With the climate cited as the most pressing issue we face, the overall target of limiting global warming becomes everyone’s responsibility. From reducing carbon dioxide emissions to renewable energy generation, it’s going to take an enormous, concerted effort to convert today’s blue-sky thinking into a net-zero carbon future.
COP26 at a glance
At the heart of COP26 are a few hard, inconvenient truths. Tackling climate change hinges on slashing the carbon dioxide we’re releasing into the atmosphere. That’s going to mean some of the world’s biggest polluters changing course, and support for the nations those changes will hit hardest. At the same time, there’s a growing awareness that none of us will be insulated from the effects. Commitments made at COP26 could, and must, have wide-ranging effects on everyday life. Those effects will be felt in the ways we warm our homes, the travel we do and the food we put on our tables.
The overall goal is to limit global warming to 1.5°C, reach global net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 and protect vulnerable communities and ecosystems. With the world, in the words of the Prime Minister, at “one minute to midnight”, there’s no more time to waste on empty promises and circular debate.
Britain’s changing role in a changing world
The road from global super-polluter to a world leader in the drive to net-zero hasn’t always been a smooth one for the UK. It’s easy, for instance, to point to Yorkshire’s Drax power plant as one of the world’s top producers of carbon dioxide. Frustratingly to many, our figures don’t take into account “biomass” emissions, since they’re considered automatically carbon-neutral due to the regrowth of forests. The UK’s far from alone in this, but critics point out that regrowth takes decades, and meanwhile we’re pumping out huge amounts of carbon dioxide just as we’re supposedly doing everything we can to cut back.
Despite frustrations like these, it’s impossible to deny the progress Britain’s making toward a greener, more renewable future. The UK is a world leader in offshore wind power, boasting a 44% reduction in emissions over the last 30 years. We’re aiming to widen that reduction to 68% by 2030, with the same year seeing the discontinuation of petrol and diesel vehicles. By 2035, we’re pushing to move completely beyond coal and gas-fired power plants, along with home heating systems based on fossil fuels. At COP26, the message we’re sending is a clear one: the UK is taking renewable energy seriously.
The last 7 years are set to rank as the warmest on record, with record concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. We’re drifting “off the map” in terms of global precedent, and what we used to call “extreme” weather events are becoming all too commonplace. This is the backdrop to the rise of renewable energy production - a rise that can’t come sharply enough.
Business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng argues forcefully for “home-grown” renewable energy in the UK, leaning into the vast potential of the renewables sector. The recent surge in gas prices only underlines the point. Energy independence is considered an increasing priority, and renewables innovation is the key to achieving it.
At the same time, that very innovation is helping to limit, and even reverse, the damage caused by climate change. CCell Renewables, for example, is a British company working on a way to repair coastal erosion through innovative electronics. Their solar and wave-powered system electrolyses seawater within metal frameworks to help form limestone deposits – essentially producing a fast-growing coral reef to protect coastlines. Compared to existing methods, the CCell Renewables system is both cheaper and more eco-friendly than bringing in huge quantities of sand to do the same job.
The global impact of small changes
Despite the enormity of the challenge, the message is getting out that even small, household-level changes can scale up to have a real-world impact. ONS figures show that UK energy consumption and household waste are dropping, while recycling is on the rise. As of March 2020, 76% of those surveyed cited climate change as a serious concern. With 72% of all UK food waste coming from households, this growing awareness is encouraging to see.
For most of us, there are likely to be some lifestyle changes on the way to net-zero. Electric heat pumps will probably become more common, at least in newer homes. In fact, the government’s betting quite heavily on that with promised £5,000 grants for households installing them. Smart homeowners will be making sure their insulation’s up to the job, too – although not all the adjustments we need to make are structural. Simply eating less red meat and reducing food waste will be easy, strong steps in the right direction. Similarly, switching off unneeded lights and electronics might not save an individual much money per year, but when enough of us do it the energy savings are impressive.
Those who’ve switched to working predominantly from home during the pandemic will already have seen some savings in travel costs. When looking at the global picture, though, cutting back on travel is one of the most effective ways to reduce a country’s carbon emissions. On an individual level, the changes we make won’t need to be enormous or unduly arduous. What they will require, however, is a little ingenuity and creative thinking – and that applies at every level of life, business and society.
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