climate change

Is zero carbon by 2030 impossible? There’s only one way to find out

Yesterday the Labour party conference voted to adopt a Green New Deal and decarbonise Britain by 2030. It’s remarkable how quickly this has come together, considering the Labour for a Green New Deal campaign group only got up and running this year. It’s come from the grassroots, and commits the party to exactly the kind of radical climate action I was talking about yesterday. And it is a radical departure: it puts Labour on the same footing as the Green Party.

There are of course some immediate questions – how exactly will that be done? Are people actually ready for the kinds of lifestyle changes involved, despite what they say in surveys? And perhaps the most common response – is it even possible?

Among those declaring it impossible were Tim Roache of the GMB union, which opposed the vote. He called it “utterly unachievable”. James Murray of Business Green tweeted that 2030 was “interesting… by which I mean all but impossible” .

Extinction Rebellion get the same response to their demand for zero carbon by 2025. That’s even more extreme, but both of these dates represent profound change – a genuine revolution in energy, industry and lifestyle. It will take huge investment, a massive mobilisation of skills and finance towards renewable energy, circular economies, public transport, and retrofitting our homes and buildings. Polluting industries will need to be closed down. Very common habits will have to change. Are ordinary people ready for that? Do we have the materials and personnel? Can we train the skilled workforce it would need? Can we tame the vested interests that will fight it every step of the way?

It’s easy to see why the question of feasibility comes up so readily. On the face of it, yes – it could well be impossible. I have serious doubts myself about that. But that in itself is not a reason not to do something. Here are three reasons why we should aim high on decarbonisation, and not get hung up on the question of possibility.

We don’t know what’s possible and what isn’t. ‘Impossible’ is never a fact in advance. It is proved to be so, or not, by trying it. Impossible things can and do happen. Donald Trump is president of the United States. Elon Musk‘s entire career. Renewable energy is cheaper than fossil fuels in a growing number of places. The world’s most powerful climate change campaigner is a Swedish teenager with Asperger’s. We don’t know whether decarbonising by 2030 is possible or not, but it’s easy and convenient to say it isn’t and then we don’t try.

There is nothing to lose. If we pitch for 2030 and we fail, so what? Britain will be zero carbon by 2033, or 2037. If we stick with 2050 it may be too late, especially if we keep thinking that 2050 is a long way off and action can come later. A closer target gives us a sense of urgency and purpose. We will move faster. And if it’s done as part of a just transition, a low carbon world can also be a cleaner, healthier and fairer one. Perhaps it will prove impossible, but it’s a no regrets policy. It’s the later date that carries the greater risk.

It’s the right thing to do. As Tim Jackson has set out recently, a more ambitious target would reflect Britain’s historical contribution and our higher per capita emissions, and so we should move quicker to end our contribution to climate change. It’s the right thing to do by the communities that are being devastated today by the climate crisis. It’s the right thing to do by our young people, who feel betrayed at the decades of inaction that has put their world at risk. I’m with E F Schumacher on this one, who said that “we must do what we conceive to be the right thing, and not bother our heads or burden our souls with whether we are going to be successful.”

Yes, I hear some of you saying, but how? Idealism is all very well, but where’s the plan? Labour have set out a whole bunch of new policies this week that I might come back to another time, though it won’t add up to full decarbonisation by 2030. That work will have to start now – and in the process, that date may yet move or turn out to be advisory. We’ll see.

Like possibility, the lack of a masterplan isn’t a reason to dismiss zero carbon targets either. We should be wary of masterplans – in a democracy, it should be something we work out together. And we can always take a leaf out of Mette Frederiksen’s book. She is prime minister of Denmark, which has already set itself the ‘impossible’ task of net zero by 2030. “How are we going to do that?” she told Climate NYC this week. “Frankly we don’t have all of the answers. And if I did have all the answers, the ambition wouldn’t be big enough.”

32 comments

  1. Without ruling out the probability that human action is the cause of climate change, how can we be certain that it is carbon dioxide and not something else altogether?

    1. If you’re looking for 100% certainty, there can’t be any such thing. But if the combined agreement of practically every national science institution in the world isn’t enough to go on, I don’t know what will be. The link between anthropogenic CO2 and climate change is, for the purposes of this blog, a scientific fact.

      1. This is the analysis which needs to be fleshed out with plausible calculations.

        The Sun can be regarded as a black body at a temperature of 5800°K. For the purposes of this calculation, (although in reality it is not) the earth can be regarded as a black body at a temperature of 15°C, corresponding to 288°K. During the day, there is net gain of energy due to the temperature difference between the sun and the earth. At night, there is a net loss.

        The Stefan–Boltzmann law describes the power radiated from a black body in terms of its temperature. Specifically, the Stefan–Boltzmann law states that the total energy radiated per unit surface area of a black body across all wavelengths per unit time (also known as the black-body radiant emittance) is directly proportional to the fourth power of the black body’s thermodynamic temperature.

        EFFECT OF ATMOSPHERIC GASES – gases with energy absorbent molecules
        Carbon dioxide absorbs infrared radiation (IR) in three narrow bands of wavelengths, which are 2.7, 4.3 and 15 micrometers (µM). This means that most – about 92% – of the heat producing radiation escapes it. About 8% of the available black body radiation is picked up by these characteristic frequencies of CO2.
        Other atmospheric gases with infra-red absorption include methane and water vapour.

        QUANTITY OF CARBON DIOXIDE IN THE ATMOSPHERE
        Consider a column of air with an area of of 1 square metre extending to the limit of the earth’s atmosphere.
        The mass of this column is 0.76 x 13600 Kg
        (the mass of a balancing column of mercury =10340 Kg)

        Density of air is 1.3 Kg per cubic metre.

        This is the mass of a column of air 7951 metres high at STP. At a concentration of 400 parts per million of carbon dioxide, this represents a layer of carbon dioxide 3.18 metres thick.

        RADIATION BALANCE
        Daytime effect
        Energy is absorbed by the molecules of carbon dioxide and other gases which absorb in the infra-red band, and does not reach the surface of the earth; how much energy depends on the efficiency of capture. This energy is retained by the molecules and then re-radiated, half of this energy being directed towards the earth’s surface. The net energy reaching the earth is less than it would otherwise be.

        Night-time effect
        Energy emitted from the surface of the earth is radiated towards outer space. Some of this energy is absorbed by the absorbent gas; how much again depends on the efficiency of capture. One half of this energy is reflected back towards the surface of the earth. The temperature rises until there is a balance where radiation absorbed equals radiation emitted, proportional to the fourth power of the absolute temperature. Thus, the surface temperature is higher than it would be if the gas was not present. However, the extent of this effect need to be supported with calculations.

        CLOUDS
        Water vapour further affects the energy balance through cloud formation, which reflect energy as well as absorb and re-radiate it. During the day, this is familiar as we experience the immediate drop in temperature when the sun is obscured by a cloud. The same effect is an important reason why cloudless nights are cold; there is nothing to prevent the radiation of energy from the earth’s surface to outer space.

  2. Hi. Great article. Looking at DUKES 2019 energy data, I reckon that, at recently typical build rates, you can triple the amount of wind and solar, whilst begrudgingly fitting that in the current grid, and halve energy consumption, and get to 1 tonne (gas and aviation fuel) person in the UK by 2030 – about a fifth of current. You might be able to get to Zero by 2040… I worry that a faster transition could cause more carbon to be emitted as low carbon infrastructure would not be available to produce low carbon infrastructure *with* if you see what I mean. I think #halfby2030 is a good energy target, and worth a campaign! What would that look and feel like? No Sunday shopping, and half-day closing? A four day week? 2g phones? university students staying at home? Free electric bikes for teens? It will be a particularly British solution. Other countries have different advantages and disadvantages of course… Denmark can use Nordpool hydro to balance wind on its grid etc… Great article anyway…

    1. You’re right that a rapid infrastructure build-out would cause a huge amount of CO2 in itself, and that’s something we need to be aware of and avoid. The first priority has to be the shrinking of our energy needs, and retrofitting homes is the best way to do that.

      As for 2030, the current UK carbon plan calls for a 57% cut by 2030, though that’s against 1990 levels rather than today’s. We’re at 44% les on 1990 already, so that will presumably be accelerated after the net zero 2050 goal. It’s hard to imagine what might be involved in a truly revolutionary climate programme, partly because it’s so hard to imagine the government sorting itself out! But it’s something I ought to give more thought to. A four day week is likely to help, and have multiple other benefits, so that’s something we should consider.

  3. Here’s the full Schumacher quote:

    ‘We must do what we conceive to be the right thing, and not bother our heads or burden our souls with whether we are going to be successful. Because if we don’t do the right thing, we’ll be doing the wrong thing, and we will just be part of the disease, and not a part of the cure.’

    You seem to be saying that going to zero carbon within only ten years is the ‘right’ thing and that giving it say a more realistic twenty-five or thirty years is the ‘wrong’ thing and would ‘just be part of the disease and not part of the cure’. To take just one of many examples, most people heat their homes with either natural gas or oil. Going to zero carbon within ten years would mean that those fuels would have to start being withdrawn soon whereas the huge amounts of additional electricity and the millions of new heaters needed to replace them could not – for all the reasons we’ve discussed – be available in time. People, particularly the young, the elderly, the poor and the disadvantaged, would die. Do you really think that that would be the ‘right’ thing?

  4. I’m aware of the full quote, and deliberately chose just the first bit – because it’s more pithy, and because I didn’t want to go around telling people that they’re wrong. If I wanted to quote the whole thing, I would have.

    As you did last week, you’ve assumed that all current domestic gas use has to be replaced by electric heat. That’s unnecessary. The transition starts with retrofitting and efficiency. As the Energiesprong movement has proved, it’s possible to retrofit to zero carbon standard, at which point heating needs are very low and entirely achievable. So no, the poor and vulnerable are not left to die in my vision of the future.

    However, failing to wean ourselves off fossil fuels in time does condemn other people to die – just in other countries, where we don’t have to take responsibility for them. That’s not acceptable to me either. As I’ve said before, the greater threat is in not acting.

    1. I’ve no doubt gas and oil replacement with electric heat would start with retrofitting and efficiency. But, to get to zero carbon within ten years, they (gas and oil) would have to be fully withdrawn by 2030. And – as we’ve discussed (remember those additional 190,000 wind turbines) – sufficient electricity couldn’t possibly be generated by then to fulfil all the zero carbon needs. The Energiesprong movement sounds great – but do you really think its retrofitting programme (or similar) could realistically be accomplished throughout the UK (about 30 million homes – many low quality) within just ten years? So far in the UK only 15 demonstrators have been completed.

        1. Even if the UK-wide retrofitting of 30 million homes were to start almost immediately (impossible), it would mean completing over 8,000 homes per day. And in addition to that, all the schools, hospitals, surgeries, government offices, public buildings, shops, supermarkets, commercial offices, factories, etc, that are currently heated by gas or oil would also have to be converted. Hmm … it’s pretty obvious what you’d find out in the rather unlikely event of the plan for zero carbon in ten years going ahead.

          1. If it’s a choice between the impossible or your best suggestion, which is to call a big international meeting to discuss if climate change is even happening, I’ll take my chances thanks.

          2. Setting out to do the impossible is rarely wise. And never, I suggest, when it would almost certainly do great harm to vulnerable people. In contrast, the wholly separate matter of an international meeting to discuss anthropogenic climate change is hardly a bad idea when it’s becoming increasingly obvious (https://www.climatechangenews.com/2019/09/24/un-asked-climate-plans-major-economies-failed-answer/) that major economies are unconcerned about the consequences of continued greenhouse gas emissions.

          3. One thing is certain: action that will do great harm to vulnerable people in the UK isn’t going to help vulnerable people elsewhere in the world. But I suspect you’re not really concerned about them.

          4. Ending the availability for heating of oil and gas from most of the homes, schools, hospitals, public buildings, shops, factories, etc. would do immense harm – especially to the most vulnerable.

  5. I live in a technically low income household myself, and am currently trying to insulate and electrify my way out of gas heating. If I do myself ‘immense harm’ in the process, I promise not to inflict my suggestions on anyone else.

    1. That’s great for you Jeremy – and good luck with getting off gas heating. But you’re one of the (very) few. I’m talking about the many. And they’re the ones who’ll suffer if heating is unavailable – as it surely will be if your 2030 plan is put into operation.

        1. Commenting on the 2030 target you said: ‘There is nothing to lose’ and ‘It’s the right thing to do by the communities that are being devastated today by the climate crisis. It’s the right thing to do by our young people, who feel betrayed at the decades of inaction that has put their world at risk.’

          OK, that’s not a detailed plan – and you’ve said you have serious doubts about it. But nonetheless you obviously believe it’s the way to go. My simple point is that, if that happens, a lot of people in the UK will suffer.

  6. Only if a 2030 target is going to run roughshod over people’s human rights, which it wouldn’t in any humane plan. Nobody, least of all me, is calling for an eco-gestapo going around ripping out people’s boilers.

        1. This is what my sister in Liverpool always tells me, but if she came along to an XR Luton event, she’d find it to be full of working class people. In my experience, it does cut through, and often what people are objecting to is actually a caricature of green thinking that they’ve picked up from the tabloids. Once they encounter the real thing, it’s more engaging than they thought. As always, people power is most effectively built by relationships.

          1. Except that ‘the real thing’ for XR is net zero by 2025. It doesn’t require a tabloid caricature to demonstrate that even attempting that would bring dreadful hardship – especially to poorer people.

          2. I thought we’d at least agreed that 2025 was obviously impracticable. But now you’re supporting it. Oh well.

          3. You say you disagree that net zero by 2025 would bring terrible hardship. That may be true. Here’s why:

            If serious attempts were made to implement it, it would do great harm to vulnerable people. However, it is – as you know – hopelessly impracticable. Therefore there’s no real likelihood that any such serious attempts will be made. So you’re right, it will not bring terrible hardship.

          4. Yes, something that needed practice beforehand! One my fellow members of Christian Climate Action was involved, out causing mischief on top of a fire engine at age 83.

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