We’re all trying to live a little “greener” these days, from energy-saving light bulbs to recycling and even installing solar panels in our homes.
All over the UK, people, businesses and government are making a commitment to a cleaner, less wasteful and more sustainable future. Parliament has laid out an impressive set of targets for its environmental policy over the next couple of years, aiming to:
- Bring down carbon emissions by 34% and water consumption by 50%.
- Lower the weight of waste materials created by 30%.
- Recycle 75% of waste.
These are pretty decent goals to aim for by 2020/21, but they’re only the beginning of the government’s ambitions. They’ve also got their eyes set on 17 key targets in the form of the internationally agreed Sustainable Development Goals. These break down into a few basic groups:
- Ending poverty, hunger and inequality, both within and between nations.
- Keeping adequate and sustainable food, water, sanitation and education available to all.
- Ensuring agriculture, energy and human settlements are sustainable and safe.
- Combating climate change and damage to the ecosystem, from forests to oceans.
- Making society healthier, more inclusive and more peaceful for all.
- Building sustainable economic growth, consumption and production patterns, while developing employment opportunities.
- Encouraging innovation at every level and in every sector.
It’s an impressive and broad-ranging list, with sustainability at its heart. You only have to look at how we produce, use and even think about energy to see the changes taking place. As for why it matters, the simple truth of the situation is that the energy sources we’ve relied on in the past are going to run out eventually. What’s more, these fossil fuels are pumping greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere, ultimately leading to everything from dangerous storms and shifting water levels to floods and droughts. By tackling these problems now with sustainable “cleantech” approaches, we’re making an investment in the future for everyone.
Technologies like solar, wind and geothermal power all represent a big shift in the whole conversation about energy. However, the move away from coal, oil and natural gas can’t happen overnight. It takes time to build the infrastructure and it takes caution to make sure it’s safe and fit for purpose. Rushing into technologies that haven’t been tested on a large scale carries a lot of risk, whether that means power outages or something worse.
The UK government has set up a number of schemes to encourage businesses to switch to more sustainable energy cleantech. The Renewable Obligation, for example, sees suppliers continually raising the proportion of their electricity produced sustainably. Mainly aimed at larger-scale installations, the scheme offers rewards over the full length of a project. For smaller installations, the Feed-In Tariff scheme actually pays energy generators for the electricity they create. Any surplus generated can then be put back into the National Grid – again, for a payment.
With government estimates suggesting that about £100 billion of capital investment will be needed to meet demand for electricity in the foreseeable future, renewables already produce over a fifth of the UK’s electricity - and EU targets mean that figure could hit 30% in 2020.
Renewable energy is a big part of the overall strategy to bring down carbon emissions, but no single technology’s going to provide the solution alone. Cleantech options for electricity are pretty diverse. Wind farms can be installed either on land or offshore and hydropower remains a solid and reliable technology with roots stretching back to the late 19th century. Meanwhile, the unappealing-sounding “biomass” option can produce electricity using anything from biodegradable household waste and landfill gas through to human and animal sewage!
Renewables are firmly on the rise in the UK. We’re all starting to make better use of power, leading to a general drop in energy consumed per person of 25% compared to 2005. All told, low-carbon energy options are now producing over half of our electrical power. At the other end of the scale, coal use has hit a record low point of only 5%. Gas is still pretty popular, accounting for 39% of our power production, but it’s still very much on the decline.
It isn’t just businesses that are cottoning on to the benefits of renewable energy, either. Individual households are making their own contributions to a low-carbon future by having their own solar panels or even wind turbines fitted at home. Not only are they reducing their energy bills (or even generating income) this way, they’re also becoming more independent, lowering their production of greenhouse gasses and encouraging businesses to invest more in renewable cleantech R&D. On top of all that, there’s the little matter of leading the fight against catastrophic climate change.
Looking ahead, there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the future of renewable energy. Wind farm developments in the North Sea have enormous positive implications for Europe, and solar power is gaining traction at every level from personal to industrial.
The cost to produce sustainable power is dropping every year, and the whole landscape of the energy industry is transforming. Even the biggest names in traditional fossil fuels are getting onboard, with green tariffs and investment in cleantech methods.
As household energy generation finds its feet, we’re slowly becoming less reliant on single, centralised providers for our power. The technology’s moving forward all the time, with energy becoming easier, more efficient and cheaper to produce, transport and store.
As always, it’s innovation that drives these important issues and opportunities forward. As the full potential of cleantech becomes clearer with time, the UK’s renewable energy output continues to rise. Britain has a well established reputation as a frontrunner in innovation and R&D, with a number of high-powered schemes and initiatives aimed at putting clean energy firmly on the map.
There’s a real chance now for the UK to become a world leader in cleantech and sustainability. The challenge, responsibility and opportunity facing businesses today is now, as ever, to make their innovations matter. The rewards are very real, highly valuable and potentially world-changing.
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