Heat: How to Stop the Planet from Burning

Ottawa wooden sculpture

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 Monbiot’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 2°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. Canada’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 – making most houses either ‘passive’ 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.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

21 thoughts on “Heat: How to Stop the Planet from Burning

  1. Lee,

    The psychology and sociology of what Monbiot says may be interesting, but they aren’t very important. Fundamentally, he is either right or wrong about what it would take to curb emissions to the level he describes and he is either right or wrong about the consequences of not doing so.

    While it may or may not be true that “Green thinking is the religion of the consumer age,” it is quite true that – unlike the Hell the Victorians may have feared – there is some reality to the ecological dangers facing us.

  2. Clean green flying machine?
    Aug 14th 2007
    From Economist.com

    Don’t hold your breath waiting for one to be invented

    “Most environmentalists think that the only solution is to stop people flying. Making air travel more expensive, say through hefty fuel taxes, would put off price-sensitive leisure flyers. Airlines are accused of having a free ride in terms of air pollution because they pay no tax on the fuel used for international flights. But airlines say that protesters have it in for them because they are an easy target. In fact, they say, the airline industry produces far more benefits than ills. Some studies suggest that aviation contributes as much as 8% to global GDP by transporting tourists, business travellers and cargo around the globe.

    Planemakers also point out that they are greener than they used to be. Better technology means that planes are around a third more fuel efficient than they were 40 years ago. And that trend is continuing, driven by airlines’ demands for planes that are cheaper to run. Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner, set to enter service next year, uses composite materials to keep weight down. But aircraft fleet will be updated to cleaner models only slowly. ”

    “The air-travel industry should have to stump up for the pollution it causes. And anyone priced out of a cheap holiday in Spain might like to consider a week-long camping break near Heathrow.”

  3. Far better to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in the gray twilight that knows not victory, nor defeat.
    — Theodore Roosevelt, 1899

  4. George Monbiot’s Heat: How to Stop the Planet from Burning is a brilliant, flawed, and deeply important look at what it will take to slow global warming below a catastrophic level.

    Monbiot, one of the clearest and wittiest writers about politically difficult subjects today, tackles the problem of phasing out fossil fuels without illusions. Books on global warming normally expend most of their words to show how dangerous the problem is. Then, at the last, they point to a few partial solutions and say “more like that, please.” Or they simply give up on a comfortable life for everyone and turn to a kind of gloating Puritanism and say “You will have to suffer, but it will be good for you in the end.” In contrast, Monbiot takes a step-by-step look at how different sectors of our economy could run on drastically less carbon.

  5. Heathrow third runway gets go-ahead

    Thursday, 15 January 2009

    The Government flew in the face of strong opposition today by backing a third runway at Heathrow airport.

    The announcement by Transport Secretary Geoff Hoon of a go-ahead for the £9 billion expansion at Heathrow came after Prime Minister Gordon Brown said the needs of the economy and the environment had to be balanced.

  6. Review of George Monbiot’s “Heat”
    by Dave Pollard

    Other recent books like The Weather Makers explain what we’re doing to cause global warming and the catastrophes it will soon cause. George Monbiot’s book Heat is devoted entirely to answering the question What Do We Do To Stop It. This is the first in a series of articles summarizing his action plan.

    From the outset, Monbiot makes clear that he’s not looking for a subsistence solution: He doesn’t believe any such solution can be ‘sold’ to the majority of the people in affluent nations, so he doesn’t propose to try. We need to retain, he says, our creature comforts, our political and economic freedoms, our right to health care and education and security and freedom from fear.

    The deadline for effective action to curb global warming, he argues, is 2030, and by then we need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 90%, nothing less. Heat prescribes the least difficult and least painful means to do so. This includes:

    * dramatically improved ways to build homes and other buildings
    * the optimal mix of feasible renewable and non-renewable means of supplying energy to those buildings
    * radical changes to land transportation without significantly reducing mobility
    * a significant curtailing of air travel, since it is a major greenhouse gas contributor for which no satisfactory way of reducing emissions by 90% is available
    * mechanisms to reduce greenhouse gas emissions of the retail and cement industries by 90%

    Monbiot quickly dismisses voluntary approaches to achieving these ends, and asserts that “unfashionable” strict government regulation and compliance enforcement will be essential to success. “By and large”, he says, “whatever our beliefs may be, we consume as much as our incomes allow”. But beyond the regulations absolutely needed to achieve these 90% reductions, he insists that governments must maximize freedoms of citizens.

  7. Buildings threaten UK emission targets, report says

    UK targets for cutting carbon emissions by 2050 will not be met without radical changes to the engineering of buildings, a report says.

    One of the study’s authors criticised the government’s “woeful track record on setting ill-considered targets”.

    The Royal Academy of Engineering report lays out a groundwork for reducing the environmental impact of new buildings as well as refurbishment of old ones.

    It added there was a serious skills gap in the sector that could grow worse.

    Current regulations hold that new homes should be “zero-carbon” by 2016, and all other new build should reach that target by 2020.

    However, the Engineering a Low Carbon Built Environment report asserts that the principles that could be applied to drastically reduce energy consumption are simply not being used.

  8. Ours are the most fortunate generations that have ever lived. Ours are the most fortunate generations that ever will. We inhabit the brief historical interlude between ecological constraint and ecological catastrophe.

    I don’t have to remind you of the two forces which are converging on our lives. We are faced with an impending shortage of the source of energy which is hardest to replace – liquid fossil fuels. And we are faced with the environmental consequences of the fossil fuel burning which has permitted us to be standing here now. The structure, the complexity, the diversity of our lives, everything we know, everything that we have taken for granted, that looked solid and non-negotiable, suddenly looks contingent. All this is a great tottering pile balanced on a ball, a ball that is about to start rolling downhill.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *