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Low-carbon or sustainable economy?

By 15th August 2016 Sustainability No Comments
Low-carbon or sustainable UK economy? It's not exactly black-and-white - more at www.remsol.co.uk

What should we be pursuing in the UK, a low-carbon or a sustainable economy? Aren’t they the same thing?

We hear a lot about the need to transition to a low-carbon economy, but much less about moving to a sustainable economy.

“But aren’t they the same thing?” you ask. Well, no, not especially.

For instance, right now, a low-carbon UK economy may not prove to be sustainable in either an environmental or literal sense; a wholesale move to 100% renewable energy would likely result in more processing of rare earth metals in places like China, whilst battery technology for energy storage could result in greater extraction of lithium in places like Bolivia – putting more pressure on global resources (according to the Footprint Network, 8th August 2016 marked Earth Overshoot Day, the date when humanity exhausted nature’s budget for the year, leaving the planet in an ecological deficit for the remainder of 2016) that will one day inevitably run out. At the same time, because many industries rely heavily on large quantities of natural gas, a move to an energy system based solely on low-carbon renewables – that only produce electricity – would mean those industries could no longer function.

Essentially, the aspiration to build a low-carbon energy system in the UK could actually be at odds with efforts to become more environmentally and economically sustainable. And it’s even more stark when you consider where the UK sits in the world rankings when it comes to carbon emissions: according to the Global Carbon Atlas, we’re in 15th place at 428 million tonnes of CO2 (MtCO2) – the top 5 are:

#1 China 9,680 MtCO2

#2 USA 5,561 MtCO2

#3 India 2,597 MtCO2

#4 Russian Federation 1,595 MtCO2

#5 Japan 1,232 MtCO2

Viewed another way, it means that the UK’s carbon emissions are equivalent to just 2% of the top 5 emitters, on a planet of 195 countries. Interestingly, Germany, which is often held-up as a paragon of low-carbon energy generation, is in 6th place at 789 MtCO2.

But it works the other way too. Recycling glass, for example, uses lots of natural gas in the melting furnaces, and so whilst perceived to be an environmentally sound alternative to landfill, it creates extra demand for fossil fuels.

So, what should we be focused on achieving – a low-carbon or sustainable economy?

It’s not exactly black-and-white

The reality is – there’s no easy answer. It’s a constant balancing act.

We make changes to our energy infrastructure that reduce climate-change emissions on the one hand, only to often create problems somewhere else.

Take biomass as a great example: Britain’s largest coal-fired power station, Drax in Yorkshire, now burns biomass alongside coal. It’s seen as cleaner-burning and, because wood biomass comes from trees that can be replanted, it’s also viewed by many as a sustainable resource. Nina Skroupska, chief executive of the Renewable Energy Association, recently commented that “alongside technologies such as solar, wind, tidal, geothermal and energy storage, biomass has an important role in the transition to a diverse and flexible low-carbon generation mix.” Others, however, point to problems of habitat destruction and the fact that the majority of biomass burned at Drax is imported from the US – creating shipping emissions in the process – that may lessen its overall carbon savings.

What we would probably benefit from is a more holistic approach, which we could achieve by better embracing the UN Sustainable Development Goals. These recognise the importance of clean, affordable energy and climate action but combine them with the need for economic growth, industry, innovation and infrastructure, sustainable cities and communities, and responsible consumption and production.

If you agree, now is the time to have your say. The Environmental Audit Committee is currently conducting a Parliamentary inquiry into the Sustainable Development Goals in the UK, which you can access here.

Too narrow a focus – whether that’s on the creation of a low-carbon economy, or any other single element of the UN SDGs – could ultimately prove to be self-defeating as a result of silo thinking. We need broader horizons if we want to shrink our ecological footprint as a whole.

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