A new 2050 Carbon Calculator from DECC is a promising tool but it hides weak ambition and side steps important political choices. Jonathan Atkinson reports from the British Energy Challenge roadshow that was held last Friday in Manchester Town Hall.
What does a low-carbon 2050 future look like? Many of us might have a view of what’s needed 35 year hence to mitigate and adapt to the challenges of climate change. Perhaps it’s a landscape of wind turbines or maybe a giant solar mirror orbiting the earth (or maybe some really crazy sci-fi stuff like carbon capture storage!).
While we can all argue about that future, the DECC 2050 calculator seeks to convert idle speculation in to hard fact and real dilemmas. At the Great British Energy Challenge event staged at Manchester Town Hall in association with the Low Carbon Hub, DECC sought get a view on our city’s 2050 future from a selection around 150 of Greater Manchester’s ‘green and the good’.
The tool (excitedly an open source project – whoop!) allows the user to model the two sides of the 2050 challenge: reducing energy demand on one side and increasing renewable and low-carbon energy generation on the other. With 42 ‘levers’ the user can create a series of energy scenarios, game playing to meet the UK’s energy needs and importantly its carbon emission reduction targets.
The beauty of the tool is that it distils the stark choices the UK faces. If the user attempts to close every power station whilst rejecting the need for more onshore turbines, carbon targets are met but the lights go out.
The event was ably facilitated by Mark Lynas and presented by DECC’s Chief Scientific Officer and the tool’s architect Professor David MacKay. He made for an engaging speaker, inviting participants to wrestle with an issue at a time, in small group discussions though as the session drifted this broke-down in to show of hands style voting from the room.
Mark Lynas also did a good job of facilitation on such a large-scale though, as a well-known nuclear power advocate, his neutrality slipped when discussion turned to the pros and cons of new nuclear power stations (‘nukes’ as McKay termed them in his street-scientist language – he also exclaimed ‘Yo!’ at one point).
It’s that perceived neutrality that gets to heart of the weakness in the calculator. As with many areas of climate science it attempts to create an objective, data-driven decision-making tool from what are essentially political decisions.
How much of our modern Western lifestyle are we prepared to compromise for a climate safe future? What risks are we prepared to make with the technology we utilise in the future? Who will control the energy supply and generation resources in 2050? How equitable will the transition to 2050 be and who will bear the burden of this transition?
The problem with the calculator is that it seeks bury these choices rather than expose them and only having its inventor present in the room with experts the likes of Kevin Anderson, Michael O’Doherty, John Broderick, Charlie Baker etc etc allowed these to be revealed.
Most shocking of all is the calculator’s lack of ambition, in other words the extent to which the ‘levers’ can be shifted, for example some of the most ambitious scenarios included:
- Properties retrofitted to 50% savings by 2050 (80%+ is ambitious)
- Cycling up to 5% of total journeys by 2050 (it’s at 36% in Copenhagen today)
- Total journeys to only stabilise by 2050 (no room for better planning, live/work scenarios?)
- Air travel to increase by 86% by 2050 (as a best case scenario!)
I’m all for being pragmatic, and the calculator allows you to be modest or pessimistic of your view of life in the year 2050, but to set these as best-case benchmarks for 35 years of progress is deeply depressing.
But lowered ambitions on energy demand reduction have the knock-on effect of the need for relatively more generation. Inevitably, if you can’t reduce demand you need more nuclear power stations OR huge amounts of renewables (onshore wind equivalent to 1/3 the land mass of Wales) OR we hang our hopes on experimental technology. Personally I am very dubious carbon capture storage will ever be a viable technology let alone be filling up empty North Sea fields with liquid carbon dioxide at a rate four times faster than it was emptied of oil (maybe on these grounds Nuclear Fusion technology from sea water should have been included!).
When highlighted, McKay was sanguine on these points, maintaining it was an achievement that the calculator ever made it through Whitehall departments at all and that potential existed to influence future iterations and ambitions.
Given its open source nature it should be relatively easy for more progressive types to open up the bonnet and demonstrate what a super-powered, low-carbon 2050 juggernaut might look like. Maybe at that point we can start to discuss some of the crucial decisions that lie beneath these decisions.
As with much in the movement to limit climate change, it feels like the government have started something but that it’s up to us to finish the job and reach its full potential. Let’s just hope we manage to do that before we end up with a new nuclear power time bomb or billions more wasted on dubious techno-fixes.