Zero carbon Britain: how to get there in 10 steps

| 21st June 2010
Zero Carbon Britain

We could achieve a zero carbon Britain much earlier and with fewer changes than you might have imagined

A blueprint for how Britain could reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to zero over the next 20 years by a combination of electrification, insulation and a massive scaling up of offshore wind reports Tom Levitt

The UK government aims to reduce carbon emissions by 30 per cent by 2020 and 80 per cent by 2050 but is this enough? The Centre of Alternative Technology (CAT) has gone further and outlined a series of measures we could take to bring our emissions right down to zero by 2030.

Below we explain how it can be down in ten steps.

1) Insulation – and lots of it

The home accounts for 28 per cent of Britain’s energy demand and is responsible for 30 per cent of our total greenhouse gas emissions. More than half of those emissions come from heating our homes.

We can reduce home energy demand by 70 per cent by improving insulation in every home (there are 6.3 million lofts with little or no insulation), improving new home designs and aiming for thermal comfort (warmer surfaces and less draught) rather than heating up buildings to certain pre-defined temperatures.

This mass refurbishment policy can be achieved through a mixture of; council rebates for energy efficiency improvements, green mortgages providing lower interest rates for investment in energy efficiency, VAT reductions on certain materials like insulation and new build regulations for housebuilders.

2) Offshore  wind

Britain has the potential to meet all its energy needs through renewables by 2030, which means no nuclear or coal-fired power stations. The bulk of this (55 per cent) can be met through offshore wind through an estimated 20,000 turbines.

Britain already has the largest deployed offshore wind capacity in Europe but as its North Sea oil and gas reserves decline it could create a new energy surplus through massive growth in its offshore wind capacity. A total government investment of £300 billion over the next 20 years would be required to facilitate this growth. This is an enormous amount, but at its peak will only amount to a little more than 2 per cent of the UK’s gross domestic product in 2008.

3) Fewer cows, sheep and green fielded countryside

Thirteen million hectares in Britain are used mainly for grazing livestock and growing feed for them. By cutting the numbers of cows (by 80-90 per cent) and sheep (by 80 per cent) we can cut methane emissions from livestock and switch the land to fast-growing energy crops like short rotation coppice. These can be used to produce heat and power. 

It would mean a diet of less beef and lamb (50 per cent less meat and dairy produce overall) and a countryside landscape of fewer sheep-dotted fields and more tall woody crops.

4) Electric cars and hydrogen buses

Electric cars produce around 50 per cent less carbon dioxide emissions compared to petrol or diesel.

We could run our entire car and taxi fleet on just 16 per cent of the total current electricity demand. Smart charging at night when demand is low and charging garages where drivers can swap batteries during the day can reduce the need for additional electricity production.

Reductions in car use can be achieved by two methods; a tax on each mile driven to make public transport costs more comparable to car costs; and town planning changes to reduce distances we need to travel and encourage cycling, walking and public transport alternatives.

5) Lots more trains

Trains can be electrified to reduce emissions and the network expanded to cut out the need for any domestic aviation at all by 2030. Improved high-speed rail connections to Europe could also reduce short-haul flights (45 per cent of flights in Europe are less than 500km). Carbon pricing could help make trains a cheaper option for consumers.

6) Massive cut in long-haul flying

Aviation is one of the fastest growing sectors of the world economy and in the UK a 200 per cent increase in air passengers is expected by 2030.

To reach a zero carbon Britain we would need to end domestic flying and cut international, long-haul flights by two-thirds. Long-haul flights account for the bulk (66 per cent) of the UK’s aviation greenhouse gas emissions. Some reductions would be expected through adoption of video-confercing for business meetings and an increase in holidaying closer to home but the bulk of reductions would need to be achieved by price regulation.

Britain has the potential to get more than 50 per cent of its energy from offshore wind

7) Biofuels

They have got a bad reputation but ‘second generation’ biofuels made from woody biomass converted into liquid may have a lower greenhouse gas impact because they can be grown on a wider variety of land types and not lead to deforestation. This fuel can be used in sectors like aviation where electrification is not possible.

8) Carbon price and taxes

To achieve the zero emissions target we would need new regulations but also an eventual carbon price of around £200 per tonne of CO2 but this could rise to as high as £500 a tonne according to CAT. This would have a huge impact on the price of carbon-intensive consumption. For example, under such a pricing a kilogram of beef would be £7 more expensive while a kilogram of chicken would cost an extra £1.75.

9) Cut food imports

We currently import 30-40 per cent of the food we eat but we can reduce that to 15 per cent. This would cut our demand on imports of food or animal feed grown on deforested land. This would probably mean an end to out-of-season produce on our supermarket shelves although some foods, like strawberries, can be grown in areas of Britain in polytunnels all-year round.

10) Clever marketing tactics

Underpinning all the above steps is a requirement for behavioural change and acceptance of things like reduced meat consumption, international travel and a very different countryside landscape.

As CAT themselves acknowledge on the issue of cutting meat consumption, ‘this proposal goes against very strong preferences, powerful vested interest and an almost universal historical trend towards higher consumption of livestock products’.

They say government and NGOs must develop multi-communication strategies for different audiences. They should also support local programmes that aim to achieve specific behavioural changes through appeals to community-orientated values.

Useful links

For more information and to download the report in full

Can our electricity grid cope with all the new wind power?
Wind energy finally seems to be moving somewhere in the UK, but without some new techniques, our grid is simply not going to cope with this flood of new green power
Wrap up your home
Insulating your home will save energy and money. This simple guide will show you where to start and what material to use
What if we all traded energy between ourselves?
The time may soon be coming when every government will need to think about rationing fossil fuel usage. What's the quickest and most equitable way to do it?
What's stopping us getting solar power from deserts?
Plans to use concentrating solar power plants in the Sahara to generate and export electricity have been on the table for years. Now, it looks as though political will might help move things forward
How to make a solar water heater from plastic bottles
Retired mechanic Jose Alano invented a simple, cheap, energy saving rooftop solar water heater which is benefiting thousands of people. Here's how it's done...

More from this author


The Ecologist has a formidable reputation built on fifty years of investigative journalism and compelling commentary from writers across the world. Now, as we face the compound crises of climate breakdown, biodiversity collapse and social injustice, the need for rigorous, trusted and ethical journalism has never been greater. This is the moment to consolidate, connect and rise to meet the challenges of our changing world. The Ecologist is owned and published by the Resurgence Trust. Support The Resurgence Trust from as little as £1. Thank you. Donate now.