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Meeting Zero Emissions by 2030

If humanity is serious in its determination to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees and achieve zero carbon emissions by 2030 as one of the critical targets to achieve this, it is running out of time and change based on business as usual processes will not be fast enough, nor sufficiently transformative to avert a climate calamity.

The capacity to respond in a crisis

If humanity is serious in its determination to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees and achieve zero carbon emissions by 2030 as one of the critical targets to achieve this, it is running out of time and change based on business as usual processes will not be fast enough, nor sufficiently transformative to avert a climate calamity.

There is therefore a compelling case to look for other strategies/mechanisms that can trigger a more immediate and more transformative response that involves all tiers of government and be applied at an international level. But it will also require a thorough understanding of the scale and complexity of the challenge and a willingness to apply lessons from earlier crises. The “climate emergency” is a crisis driven in two ways. Firstly by pollution of the geosphere by greenhouse gasses and secondly by degradation/ destruction and pollution of the biosphere. These are linked and interact but it will be the latter that will soon dominate as the principal driver of climate change. Both are the result of human activity so it is a crisis of our making but its impact has been so profound that it has upset many of the natural cycles and functioning of the earth system.

Crises of various kinds have occurred throughout human history, many of which resulted in the collapse of society. Most have occurred at a local level but increasingly at a district or larger regional level. All provide valuable lessons and it is critical these be understood and applied in an attempt to address our current crisis which has become global in scale.

Lessons from previous collapses were the subject of a presentation by Dr Graham Turner at the Sustainable Cities Sustainable Transport forum in 2009. He concluded by saying the underlying cause of failure was the very common recourse to using technology rather than changing behaviour. It is essential this lesson be applied in response to our “climate emergency”, but is at odds with current thinking, particularly by politicians and most governments that technology will be the answer to our environmental problems. This does not deny the role technology can and should play in addressing our climate emergency but it must be used as a tool to promote behavioural change, not business as usual.

Changing this mindset will be a huge challenge but it presents humanity with a choice which ultimately is about its collective determination to succeed or fail. If humanity is serious in its determination to succeed it is running out of time and change based on business as usual processes will not be fast enough, nor sufficiently transformative to avert a climate calamity. There is therefore a compelling case to look for other strategies/mechanisms that can trigger a more immediate and more transformative response that involves all tiers of government and be applied at an international level.

History has demonstrated that when humanity has been confronted with a crisis and recognised it as such there have been occasions when it has been averted using a combination of radical behavioural change, coupled with innovation and technological developments and that this can be achieved within timescales that had previously been considered unrealistic or impossible. This was demonstrated in WW2 and more recently by the OPEC oil crisis in the 1970’s which is the subject of a paper prepared by the Rapid Transition Alliance, April 2017 “ From Oil Crisis to Energy Revolution – How Nations Once Before Planned to Kick the Oil Habit”. This paper has been quoted extensively below and illustrates the scale and impact of the response.

The 1973 oil crisis shocked most Americans and the world in general because it was a rebuke to the growing prosperity of the postwar era, which was built on an ocean of cheap energy, but it demonstrated that great innovation can emerge as a direct result of crisis. Oil prices almost quadrupled to over $12 a barrel and the ensuing energy crisis marked the end of the era of very cheap gasoline. The share value of the New York Stock Exchange dropped by $97 billion, ushering in one of the worst recessions the world had ever seen.

It resulted in energy conservation and a whole new industry based on renewable energy. Overnight, national governments were forced to put in place measures to drastically reign-in consumption – and people had to change their behaviour. Despite the deep recession this caused, economies survived and industries adapted. Faced with a sudden lack of oil, energy conservation and efficiency became a top priority. Research into renewables also stepped up.

The US government was forced to introduce fast, severe measures to ensure the economy did not grind to a halt: Americans used to cheap, plentiful fuel found themselves in queues around the block to fill their cars, daylight saving measures to reduce the need for energy for lighting continued throughout 1974-75, and a new national speed limit of just 55 miles per hour was introduced. Notably, there was an understanding that during this period of rapid adaptation it was vital to prioritise the population’s overall welfare and that policies should be implemented with demonstrable fairness. A ‘Congressional Declaration of Purpose’ announced that ‘positive and effective action’ was needed to protect ‘general welfare . . . conserve scarce energy supplies’ and ‘insure fair and efficient distribution’.

Congress created the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to ensure the supply of at least 90 days of oil in case of another embargo. Similar emergency measures were swiftly enacted by governments across Europe and the rest of the developed world, leading to improved energy use and efficiency in a variety of sectors- and embedding the idea of saving energy in the minds of a generation.

Scientists, green activists and inventors in several European countries and North America turned simultaneously to the idea of harnessing the wind, the sun and geothermal hot water to produce electricity domestically. None of these technologies were new, but they were all experimental or used in a limited way- such as US western rural wind-powered water pumps, alternative fuel cars, and, ironically, solar systems on oil rigs.

The oil crisis of 1973 forced us to examine energy use and efficiency, encouraging accelerated innovation and research into renewables. This encouraged changes in behaviour alongside state sponsorship of alternatives, with the birth of energy conservation laws and governmental and non- governmental organisations to monitor use.

The car industry changed overnight as US car manufacturers saw a sharp decline in demand for its big, heavy gas-guzzlers. There was a shift of balance in the automotive industry toward the more fuel-efficient models designed in East Asia and Europe. The quest for better fuel economy, lower fuel bills and so-called energy independence brought about the start of hybrids and electric vehicles. It also brought a wave of technology innovations that continue to deliver increased efficiency, including turbocharging, lightweight materials, front-wheel drive, eight-speed transmissions, and direct fuel injection.

Government programs in many countries invested funds in alternative sources of energy, such as solar, wind, geothermal. From the mid 1970s through to the mid 1980s, the US government worked with industry to advance wind turbine technology and enable large commercial wind turbines. This effort was led by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and was a successful government research and development activity.

Denmark became a pioneer in developing commercial wind power during the 1970s, and today a substantial share of the wind turbines around the world are produced by Danish manufacturers and component suppliers. To encourage investment, families were offered a tax exemption for generating their own electricity locally. Some families bought their own turbines, but most purchased shares in cooperative-owned community wind turbines. In 2015, wind power produced the equivalent of 42.1% of Denmark’s total electricity consumption. The cooperative model spread to Germany and the Netherlands.

The oil crisis hit the country hard, resulting in frequent power blackouts and a three-day working week. In January 1974, the government started financing research and development into energy, including renewable resources such as geothermal and hydropower. The UK government used TV advertisements, posters, and “Switch off” stickers to encourage consumers to use less. It also subsidised energy surveys, which led to the rise of energy consultancy. The Energy Conservation Demonstration Projects Scheme subsidised early adopters of new technologies in return for the right to disseminate information about the results.

In Sweden, the oil crisis, coming on the back of environmental legislation, resulted in the wood pulp industry reducing its fossil fuel use by 70%. Most of the shift came from developing biofuels. Initially, reductions in oil consumption and improvements in energy conservation were accomplished by relatively small measures, but long-term research and development (R&D) was required to push technology development further. The need for international competitiveness played a role too, as the government encouraged inter-firm and state-firm collaborations toward the “greening” of the industry.

The industrialised world had shifted from coal as the major source of energy in the 1950s to oil by the 1970s. By 1970, the UK was dependent on oil for 94% of its total energy consumption.

In 1972, the US Secretary of the Interior released an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) stressing the importance of minimizing the nation’s dependence on foreign oil.

The rapid transition away from oil in 1973-74 was painful for many, but it was accomplished very quickly. Governments provided the framework, the legislation and the financial support; while individuals responded to the need for energy conservation; industries funnelled money into R&D to reduce energy use and to find alternative sources; and environmentalists started to hold everyone to account.

The idea of the oil running out was a familiar nightmare in the popular psyche. The developed economies had known since early in the process of mass mining of coal and oil, that there would be a peak and a time when these resources ran out. Theories about how to replace fossil fuels had been discussed since long before they assumed their late 20th century dominance. Even in 1912, a paper in Scientific American hypothesized that soon fossil fuels would run out, leaving solar power the only option for the US, and investment in solar power technology was popular up until the First World War. In the 1950s, the concept of peak oil began a new drive towards renewables and solar, hydropower and others forms of energy generation were seized upon by both environmentalists and industrialists.

Meanwhile, a growing environmental movement, the development of environmental sciences and a push against pollution (such as the Clean Air Act in the US and equivalents in other countries, most of which passed in the 1960s and 1970s) meant that more than ever before, renewable energy became not just a scientific innovation for the future, but a necessity.

When governments legislate for a change that is needed, it is surprising how quickly people respond.
One of President Nixon’s first moves after the OPEC ban on exports was to initiate “Project Independence”. The US was to meet its own energy needs “without depending on any foreign energy sources” by 1980. In November 1973, Nixon called for people to make a personal sacrifice: “It will be essential for all of us to live and work in lower temperatures. We must ask everyone to lower the thermostat in your home by at least 6 degrees…”

The new US Department of Energy started its Low Income Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP) program, helping the nation’s most vulnerable reduce energy use. The Residential Conservation Service (RCS), established by the 1978 National Energy Conservation Act, promoted energy audits and asked consumers to insulate their homes, weather-strip windows, wrap water heaters, turn down thermostats, and turn-off lights. Some states offered offered a price per kWh paid for verified energy savings. In 1977 the US Department of Energy launched the Solar Energy Research Institute in Colorado – the first federal facility dedicated to harnessing power from the sun.

In the UK, a four-fold increase in oil prices forced not only the creation of the first Department of Energy that year, but also a rethink about energy efficiency. The Department’s Industrial Energy Thrift Scheme was the first industry-wide attempt to gather information on energy use and to provide advice on how to improve energy efficiency on site. Over 6000 site visits were carried out during the mid to late 1970s and the information gathered was aggregated and published in industry sector guides.

In 1970, less than a quarter of one percent of electricity was generated from renewable sources worldwide. In contrast, by March 2019, globally, around one third of electricity generating capacity was from renewables including hydropower. New generating capacity from renewables now outstrips all new fossil fuels combined. Some nations generate more than 50% of their total electricity from renewable sources. Famously, in 2015 Costa Rica generated 100% of its electricity from renewables. In July, 2018, Baynes (2018) reported that Germany generates enough solar energy in six months to meet the nation’s energy needs for an entire year.

In 1973, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) formed a separate committee, the AIA Committee on Energy, dedicated to researching passive systems, such as reflective roofing materials, and technological solutions, such as triple-glazed windows.

The “DTH zero-energy house” was designed in Denmark by by Prof. Vagn Korsgaard (Kopenhagen, 1973) as a Passive House. Simultaneous experiments in the US and Germany developed super- insulated homes. US federal investments in energy R&D more than doubled from 1973-1976.
In 1977, US President Carter delivered an energy speech arguing for conservation and alternative fuels. 1978 saw the world’s first solar powered village at the Tohono O’odham Reservation, Arizona. December 1980 saw the world’s first modern wind farm comprising 20 wind turbines built in New Hampshire, USA.
Rapid Transition Alliance presented the following lessons for rapid transition:

• Crises and innovation are often linked. When circumstances demand it, major changes can occur and very quickly when societies are confronted with a crisis.

• For rapid transition to be acceptable, changes have to focus on protecting general welfare and be delivered with demonstrable fairness.

• Governments can – and should – conscientiously galvanise, support and incentivise positive action toward rapid transition.

We have little choice now but to pursue this path if we wish to avoid a global calamity but there are other lessons.

Firstly the need to recognise the crisis, formally declare it as such, and embody it in legislation to ensure change is institutionalised. This may sound obvious but climate denial has been strong for many years and has stymied action.

Secondly the need for pressure for change to be maintained, with action plans, milestones and measurable targets which are monitored and can be modified as required, particularly if the situation becomes more urgent and demands more rapid change.

Thirdly, counter interest groups such as the fossil lobby and other business lobby groups that have a vested interest in preserving business as usual and seek to derail the change process or use the climate emergency in a way that promotes their own agenda and that compromise overall goals.

Fourthly, recognition of the dimension, scale and complexity of the challenge, that there is no simple single fix solution, that it requires fundamental system change and must address challenges associated with the biosphere as well as the geosphere.

Fifthly, behavioural change is key, and must be the primary aim and that technology must be used as a tool to promote this, not business as usual.

Sixthly, do what works, even if this means abandoning accepted beliefs, values and aspirations/ expectations etc, recognising as Prince Charles urged our Prime Minister recently, “this is our last chance saloon”.

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