The Monbiot plan on global warming

George Monbiot has a new book out on solutions to global warming. In contrast to the Stern Review, Monbiot’s read of the science is that a much more drastic plan is required if we are to avoid a runaway climate change scenario. His focus is on the UK, but many of his ideas are amenable to Canada as well. The problem: finding a political party to make a principled stand on this issue, win an election, then have the courage to follow through.

A review and summary of Monbiot’s Heat from the How to Save the World blog at (part one here part two here):

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. …

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.

Monbiot is scornful of the ‘light green’ technophiles who believe (because it’s easy) that new technologies will allow us to innovate our way to solutions to global warming. Micro wind turbines, for example, are “a waste of time and money”. He is equally scornful of the ‘dark green’ eco neosurvivalists who rejoice at the idea of civilizational collapse, and their cohorts who proclaim (as I have done) that it is already, realistically, too late to hope that anything we could do will be enough or in time.

So in his introduction he’s already set himself against the global warming holocaust deniers, the believers in using market forces, the technophiles, the radical greens and the green fatalists. That’s just about everyone. “As always”, he says, “I am destined to offend everyone”. His goal in this book is “to prompt you not to lament our governments’ failures to introduce the measures required to tackle climate change, but to force them to reverse their policies, by joining what must become the world’s most powerful political movement”.

The key mechanism for enforcement of Monbiot’s solution is a carbon rationing system, using a second ‘currency’ (Monbiot calls it ‘icecaps’ to remind us of its purpose)allocated equally to each consumer on our electricity, home fuel and transportation fuel usage. Individuals would be allotted 40% of the national total carbon ration, and the remaining 60% would be held by the government for its use and to auction to corporations to the highest bidder. There would be a free market for the rations — the poor and efficient could sell what they did not need to the rich for whatever the going market price turned out to be, so that the ration would apply fairly to all yet also allow for income redistribution between rich and poor. And the rationing system would also reward conservation and innovation in energy efficiency.

The rationing system would have to be accompanied by a large, subsidized system to encourage improvements in home appliance efficiency and insulation, in public transportation, and in special subsidies during extreme weather conditions (to buy more ‘icecaps’, not to exceed their ration).

… To the extent new technology reduces emissions they are welcome, but one way or another, by 2030, we must be releasing no more than a tenth of the carbon into the atmosphere that we are releasing now.
Monbiot explains three paradoxes that profoundly affect conservation behaviours:

  • The Khazzoom-Brookes Postulate: As energy efficiency improves, people can afford more energy-intensive solutions, so improvements in energy efficiency can actually lead to more consumption, not less. So if many people buy hybrids, by lowering demand for gasoline they could make it cheaper and encourage more SUV purchases and use as well.
  • The Rebound Effect: As energy efficiency improves, personal energy costs go down, allowing personal volume of use to go up with no net increase in cost. So if home heating fuel costs drop, people will turn up their house temperature, and if many people buy hybrids, they can afford to drive them more often and further than they might have.
  • Regulation Actually Enhances Personal Freedoms: Strict home building and refurbishing codes, while increasing the cost of housing, frees the subsequent owners of the homes of the need to expend money wastefully on fuel and on short-term repairs.

The first specific area that Monbiot applies his rationing scheme to is home construction. He says the following regulatory changes are needed to achieve 90% reduction in home energy consumption:

  • Much stricter construction quality and insulation standards, and much better enforcement of standards
  • Mandated use of heat exchangers
  • Better window design (appropriate size, south facing) and glazing standards
  • Mandatory appliance efficiency standards
  • Better hot water tank design
  • Prohibition of ‘standby’ modes on appliances
  • Mandated use of LED lighting
  • Mandatory use of vacuum insulation in fridges and freezers
  • Mandated use of ‘smart meters’ (that tell you how much energy you are using and shut down non-essential energy use during peak use periods

One of the challenges we face is the huge variability in demand for electricity by season, time of day and other factors, and the need to have production capacity ‘reserves’ to accommodate spikes in demand quickly. His solutions to this problem:

  • Stop using coal (heavy carbon dioxide creator) burning to provide this variable capacity reserve, and use natural gas instead (including substantially increasing our available gas reserves)
  • Use of carbon scrubbing and re-storage of scrubbed carbon in underground aquifers
  • Much tougher nuclear power plant waste storage and disposal, plant decommissioning, and security standards (and, because of the security and waste disposal problems, zero net increase in nuclear usage – which puts Monbiot at odds with a large new group of pro-nuke environmentalists such as James Lovelock)
  • Development of high voltage direct current cables and transmission systems — Although initial loss of electricity of DC cables is higher than for AC, there is no incremental loss of electricity as the length of the cable increases, making it possible to build offshore wind farms in very windy areas and transmit the energy over vast distances to areas with poor wind regimes, and to combine wind generators from different areas to reduce the impact of low-wind days and the need to use backup hydrocarbons on those days
  • Use of new ‘solar thermal electricity’ technology (focuses solar energy to produce steam)

Theoretically, he says, we could produce all the electricity we need, with 90% less carbon emissions, with a combination of scrubbed natural gas burning generators and wind energy from high-wind regime areas transported through high voltage direct current lines. The problem, though, is that most of us heat our homes with furnaces that burn hydrocarbons, not electrically. The solution to this, he argues, is to install the new generator technology (similar to that now used to power submarines) that produces heat and electricity at the same time. Greenpeace has developed a proposal to use these generators in winter, and switch to solar heating in summer (when home heating is not needed and the sun is stronger). But to reduce the carbon from the furnaces, we would need to convert to hydrogen-burning furnaces or hydrogen fuel cells in our home heating and electrical systems. So the complicated solution, he says, is:

A micro-generation system using solar panels and either hydrogen furnaces or hydrogen fuel cells would supply home heat and electricity. Either they could make their own hydrogen from electricity supplied by the grid, or obtain it from a pipeline network…Everything comes on and goes off at the flick of a switch, and works as smoothly as our heat and electricity systems do today. Around half of our grid-based electricity could be supplied by means of a few very large power systems burning methane, either in the form of natural gas or the effluvium from underground coal gasification [the only way to employ coal cleanly, he argues], and burying the carbon dioxide they produce. The other half, if my meta-guess is correct, could be provided by offshore wind and wave machines [carried by high voltage DC power lines].

In the process of coming up with this solution, he reluctantly rejects as impractical or naive three technologies that many environmentalists embrace:

  • Home-based micro turbines
  • Off-grid community-based energy ‘internets’
  • Biofuel-based energy generation

He then turns his attention to the transportation system, another great carbon producer. He points out the irony that the faster cars travel on an expressway, the fewer cars the expressway can simultaneously accommodate (because of the need to provide greater stopping distance between the cars). So the 118-mile long, 6-8 lane UK M25 expressway can accommodate 53,000 car passengers (with an average occupancy of 1.6/car) traveling at 30 mph, but only 19,000 passengers traveling at 60 mph. If all cars were replaced with buses, it could accommodate 260,000 passengers at once. His answer, then, is to convert existing expressway lanes to bus-only lanes, operate high-amenity buses (spacious, comfortable seating, work-stations, food, beverage and media services) and run them, not in the cities, but in the suburbs and country, from the peripheral subway and LRT stations of the cities outward. Combined with carbon capping and rationing, and capping and rationing of road space, he argues that this could reduce auto emissions by 90% with no significant drop in convenience, comfort or transportation speed.

What could make the system even better, he argues, would be the use of imagination and innovation in transportation system design and options – new technologies like cellphones, GPS, vehicle tracking and smart tagging could offer exciting and efficient new ways of getting from A to B without major new investment.

While hydrogen is feasible in home power generation, it is not feasible, at least not in the 2030 time horizon, for powering automobiles and other hydrocarbon-based transportation, he argues. This argument, like those he makes against micro wind turbines, off-grid energy internets and biofuels, is complicated – too much so to meaningfully appreciate without reading how Monbiot made the long journey from enthusiast to skeptic on these technologies, in his own words. He’s also dubious about the limits of telecommuting and home-based enterprise – while he certainly encourages these developments as energy conserving, he makes a compelling case that less than 20% of work trips could practically be eliminated by them.

He offers no solutions to reducing air travel emissions by 90% short of grounding 90% of flights – he reviews and dismisses each of the popular ideas for making air travel more efficient or less polluting. A single London-to-NY round trip flight would exhaust a person’s entire 1.2 tonne annual budget for transportation emissions under Monbiot’s rationing scheme.

His solution to reduce the extravagant amount of carbon that comes from retail operations is simple – all stores whose customers reach them principally by private vehicles would be forced (by the limits of the rationing scheme or by direct regulation) to convert to online warehouse-based delivery-to-home operations. Savings would accrue not only from reduced electricity and square footage but from saved customer fuel and reduced need for packaging. Of all his solutions, I think this is the most problematic. George doesn’t appreciate that going to the mall is a social experience now embedded in western culture, not just a method for buying stuff. His suggestion for replacing the highly-polluting Portland cement and concrete production process with geopolymeric cements, which is also squeezed into the penultimate chapter, is far more compelling.

The book’s final chapter deconstructs the arguments that new fuel technologies or new carbon scrubbing technologies will save the day by 2030. “To succumb to hope of this nature”, he says, “is as dangerous as to succumb to despair.” Monbiot loves technologies and has studied dozens in the search for the easiest way to meet his 90% target, and in the process learned much about the discovery and commercialization curve, even when it is accelerated by urgency. Likewise, he dismisses the argument that the economic and fuel-consumption crash that Peak Oil will precipitate will solve the problem for us. It will actually make it worse, he says, as governments yield to the temptation to reintroduce dirty coal and other environmentally devastating fuels to stave off massive shortages and spiralling prices. He also dismisses those who would rely on “the market” to automatically self-correct our insatiable hunger for energy. “Buying and selling carbon offsets is like pushing the food around on your plate to create the impression you have eaten it”, he says. What is needed is absolute, immediate, equitable and universal reductions in emissions, and this cannot be done without regulation and rationing.

The problem, of course, is that regulations require governments with the courage to enact and enforce them. It took a horrific and unprecedented depression to push even the enlightened administration of FDR to switch from a laissez-faire to a highly regulated modus operandi. By the time the impacts of global warming hit home (and they will punish the disenfranchised and powerless poor of the world first) it will be too late. Monbiot concludes his book by trying to convince us to get off our collective butts, stop reading and chatting about the unfolding crisis, and do something. But his prescription is mostly actions for government, and we know too well how little our collective citizen/consumer voice counts in the minds of governments wined and dined and bribed to do the exact opposite by the most wealthy, powerful and organized corporatist lobby in history.

The ultimate irony of Heat is that his prescription is probably the only one that can save this planet from the scourge of global warming, but that, as simple, direct and painless as it is, this prescription has about the same likelihood of actually coming about as a snowball’s chance in hell. Or, perhaps I should say, a snowball’s chance on Earth after Monbiot’s brave, well-researched, and ingenious ideas have been forgotten.

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