Fiddling while planet Earth burns

Simon Wells reviews George Monbiot's Heat: how to stop the planet burning Penguin, 2006, pp276, £17.99

In this book - claimed to be a "manifesto of what is possible" - George Monbiot seeks to show that there is a solution to the climate crisis, the impending warming of the global atmosphere, within the current paradigm of social relations. For all his criticisms of the transnationals, the working class is totally absent from Monbiot's world and so he has no option but to seek answers, albeit petty bourgeois ones, within the current order.

Where Al Gore, in An inconvenient truth - both the film and book - showed the effects of climate changes in a lucid and colourful style, this is a much drier approach. It is full of facts and figures, and at times it is a struggle to get to grips with the remedies Monbiot suggests.

The premise of the book is that we must cut our carbon emissions substantially. The present climate system's ability to absorb carbon dioxide will be reduced from 4 billion tonnes a year today to 2.7 billions tonnes by 2030. Obviously to maintain stability we cannot emit more than the latter figure, but unfortunately we currently account for 7 billion tonnes.

Monbiot's reasoning runs along these lines. Much of the carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere results from the transformation of fossil fuels into energy to meet human need: "In 1590 the economy was powered largely by wood, water, wind and horses. The English did burn some fossil fuel: we know, for example, that in 1585 London imported about 24,000 tons of coal" (p2). Today, however, "The accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is causing global warming, the 'greenhouse effect', and this warming is a direct result of the burning of fossil fuels."

Monbiot concludes: "The only means by which greenhouse gases could have accumulated so swiftly is human action: carbon dioxide is produced by burning oil, coal and gas and by clearing forests, while methane is released from farms and coal mines and landfill sites" (p3). This link between carbon dioxide and global warming is beyond dispute: "A study of ocean warming over the past 40 years, for example, published in the journal Science in 2005, records a precise match between the distribution of heat and the intensity of man-made carbon dioxide emissions" (p4).

This warming is causing the Arctic to shrink, the permafrost to melt, the Amazonian rainforest to turn to savannah, and the coral reefs to decay. Increasing carbon dioxide emissions will continue to heat the earth and this will expose people to water shortages through the disappearance of glaciers, it will cause droughts in Africa and Australia, there will be crop failures, there will be more extreme weather events, there will be biodiversity loss, the seas will rise. One of the more extreme predictions is that the Gulf Stream will stop and Europe will turn to tundra.

This process could happen within a period of a couple of decades, although it is impossible to calculate the 'tipping point'. However, what is known is that weather systems will not change gradually: there will be a moment when quantity changes to quality, and this could happen at any time.

Monbiot invokes a parallel with the Permian period, which came to an abrupt end 250 million years ago: "Plant life was almost eliminated from the earth's surface. The four-footed animals, the group to which we humans belong, were nearly exterminated: so far only two fossil reptile species have been found anywhere on the earth which survived the end of the period" (p14). This event was caused by volcanic eruptions in Siberia that emitted large quantities of sulphur dioxide and carbon dioxide. The sulphur dioxide caused acid rain, but the carbon dioxide caused rising temperatures that destabilised the atmosphere. This is not to say that a similar event will happen again, but it is an example of the effect of carbon dioxide and global warming.

To prevent this happening, "Our aim must be to stop global average temperatures from rising to more than 2° above pre-industrial levels, which means more than 1.4° above the current point." He goes on: "Two degrees is important because it is the point at which some of the larger human impacts and the critical positive feedbacks are expected to begin. If we do not greatly reduce our emissions, temperatures are likely to reach that point in about 2030" (p15).

Monbiot invokes the story of Faust. In Marlowe's version, Faust bargains with the devil's servant, Mephistopheles: if he is granted 24 years to "live in all voluptuousness", Faust will at the end of that time give his soul to the devil (p2). Two hundred years later in Goethe's version, Faust tires of living in "voluptuousness" and creates plans to save humanity. However, he dies of his labours and his soul rises to heaven. Monbiot says we should aspire to follow the second incarnation of Faust.

But there are several barriers to overcome. Firstly, "The professional classes have the most freedom to lose and the least to gain" (p20). Here we are told that developed countries will initially suffer the effects of global warming the least because they have the resources available to enable them to adapt. Many of them have the added advantage of a moderate climate. However, the blame is placed squarely on their doorstep: "The Ethiopians, on average, emit one 400th of the carbon dioxide produced by the people of Luxembourg, the country which has the highest gross domestic product per person" (p22).

Secondly, the urgent need to take political decisions to limit emissions of carbon dioxide does not coincide with the requirements of the election cycle, particularly in the US. Thirdly, there is an insidious, ongoing campaign of denial. For example, "The website www.exxonsecrets.org, using data found in [Exxon's] official documents, lists 124 organisations which have taken money from the company or work closely with those which have. They take a consistent line on climate change: that the science is contradictory" (p27).

The purpose of these deniers is to cast doubt on the fact of global warming or its cause, disseminating documents purporting to show the opposite and sometimes fabricating data and building them up as the real science. Rightwing journalists such as Melanie Phillips and Peter Hitchens are convinced by such documents and use them to bolster claims that global warming is a conspiracy.

Finally, Blair's target of a 60% cut by 2050 is simply insufficient. Governments know that they can get away with minimal action because people in the advanced countries do not want to give up the things they value.

So what is Monbiot's answer? To "make the necessary changes as painless as possible" (p42). He tells us no-one ever rioted for austerity, and then goes on to elucidate his programme for action.

The only fair way to achieve a 90% cut in emissions by 2030 is to allocate individual targets to everyone. If emissions were taxed, the poor would suffer most and the rich could simply carry on as before. Ergo a rationing system. By dividing the target for reduced carbon emission by the total global population, Monbiot arrives at an individual carbon allocation of 0.8 tonnes per year - which would translate into a cut of 90% for people in advanced countries, while Ethiopians, for example, could on average emit more than five times their current total. This is 'contraction and convergence'.

Once the emissions of rich and poor countries had converged - hopefully by 2030 - each person would be given an individual 'carbon debit card' allowing them to control 40% of their personal allocation (governments would be responsible for the other 60%). Each person would be allowed a number of 'carbon units' or, as Monbiot calls them, 'icecaps'.

Of course, all this begs a number of questions. Firstly, since constant expansion is the very essence of capital - not just of the greedy transnationals, as Monbiot seems to believe - who is going to enforce such drastic reductions in the advanced countries? Capital must continually invent new needs as the basis for its expansion. How would this be compatible with reduced consumption of carbon-emitting commodities?

Secondly, capitalism is synonymous with uneven development. Under the current order the disparity between the UK and Ethiopia cannot be abolished. Thirdly just who is going to organise and coordinate the distribution of 'carbon debit cards' to every person on the planet? Even in the advanced countries it would pose huge bureaucratic problems.

However, the biggest contradiction in Monbiot's schema is that it places so much emphasis on changing the behaviour of individuals, while the system of capital that fosters and influences virtually every aspect of that behaviour is left in place.

This is not to say that the actions of individuals are irrelevant. Everybody could, for instance, take certain measures to reduce domestic emissions, as Monbiot says. This, he points out, is not to be confused with energy efficiency per se because of the nature of the capitalist market: as less energy is used to produce the same product or service, it becomes cheaper and more attractive. The result is that the money saved on one product will be spent on buying more of another, which could result in an increase in energy use. This is known as the Jevons paradox: "Stanley Jevons showed that cutting the amount of coal used to produce a ton of iron by over two thirds was followed, in Scotland, by a tenfold increase in total consumption between the years 1830 and 1863" (p61). That is why, argues Monbiot, only a rationing system will fit the bill.

Anything short of government legislation is a waste of time, says Monbiot. So, when it comes to housing, government regulation in the form of strict environmental building regulations is essential. However, if all the household proposals identified as feasible were implemented, only 30% towards the 90% emission reduction target would be met. Monbiot therefore goes on to identify the sources of energy that emit the largest carbon dioxide emissions.

Latest figures for the UK from the department of trade and industry show that gas makes up 41% of electricity generation, coal 33%, nuclear 19%, renewables 3%, and imports, oil and other fuels make up the rest. Monbiot suggests, however, that we could continue to burn fossil fuels and still achieve an 80-85% reduction in carbon emissions using the technology of 'carbon capture and storage'. This is where the carbon dioxide is removed before or after it is burnt and literally buried. There are nevertheless problems with this technology, not least relating to storage. Either way, the UK needs to replace 50% of its ageing and redundant power stations by 2030, and gas-fired power stations fitted with carbon capture and storage could provide approximately 50% of the UK's electricity.

Monbiot does tackle nuclear power and, using the criteria of environmental impact, feasibility and cost, it comes out with a poor rating in his view: for example, there are problems with waste disposal, enormous construction costs, and the carbon emissions associated with running and finally decommissioning a nuclear power station.

The alternative to fossil fuels are renewables, such as wind, wave and solar. But is there enough? Although the United Kingdom has the best potential sources in Europe, it is doubtful whether there is the supply to match the demand. Monbiot cites two studies into wind energy - one pessimistic, one optimistic. The more optimistic study takes into account recent developments in turbine technology, and the development of direct current (DC) power lines, which are more efficient at transmitting electricity over long distances. This means that wind turbines can be built offshore, avoiding costly planning regulations and other objections, such as harm to bird life. DC lines also make it possible to locate solar panels in places where there is plenty of sun, such as the Sahara and Gobi deserts - it is said that solar power generated in the Sahara could supply all of Europe

The Greens propose micro-solar panels and wind turbines located on or close to dwellings. Currently the cost of solar panels per kilowatt produced is too high, but Monbiot believes costs will fall as the technology develops, and approximately 22% of electricity could potentially be supplied this way. However, he thinks wind turbines are too problematic - in high winds they could result in structural damage to homes, while in low winds they produce next to nothing.

Technology that is gaining favour is combined heat and power (CHP) generation, allowing for the storage of excess energy for later use. CHP can be used to heat multiple buildings from one source. The conclusion Monbiot comes to is that micro-generation has a role to play: a combination of CHP and solar panels provides the best potential route for local generation.

Transport accounts for 22% of UK emissions, with 91% of this coming from road transport. Monbiot says governments do virtually nothing about it, knowing that any clampdown on motorists will bring front-page tabloid headlines that our democratic rights are being trampled on. The costs of driving have been falling, relative to public transport - if carbon emissions are to be achieved, then current priorities have to be reversed.

Government figures indicate that travelling by coach produces the least carbon emissions per passenger, even less than by train. So Monbiot suggests that we should utilise this method of transport and make it more attractive. Amongst other things he proposes motorway coach hubs connected to suburban buses, with dedicated lanes to speed up the process of travel. If people do not want to use up their 'carbon units', they will be forced to consider this and other methods of transport. Other remedies are already in the embryonic stages, such as car-sharing schemes, working at home and shared journeys. The solutions, he says, are available to cut emissions from transport by 90%, but the problem is more political than practical.

There is one form of travelling that is creating more than its fair share of debate at the moment, and that is air transport, which produces 5% of the UK's total carbon dioxide emissions. According to Monbiot, a return trip from London to New York would use up approximately 90% of his proposed personal carbon limit. What is more, aircraft also emit particles and gases that produce 2.7 times the warming effect of carbon dioxide alone. With passenger numbers predicted to rise from 200 million today to approximately 400-600 million by 2030, Monbiot comes to the conclusion that there is no techno-fix: we are just going to have to cut the number of flights - by 87%. While long-distance trains can be an alternative, there is no real option but to end distant foreign holidays, he concludes.

According to Monbiot, we are in denial. He refers to "the dissonance with which we face all possible catastrophes: plagues, wars, famines, even death itself" (p205). He says people put their faith in technologies as yet unproven, believing that they will somehow remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere come what may and that in the end we can all buy ourselves out of trouble. Monbiot says it is up to the climate campaigners to get out there (and he lists the organisations he favours at the end of the book).

In the green movement and sections of the left Monbiot has near star status, but in reality this book adds little that is new to the debate. Rachel Carson discovered the effects of DDT, Gaylord Nelson inaugurated 'Earth Day', EF Schumacher thought up the concept of 'Small is beautiful'. In the end everything for Monbiot comes down to cost, so that only in the future after huge investments will technology become viable. Instead he looks at the next best option. Monbiot is in the final analysis on the side of the current order, as the testimonials on the book jacket from The Financial Times and The Sunday Times show.

In September of this year Virgin boss Sir Richard Branson said: "We must rapidly wean ourselves off our dependence on coal and fossil fuels." He announced he was to invest an estimated £1.6 billion over the next 10 years to fight global warming. Monbiot does not confront the Bransons - he would rather work with them. Certainly his programme does not question current social relations. It is a case of fiddling while the planet burns.