Absolute Zero: The UK's Energy Transition

4 December 2019


Reported by Kate McNeil, CSaP Communications Coordinator

In advance of the release of the Absolute Zero report, the Use Less Group’s Professor Julian Allwood met with the current cohort of CSaP Policy Leaders Fellows to host a workshop on getting to absolute zero carbon emissions.

The Absolute Zero report, published by the UK Fires research collaboration, focuses on how incremental changes to materials, equipment and services may be a path forward towards reaching zero emissions.

While portraying developments in offshore wind, bioenergy and reductions in methane from landfills as positive steps in the UK’s emissions reduction process, Professor Allwood raised concerns about the rate of our progress.

Looking towards a target of net zero emissions by 2050, Professor Allwood argued that even taking into account plans to eliminate coal, oil and gas within the next 30 years, if we choose to eliminate offsets and trading as alternatives to true emissions reduction, reaching a zero emissions target will be difficult. He suggested that present policies heavily rely on breakthrough technology in its solutions, such as carbon capture and storage, which are not yet operating at scale. Consequently, Professor Allwood projects we will only be able to achieve a 25% real cut in emissions if current policies are maintained, a path he describes as “way off course” for what needs to be achieved to combat the effects of climate change. Moreover, he remains concerned that there are some heavy emitting industries, such as freight shipping and the cement industry, for which viable low-carbon alternatives have not yet been developed.

With this in mind, Professor Allwood has proposed a different approach to thinking about where progress towards emissions reductions can be made. He argues that we should not formulate policies reliant upon breakthrough technologies becoming viable solutions within the next 30 years. Instead, in the short term, we should focus on the wide adoption of currently available and incremental technologies, as discussed in his Absolute Zero report. Professor Allwood has emphasised the need for an increased focus on compatible innovations such as electric heat pumps, smaller household appliances, and smaller, electrified vehicles. This could be accompanied by efforts to reduce consumption by using less and using differently, an area of research which has been the main action of the Use Less Group.

While Prof Allwood praised the actions of current social protestors in raising the level of discussion on climate action, he suggested that social protest is only one part of the change process. Further steps should include solutions-oriented approaches, and Prof Allwood suggested that a designated delivery authority to oversee the emissions reduction process may be a possible way forward. Alongside the implementation of this process, he argued that we must reframe welfare, reminding ourselves that the activities we most enjoy such as hobbies and spending time with loved ones, are the ones which have the smallest energy footprint.

Throughout the discussion, workshop participants raised questions about deliverability and the potential exacerbation of inequality during the carbon transition. Concerns were also raised about the viability of political buy-in for action, and the relationship between those working in heavy emitting industries such as in fossil fuels and those in other parts of the solution equation.

Photo credit: yuqin zheng

Professor Julian Allwood

Department of Engineering, University of Cambridge