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Saturday, May 26, 2007


The irony was obvious: Me, on a long-distance flight from South Africa to Britain, devouring a book subtitled 'How to stop the planet burning'. Its conclusion: It is possible to save 90% of carbon emissions without a significant loss of freedom or comfort - if only we let go of the freedom to fly.

George Monbiot sets out on an impressive mission: To save the world from catastrophic climate change, he concludes, we need to keep global warming below 2°C. This translates into a reduction of 90% of carbon emissions. Will this be possible without plunging back into lifestyles of the stone age?

The answer is "Yes, but". Changes there must be, and changes for everyone, in every sector. This means that we have to stop trusting into voluntary action, and start introducing government regulation that forces these changes. The main tool: Rationing carbon emissions. Figure out how much carbon you can emit, divide it by the number of people on the planet, and hand out allowances (so-called 'icecaps') to everyone. To reduce bureaucracy, only 40% of the allowances would be given directly to people to spend on electricity, heating and fuel. The other 60% would be given to the government who then auctions the ones it doesn't need for its own operations to industry. The resulting market would make sure that all products and services include the true costs of their emissions.

But - such a system is doomed for failure wherever the infrastructure doesn't allow people to choose the most efficient means of doing their business. This particularly applies to housing, transport and energy supply. In addition, he analyzes two particularly polluting industry sectors: Retailing and cement production. The conclusions:

  1. While new houses can - and should - be made to comply with the passive house standard, it will be more difficult to improve existing housing. Still, landlords and home-owners can be made to comply with certain efficiency standards. The use of energy within the house can be reduced through smart meters and less and better appliances. Still, most of the cuts will have to be made through the choice of fuel and electricity.
  2. Here, Monbiot estimates that 50% of energy can be supplied through renewables (wave and wind), while the rest should be supplied through efficient gas power stations in combination with carbon capture and storage techniques.
  3. Heating, however, cannot be replaced by either: The area available for biofuels is limited, and small gas ovens cannot capture their emissions. The solution: a micro-generating system using solar-panels and hydrogen fuel cells/boilers. The hydrogen would either be supplied through a pipeline network, or produced using electricity from the grid.
  4. 40% of car journeys can be replaced by walking or cycling, 40% with an improved public transport system (relying on bus lanes and overland coaches), while 20% cannot be swapped. Still, there is room for telework, shared journeys - and far more efficient cars.
  5. There is no low-carbon way for long-distance travel. High-speed trains or ships turn out to be at least equally destructive as planes. Alas - no more shopping in New York, visiting friends in Australia or political meetings in Porto Alegre!
  6. Compared to this, industry emissions seem to be easy to replace: No more shopping malls - rather warehouses and delivery services. No more cement - rather geopolymers.
Radical, practical and well-researched, this book challenges prevailing perceptions. Do we really want to fight climate change - or are we content with some targets and white papers? Are we willing to substantially change lifestyles and habits - for the sake of the victims of climate change far away? It is our choice, now, in the next couple of years, to determine how the threat of climate change is going to change the world. But change the world it will, and dramatically.

How can one become part of the solution, not the problem?
There are many organisations already campaigning against climate change and the activities which cause it. I want you to join them. I want you to set up your group only if they turn out to be going nowhere. I want you to find out how you can be most useful to them. But above all, I want you to make an imaginative leap seldom demanded of you by governments or advertisers or newspapers or teachers.
For the campaign against climate change is an odd one. Unless almost all the public protests which have preceded it, it is a campaign not for abundance but for austerity. It is a campaign not for more freedom, but for less. Strangest of all, it is a campaign not just against other people, but also against ourselves.

It's not going to be easy, and it's not going to be pretty. But that should be even more encouragement for us to go in there and join forces, to make mistakes and to learn from them, and to rise up to the challenge that we ourselves have created. | Heat. How to Stop the Planet Burning

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