Zero carbon Britain: making it happen

What would life in Britain be like if we actually made the changes needed to avoid dangerous climate change? Paul Allen from the Centre for Alternative Technology explores.

Firstly, we now know we have the technologies and tools to do what is needed. This year marks ten years since the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT) launched the very first Zero Carbon Britain scenario in Westminster.

Thankfully, over this time there has been increasing acceptance that a zero carbon future is both necessary and achievable, not least by the UN Paris Agreement. An ever-increasing range of studies, plans and practical projects from across the globe clearly demonstrates that we already have the physical tools needed. So what’s slowing us down?

Rather than an unresolved technical challenge, it is now increasingly accepted that we face a mix of political, cultural and policy barriers. Tackling such a complex global challenge requires new kinds of thinking, joining up research and practice across disciplines, borders, sectors and scales.

To help pioneer such a new approach, CAT’s new report Zero Carbon Britain: Making it Happen brings together insights from psychology, sociology, political science, economics and other social sciences, as well as faith and spiritual practice, arts and culture. Expert views from cutting edge thinkers mix with real-life stories of practical projects that have overcome barriers in innovative ways, from community renewables to mass retrofit to women’s cycling.

Practical examples of breaking the carbon lock-in

The historical, technical, cultural and institutional evolution of fossil fuel energy, transport and agricultural systems has created persistent forces that are hugely resistant to change. The Zero Carbon Britain: Making it Happen report brings together examples of practical projects which help break this carbon lock-in by showing new ways of doing things, particularly at a local level where there is flexibility to experiment and help normalise new relationships and connections with energy, travel, food or land use. Here are some examples:

  • Groups within a local community who change their behaviour, such as choosing to eat less meat, can help facilitate social learning and normalise new lifestyles. For example, local groups of friends who agree to try one new dish a week that doesn’t include meat is an effective way of encouraging others. Meat Free Mondays support such a day-based approach, normalising diet shift.
  • Local groups who demonstrate new ways of connecting with energy systems can overcome feelings of powerlessness, giving their communities confidence and a sense of collective agency. For example, The Green Valleys (TGV) demonstrates innovative financing. Community members in and around the Brecon Beacons National Park set up TGV; they inspire and support communities to work together to reduce carbon emissions, generate income and deliver social and environmental benefits.
  • Projects that help prevent food waste can also help people recognise that they have power to change the system from the bottom up. Transition BroGwaun’s Surplus Food Project is one such initiative. Their Transition Cafe is a not-for-profit enterprise which reduces food waste and saves carbon by stopping food going to landfill.
  • Carbon reduction projects often provide co-benefits for local communities, demonstrating that local initiatives can be inclusive and not the preserve of a privileged few. For example, Flower Pod is a horticultural-based service for adults with learning disabilities, offering learning and recreational activities whilst producing locally grown flower bouquets with recycled or upcycled packaging.
  • Local government engagement is vital – all the changes pioneered by communities, villages, towns and cities need the backing of local government to provide the policies, planning processes and resources which can enable replication, scaling-up and breaking through the carbon lock-ins that have grown up around fossil fuels. Climate Local is a Local Government Association (LGA) initiative to ‘drive, inspire and support council action on climate change’, helping councils to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and increase resilience in the face of climate change.
  • Zero Carbon Britain: Making it Happen brings together the good ideas and projects that are showing how barriers to reaching net zero greenhouse gas emissions can be overcome. Let’s make it happen!


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