Heat – or How Can We Save the Planet?

I have just finished reading, and highly recommend, Heat: How to Stop the Planet from Burning by George Monbiot (Doubleday Canada, 2006.) Monbiot is a columnist for The (UK) Guardian, probably best known for his work on environmental issues.

He sets himself the difficult task of devising a credible plan to reduce UK greenhouse gas emissions by 90% from current levels by 2030. This is, he judges, the reduction necessary to avoid reaching a 2 degree Celsius increase in global average temperatures from pre industrial levels. (This is now widely seen by experts as a tipping point which would lead to calmatious consequences. ) His target level for the UK is based on allocating allowable emissions equally per capita across the world at a level which stabilizes total global emissions at an environmentally acceptable level. This is eminently justifiable but requires very deep cuts for industrial countries. (By these criteria, Canada would have to reduce emissions by at least 94% given that we are today bigger emitters per capita than the UK.)
Monbiot grapples with a wide range of expert studies to meet his self-imposed task of showing that what is necessary to save the planet is also feasible, though he struggles mightily along the way to balance hope against skepticism.

The key, generally familiar, means identified for radical reductions in greenhouse gas emissions are: very large efficency gains in energy use in housing and commercial buildings through retrofits and very tight building codes for new houses and buildings as well as appliances; a major shift in electricity generation from carbon fuels to renewables (mainly on and offshore wind and tidal power linked to DC transmission lines) ; a partial but growing shift over time to hydrogen as a fuel for home heating and autos; a huge shift from cars to public urban and inter city transit; dramatically improved fuel efficiency for cars and trucks; and more energy efficient and less carbon-intensive industrial processes. He concludes that his objective would be just about attainable, albeit with major changes in how we live, and with massive political commitment.

The one area where Monbiot feels we have to change our present way of life in a deeply uncomfortable way is through a huge reduction in air travel. Aviation is a large, fast-growing, and particularly environmentally damaging source of emissions, and we lack realistic means of reducing these emissions if we continue to fly long distances in large numbers.
What is most engaging about this attempt is Monbiot’s willingness to seriously interrogate some mainstream environmentalist positions, notwithstanding his strong commitment to deep and fast carbon reductions.

For example, he is not quite as sure about the feasibility of very large savings from energy efficiency as many proponents, noting – correctly – that technical efficiency savings often lead to increases in actual energy use if we do not change underlying lifestyle choices (as when we, for example, offset per square foot residential heating savings by collectively building and living in much larger houses.) Energy conservation plays a very major role in the Kyoto and Beyond study for Canada undertaken by Torrie Smith and Associates for the David Suzuki Foundation and the Climate Action Network in 2002, which sought a 50% reduction in CO2 emissions over 30 years.

Monbiot is skeptical about some proposals to be found in many Canadian climate change plans – a radically decentralized electricity grid; bio fuels (which he argues would lead to starvation in developing countries if adopted on a very large-scale); and near-term prospects for getting a lot of energy from solar power, small-scale wind power and geothermal sources. The bases for his skepticism about some very ambitious reductions plans to reduce emissions from these and other sources is based on good estimates of cost as well as technical feasibility, and he tries to ensure his alternatives are technically feasible and also practical in the sense of not being hugely expensive when compared to carbon-based energy alternatives.

Unlike some climate change activists, he sees carbon based energy – in the form of natural gas fuelled electricity generation plants, and production of hydrogen from natural gas – as an important part of the near to medium-term sustainable future, provided these are combined with carbon capture and storage techniques. Also, he is not prepared to totally exclude nuclear power, though very much as a low priority option.

Canadians will find much of interest and of relevance here, assuming we do indeed want to play our fair part in averting catastrophic global climate change. As with the “Kyoto and Beyond” study, it is re-assuring to find that a series of technical fixes based on known technology combined with acceptable changes in lifestyles can, in principle, solve the problem.

However, economists will want much more detailed reflection on the policy instruments – such as energy prices, carbon taxes, emissions limits, regulations and public investmentand – which will move us from green vision to green reality.

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