Absolute zero: A counter-intuitive energy transition

by | Feb 18, 2020

For the UK to make headway with its ambitious Absolute Zero plan, it calls for an administration that understands the subject and what is needed for its success.

About three decades ago, a prescient speech about greenhouse gases, climate change and the environment was delivered to the UN General assembly by Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s first Prime Minister with a science degree. In a very clear, jargon-free and elegantly presented half hour speech, she very clearly delineated the shared problems we all face and the steps we need to take in order to resolve them. How different is this speech to those being given today, 30 years later?

In the same spirit, Severn Cullis-Suzuki, 12 year old daughter of Canadian environmentalist, David Suzuki, delivered a similarly harsh message at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992; Greta of the 90s, if you will.

In an amendment to the UK’s Climate Change Act 2008 in June 2019, Prime Minister Theresa May committed to eradicate all greenhouse gas emissions in the UK by 2050.

This commitment was founded on the basis of robust climate science and motivated by social protest around the globe. Understandably, the greatest question remaining was whether such a massive change could be accomplished in such a short time.

To discover whether innovative renewable energy technologies could enable the zero-emissions UK target to be achieved by 2050, a research program was initiated to support a dramatic cut in UK emissions; the project was funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), and spearheaded by Julian Allwood (Professor of Engineering and the Environment, University of Cambridge) and the UKFIRES teams of engineering, computer, economics and business experts at the Universities of Cambridge, Oxford, Nottingham, Bath, Strathclyde and Imperial College London.

In brief, this comprehensive study of technological and associated lifestyle efforts concluded that it will take longer than 30 years to develop, deploy, and scale promising new technologies, as well as adjust to changes in our behavior and accept the costs deemed necessary to achieve 2050 UK emission targets.

It is argued that practical limits exist to the scaling rate of any substantial energy technology, quoting at best a mere 20% of the ultimate scale being installed in 30 years — the time left to achieve 2050 UK emission targets. It is not just proving a new energy technology can be scaled to significant proportions, functions according to specifications, and even accomplishes something not possible with existing technologies, but it also has to conform to regulations, standards, land rights, and financing on a local community and national level. While it cannot be denied that such new technologies will be essential for sustainable future societies, it is argued they will thus be insufficient to meet the scheduled 2050 emissions-reduction target. 

To amplify this point, the central pillar of the Absolute Zero climate change strategy, formally entitled UK FIRES (i.e., Future Industrial Resource Efficiency Strategy), is to make use of existing technologies that can be implemented quickly to sufficiently deal with the emissions-reduction challenge rather than waiting to implement breakthrough energy technologies such as the hydrogen economy, bioenergy and carbon capture, storage and utilization. True, they will likely require more time to be advanced to the industrial scale, although many proponents of these technologies would proclaim they have achieved the highest level of technology readiness and are ready to scale and integrate into the existing energy infrastructure. Needed now is the commitment to deliver them by 2050.

A case is made that while future developments in emissions control will benefit from renewable energy technology innovation and should be continued, attainment of the 2050 zero-emission targets will depend mainly on the already-proven energy technologies of today. The report also makes it very clear that Absolute Zero really means zero emissions. This includes not only domestic emissions, but the sum-total emissions of all purchased goods and services (whether produced in the UK or imported), including delivery by planes, ships, and trains from other nations.

Whether it is really practical, realistic, and necessary for humans to avoid producing a single atom of carbon is an extreme view; a bone of contention and surely up for political and public debate. Some behavioral changes envisioned in the pan electric world of the UK Absolute Zero study, possibly hard to accept by a growing consumer energy hungry society, include cooler homes and work places, smaller cars, less air and more train travel, lower meat and higher vegetarian diet, more wood and steel construction to reduce the carbon emission intensity of cement.  

The key factor enabling the UK Absolute Zero strategy is the utilization of renewable and carbon-free electricity from wind, solar, hydro, tidal, geothermal, biomass, nuclear, and fusion systems as the sole form of energy. To supplement this energy transition, it is proposed that incremental changes should be made to the means of energy generation, distribution, storage and use in different sectors of the economy (e.g.,transportation, mining, materials, construction, manufacturing, agriculture and heating/cooling buildings).

The report also makes it abundantly clear that the process of attaining net-zero emissions can only be achieved with robust collaboration and involvement between the public, businesses, and government. Cooperation between stakeholders is crucial as meeting these emissions-reduction targets demands that we rethink the ways in which civil society lives, produces, and consumes.

Despite these necessary societal adjustments, the Absolute Zero plan offers enormous potential for innovation and growth in education, research, industry, business, and governance, given that the right opportunities are pursued and that activities inconsistent with a zero-emissions society are curtailed.

To ensure the success of the Absolute Zero strategy, businesses must be able to thrive in a zero-emissions environment. This will require developing new resource efficiency practices as the backbone of their industrial and commercial plans. In turn, this will necessitate careful opportunity mapping enabling the implementation of innovative and energy-efficient products, processes, services, and supply chains. 

The overall vision and recommendations of the UK FIRES report is the establishment of a “Living Lab” to help partner industries thrive while striving for zero-emissions targets using four tactics: (i) mapping opportunities and reducing wastefulness in existing processes; (ii) providing new data, tools, analyses, and resources to inform decision-making, maximize benefit from innovation, identify optimal business models, and realize gains in efficiency; (iii) defining innovative best practices and pathways to resource efficient products, processes and services; and (iv) creating responsive strategic analysis tools to support holistic industrial strategies, supply chains, and policy.

Again, achieving Absolute Zero in the next 30 years will require a pragmatic and collaborative partnership between the public, businesses, and government in the UK designed to realistically achieve emissions targets by adapting technologies that work today, cognizant of the fact it is a macroscopic problem the solution of which will require local and global cooperation.

While the UK FIRES model of transitioning to a net-zero eco-system favors known and reliable (rather than new and developing) energy technologies, actually delivering the project to meet 2050 emissions targets on-time and to-budget will require a concerted climate emergency response governance structure. Though occurring on a significantly larger scale, such a unified effort is credible, as shown by analogy with coordination and efforts required to host and present the UK Olympic Games in 2012.

While Absolute Zero presents additional challenges well beyond the example of the Olympic Games in terms of scale, duration, and budget — more like World War II or the Manhattan Project — success in such projects requires similarly organized cooperation between government, industry, and the general public to facilitate the building and delivery of structures, processes, and services from the ground up. 

The greater challenge of the Absolute Zero emissions reduction plan lies in the absence of past experiences, a need for a technical-economic energy and cost analysis, and necessity of international collaboration to inform decisions in the delivery of infrastructure and services as a nation achieving zero-emissions is still unprecedented. Overall, the Absolute Zero report is an impressive, thought provoking and important document that envisions an innovative strategy using today’s technologies for achieving the UK 2050 emission targets and addressing the technological, economical, and sociological challenges associated with climate change. Its feasibility was hotly debated in the House of Lords on the 6th February 2020 (transcript can be found here).

Written by: Geoffery Ozin[1]and Todd Siler[2]

[1]Solar Fuels Group, University of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, Email: [email protected], Web sites: www.nanowizard.info, www.solarfuels.utoronto.ca, www.artnanoinnovations.com. [2]ArtScience, Denver, Colorado, USA, Email: [email protected], Web Site: www.toddsilerart.com/home


UK FIRES is directed by Professor Julian Allwood FREng, Professor of Engineering and the Environment at the University of Cambridge. The other academics in the programme, and co-authors of the report, are:

  • Professor Ian Horrocks FRS, Department of Computer Science, Oxford
  • Professor Tim Ibell, FREng, Department of Civil Engineering, Bath
  • Professor Adam Clare, Department of Manufacturing Engineering, Nottingham
  • Professor Hamish Low, Faculty of Economics, Oxford
  • Professor Jianguo Lin FREng, Department of Mechanical Engineering, Imperial College
  • Dr Jonathan Cullen, Department of Engineering, Cambridge
  • Professor Michael Ward, Technical Director of the AFRC, Strathclyde
  • Dr Richard Lupton, Department of Mechanical Engineering, Bath
  • Professor Teppo Felin, Said Business School, Oxford

Caption for Cover Image

Art work courtesy of Todd Siler: This metaphorm superimposes and abstracts two famous photos of the Abstract Expressionist Jackson Pollock working on his breakthrough painting, “Autumn Rhythm (Number 30)” 1950 (Photos courtesy of www.Jackson-Pollock.org).  While creating one of his innovative “Action Paintings” that radically changed 20th century Art, the artist famously said: “The painting has a life of its own. I try to let it come through.” Pollock’s statement sums up the flow state of innovation at work. Indeed, it ‘has a life of its own’ that we cannot control to the degree we desire or are pressed to control by urgency. That reality is something we must always consider in setting realistic expectations for our goals while aiming to accomplish them—and, hopefully, exceed them!


Expert engineering, economics and legal scholars who have read the UK Absolute Zero report and this ASN article have kindly provided their insightful feedback, some agreeing and disagreeing on their content, snippets of which are included below to encourage further debate on this important topic.

Every human being on Earth should hear Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s enlightened, prophetic, and inspirational speech. Absorbing its truths, they would know without a doubt the lethal perils we’re facing today. 

Listening to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s speech, for the UK to make headway with its ambitious Absolute Zero plan, it calls for an administration who understands the subject and what is needed for its success, as well as a leader who will inspire trust and confidence between the people, scientists, business, economists, and politicians, both within the UK and around the world. 

The whole key to understanding mitigation which seems to have thus far failed to enter policy discussions is timing. The “techno-optimism” that surrounds the debate on this whole area has been considered to reflect some sort of conspiracy between politicians, economists, investors, entrepreneurs, and researchers because for all of them it would be terrific if the solution were found in a novel technology, developed through existing innovation channels that lead to great profit. That might happen later, but as the UK FIRES report concludes, it will likely not happen by 2050 yet scientists and social protestors are all, rightly, pointing to that as the target date.

A counterargument is that it is not a matter of whether someone profits from this climate crisis, but rather who profits: the “old money” or those seeking opportunity in a solution to the greatest challenge of our generation. 

There is a section of UK academia not open to innovation. There is a different approach, getting industry to fund innovative research to say to government “look, industry wants to do it, why don’t you?”

In all fairness, as is the case in renewable energy, there is no one-size-fits-all solution; a combination of extant and developing technologies will almost certainly define the future of sustainable civilization. It is, thus, essential that development of these novel technologies begins sooner rather than later.

The Absolute Zero statement of “exaggerated claims about new technologies are holding back climate progress” seems extreme and counterproductive. To respond to this point, there are incredible developments in the science and technology of CO2 capture and conversion into synthetic chemicals, materials, polymers, and fuels powered by renewable forms of energy that have been underway for the past 30 years. Specifically, electrochemical, solar thermal, heterogeneous catalysis, and biochemical catalysis approaches for converting CO2 into value-added products, exemplified by aviation and maritime fuel, methanol, ethanol, methane, and syngas have validated pilot plant technical practicality and some have become industrial-scale, commercially viable enterprises. 

A case in point is the high potential and technical state of readiness for solar technologies to produce carbon-neutral fuels for sustainable aviation and maritime transport. To amplify, a solar thermochemical plant to produce synthetic liquid fuels that release as much CO2 during their combustion as previously extracted from the air for their production has been developed and demonstrated by researchers at ETH Zurich.

The feed stocks CO2 and H2O are extracted directly from ambient air and split using concentrated solar energy. This process yields syngas, which is subsequently processed into kerosene, methanol, or other drop-in hydrocarbons for use in the existing global transport infrastructure. The entire process chain was demonstrated in a mini-refinery mounted on the roof of the Mechanical Engineering Building of ETH Zurich and a large-scale solar reactor was tested at IMDEA’s solar tower near Madrid, which is carried out within the scope of the EU project SUN-to-LIQUID.

The next project goal is to scale the technology for industrial implementation and make it economically competitive. Climate-friendly synthetic aviation fuel production based on renewable syngas from H2O-CO2 co-electrolysis and hydrocarbons from Fischer-Tropsch catalysis has also been launched at Germany’s Frankfurt am Main airport, a step towards eco-friendly flight. These are just a couple of examples of the impressive progress towards scaling and production of CO2 sourced synthetic fuels. Given another 30 years, chemicals and fuels generated in CO2 refineries, powered by renewable electricity, heat and light, could attain technology readiness levels to be part of the 2050 Absolute Zero solution.  

Reflecting on the aircraft problem: It might be false economy to close down flights if at some stage in the future the whole infrastructure has to be ramped up again at great cost. It might be better to make a great effort to develop the manufacturing of aviation fuel using CO2 as feedstock as mentioned. After all, it should not be impossible to scale up the manufacture of synthetic aviation fuel especially if the project is treated on a war-time footing.

In this context, some thoughts on fission vs. fusion are in order. Nuclear reactors are well developed for generating electrical energy from steam turbines at scale. However, their wide adoption is restricted by public tolerability and regulatory challenges. By contrast fusion reactors, while developing slowly, are already delivering significant amounts of fusion energy and could be a source of safe, clean, plentiful, and low cost electricity for the entire world in the foreseeable future. It is envisaged that heat and electricity from 150 MW fusion reactor modules will be deployed globally by 2030 generating electricity to power steel manufacturing, electrolysed hydrogen, making hydrocarbons from H2-CO2, and maybe even steps towards powering shipping and passenger aircraft.

The assumption of no negative emissions options is an important one the difference between net zero and absolute zero. The UK commitment of net zero emissions by 2050 is consistent with the findings of the IPCC Special report on the feasibility of 1.5 oC warming. The scenarios in the IPCC report indicate that rapid emission reductions must begin as soon as possible. The basic strategy for reducing emissions is (1) improve energy efficiency, (2) electrify, and (3) decarbonize electricity supply. That still leaves some difficult emissions sources including agriculture, air travel, shipping, cement, etc., as noted in Absolute Zero.

Absolute Zero’s approach of starting immediately with today’s technologies is consistent with, although less focused than, the IPCC scenarios. Government standards are needed to drive efficiency improvements zero energy buildings, fleet performance standards for new vehicle sales, continuous upgrades to the efficiency of appliances and equipment such as the Japanese Top Runner program. Those appear to be all consistent with Absolute Zero’s strategy of starting with the technologies we have and improving them over time.

Absolute Zero is less focused on electrification. Conceptually we could have electric or fuel cell vehicles or a combination of both. But each needs its own refuelling infrastructure. Delaying the choice will waste precious time and resources. If fuel cells are deemed to be promising technologies that can be available at scale within a decade, focus on stationary generation of electricity rather than vehicle propulsion.

We have renewable technologies for electricity generation whose development is continuing and whose costs are falling. Greater penetration will require much more storage. Here as well technology is rapidly evolving and costs are falling. Research on currently marginal technologies wave, tidal, geothermal, small nuclear, etc. is compatible with the decarbonisation strategy.

That leaves lots of emissions that are more difficult to reduce/eliminate. It is now well proven that any existing fossil fuel uses can be replaced using fuels/chemicals produced using H2 from electrolysis and CO2 captured from air or emissions. These are already operating at pilot scale, but government research funding and regulations are needed to drive their commercialization. They could produce renewable fossil fuels for shipping and aircraft. Agriculture, cement and other difficult sources pose additional challenges and mitigation options.

The message that we need just to get on with it is accurate and useful. Waiting for technological breakthroughs is not a prudent strategy. A government strategy that drives energy efficiency, electrification, and decarbonisation of electricity generation is needed. Leaving all the options to be sorted out by the market will not get us to net zero emissions in time. The non-energy emissions will need to be tackled separately. Many of them can be addressed using renewable fossil fuels produced from captured CO2 and H2 from electrolysis.

While individuals should be encouraged to choose lower-emitting lifestyles, it likely will not make a material difference to global emissions. An individual has virtually no impact on the fuel mix in an electric utility uses or the emissions a cement supplier generates. The most effective actions individuals can take are to lobby governments to deal with climate change. Absolute Zero’s shift from net zero to absolute zero emissions by 2050, complicates the challenge significantly.

Preparing for war has been likened to the individual and societal efforts required for handling climate change, unfortunately in this endeavor we are our own worst enemies, avoiding the action to solve the problem. The Absolute Zero report helps us comprehend what needs to be done to meet 2050 emissions targets. 

The Absolute Zero report really sets the mind spinning with so many questions and possible responses. One immediately wonders if this immensely wise report would be broadly adopted by other nations particularly, the “behemoths” with a combined population of 3 billion. Professor Allwood and his colleagues have done a brilliant job of distilling the core facts and concerns that every world citizen and organization must wrap their minds around. Today. 

The upshot of this important report really gets one thinking certain passages and diagrams spin through one’s mind, such as the opinions that breakthrough technologies won’t arrive fast enough, that we can’t even begin having the right conversation, and that breakthrough technologies will be important in the future. Unfortunately, we cannot depend on them to reach our zero-emissions target in 2050. Meanwhile we’re pressed to radically change our ravenous patterns of energy consumption, and yet the path to real change requires mostly immediate incremental changes that don’t rely on new technologies, which take a long time to deploy and they won’t be operating at scale within thirty years. 

Even though the Absolute Zero goal is unrealistic, the initiative of the UK government is commendable setting aggressive and ambitious goals if the first, small step. Also, the initial use of existing technologies, as opposed to new ones, is a wise choice. However, as with many other political matters, the success will ultimately depend on two factors: willingness of the public to pay the “extra” price and (global) regulations.

Public support: The public is correctly concerned about climate change thus, they demand action. Will they continue to demand similar action when their electricity bills start to climb? Or their taxes (for subsidizing utilities) increase? We argue that they should accept the higher cost and continue to support climate change mitigation efforts, but haven’t we seen, so many times, the public, guided by “clever” politicians, go, essentially, against their interests? The question then becomes, will governments have the support to set and enforce the regulations necessary to deliver the absolute zero emissions target?

Which bring us to the next point. Regulations: These are necessary and can be effective. So, one could argue that with the proper regulations ambitious goals can be achieved provided these regulations cannot be (easily) bypassed. Child labor is regulated in many countries. Are the citizens of these countries the beneficiaries of child labor (in other parts of the world)? If an enterprise can avoid regulations by moving to another country, it will. The system will always find the optimal conditions (i.e., less regulated) it is designed to be very effective. Energy-intensive manufacturing will move to continental Europe, etc. Thus, an important question is if such initiatives can be effective if they remain local. (Sadly, the aforementioned system effectiveness is what has put pressure to so many good things).

Now, if applied globally, regulations combined with bold targets can be effective. Under this scenario, and using the current technologies as a starting point, we would transition to a very expensive but environmentally better (I hesitate to call it zero emissions) state. Since regulations would exclude the path (of least resistance) to the previous state, the power of capitalism, equipped with the brilliant minds of scientists and engineers, would then work in our benefit: it would drive innovation so that cheaper (renewable) energy technologies are developed. 

We intuitively know that the process of achieving Absolute Zero requires a collaboration between individuals, businesses, and government. We also know that none of them can act unilaterally so reaching the target will be a process how likely is that critical, ongoing collaboration between individuals, government, and businesses? The only way this could work is through strong, committed government action. The old adage for capitalism goes: “If you want more of something, subsidize it. If you want less of something, tax it.”

Therein lies what, arguably, may be the steepest challenge: securing “strong, committed government action.”  Consider what happened with the Paris Accord. Just the thought of securing these essential commitments makes the needle on my skepticism counter spike!

Recently, some key questions concerning the creation of a viably sustainable world were scoped-out in Charles C. Mann’s important book, The Wizard and The Prophet (2018) in which he writes, “In just three decades by about 2050 Earth’s population will reach 10 billion. This will present fundamental, even elemental, problems: How to feed 10 billion mouths? How to quench 10 billion thirsts? How to keep 10 billion warm in the cold and cool in the heat? And how to do it all without irreparably harming our planet?” 

Weighing in on our prospects for realizing the goal of Absolute Zero, Mr. Mann would likely point to the two leading characters in his work of non-fiction: the ecologist, William Vogt, who “sees the world as bound by immutable biological limits and our rising affluence as a threat”, and the plant breeder, Norman Borlaug, who championed the 1960’s Green Revolution. As a “techno-optimist,” Borlaug advocated ingeniously applying science and technology to “produce our way out of our difficulties,” to quote Mann. Their world-views sharply contrast each other: Where Borlaug wants to constantly “innovate!”, Vogt is certain we must “cut back!” Somewhere in between lies the truth. Ultimately, we cannot cut back on or cut short our sense of optimism. Perhaps, our best long-term solution will combine both of these life-work philosophies and approaches to sustainability advanced by Borlaug and Vogt. 

On another note: “Evolution has provided the human brain with marvelous tools for detecting and resolving fast-moving, clearly visible, small-scale, near-future risks,” writes Mr. Mann. “By the same token, the brain is easily overwhelmed by slow, abstract, large, long-term problems.” This observation provides a critical clue to the success or failure of Absolute Zero. We’ll soon see how it plays out.

The ideas presented in the Absolute Zero report will likely resonate with many research scientists who are constantly wrestling with the various compelling scenarios of brilliant strategies and tactics for meeting our long-term energy challenges and achieving sustainability, but remain naturally skeptical of the manner in which these great visions and plans are implemented and adopted in real-life. 

The whole innovation process is always “messy” in more ways than the obvious, complicated by human actions and interactions especially, when scaled to be, by necessity, all-inclusive, multicultural, and transnational. The composite of these things invariably involves the unpredictability, uncertainty, and chaotic nature of human beings doing what they do, often unwittingly and without thinking. Reading Absolute Zero, one repeatedly experiences two contrasting responses: uplifting optimism and down-to-earth concerns.   

There’s a simple story that sums up the global challenge of climate change. Once there were two people sitting in a rowboat. One suddenly started making a hole on his side of the boat. The other screamed. The first countered and said, “What do you care what I do on my side of the boat?” This TRUIZM is inspired by and illustrates a “Midrash”, a textural interpretation of the Talmud that can be found in the Biblical book of Leviticus, a collection of lectures alluded to by Nathan ben Jehiel of Rome (c. 1035–1106).

Our world floats in one boat in the ocean of the universe.

One last parting thought: When you consider the real-life, real-world events that naturally happen in unpredictable ways such as the complex interactions of the branches and departments of government attempting to cooperate in coordinating their operations you must wonder how it will be truly possible for the diverse governments of sovereign nations to collaboratively work together in meeting the most urgent challenges highlighted in this report. The simple graphical distillations belie the complexity of the tactical work and tasks required to actualize even this brilliant plan for Absolute Zero. Indeed, the creative process of innovation at work doesn’t necessarily work as planned.

Art Work

The two drawings in the Postscript are courtesy Todd Siler, TRUIZMS®: Seek & See Truths To Innovate. (Denver, CO: ArtScience® Publications, 1994-2020)

The latest news on the UK Absolute Zero report can be followed on Twitter @UKFIRES.

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