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Absolute Zero climate report explained

Dr Gareth Dale teaches politics at Brunel University. He is a co-editor of Green Growth (Zed, 2016). His articles are available here. He tweets at @Gareth_Dale

In 2019, researchers at the Universities of Cambridge, Oxford, Nottingham, Bath and Imperial College London, published the Absolute Zero report. It aims to show how the UK can deliver on its climate change commitment, as laid down in The Climate Change Act of 2008 and its 2019 amendment.

I invited the report’s lead author, Julian Allwood, Professor of Engineering and the Environment at the University of Cambridge, to summarise its main findings.

The report offers a formidable refutation of the case that a solution to the climate emergency exists in the form of breakthrough technologies.

But, might it contain a utopianism of its own?

Gareth Dale: The report outlines what is necessary in order to reduce UK emissions to zero by 2050. Why 2050?

Julian Allwood: 2050 is the target in the Climate Change Act, and is the reference date that most climate scientists have been talking about to develop some sense of urgency. It also happens to be my life expectancy, so I take it quite personally!

GD: What is meant by the need to reduce emissions to ‘absolute zero’?

JA: The phrase absolute zero reflects the fact that there are no negative emissions technologies (NETs) likely to be available at scale by 2050. The public discussion is currently talking about ‘net zero’, which is meaningful only if there are those NETs. But although various NETs are being discussed, none are operating at a meaningful scale, and none are likely to by 2050.

GD: Your report disagrees with one parameter used by the Climate Change Act: the territorial unit.

JA: The Climate Change Act has been written to legislate for the emissions which are on UK territory, and that happens to be convenient for UK politicians wanting to claim the most achievement with the least action, because since 1990 we have shut many emitting industries. 

If you look at our balance of trade in physical goods, they were roughly balanced in 1990 and now obviously we are significant net importers. The fact that our steel production has halved since 1990 says nothing about the emissions resulting from our purchasing which have grown with our GDP but which occur in other countries from which we import goods.

It seems to me there’s a very clear moral argument, that our targets should be based on our consumption, not on our territory.

GD: One of the central myths that breeds complacency is that breakthrough technologies will gallop to the rescue, when instead we require radical action.

In your words, this is the “comfort blanket of techno-optimism". So, oil and coal can be burnt because we’ll capture and store all the carbon; or biomass can be burnt and all the carbon stored; transport can switch from fossil fuels to hydrogen; planes can fly on biofuels and batteries. 

All these technologies exist, at least on the drawing board. Why does your report argue they will be of no avail until at least 2050?

JA:  All of the data on past transitions in large energy and other infrastructure shows that it takes a long time for big change to emerge. A good example is that in 2004 the Scottish Government recognised that the Forth Road bridge had lost 10 per cent of the strength of its reinforcement, due to corrosion, and needed to be replaced urgently. So they ran the project as fast as they could. 

It took 14 years before the new bridge was open. For eight years no construction occurred, because they had to negotiate public financing, land rights, environmental concerns, concerns from local communities, and so on and so on. All of which have to be negotiated with large scale infrastructure developments. 

For every major transition in the energy industry, that process of negotiations and permissions has caused a limit to the rate at which new technologies can be deployed. And typically, from the moment that something is first demonstrated, it takes 30 to 50 years before we get to the point at which large scale deployment accelerates. 

GD: I understand that major new technologies normally take decades to reach full scale. But this stems from the consultation processes and getting a sufficient mass of public or venture capital on board, and suchlike. Could these steps not be sharply accelerated, given the crisis situation, as in times of war? 

JA:  Firstly, there isn’t yet political agreement that there is an emergency. That is not yet driving action in the way that war generates action. 

Secondly, it is clearly the case that if you abandon elements of democracy then you can make things happen more rapidly than if you consult. But again, we aren’t near that point. 

GD: Your report recommends a radical transformation to the way we live. All shipping must be phased out by 2050, and likewise all use of cement-based mortar or concrete. In Britain, all airports except Heathrow and Glasgow will have to close by 2029, and those two by 2049. The report doesn’t use the word ‘degrowth’ but is that the implication, at least until 2050?

JA: I don’t think we know that, actually. We point to four activities in the report that have no electrical substitute. The first is ruminant meat. Over the last three years we’ve seen an extraordinary growth in vegetarian and vegan eating, motivated I think by the 1.5 degree report of the IPCC. That was the most obvious public reaction to that report. 

Clearly, in the last four weeks we’ve seen an extraordinary change in attitudes to flying, and although that is now, in the last week, being mandated, the bulk of the reduction was voluntary, as people associated flying with the fear of harm. 

Of course the stock market has fallen very rapidly, but I don’t think anyone believes that it’s fallen to a stable state. We’re in a period of transition — we don’t know what the economic effects will be. We also note in the report that there will be substantial growth associated with zero emissions. 

For example if we electrify all current uses of energy then that will entail a massive growth in both the production and installation of, for example, electric heating, electric transport, and so on. And the fact that for a period we won’t be flying and we’ll have no alternatives to shipping means that we’re going to be reconfiguring the economy. 

Whether that means degrowth or not we don’t know. I sort of think that’s a red herring, compared with the recognition that this isn’t a transition that we can opt into or opt out of. One of the slightly misleading analyses that keeps getting reported, dating back to the Stern Report, is to talk about the cost of mitigating climate change as being a fraction of GDP, as if not mitigating it would allow GDP to grow more. 

But if you think about it, not mitigating means the end of GDP. So we’re using the wrong metric to compare the cost of mitigation with the cost of not mitigating.

GD: Your report is sober and realistic in its debunking of technological utopianism, but it purveys its own utopianism on matters of economy and class. In calling for wholesale reduction in most economic sectors, and radical economic deglobalisation (end of aviation, end of shipping), it - and the Climate Change Act itself if it generates serious and consistent policy changes on the lines you propose - will bring forth tremendous opposition, even hostility, from capitalists, from the business community. 

Not just from the usual suspects — aviation, fossil fuel corporations, etc — but much more widely. How do you propose that the fight is taken to those interests?

JA: I’m not quite sure I agree. It does imply deglobalisation in some productive activities, particularly ones associated with high-volume materials. I don’t think it implies anything about deglobalisation of intellectual activity. It’s a myth that streaming emits anything like aviation; it doesn’t. So, the virtual connections will allow many of our currently globalised activities to continue. 

I also want to return to the fact that I’m not particularly putting forward a position here. We’re reflecting what’s already in the law. So, the question isn’t pointed at us, as a research project, but is pointed to us collectively, about how we want to respond. 

The sunset industries like aviation, fossil fuels, cement, blast furnace steel, are of course going to oppose it because they have to shut, but we just have to face up to that, and make sure that their voice isn’t given undue attention. The so-called revolving door between the fossil fuel industry and Whitehall is pretty alarming in that respect and needs to be pointed up and made very visible.

I think also we can focus on the opportunities where people will benefit from being part of the change. It’s striking over the last few weeks [during the coronavirus outbreak] that that has happened: despite the loss of social interaction—none of which is implied by Absolute Zero—there’s been wide acceptance of the need for change, and presumably new things will start growing out of the constraints, over the next twelve weeks. 

If we’re sitting in our houses, feeling cut off, then new things will emerge that we can’t currently anticipate. Overall, my feeling is that until we embrace the realities of the constraints that are in law and that are consistent with climate science, we can’t anticipate where the innovations will emerge. 

So, focusing on degrowth, and whether it happens or not, I almost feel is a slight distraction from embracing the transformation, recognising that the early 

GD: Finally, the report directs our attention to the wrenching changes that are urgently required if the planet is to be maintained in a habitable state. But you appear confident that such a transformation is compatible with ‘living well'.

JA: Yes. The one thing to add is that the most positive aspect of the report is on its back cover: the activities that everybody says they most value, the things that old people reflect on and say are the most important things to pass on to the next generation, the things that we reflect in the national Time Use Survey as our most valuable activities are all low-emitting and can all grow and expand. 

So, there’s actually a great opportunity for a lot of positives to be wrapped up in the journey that we’ve already signed into law and are committed to making.

This opinion piece is republished from The Ecologist - read the full version here