Heat: How to Stop the Planet Burning

By George Monbiot, Allen Lane, London (2006), 277 pp., hardcover, ISBN-13: 978-0-713-99923-5

This book tackles the issue of global warming. Monbiot, author and columnist for the Manchester Guardian, teams up in this effort with Dr. Matthew Prescott, who provides research assistance. He starts with a consideration of what society will be like in the United Kingdom if the huge reductions in greenhouse gas emissions necessary to prevent catastrophic climate change can be made, reductions which will require both a massive shift from fossil fuel to renewable energy sources and the use of substantially less energy through conservation and efficiency. The magnitude of these shifts will require a huge change in the way we live and do business; it is not at all obvious at first glance that our way of life can survive. Thus the question he poses in the book: Is it possible for a modern economy such as the United Kingdom to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 90% by 2030 and still remain a modern economy?

Because of the huge societal changes required, it is important to understand the necessity for a reduction of this magnitude. In his first chapter Monbiot sketches out the calculation. Although familiar in its general form, it bears repeating. The goal must be to keep the global average temperature from rising more than 2˚C above pre-industrial levels (1.4˚C above the current point). Two degrees Celsius is important because that is the point at which non-linear effects are expected to kick in, beyond which human intervention to prevent runaway heating will become impossible; with business as usual, we’ll reach that point by 2030. Holding the temperature increase to 2˚C by 2030 means stabilizing greenhouse gases at or below the equivalent of 440 ppm of CO2 (the level of greenhouse gases now in the atmosphere is 380 ppm equivalent). By 2030 we must reduce global anthropogenic CO2 production to what the ecosphere can absorb, which will be 2.7 Gt/y in 2030 (it is 7 Gt/y now). If we assume a global population of 8.2 billion then, that means a CO2 allotment of 0.33 tonnes per capita per year (Monbiot assumes “contraction and convergence”--a contraction in emissions that converges on equal per capita emissions worldwide). But the UK currently produces 2.6 tonnes per capita per year, so it must reduce its CO2 emissions by 87% (rounded to 90%) by 2030.

The task Monbiot sets for himself is to show how to achieve this 90% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in each sector of the economy, housing and transportation in particular, using existing technologies. Housing is considered in Chapters 3 through 7. Houses (and by extension offices and hotels) require electricity and heat. To meet the UK’s demand for 400 TWh/y of electricity, he proposes that 50% come from wind and 50% from natural gas-fired power stations, with the CO2 sequestered; he rejects nuclear energy because of the waste disposal problem and the cost of waste disposal and decommissioning. For the 2.4 exajoules/y the UK uses for home heating, he proposes to save 40% by better home insulation, to get 25% from burning renewables, mostly wood (using 20% of the UK’s land area for wood energy crops), and 25% from home-installed hydrogen micro-boilers (this last seems a bit of a stretch).

Chapters 8 and 9 look at transportation. For personal transport, Monbiot cites a study showing that emissions from buses are 90% less per passenger-mile than for cars, and proposes that most car travel be replaced by bus travel; intercity bus travel could be made more palatable, he says, by moving bus stations from city centers to outlying junctions with trunk highways, to speed it up. Citing a study which shows that the fuel per passenger-mile is the same for air travel as for travel by automobile, he concludes that commercial aviation is incompatible with reducing carbon emissions; it can survive only if we reduce by 90% the number and length of the journeys we make.

Monbiot then turns to the retail and industrial sectors in Chapter 10. He cites a study which shows that retailing counts for more energy by far per square meter for both space heating and electricity than factories, offices, or warehouses–not surprising when one considers the intense lighting and the freezers without doors in supermarkets to make the merchandise more visible and more appealing to customers. His solution to achieve 90% reduction: Replace all shopping in distant stores with internet shopping and deliveries straight from the warehouse.

From the industrial sector he chooses the cement industry as a significant example, since 5 to 10 percent of the world’s anthropogenic CO2 arises from cement production. Curiously, the CO2 from cement production arises not from combustion but from a different chemical reaction in which the cement is produced. The cement usage of individuals can be significant; about five tonnes of CO2 are associated with the cement for each new home, about four times a single person’s yearly allotment in 2030. Monbiot resorts to a new technology for his solution: geopolymeric cements. Their fabrication produces 80 to 90 percent less CO2 than conventional cement.

Monbiot’s calculations show that it is indeed possible for the UK to reduce its CO2 emissions by 90% by 2030 and remain a modern economy. But for this to happen, people in the UK will have to make their homes much more energy efficient, forsake the private car for mass transportation, give up commercial flying, and give up shopping at energyintensive retail outlets. Is this inevitable? The future cannot be predicted; life in 2030 will almost certainly be different in some (and perhaps most) details from that described by Monbiot. The importance of his work is to point out a possible sustainable future, and to suggest the magnitude of the changes and sacrifices we will have to make to achieve it.

Louis Schwartzkopf
Professor of Physics
Minnesota State University, Mankato

This contribution has not been peer refereed. It represents solely the view(s) of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of APS.