During the past two years, I have been reading about climate change for several hours every day. During that span of time, I have read dozens of books and hundreds of articles. Quite possibly, none were as thought-provoking as George Monbiotâ€™s Heat: How to Stop the Planet from Burning. If you are at all serious about understanding the issue of global warming, it is essential reading. He may not be right (indeed, it would be far preferable for him to be wrong) but he will definitely make you think.
His project is an ambitious one. Having decided that global temperatures must not be allowed to rise by more than 2Â°C on average, he works out what that would mean for Britain. Since British emissions per capita are way above the world average, a fair system would require much heavier cuts there than elsewhere. Canadaâ€™s per-capita emissions are even worse.
Here is a smattering of what he says will be required by 2030:
- A power grid dominated by renewables and natural gas plants with carbon capture and storage.
- Dramatically, dramatically tightened building regulations â€“ making most houses either â€˜passiveâ€™ in their non-use of heating or cooling or capable of producing their heat and power from piped-in hydrogen, possibly supplemented by solar.
- Most private automobile travel replaced by a buses or non-motorized transport, both within and between cities.
- An end to cheap air travel: no more low cost flights, with massive total cuts in the number of both short and long-haul flights.
The last is the result of a complete lack of alternative technologies that can deliver the kind of emission reductions required. Even if all other emissions were cut to zero, growth in air travel would make that one sector break his total limit by 2030.
Suffice it to say, Monbiot is not in the main stream of this debate. The Stern consensus is that climate change can be dealt with at moderate cost. Even if Monbiot’s ideas are entirely possible, in terms of engineering, one cannot help but doubt that any political party in a democratic state could successfully implement them. The impulse to defend the status quo may turn him into a Cassandra.
In fifty years, it is possible that people will look back at this book and laugh. Alternatively, It may be that they look back on Monbiot as one guy who had approximately the right idea while everyone else (Gore and company included) were in denial. The answer seems to depend upon (a) whether emissions need to be cut as much and as quickly as he thinks and (b) how bad it will actually be if they are not. It is pretty easy to do the math on the first of those, at least for any desired greenhouse gas concentration or temperature change. The latter is harder to assess. Regardless of which proves to be closer to the truth, this is a book I wholeheartedly endorse for anyone trying to keep abreast of the climate change issue.