Stories of Change: The past, present and future of energy

Stories of Change Team Library item 16 Aug 2017

Interview with Paul Allen

Paul Allen

Paul Allen

Utopia or Dystopia - can CAT help? Paul Allen, from The Centre for Alternative Technology in Wales, was interviewed at Tipping Point for the Stories of Change project.

My name is Paul Allen, I’m an electrical engineer by training and I spent 25 years working at the Centre for Alternative Technology, because as an engineer I’ve been drawn to this idea of alternative technology, of rebuilding the relationship between human beings and technology, so technology isn’t dominating what we do but technology works for the benefit of the citizen within the bounds of what the planet can support. And we’ve been looking at all sorts of different threats and different opportunities over the 25 years, but really from shortly after 2000 the evidence coming out from the climate science was that we have to look at the threats that will feed back on themselves and become very dangerous. And there are some other problems that perhaps we can leave for 10-15 years before we really have to solve them. So we set out to look at what it would be like to actually solve the problem of runaway climate change, to keep below 2°C, as we all saw the world leaders commit us to doing in Copenhagen. So that gave birth to the Zero Carbon Britain project.

We can keep below 2°C The work we’re doing at the moment is really core to the mission of CAT over the past forty years that it has been in existence. Within the first five years of CAT being formed in 1974, the vision was that it would clip together learning about all the different alternative technologies that had been investigated and present it to government. And we did, we sent an alternative energy strategy for the UK to Tony Benn’s Ministry of Energy back in 1978, when people thought nuclear was going to be so cheap it wouldn’t be worth metering, when we hadn’t tapped any North Sea oil and gas. It was very much in a different direction to the prevailing narrative of the time but it said we can think about energy differently. So when we heard the severe nature of the climate science, we thought let’s visit this alternative energy strategy again and do it in much more detail. So in 2007 we launched Zero Carbon Britain at the All-Party Parliamentary Climate Change Group in London, we sent copies to all different MPs of all different parties saying, look, we can actually de-carbonise much faster than the emissions pledges. We can de-carbonise fast enough to keep below 2oC, as we’ve all committed to do, as we know we must do. We have the technologies to do this. We can power down demand, we can power up renewables, we can even do it without any nuclear. The technologies exist, the abilities exist; what we’re lacking is social and political leadership to make it happen, which has sort of poised a new question for society.

Zero Carbon Britain

One of the ways that I find storytelling so interesting and so powerful is because I go out and I present our scenario for Zero Carbon Britain, how we can get to net zero emissions within a couple of decades, to civil society groups – University of the Third Age, church groups, transition groups. We took it to the Reclaim the Power protest camp in Blackpool, all over the place, but it’s a very detailed technical scenario of powering down demand, powering up renewables. We need to set that in a narrative arc, a much wider narrative arc that explains the extraordinary story of human beings’ relationship with energy. From how fossil fuels were laid down, how we lived for thousands of years without accessing fossil fuels based on our annual sunlight ration. But then the coming of coal, how that broke so many relationships with the natural world and changed so many things, and now in the post-carbon economy. So once people get to see this larger story they understand the value of the particular keystone tool that we offer as part of opening the new chapter, the next stage in this relationship of human beings and energy that we know we have to do but it takes people to a place where they can make their own leap. When they make their own leap they leap to wherever they need to be, but they own that leap rather than us just saying, ‘No, things will have to be like this’. Because our scenarios are meant as conversation starters rather than this is the new bible, thou has to do everything as we define it. We’re just saying, no, this sort of arc is possible, we can open a new chapter. We need to talk about that.

Normalised high energy usage.

The way I tell a story varies depending on the different group. It depends whether they’re outdoors, indoors, whether they’re sitting down, how old they are. So I always tweak the story to match the audience’s expectations, how technical they are. I don’t like to baffle people with science. But I’ve been taking PowerPoint to new places; I’ve stripped all the words out of the PowerPoint so all it is is pictures. I use the PowerPoint presenter tool so I know what pictures are coming up next and my voice is actually ahead of the image. So they’re hearing me talking about things and then it appears, whereas conventionally in PowerPoint up comes the script, everybody reads it and you think, oh, you’ve got to sit and wait for this fellow to read this out now. So it turns it on its head, but particularly we’ve been looking at archive footage, archive footage of the sort of things that led us into this conspicuous consumption, high energy lifestyle. And the things that normalise it, because the amount of energy we use today is off the radar of any historical precedent for any society anywhere in the history of humanity but it’s been normalised. People think that’s just how it is always – aircraft on the runway and petrol in the tanks. But it isn’t normal so we have to look at how that has been imposed upon us. Or the idea of using material goods to state who we are and bond relationships with friends and family. By looking back over those archives, those archives speak with new words now because people see them with new eyes, and that again helps people get to a point where they begin to make their own leaps and start their own conversations and that’s what we’re about.

Zero Carbon Britain is thinkable.

The important thing with the Zero Carbon Britain project is we have to remain flexible and adaptive to the situation as it unfolds. When we first presented the first report in parliament, 2007, being zero emissions was off the radar, nobody else was talking about that. But now we’re beginning to see, as more evidence comes in, more and more people are moving towards it. Zero is something that’s thinkable. The UN announcer was saying it’s ambitious but achievable. So we’re beginning to think the world is moving our way, we need to recognise it. If it becomes policy and it begins to go we’ll go with it and help model more detail and help escort them there. If policy still remains stuck and distant from it we will try and continue to catalyse a sort of cultural shift so more and more people realise that it is possible, it is achievable and it is absolutely urgent.

CAT in the long term

In the long term what we’ll be doing depends upon how society and how government reacts to the situation we’re in. Ideally we’ll be retired and playing the banjo on the balcony because the job is done. But we may find that we’re actually having to think about adaptation more and more. The longer we leave it, the worse the climate impact, we’re already locked in. But we don’t want adaptation to bomb off in a completely different direction to mitigation, going let’s give up mitigating, because we can’t do that. We have to get adaptation and mitigation working together in a way that transforms the structures around it.

Planet Earth: optimist or pessimist?

At the Centre for Alternative Technology I’m embodied by lots and lots of our Masters students who come in, who are really bright, really motivated young people, getting the skills they need to transform the world around them. It’s very uplifting to hear their conversations and hear their energy and be part of this sort of training school. It uplifts me, but then sometimes when I hear politicians just avoiding the issue I just think… But it’s a cultural shift, cultural shifts don’t happen linearly, they happen seismically, and I feel everything is set for a cultural shift, just like we’ve had changes in attitude to race, gender, smoking, health and safety. We all know we have to do it and once the cultural shift happens it drives legislation frameworks and the politicians have to follow.

I’d ask the UN how we’ll achieve less than 2°C If I had a chance to put a question to anybody I’d put a question to the UN and the UN Conference on Climate that happened in Copenhagen where everybody agreed we’d keep below 2oC. Five years have gone past, there isn’t even a decent model that gives us a greater than 50% chance of actually achieving that. If we’re going to have to transform the world, let’s start modelling it now so that we can show society that it doesn’t mean eating insects off the wall of a cave or putting on medieval smocks and going out into the fields. That we can live a modern, effective, Western lifestyle, but let’s start getting a radicalisation of the academic institutions to get them to fund the rates of decarbonisation modelling that everybody’s agreed we need to do. We can’t carry on driving in the dark; we need a plan. We need to pull our wit, wisdom, institutions, best thinkers together into a plan forward.

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