Climate change: we must act now

  • 9 September 2007
  • test

George Monbiot is a journalist, author, academic and environmental and political activist in the UK and author of Heat: How to Stop the Planet Burning. He writes a weekly column for the Guardian newspaper. Here he advises Britain on how to reduce their carbon emissions, as well as issues such as climate change censorship, and climate change solutions.


On Climate Change

If we're to have a high chance of preventing global temperatures from rising by 2 degrees Celcius above pre-industrial levels, we need, in the rich nations, a 90 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. The greater part of the cut has to be made at the beginning of this period. To see why, picture two graphs with time on the horizontal axis and the rate of emissions plotted vertically. One falls like a ski jump: a steep drop followed by a shallow tail. The other falls like the trajectory of a bullet. To the left of each line is the total volume of greenhouse gases produced in that period. They fall to the same point by the same date, but far more gases have been produced in the second case, making runaway climate change more likely.

So how do we do it without bringing civilisation crashing down? Here is a plan for drastic but affordable action the government could take.

1. Set a target for reducing greenhouse gas emissions based on the latest science. The British government is using outdated figures aiming for a 60 per cent reduction by 2050. Even the annual 3 per cent cut proposed in the  motion calling for a new climate change bill does not go far enough.
Timescale: immediately.

2. Use that target to set an annual carbon cap, which falls on the ski jump trajectory. Then use the cap to set a personal carbon ration. Every citizen is given a free annual quota of carbon dioxide. He spends it by buying gas and electricity, petrol and train and plane tickets. If he runs out, he must buy the rest from someone that has used less than his quota. This accounts for about 40 per cent of the carbon dioxide we produce. The rest is auctioned off to companies. It's a simpler and fairer approach than either green taxation or the Emissions Trading Scheme, and it also provides people with a powerful incentive to demand low-carbon technologies.
Timescale: a full scheme in place by January 2009.

3. Introduce a new set of building regulations, with three objectives.

A. Imposing strict energy efficiency requirements on all major refurbishments (costing £3,000 or more).
Timescale: comes into force by June 2007.
B. Obliging landlords to bring their houses up to high energy efficiency standards before they can rent them out.
Timescale: to cover all new rentals from January 2008.
C. Ensuring that all new homes in the UK are built to the German passivhaus standard (which requires no heating system).
Timescale: comes into force by 2012.

4. Ban the sale of incandescent lightbulbs, patio heaters, garden floodlights and several other wasteful and unnecessary technologies. Introduce a stiff “feebate” system for all electronic goods sold in this country. The least efficient are taxed heavily while the most efficient receive tax discounts. Every year the standards in each category rise.
Timescale: fully implemented by November 2007.

5. Redeploy the money now earmarked for new nuclear missiles towards a massive investment in energy generation and distribution. Two schemes in particular require government support to make them commercially viable: very large wind farms, many miles offshore, connected to the grid with high voltage direct current cables; and a hydrogen pipeline network to take over from the natural gas grid as the primary means of delivering fuel for home heating. Timescale: both programmes commence at the end of 2007 and are completed by 2018.

6. Promote the development of a new national coach network. City centre coach stations are shut down and moved to the junctions of the motorways. Urban public transport networks are extended to meet them. The coaches travel on dedicated lanes and never leave the motorways. Journeys by public transport then become as fast as journeys by car, while saving 90 per cent of emissions. It is self-financing, through the sale of the land now used for coach stations. Timescale: commences in 2008; completed by 2020.

7. Oblige all chains of filling stations to supply leasable electric car batteries. This provides electric cars with unlimited mileage: as the battery runs down, you pull into a forecourt. A crane lifts it out and drops in a fresh one. The batteries are charged overnight with surplus electricity from offshore windfarms.
Timescale: fully operational by 2011.

8. Abandon the road-building and road-widening programme, and spend the money on tackling climate change. The British government has earmarked £11.4 billion for new roads. It claims to be allocating just £545 million a year to “spending policies that tackle climate change”.
Timescale: immediately.

9. Freeze and then reduce UK airport capacity. While capacity remains high there will be constant upward pressure on any scheme the government introduces to limit flights. We need a freeze on all new airport construction and the introduction of a national quota for landing slots, to be reduced by 90 per cent by 2030. Timescale: immediately.

10. Legislate for the closure of all out-of-town superstores, and their replacement with a warehouse and delivery system. Shops use a staggering amount of energy (six times as much electricity per square metre as factories, for example), and major reductions are hard to achieve: Tesco's “state of the art” energy-saving store at Diss has managed to cut its energy use by only 20 per cent. Warehouses containing the same quantity of goods use roughly 5 per cent of the energy. Out-of-town shops are also hard-wired to the car – delivery vehicles use 70 per cent less fuel.
Timescale: fully implemented by 2012.

These timescales might seem extraordinarily ambitious. They are, by contrast to the current glacial pace of change. But when the US entered the second world war, it turned the economy around on a sixpence. Carmakers began producing aircraft and missiles within a year, and amphibious vehicles in 90 days, from a standing start. And that was 65 years ago. If we want this to happen, we can make it happen. It will require more economic intervention than we're used to and some pretty brutal emergency planning policies (with little time or scope for objections). But if you believe these are worse than mass death, there is something wrong with your value system.
Climate change is not just a moral question: it is the moral question of the 21st century. There is one position even more morally culpable than denial. That is to accept that it's happening and that its results will be catastrophic; but to fail to take the measures needed to prevent it.

On Science and Climate Change Censorship

Scientists whose research demonstrates that climate change is taking place have been repeatedly threatened and silenced and their findings edited or suppressed. The Union of Concerned Scientists found that 58 per cent of the 279 climate scientists working at federal agencies in the US who responded to its survey reported that they had experienced one of the following constraints:
1. “Pressure to eliminate the words ‘climate change,' ‘global warming', or other similar terms” from their communications.
2. Editing of scientific reports by their superiors which “changed the meaning of scientific findings”.
3. Statements by officials at their agencies which misrepresented their findings.
4. “The disappearance or unusual delay of websites, reports, or other science-based materials relating to climate”.
5. “New or unusual administrative requirements that impair climate-related work”.
6. “Situations in which scientists have actively objected to, resigned from, or removed themselves from a project because of pressure to change scientific findings.” They reported 435 incidents of political interference over the past five years

On Climate Change Solutions

A group of nuclear weapons scientists at the Lawrence Livermore laboratory in California, apparently bored of experimenting with only one kind of mass death, have proposed launching into the atmosphere a million tonnes of tiny aluminium balloons, filled with hydrogen, every year. One unfortunate side-effect would be to eliminate the ozone layer.
Another proposal, developed by a scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, suggests spraying billions of tonnes of seawater into the air. Regrettably the production of small salt particles, while generating obscuring mists, could also cause droughts in the countries downwind. Another scheme would inject sulphate particles into the stratosphere. It is perhaps less dangerous than the others, but still carries a risk of causing changes in rainfall patterns. As for flipping a giant mirror into orbit, the necessary technologies are probably a century away. All these fixes appear to be more expensive than cutting the amount of energy we consume. None of them reduces the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which threatens to acidify the oceans, with grave consequences for the food chain.

On Carbon Offsetting

Buying and selling carbon offsets is like pushing the food around on your plate to create the impression that you have eaten it. Any scheme that persuades us we can carry on polluting delays the point at which we grasp the nettle of climate change and accept that our lives have to change. But we cannot afford to delay. The big cuts have to be made right now, and the longer we leave it, the harder it will be to prevent runaway climate change from taking place. By selling us a clean conscience, the offset companies are undermining the necessary political battle to tackle climate change at home. They are telling us that we don't need to be citizens; we need only be better consumers.

On Consumption

The modern industrial economy works like this: resources are dug from a hole in the ground on one side of the planet, used for a few weeks, then dumped in a hole on the other side of the planet. This is known as the Creation of Value. The Creation of Value improves our quality of life. Improvements in our quality of life make us happier. The more we transfer from hole to hole, the happier we become. Unfortunately, we are not yet transferring enough. According to the Worldwatch Institute, we have used more goods and services since 1950 than in all the rest of human history. But we still don't seem to be happy. Indeed, over the same period, 25-year-olds in Britain have become ten times more likely to be afflicted by depression. One in four British adults now suffers from a chronic lack of sleep, and one fifth of schoolchildren have psychological problems. Over the past 13 years, mental health insurance claims have risen by 36 per cent. American studies suggest that between 40 and 60 per cent of the population suffers from mental illness in any one year. The World Health Organisation predicts that by 2010 depression will become the second commonest disease in the developed world. Unless we start consuming in earnest, we'll never experience real joy.

George Monbiot has also written the books The Age of Consent: a Manifesto for a New World Order and Captive State: the Corporate Takeover of Britain. π