The British newspaper the Guardian has published an interactive tool on its website that allows the user to simulate different policies at the national scale for reducing the UK’s carbon footprint.
The user can opt for any number of policies, from increasing building energy efficiency, to promoting rail transport, or reducing the imports of foreign goods. The tool calculates the effect of each individual policy, based on figures provided by the government, and it also displays the combined impact of all policies on total UK emissions, with the goal to reduce them by 80% from current levels.
It is a very interesting and useful tool, as it allows you to see just how difficult it is to achieve such significant reductions. For example, by improving building heating efficiency by 90% and reducing car travel in half, a very ambitious policy goal by any standards, overall GHG emissions would only decrease by 15%.
This tool also shows that the necessary reductions cannot be achieved from a single sector, or from a single type of policy. Closing all coal, oil and gas power plants and replacing them with wind turbines would not be enough. Similarly, shifting all passenger travel from cars to buses and rail would also fall short. There is no way to achieve 80% reductions without coordinated efforts across all sectors. In fact, you need to create a scenario where you all but eliminate driving, food waste and imports, drastically reduce fossil fuel use and significantly improve building energy efficiency. The good news is that this can theoretically be done without the need for any technological breakthrough. The bad news is that it involves drastic behavioral change — so drastic in fact that it is not very realistic.
After having played with this tool, it’s interesting to look existing policies for reducing GHG emissions and see how much less ambitious they currently are. Most policies, such as smart growth initiatives or fuel efficiency standards generally aim for emissions reductions of up to 20% or 30% in one sector alone, way below the 80% goal across all sectors.