London. Saturday, July 16th, 2022. 11:27am. It’s currently 23°C, though BBC Weather claims that it’ll reach 28°C by 4pm, and Monday and Tuesday will have highs of 39°C. According to Wikipedia, that’s set to be a new temperature record for the UK, with the previous one having been set in 2019. The Met Office has issued a red weather warning across large parts of England for both days, and amber warnings across the rest of England, Wales and parts of Scotland. The warnings are, obviously, for the incoming extreme heatwaves. That’s not something that’s happened before.
We’ve had heatwaves here, sure. We even had one as earlier this year, but they’ve never been so bad as to have the national weather service issue warnings about “population-wide adverse health effects, not limited to those most vulnerable to extreme heat, leading to serious illness or danger to life.”
That’s pretty dire.
As I sit here typing this, it’s the first time I’ve been grateful to have a bedroom located mostly underground. The cool, tiled floor is going to be my haven for the next couple of days, I’m sure. However, all this does make me wonder why.
Why is this happening? Why are we so radically unprepared for experiences like this? Three of the five hottest days in UK history have occurred in the past 7 years, and most weather data that we have starts around 1910. This isn’t “breaking records”. It’s a pattern.
Patterns are just a related series of effects, and all effects have causes.
In this case, thankfully, the cause is far too obvious. I’ve recently finished reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future, a collection of fictional eyewitness accounts that give us a glimpse of one potential future if we don’t step up and start tackling the climate crisis sooner rather than later.
Maybe the book is part of what inspired me to write this piece (some of the ideas below are certainly inspired by solutions in the book), or maybe it’s just something that’s been building up in me for a while, but one thing is for sure — there’s a strange irony in the timing. Robinson’s book begins with a heatwave much like the one rocking the UK right now. The event takes place in India and results in a death toll of over 20 million. It’s one of two major heatwaves described in the novel, but it acts as the kick that many global organisations need to get their act together.
Progress towards climate goals is slow, and part of that is the scale of the problem (which, admittedly, is our fault). Still, it’s mostly down to the inaction and often counterproductive actions of powerful governments and global organisations.
The UK portrays itself as a global superpower, this ideal utopia with perfect culture, a great economy and stellar innovation. And yes, we do have a very strong position on the global stage, but we’re not all that great, and we’re far from a utopia.
Our government is a mess, focusing too hard on the wrong things and not setting climate goals high enough. Given everything we have and everything we pride ourselves on, we should be able to do a lot better. Following are a few of my thoughts on changes that could be made. Some are adjustments to existing action, others new initiatives, but each could serve as a way to reduce the country’s carbon footprint on a massive scale and turn the UK into a leader in green living.
I’d just like to preface this with a few things:
- I’m not an economist, politician, policymaker or anyone with the power to implement these ideas.
- I’m just a young adult with huge concerns about the future of the planet that my generation is going to have to fix.
- I have very… strong views on some of the below issues. Please bear with me and read through my arguments before dismissing them out of hand. If you want to disagree with me, that’s fine, but let’s have a conversation about it — I want to hear all sides of the story.
- The below ideas and suggestions are things I’ve come up with that need to be acted out by the big players. They’re not things that can be accomplished by most individuals. This doesn’t mean that you can’t contribute. If any of this article resonates with you, please speak to your local MPs, spread the word and campaign for the ideas within. This is our world to protect.
- Following on from the last point, over the coming weeks and months, I’ll be sharing some tips and guidance on how individuals can have an impact too, on as many channels as I can find the time for. Keep an eye out for those and share them if you can.
With that out of the way, let’s talk about the big issue first.
This is such a big topic that it’s difficult to know where to start, but let’s start with the wins. According to the ONS, renewable energy now accounts for 43.1% of total energy generation in the UK. That’s huge, and I’m sure it will keep improving over time. More and more companies will eventually realise the difficulty they’re going to have selling fossil fuel energy to an environmentally-conscious population.
On the flip side, the increase in renewable capacity was lower in 2020 than it has been since 2002 in terms of the percentage change. Part of this is due to COVID-19 and its effects on the global economy, but part of it is also down to the fact that we have to rely on big energy corporations to make all of this change happen. It’s remarkably difficult at the moment for individuals to have control over the source of the energy used to power their homes. This is something that my first suggestion aims to tackle.
Removing roadblocks to solar power
Solar power is the largest energy source on the planet. All of the energy we use is at least indirectly tied to the big ball of gas burning in the sky. Solar power is also the easiest way for individuals to contribute to renewable energy generation. All you have to do is install a few solar panels on your property and voilà, clean energy.
If it’s so easy, then why doesn’t everybody do it? The major factor is cost. Solar panels are expensive and can cost thousands of pounds per kilowatt of power generated, and that’s under ideal conditions.
Once solar panels are installed, it’s possible to make recoup some of the cost of the installation by selling excess energy back to an energy provider through the Smart Export Guarantee (SEG). This is a replacement for the previous Feed-in or Generation Tariffs (FiT) scheme that ended in 2019, but the downside to the SEG is that the prices are set by the energy companies you sell the energy to — there’s no flat rate determined by the government. This means that, if you have solar panels, you’ll have to shop around a bit.
Of course, solar panel owners will also pay a lower energy bill, but even with these savings, it’s still a large up-front investment.
There are a couple of ways that a good government could go about making solar panels a more viable option, the first of which would be to offer grants and subsidies for new solar panel installations. When the FiT scheme first launched, some companies would offer free solar panels to homes that met certain criteria, but that age is long past. While it’s true that solar panels have come down in price by about 75% in the past 15–20 years, it’s still not seen as a worthwhile investment for most. This reduction also means it makes even more sense for the government to pay for new installations, as it’ll cost them less to do so.
For those not eligible for the grants or subsidies, the government should offer interest-free loans on new solar installations. This is something that’s been done previously but stopped in 2015 when it looked like we were likely to meet the EU’s Renewable Energy Directive target of 20% renewable by 2020.
It’s possible to get low-interest loans from companies like Evo Energy, but there’s still a cost associated with that. By offering an interest-free loan (perhaps even offered through banks like the COVID Bounce Back loan was), the government could allow people to pay for their new installation with the savings on their energy bill and the income they receive from the SEG.
One of the other major roadblocks to having solar panels installed is permission. Most buildings in the UK come under the “regular development” bracket for solar panels, meaning that planning permission isn’t needed provided that the installation adheres to standard guidelines.
The difficulty comes when looking at protected buildings, such as listed buildings or in World Heritage Sites. If your home is a listed building, you’ll need to apply for “listed building consent” (LBC) if you want to install solar panels. This process can be long and painful, and there are lots of considerations you’ll need to make, such as the aesthetic of the building, the roof material etc. These laws are in place to preserve historical buildings and respect their original infrastructure.
This is where I have to bring in one of my aforementioned opinions:
There’s no point in preserving history to the detriment of our future.
Now, I know that there are going to be a lot of people who don’t like that, and I understand why. However, I think it’s reasonably self-explanatory — given the choice between saving the environment and our future, or saving an old building, we should choose the former every time. History has an important role to play in education so that we don’t repeat past mistakes, but there’s no point in preserving history for a future generation if there isn’t going to be a future generation.
With this said, the government should mandate that any application (within reason) for LBC concerning a solar panel installation on the roof of a building be accepted. Furthermore, other restrictions should be loosened or at the very least carefully reevaluated. This could make it easier for thousands of people to install solar panels, and we need that.
This is another topic that tends to divide a crowd. Most people see the need for wind farms and the clean electricity they provide, yet there are still protests every time plans for an onshore development are drawn up! Why? Because people argue that they spoil the view.
Well, Gladys, want to know what else spoils the view? Forest fires. Again, preserving the aesthetic of the landscape is all well and good until there’s nobody left to appreciate it.
On a more serious note, wind, wave and tidal energy combine to make the largest contributor to the UK’s renewable energy generation. Most of this comes from offshore wind, but offshore wind farms are significantly harder and more expensive to build than onshore ones. While it’s true that offshore farms tend to receive stronger winds and therefore generate more energy, well-positioned onshore farms are still incredibly good sources of clean electricity that can make a huge difference, especially in more rural areas where there’s a lot of available space.
My suggestion here is to approve plans for more wind farms and worry about the potential lower land values later. In my opinion, turbines are incredible feats of engineering that look fantastic, but plenty of people (usually the older generation) disagree.
Unfortunately for them, times have to change, and the rolling hills of the UK may have to be dotted with windmills to cope with that. And that’s fine.
Our World in Data claims that around 16.2% of global CO2 emissions are from the transport sector. The site also places transport under the “Energy” category. I do agree that, fundamentally, our transport issues relate to how we power our vehicles. I’m tackling it separately because there’s a lot we can do here, starting with road transport.
Again, let’s discuss wins first for this one. Sales of petrol and diesel cars in the UK will be banned from the year 2030 onwards, creating room and incentive for manufacturers to start designing electric vehicles (EVs) and (usually hydrogen) fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs). The government is also supporting initiatives to install electric car chargers in both homes and businesses to further accelerate the transition to “zero-emission” vehicles. New homes and buildings are required to install charging points under fairly recent legislation, and the UK’s stance on electric vehicles is often cited as “world-leading”.
But is there more we could do? Well, yes, of course, there is. There’s always more we can do. How about bringing forward the deadline to stop selling electric cars from 2030 to 2027, or better yet, 2025? The number of electric vehicle models on the market is exploding, and consumer choice is improving all the time. Gone are the days when having an electric car just meant having a Tesla, or if you couldn’t afford one, a Renault Zoe.
And struggling to find a charging point is also quickly becoming a thing of the past. According to data from Zap-Map, there were over 32,000 available chargers in the UK as of the end of June 2022. So, why wait? Stopping the sales of petrol and diesel vehicles doesn’t mean that they’re going to disappear from our roads. Seeing these cars on the motorway will likely remain commonplace for at least another 10 years after sales have stopped, which should provide plenty of time to slowly build the infrastructure to support the switch.
This would naturally hit manufacturers very hard, but that just means it’s time for another harsh truth:
Failure to be an environmentally-friendly company will soon mean the failure of the company.
This is something that Big Oil refuses to accept and is lobbying hard to prevent from becoming a reality. It’s inevitable that sooner or later, consumer habits will change completely and people will just stop buying their products. This is already underway with the rise of movements like veganism and the increase in recyclable packaging being used.
Back to cars: manufacturers with a strong lineup of alternatively-powered vehicles will do extremely well, as they should. Bringing the switch forwards would likely result in a shift in market shares away from traditional petrol and diesel manufacturers like Ford and VW towards more innovative companies like Tesla, Hyundai and Kia. This shift would stick around for a while. Again, I don’t see a problem with rewarding the companies that have pushed themselves toward a more sustainable future.
Transport of goods
This is a topic that I just want to highlight briefly, but a lot of diesel is burned transporting goods from factory to shop floor in large lorries, and these are just as electrifiable as cars and bikes.
Take Lübeck, Germany for example. They’re testing a concept they’re calling the eHighway. This is a motorway with long overhead power cables, much like a tram line, that trucks can connect to for clean, electric power. Even though it’s just a concept at the moment, it goes to show that a bit of creativity can solve a lot of problems. Tom Scott created a great video explaining this in a bit more detail.
It’s no secret that public transport is far more environmentally-friendly than personal transport. A bus or coach can usually carry around 10 times more people than a car but doesn’t use 10 times the energy. The same goes for trains, both overground and under. The problem with these services is that, unless you’re in a city, they tend to be… less than ideal ways to get around. They’re usually slow, fairly limited and can be expensive at times (though probably less than buying fuel at the moment if you’re a solo traveller).
London is one example of where public transport is great. The underground, while often complained about, is fantastic, and there are frequent buses as an alternative or for late-night transport. On top of that, the tube trains are electric and most buses also run on some sort of clean energy.
So why can’t other cities be the same?
And, apart from cost, there’s also very little reason that buses, overground trains, trams etc. couldn’t be fitted with solar panels on their roof. This wouldn’t be enough to power the vehicle completely, but it would allow it to go further on a single charge.
The same logic could also be applied to planes, ferries, boats and so on. Many private sailing boats are already fitted with solar panels to charge implements on board.
Solar isn’t the only alternative energy source that would work for these vehicles. Pressure can be turned into electricity by way of piezoelectric generators that could be installed in the floors of trains or ferries. This way, the simple act of people getting on and off a bus could serve as a way to power the lights inside. It’s little things like this that could add up to a huge carbon saving if implemented in enough places.
“Okay, Isaac,” I hear you say. “This all sounds great, but the global economy is crashing hard. How is the UK supposed to afford all of this?”
And to that I say: I don’t know. I’m not an economist. I don’t have the full picture and I can’t make the decisions myself. I can, however, present a few thoughts on suggestions that have been floating around, so that’s what I’m going to do.
This one is fairly simple to understand. We need to start giving companies a financial incentive to go green, and I think that a great way to do that is to charge them more and more the longer they insist on burning carbon.
The carbon tax would be a progressive tax that increases over time and would tax corporations based on their CO2 emissions for a given year. This would require stringent monitoring at both the company and national levels and it would certainly not be an easy task.
The increased costs would naturally propagate down to the consumer, but as long as that’s reasonably well managed, I don’t think that’s too much of an issue either. It would dissuade consumers from buying products with high associated emissions and steer them towards greener alternatives in the long run.
The other side of this coin would be tax relief for carbon sequestration (removal and storage). There’s a huge buzz about “carbon offset this” and “carbon offset that” at the moment, and companies are paying good money to make themselves appear carbon neutral by effectively paying someone else not to emit the same amount of carbon.
Carbon offset is bullshit.
At the end of the day, CO2 is still being emitted into the atmosphere. These large corporations should instead be investing in projects that remove CO2 from the atmosphere. Ideally, more than they generate. It’s more expensive, yes, but also far more effective. Companies that invest in carbon removal should be rewarded with some kind of tax relief, and companies that do the removal themselves should be rewarded even more heavily. Every stick needs a carrot to balance it out, and this is a great opportunity for cleantech to prevail and grow.
If you’ve read to here, thank you so much for putting up with my ranting and sticking with me. I hope I’ve convinced you that there’s a lot more we could be doing as a country. If anything I’ve said resonates with you, please spread the word! I’d also love to hear your thoughts on everything above, regardless of your stance on each matter.
If you want to start making changes to your own life to try and live in a bit more of an environmentally-friendly way, I’m going to be sharing a few thoughts and guidelines on how to do that without having too much of an impact on your day-to-day soon. There are lots of big things you can do that make a massive environmental impact like going vegan or walking everywhere, but I’m going to be focusing on smaller changes you can make without having to alter your lifestyle too much or completely uproot yourself.
If that sounds interesting to you, please keep an eye out on my social channels, and perhaps even sign up for my newsletter. It’s been fairly… dead recently, but I want to get some of the ideas in my head out into the world, and a newsletter means they come straight to the people that want them most. That said, I’ll also share everything on Medium, my website and Twitter.
I do hope this has given you some food for thought. I hope to meet you in a cleaner world someday, free of heatwaves and plastic oceans. I really do.