I was up early on a Saturday morning to get up to Centre for Alternative Technology in Mid Wales to the Zero Carbon Powys conference organised by Powys Transition and Low Carbon Communities Network (PTLCC) which is made up of a range of groups in the Powys area. In the spirit of Transition I was meeting Rob Proctor from Renew Wales in Abergavenny to car share the rest of the journey, unfortunately he rung me at 8am to say that his car had been stolen the night before and could I give him a lift. This put paid to my chance of catching up on some sleep for the rest of the journey, as we zipped around Welsh mountains in a tiny Smartcar, which makes the journey even more epic as it has some of the most beautiful landscape in the UK.
We arrived at the Conference just in time which was taking place at the Centre of Alternative Technology (CAT) a great place that has been at the forefront of innovation in Green technologies since the 1970’s when alternative energy was only just beginning to be discussed. So this was quite an apt place for a Zero Carbon Powys conference, especially considering it was also based around the Zero Carbon Britain report which is coordinated by CAT. It was great to see it so busy with it being sold out, Sally from PTLCC said that they had to turn people down, this showed that people are still very much interested in coming together to consider the future and how we will adapt to deal with it.
Zero Carbon Britain
So into the great conference space in CAT for the mornings talks about the latestZero Carbon Britain (ZCB) report. This was something I was really looking forward, as before working for Transition I had made a film for CAT so I knew a bit about the ZCB reports and was keen to hear how it had moved on.
An extraordinary story of people and energy
First up was Paul Allen from ZCB who took us on a whistle stop tour of the history of the human race and its relationship with natural resources, from soil to coal to oil titled ‘An extraordinary story of people and energy’. We now live in an oil based society as we all know, but this era is now coming to an end for lots of reasons such as peak oil and climate change. What I really enjoyed about Paul’s talk was that he explained the rise in consumerism and how this had been promoted by the advertising industry in order to create profit. I had a feeling he had watched the great documentary seriesCentury of the Self by Adam Curtis which goes into this in great detail. He explained how consumerism has been key in promoting the unsustainable lifestyles that we now live in. For example, the car was promoted as a sign of personal freedom for the individual which resulted in the decline of the railways and the rise of a car based society, particularly in the US.
Paul also picked up on the fact that this culture doesn’t particularly make us happy. This is a theme that Inner Transition
also attempts to tackle, the idea of creating a society that is not only physically but also mentally healthier. Paul also
talked about how the future is very often portrayed in a negative dystopian light in or cultural products such as movies, videogames and TV series. All around us we see visions of post apocalyptic futures where a small amount of humans are left over, or living in totalitarian societies, or zombies/aliens are taking over the earth. He argued quite rightly that we need to have positive vision of the future that we can promote to people. We need a new narrative and Transition can play a part in creating this positive vision of the future.
Paul stated that we can decarbonise (stop using fuels that release carbon into the atmosphere) the world and in the UK we actually have the blueprint on how to do it with the Zero Carbon Britain report. Paul explained that one of the biggest challenges to implementing this, are the huge vested interests of massive corporations and finance capital (investors/organisations with huge amounts of money who invest it in projects to make profits) in the existing oil based system, but he highlighted recent examples of investors pulling out of fossil fuels were signs of a shift occurring.
Zero Carbon Britain Film
Energy in Zero Carbon Britain
Next up was Philip James who was ZCB energy advisor. He started off by stating that in order to tackle the energy issue you need two approaches:
Power down – stopping using damaging energy sources that put Carbon in to the atmosphere
Power up – using more renewable energy
The current situation is that we have very high carbon emissions based on a fossil fuel energy system. Lots of energy is wasted, particularly in the process of creating electricity. Most of the energy we use goes on heating, appliances, industry and transport.
We need to reduce our reliance by 60% in this system, so how would this happen?
A big energy consumer are buildings, which are mainly heated by natural gas. If we switched from gas to heat pumps and solar thermal this would make a huge difference in consumption. Retrofitting buildings on a mass scale would make them more energy efficient and could reduce demand by 50-60%.
Next up was Transport, which is almost totally reliant on oil at the moment. There would need to be a huge shift towards electric vehicles that are much more energy efficient, an increase in the use of public transport, plus a 15% reduction in travel by fuel-using vehicles, which would mean people cycling and walking more. There would also need to be a reduction in flying which is a very carbon intensive activity. In order for this to happen we would have to develop a different relationship to transport.
Industry would also need to be tackled, but there is not really that much of a reduction that can be achieved because most production now happens in other countries. One way to reduce carbon in Industry, may be to bring manufacturing back to the UK to avoid transporting goods.could be quite challenging for a population used to the convenience of easily accessible travel, in particular low cost flying.
Appliances actually take up 40% of energy use, so there is a huge scope for reduction by using more energy efficient models and just using machines less.
Surprisingly all of this combined would result in a 60% reduction, without there being a real drop in the standard of living. We can get most of our energy from renewables, with wind providing the bulk of it as well as solar and ambient heat. Tidal would not really be needed and biomass would be difficult to utilise as we don’t have the landmass. Powys in particular is very well placed to produce its own energy as it has lots of wind and hydro opportunities, but it would need to be part of a larger scheme to provide energy for all of the UK. It could be a net exporter of energy to the rest of the UK.
So the big question with renewables is always the issue of keeping the lights on when energy can drop off if there is no wind for example. This can be done by, being clever about when we use energy, storing electricity, being backed up by power stations that are reliant on renewables, such as biomass, would need a lot of this power stations, but would not need to use them a lot.
Zero Carbon Britain power up film.
Land use & food in a Zero Carbon Britain
Then we heard from Alice from ZCB about land use and food.
Interestingly we may think that most greenhouse gases come from energy, but actually land use is the second biggest creator of greenhouse gases. This is mainly down to food production and food for livestock, in fact 85% of agricultural land is used for livestock. Land systems do capture some carbon, but it is only small. The land conversion to mono cultural agricultural model has resulted in lots of carbon being released from the soil. Also the use nitrous oxide fertiliser, results in most of it not being absorbed by the soil, so bacteria eats it and release a very potent greenhouse gas into the atmosphere. So all in all the current use of land has to change.
So what does this mean for our lifestyle? Well production of meat takes up a lot of land use, so reducing the amount of meat we eat would be a good start, but before the non meat eaters get a bit smug, apparently cheese is just as bad for the environment. Also cutting down on the astounding fact that 30% of food is actually wasted in the UK. A lot of this is us not eating stuff, but stupid supermarket conditions on size and look also result in a lot of waste.
In terms of food the ZCB team have not only looked carbon reduction they have also considered what would make a healthy diet for people. This would involve eating far less meat and dairy, thus freeing up land to grow healthier foods such as fruit and vegetables. This would also allow for some production of Biomass as well. Going even further the best thing would be for more people to grow their own food, as not only will you get healthier food, you also increase your fitness etc.
Another aspect of land use is to use it as Carbon Capture. Forest take carbon out of the atmosphere, so we could use land specifically to do this, by planting more forests and restoring peat lands that have been decimated. This is also the beginning of recreating the fuels such as oil that naturally occur long periods of time. This also has the added bonus of recreating wildlife habitats. You can hear more from Alice on these issues below.
Why our brains are wired to ignore climate change
After a whistle stop tour of the Zero Carbon Britain we were then treated to a talk by George Marshall from Climate Outreach and Information Network on how important the way we communicate issues are in order to get people involved in social change activity such as Transition. George has recently written a book specifically about climate change called ‘Don’t even think about it – Why our brains are wired to ignore climate change’ and his talk covered some of the issues he covers in it.
Some of the bits that stood out to me was the argument that people’s responses come from memes that get passed on, such as recycling, polar bears and ice caps and so on. These are the socially accepted ways of talking about climate change based on tradition. These are social responses and this means that climate change is a social story, not necessarily a story based on facts. Stories are essential to the way we communicate and stories can override facts. Also humans always view the world through a set of biases, one of the biggest of these is valuing the present over the future. This has huge implications for how we talk about Climate Change because it is often framed as something that is in the future. George also covered other points questions, such as “Do we need an enemy to fight climate change?” and “Can we write a new story of climate change?” I can’t go into anymore depth about these here, but you can watch George go through his ideas in this talk.
George Marshall: Wired to Ignore Climate Change
Zero Carbon Powys – Open space
So after all the talks we were all ready to not only digest all the ideas and information but also the great lunch that was being put on. The plan was to then run a big open space session on how a Zero Carbon Powys could come into being.
With everyone back in the hall Transition Trainers Mandy and Ann outlined how to do an open space session (ADD LINK TO OUR GUIDE). The aim of this session was to investigate how a Zero Carbon Powys could become a reality. Open space is a process that involves all people having opportunity to come up with a question they want to discuss, these questions are then sorted in to groups and then people meet it discuss them. After a mad flurry of questions being, they were quickly sorted into the following categories:
- Engaging with others
- What would it look like locally
- How do you do it in a low waged area
- Tidal and micro hydro energy
- Wind farms
- Getting politicians on board
- What would Low Carbon Powys look like
- Moving to a low carbon healthy diet
- Soil regeneration and biodiversity
- Changing land use in Powys
- Food policy, How to use arts and creativity
People then came together in groups and intense discussion ensued. The great thing about an open space event is that there is a ‘Law of two feet’ which means you are free to move from a group and join another when you feel like it. So I attended several of the discussions where I heard about how we could persuade politicians to get on board with the Zero Carbon idea and how arts and creativity could be used to help promote the Transition idea. After these discussions each group fed back to the whole group on their thoughts. This will provide a good starting point for developing a vision of how a Zero Carbon Powys could be achieved. This was a stimulating end to a really good event. Two of the things I found most inspiring about the whole day was, the amount of people who are really thinking about how we can change the way we live to meet the challenges that face us and also all the positive collaboration that was occurring.
It was testament to the hard work of all the people involved in organising it that it was such a great event and it signified to me the importance of bringing people together from what is quite a dispersed area to meet each other and talk about the future of their community. So well done to Sally and all those in the Powys Transition and Low Carbon Communities Network, may it go from strength to strength.