Like several of the authorities in the South West, Wiltshire County Council has adopted a policy of aiming towards ‘carbon neutrality’ by 2030. This is considerably faster than the recently-announced UK goal of carbon-neutrality by 2050. Why? What does it really mean?
In one sense the aspiration is realistic. The IPCC recently announced that the world as a whole has only 12 years before the level of accumulated greenhouse gases pushes us beyond the 1.5°C threshold. This is 12 years at present rates of emission, less if rates increase, more if they decline. Let us grandly assume that from 2020 the world will decarbonise steadily to zero. Mathematically that gives us 24 years, still pretty tight, but better. The UK emits at a somewhat higher rate than the average, and in the past has contributed disproportionately to the present burden, so logically it should decarbonise faster. The Extinction Rebellion movement has called for zero by 2025, but this is regarded as impossible in practice, and there is a growing feeling that 2030-2035 is soon enough and actually achievable. It is this gathering consensus that has informed authorities such as Wiltshire to set their targets at 2030.
I have no reason to doubt the Council’s sincerity, but I am fairly sure they have little idea of the implications of their resolution. Possibly they imagine there exist straightforward technical solutions and ‘the boffins will sort them out’. Well, there are indeed solutions, but they will be found profoundly shocking to prevailing tastes and pockets, especially if we accept common-sense notions of fairness and responsibility.
Let me explain further. First, let us set aside the classic Green notion that we are all required to get rid of cars, live by candlelight, grow our own vegetables and holiday in Bognor. Lifestyle changes are admirable but too slow in the present context. Secondly, let us rule out the possibility that Wiltshire could simply ‘offset’ its emissions by buying credits from elsewhere. No, we assume Wiltshire genuinely attempts to shoulder the implications of its decision.
We are talking mainly about changes in energy supply, and the effects these will have on the physical fabric of Wiltshire. In other respects, life can go on much as it now does, but in a changed landscape.
The key question is then this: what emissions do we need to reduce to zero? It might seem obvious, well, you know, the emissions…. No, I don’t know. Is it for example:
· Emissions that occur right under your nose, from the gas cooker or the car exhaust?
· Emissions from the power station that generated your electricity?
· Emissions from all the institutions, business and public facilities that serve your family’s needs?
· Wiltshire’s share of all the emissions generated in the UK, including non-energy emissions?
· Wiltshire’s share of all emissions anywhere, generated on behalf of its citizens for goods, flying, shipping, food, etc.
Confronted with these options, in my experience most people go for the last one, that embraces everything. “If it’s done on my behalf, I am responsible” This is both fair and responsible. But it is not what the British Government does, which cherry-picks only the emissions arising in UK territory, and also ignores its very substantial historical emissions. This gives a value about half of what it ‘ought’ to be. To be fair, these are the emissions the UK is required to report under the Kyoto Protocol, and are widely thought of as ‘the’ emissions. So, when the headlines report emissions of x million tonnes per year or that ‘emissions fell by y percent last year’, this is the value they are referring to.
Although this value is not really fair or responsible, let us take it as the prevailing norm and apply it to Wiltshire. Suppose the residents of Wiltshire are the same as everyone else in the UK. We can calculate that the energy demand in Wiltshire is about 25 billion kilowatt hours (kWh). If Wiltshire is to be ‘carbon neutral’, we need either to supply this or to offset it by exporting as much as we consume.
This is not the place to parade the details, but I calculate that Wiltshire could meet its UK-level obligations with a mixture of
· 1000 standard-sized solar farms and
· 340 wind farms, each with 10 large turbines rated at 3 megawatts each.
There is plenty of space, and indeed half of the wind farms could be located on Salisbury Plain. Alternatively, two large or more smaller nuclear power stations – presumably also on Salisbury Plain – could generate a similar amount of electricity in much less space and with less visual intrusion, but with the characteristic problems associated with nuclear energy.
These are the basic implications of the Wiltshire County Council resolution. I am fairly sure nobody has yet sat down and worked them out.