internationally, the EU would need to double its projected emissions cuts by 2030 – from 40 per cent to 80 per cent. This would mean revising the targets in the UK’s Climate Change Act and starting to make at least 10 per cent annual cuts in our greenhouse gas emissions immediately.

“The window for action is extremely tight. We need to radically reduce our energy consumption from now out to 2025 and at the same time very rapidly roll out a Marshall Plan for a low carbon energy supply. Those two things have to go hand in hand.” Instead of tinkering around with policies that make small changes, we would need bold action in key areas such as buildings and transport, requiring courage on the part of politicians and changes to how we live our lives.

“We’re on the cusp of having to take note of what is evidently happening around us but we’re still very reluctant to leave a political mindset that says we can deliver the changes using a bit of a carbon price, a few adverts trying to incentivise people to do things, and some carbon labelling. We still expect those types of piecemeal, ad-hoc mechanisms to deliver the sort of changes that are necessary and yet we know now in 2014 that they simply won’t work.”

So what do we need to do to make such radical cuts? Last December the Tyndall Centre organised a conference at the Royal Society looking at precisely this question and researchers at the Centre for Alternative Technology have been refining a plan for a “Zero Carbon Britain” by 2030 for some years. It takes time to put low carbon energy infrastructure in place. If we need to start making substantial cuts straightaway we have to cut energy consumption. Two of our biggest sources of emissions are the energy we use at home and the transport we use.

We know how to build new homes – known as “passive houses” – that require very little heating, but our main focus needs to be on the millions of homes already in existence. “We have a low demolition rate,” Anderson explains, “so what’s important is to retrofit these existing properties to very high standards, to make them low energy consumption and also resilient to a changing climate.”

“It will be expensive,” Anderson admits, “but it will eliminate fuel poverty, improve health, provide a huge amount of low and semi-skilled labour, improve our energy security and put a huge amount of money back into the economy.”

About a quarter of our emissions come from transport. “Private cars represent a very high proportion of UK emissions,” continues Anderson. “The average car in the UK will be emitting about 168 grams of carbon dioxide per kilometre. Yet we are selling 322 models at the forecourt that are below 100 g/km. The natural retirement rate of cars will deliver a 30-50 per cent reduction in emissions within ten years if we put a standard of 100 g/km in place. And we can do that using existing cars sold at no price premium.” More efficient cars will mean cleaner air and a healthier population, as will encouraging a shift to public transport, cycling, walking and avoiding unnecessary journeys.

 

As with cars, there are big efficiency gains waiting to be had in our electrical appliances.An A++ fridge uses 85 per cent less energy than an A rated fridge. So why are we selling A rated fridges? Why are we selling Bs, Cs and Ds? We should not be using a labelling scheme we should simply be using a minimum efficiency standard. And we can do this for all the major appliances.”

Energy efficiency is subject to the “rebound effect” meaning you can end up using some of the money you save on energy on other goods that use energy. To deal with this problem, Anderson says we will need to seriously consider policies that curb energy demand overall.

Cutting the carbon will impact on rich and poor differently. While super-insulating old homes will help the millions of people who are in fuel poverty, it’s the wealthier amongst us who have the biggest scope for reducing our carbon footprints and who will need to make the biggest adjustments suggests Anderson. “People like myself would fly much less, we would be driving smaller, less powerful cars, and driving less distance. Some of us would see that as a reduction in our quality of life, but a lot of things we really value in our lives – time with our friends and our families, living a good life – are not innately high-carbon consuming activities.”

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