Sunday, October 01, 2006

Live (carbon) free or die

George Monbiot is the author of "Manifesto for a New World Order". That book, published in 2003, offers a menu of radical solutions to our most pressing global problems. His ideas are radical in the sense that they suggest fundamental changes in the way we and our governments do business. For example, he proposes reconsideration of John Maynard Keynes’s proposal (rejected at the United Nations Monetary and Financial Conference held at Bretton Woods in 1944) for an International Clearing Union that would automatically rectify trade imbalances and prevent poor countries from getting trapped in debt. Monbiot's latest book: "Heat: How to Stop the Planet Burning" focuses on the issue of climate change. Below is a review by PD Smith that appeares in the U.K.'s Guardian. (GW)

Change or Die

by PD Smith
Saturday September 30, 2006

George Monbiot argues that there's still time to save the world in his solidly researched manifesto for change, Heat. We must act now, says PD Smith

Heat: How to Stop the Planet Burning
by George Monbiot
277pp, Allen Lane, £17.99

The 1959 film of Nevil Shute's On the Beach depicts a world in its dying days. After a nuclear war, lethal fallout is gradually being carried on the wind to all four corners of the world. The film concludes with a lingering shot of a banner flying in a deserted Melbourne street: "There is still time ... brother." For the fictional inhabitants of Melbourne - and the world - it was too late. For cinema audiences, however, many of whom wept openly after seeing On the Beach, there was still time to act. Such fictions played an important role in raising awareness about the threat of nuclear war. We stared into the abyss and then stepped back from the brink. Today we face a threat as terrible in its way as nuclear holocaust: global warming.

According to George Monbiot, climate change denial is beginning to look "as stupid as Holocaust denial, or the insistence that Aids can be cured with beetroot". The latest research suggests that if carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere remain what they are today, by 2030, global temperatures will rise by 2C. Above this level major ecosystems begin collapsing: rather than absorbing carbon dioxide, the dying Amazonian rainforest will begin releasing millions of tonnes of it. And elsewhere, as the permafrost melts, the ground releases greenhouse gases. Climate change will spiral out of control. To avoid this, says Monbiot, we must prevent global average temperatures rising beyond this "critical threshold". It's possible that we have already passed the point of no return. But, says Monbiot, he is writing "in the spirit of optimism".

Like the characters in Shute's novel and film, we are all living in denial about the catastrophe that is about to engulf us. One of Monbiot's environmentalist friends spends her holidays snorkelling in the Pacific. "She doesn't get there by bicycle," he adds angrily. Another burns coal on an open fire. Chris Martin, lead singer of Coldplay, sings about people mistreating the planet and then boasts about how his band flies everywhere by private jet. In just 30 years' time, this country will be "profoundly and catastrophically different". So where are the mass demonstrations? "We are simply too comfortable, and we have too much to lose." Monbiot sets himself the task of persuading us that climate change is worth fighting. At the very least he wants to "make people so depressed about the state of the planet that they stay in bed all day, thereby reducing their consumption of fossil fuels".

Heat is a solidly researched manifesto for change. Monbiot regards the threat as so obvious and the need for action so urgent that he wastes little time combating the arguments of sceptics such as Bjørn Lomborg. According to Monbiot, we need a global reduction of 60% in emissions to avoid hitting the critical threshold. This means the richest nations will need to cut their greenhouse gas emissions by 90%. The Kyoto protocol envisaged a 5.2% cut by 2012. In the UK, we need to get our carbon emissions of 2.6 tonnes per person down to 0.33 tonnes. Monbiot's first thought was that this would be impossible. But in Heat he argues convincingly that a medium-sized industrial nation like the UK can be "de-carbonised while remaining a modern economy". He proposes a system of carbon units, or "icecaps": "it enables us to cap our carbon emissions to keep the planet cool." Every person in the world will have an annual carbon allowance. But to make the new rationing scheme feasible, governments have to establish a carbon-neutral infrastructure: that means redesigning our transport systems to cure us of our addiction to cars; electricity generation not from nuclear but renewables and gas-fired power stations utilising carbon capture and storage; and a new national grid that will make wind turbines on the continental shelf and solar power from the Sahara viable: "High Voltage Direct Current cables ... could change the world".

Energy-efficient housing is an area where individuals and governments both need to take action, particularly in Britain. He admits that his home, built in the 1900s and refurbished with scant regard for energy efficiency, is a typical "ecological disaster." Demand for energy across the UK rose by 7.3% between 1990 and 2003; but in our homes it rose by 19%. Building regulations in Sweden were tougher in 1978 than they are in Britain today: "our builders get away with practices very similar to those that prevailed in 1900." On becoming chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel declared that she would provide £1bn annually to ensure that every house in the country would be air-tight and properly insulated within 20 years. But in Britain, the minister for housing and planning, Yvette Cooper, described proposals to introduce proper energy-efficiency standards for the refurbishment of houses as "unnecessary gold plating", a phrase Monbiot bitterly recalls every time he pays his gas bill. One eminently sensible suggestion he makes is that a rebate on stamp duty could be used to help pay for refurbishment and insulation of existing homes.

Monbiot comes up with some ingenious solutions to cut carbon while preserving our lifestyles. There is, however, one carbon extravagance he insists the planet can no longer afford: air travel. A return flight to New York creates more greenhouse gases per passenger than the total amount Monbiot says we should be allowed to use as individuals in a year. "The growth in aviation and the need to address climate change cannot be reconciled." A 90% cut in carbon emissions means that there can be no more shopping trips to New York or parties in Ibiza, "unless you believe that these activities are worth the sacrifice of the biosphere and the lives of the poor".

Heat, he writes, is "both a manifesto for action and a thought experiment". The combination of practical detail and creative thinking is immensely impressive. Monbiot concludes that "it is possible to save the biosphere", but we must be prepared to accept that setting a limit on our freedom to pollute means all our lives will change. What we need now is "bold politics and ambitious engineering". The catalogue of political failure Monbiot describes does not give one much cause for hope. For example, the budget for widening the M1 is £3.6bn - seven times more than is spent annually in the UK on tackling climate change. But we can do it. As someone once said, "if sunbeams were weapons of war, we'd have had solar energy long ago".

PD Smith is writing a cultural history of science and superweapons for Penguin


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