How To Stop the Planet from Burning
Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2007
Journalist George Monbiot is a hero.1 He's a hero because he's one of those who's willing to test assumptions — those things that everyone just believes are true; the conventional wisdom. In this book, his sixth, he set out to question the gloomy proposition that it's simply impossible to reduce carbon dioxide emissions far enough, soon enough, to stave off the dire outcomes projected by the IPCC and the world's leading climatologists.
What Monbiot has done here, in a tour de force of research, is to examine almost every sector of society for the chances of affordably reducing its emission of CO2 by 90 percent. He arrived at the 90-percent target after reading a paper by Colin Forrest. As he explains:
"If in the year 2030, carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere remain as high as they are today, the likely result is two degrees centigrade of warming (above pre-industrial levels). Two degrees is the point beyond which certain major ecosystems begin collapsing. Having, until then, absorbed carbon dioxide, they begin to release it. Beyond this point, in other words, climate change is out of our hands; it will accelerate without our help. The only means, Forrest argues, by which we can ensure that there is a high chance that the temperature does not rise to this point is for the rich nations to cut their greenhouse gas emissions by 90 per cent by 2030. This is the task whose feasibility Heat attempts to demonstrate.
– pages xi-xii
It's easy to overlook the GHG contribution to the atmosphere of making cement. I mean the direct contribution, rather than the amounts coming from quarrying, processing, packaging and transporting it. This chemical process, known as "calcination", produces 500 kg of CO2 for every metric ton of cement made. The reaction is
Monbiot suggests that a house contains 30 tonnes of concrete, one-sixth of that being cement — which he claims emits 5 tonnes of CO2 (page 198).
Mixing cement with quicklime, sand, water, and aluminum powder gives AirCrete, which cures to strong blocks made of 60% to 85% air. Then there's High Strength Concrete, containing silica fume, powdered fly ash, and other additives. Being twice as strong as ordinary concrete, it permits using half the weight for equal firmness. Finally, there's Roger Jones's process (page 201) to double the strength of concrete by recombining the CO2 with it. But he now disclaims that idea. Did they get to him?
I read the first U.S. edition, which is noteworthy for not sparing the politicians in charge of the world's largest per capita emitter of GHGs. In the foreword to the U.S. edition, he says, "Both the Clinton and the Bush administrations have sought to exempt themselves from global responsibility on climate change with a series of bad arguments." But Monbiot never pulls any punches, and this is Monbiot at his best: advocating strongly that we must rethink our assumptions if we are to preserve the ways of life we know and treasure — but that the task is doable.
His research focused mainly on his native Britain, but the measures he proposes are applicable to most other countries. For example, he found that supermarkets are, by a factor of about three, the most profligate users of electricity on a kwh per square meter basis (page 191.) This is due to marketing: the open-front refrigerated cases, the intense lighting to make seafood sparkle, the building's own air conditioning; the large, lighted parking lot which encourages customer shopping trips. He shows how turning them into warehouses, with shopping from catalogues or on the Internet and orders delivered by the store's vans, would produce far less CO2.
The same reasoning applies to the other sectors Monbiot examines: home-building, electricity generation, public ground transportation, and commercial air travel. He concludes that his 90-percent target can be met in every sector but the last; and that even there carbon-saving options for long-range high-speed travel exist, but not at anything near the volume commercial airlines currently support.
These analyses are preceded by three chapters in which Monbiot considers the general problem, including its political and philosophical aspects. Each chapter opens with a quotation from Marlowe's Faust — Monbiot's metaphor for the bargain which we have made with our energy technology. It is a cogent comparison. This book presents an extremely valuable series of insights into the tradeoffs and possibilities involved in reducing energy consumption, and hence greenhouse gases, without plunging our civilizations back to pre-industrial conditions. Reading it is vital, and it should be a keeper for almost everyone, because of the wealth of detail it contains: not only the analyses of energy options, but the references and sources. In addition to an excellent index and a very useful set of endnotes, Monbiot provides a list of organizations you can contact for more information, or to get involved yourself in bringing about the changes needed.
Monbiot all but rules out nuclear power. As those familiar with my Web site will expect, I don't agree with him on this. To be sure, he's right about the performance of current plants (and, being British, has in Sellafield and Dounreay two particularly horrible examples); they are too costly and too defect-ridden. Page 95-96: "Fast-breeder reactors use more concentrated nuclear fuel, which means accidents could be more dangerous than accidents in other kinds of fission reactors." Fast breeders are more dangerous, but not for the reason he cites. He mentions Britain's Advanced Passive 1000 reactor on page 97, questioning its efficacy because of its long deployment time. But, in fairness, he does note that nuclear plants, like carbon capture and storage (CCS) facilities, could be deployed much faster given the political will.
"There are two reasons why cheating is so common in the nuclear industry. The first is that it is much cheaper to handle radioactive materials badly than to handle them well. The second is that the nuclear operators have the perfect excuse — security — for withholding inconvenient facts from the public."
– page 91
Monbiot holds out considerable hope for CCS, despite the uncertainty over the stability of underground reservoirs where it would be stored under pressure. He writes on page 86 that "My first thought was that it couldn't possibly work: the gas would surely leak from the aquifers. This fear has now been laid to rest." However, he neglects to tell us how it has been laid to rest. And on page 87 he writes, "If burying carbon is to be used as a means of tackling climate change, it cannot also be used as a means of recovering oil." Where is this written? I also disagree with his statement (page 91) that plutonium is the most toxic substance known. This is simply wrong; on a gram-for-gram basis, botulinum toxin is worse, as are certain venoms.
It also seems that Monbiot needs a refresher course on basic electricity. He makes several obvious mistakes (detailed in my Errata list.)
I rate this book a must read and a keeper. Each chapter is thoroughly end-noted, and it has a good index. But the key value of this book, as I said above, is that its author questions conventional assumptions and goes on to dig up better answers (or at least different ones.) In popular parlance, he "thinks outside the box." I mark it down one notch from the top rating because of the basic mistakes Monbiot makes, and because he didn't take the time to consult an expert who might have fixed those errors. Monbiot, being a good journalist, recognizes expert blather when he encounters it.2 And I believe he understands the limits of his technical expertise. But in this case he should have gotten some technical advice before publication.