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The ABSOLUTE ZERO CARBON 2050 calculations



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I’m Grant Symons. I convene Transition Edge to help us understand how we can transition to a low carbon sustainable world using leading thinking and practices.


At Cambridge University in the UK, there is a group of scientists and engineers that have calculated (for the UK) what is required to achieve absolute zero carbon emissions by 2050.  As the headline says, that means phasing out shipping, cement, air travel, sheep and dairy until such times as there are proven capabilities to replace them, or to support their existence in an acceptable way.


Before you leap out of your chair, at this proposition, there are some key assumptions and concepts that need to be understood. You may not consider these realistic in the New Zealand context, although they do look compelling overall. What happens in the rest of the world will most likely find its way here - so, we might take note.


New Zealand is blessed with significant hydro and geothermal energy resources and a small population of humans, which sees us at about 80% renewable electricity already. Let's not mention the elephant in the room; or should that be the 'cow' in the room! We recommend reading the report if you are interested (link below), what follows are our thoughts to help get you up to speed.


A key premise upon which the report is founded is that it is already too late to expect any new technology to magically change our trajectory in the 29 years we have to be Zero carbon, by 2050. The evidence is compelling and aligns with a number of other well researched views...meaning, there is no way the world can replace the existing energy, provided by fossil emissions producing energy, with non emissions energy. Wind and solar are simply not able to replace the concentrated energy we currently enjoy - leaving a substantial gap.


New technologies such as Carbon capture and storage and the use of hydrogen are not considered as serious contributors to anything we can achieve prior to 2050 and indeed might be considered unwanted distractions. Such technologies are considered possibilities for beyond 2050, along with large-scale shipping and air travel, on the proviso they can be deployed in a truly beneficial way - meaning satisfactory energy ROI, emissions and environmental impacts.


So. What is the gap and how have they calculated it? Taking a precautionary approach, the researchers have projected the UK's already relatively high current build-rates of non-emitting energy production (wind and solar) out until 2050 and assert that this is the realistic level of energy the UK will have by then. It turns out that this number is 40% less than currently enjoyed now, if current consumption is projected out accordingly. The real challenge now is to reduce our demand to fit within this constraint.


Those of us that believe that new energy generation capacity ought to be able to be built exponentially faster may be disappointed to know that deployment of physical infrastructure tends to follow a straight line, not a hockey stick one.Very similar to things like human hysteria and herd behaviour!


This is because the processes involved, including resource extraction, manufacturing, land acquisition, land use consent and development of the necessary skills and deployment capability all tend to balance each other out and eventually normalise at a constant rate - usually well below what people expect or hope for. This means the end-to-end process does not produce what we expect.


New Zealand readers will recall the aspirations of the Kiwi-Build Homes programme and how its' wheels fell off quite rapidly after promising tens of thousands of new homes and delivering only a handful, only to be abandoned after months of embarrassing publicity. Yes, renewables build will ramp up somewhat, but only to levels of constant production that ensure the build and integration of new assets into existing systems is tolerable, economic and to the required standard. 


So. With such a gap, how can we quickly work out how to thrive while using less energy? It turns out that there are many opportunities that facilitate this change and can be done a speed. The researchers are working with the large scale extractives, manufacturers and policy makers to zero in on the required changes. Human behaviour can also change very quickly.


The great news for the planet is that reducing energy consumption by 40%, by using existing technology and changing some of our behaviours, is very doable. And it will have a lot of benefits for the environment and people, not to mention providing us with a 66% chance of keeping the climate within safe limits (100% would be better still - let's aim for that!).


For New Zealand there are some very big question marks over our current primary production and the fact that we are so far away from our markets. And there are questions about how the world would cope without large scale shipping? Would this facility shrink back and then re-emerge after 2050 along with mass tourism? In the meantime, how would we get our needed wind and solar generation plant here?


The conclusion we reach is that the safest and most likely pathway to a low emissions future is to reduce energy demand and emissions along with it. Doing so requires a delicate balance between considering what we have, what we do now and in the future, and how we make the change. This is tricky.


We know that legacy approaches to engineering and consulting will only be helpful for a fraction of this activity. The real work is pervasively entwined with governance, requires deep innovation across infrastructural and behavioural dimensions and full engagement in transformation at community and business level. No one has done this work because, for the last 150 years, we have enjoyed the power of fossil fuels growing our economies, our government, and consumption, while the planet has suffered.


Going forward, it is unlikely that trying to grow the economy and build our way out of the problem, while we romanticize about the wonderful new technologies, will actually get us anywhere close to a just transition and any kind of universal wellbeing.


Meanwhile, back here in New Zealand, we might want to start considering our industry and brand image around meat and dairy, in a world that is heading in a different direction and is unlikely to look favorably on stuff that is shipped a long way. We can start by cutting the BS around our '100% Pure' branding mythology!


Frankly our track record isn't good.  Successive governments have chosen not to make the hard decisions to sort out the out of control housing crisis and similarly (sadly) they will probably lack the courage to help shift the dairy industry, until it’s too late. 


The report can be found here UK FIRES


This weeks quote - 

"The wealth required by nature is limited and is easy to procure; but the wealth required by vain ideals extends to infinity."  — Epicurus, alive in ancient Greece circa 300 BCE.

Have a great week




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