ISBN 978 1 905570 20 1. “Blackout – Coal, Climate and the Last Energy Crisis” by Richard Heinberg was published by Clairview Books in 2009. For your money you get 200 page including Acknowledgements, Introduction, eight chapters, Notes, Bibliography and Index. What can we say about a book by Richard Heinberg? Next to Colin Campbell he practically founded and defined the modern concern about Peak Oil and how it will effect our civilisation. This is his fifth major book on the topic and (at the time of writing September 2011) he had already published his sixth “The End of Growth: Adapting to Our New Economic Reality”. It seems hard to catch up. So, after four good books does the quality start to fail him? Well, sadly, yes. This is not necessarily a bad thing as this is a book he had to write. Whereas he had written continually about Peak Oil his critics would always level the criticism along the lines of “well, that’s all right because we have 200 years of coal left”. This is his response and it is well researched and workmanlike. However it is his least entertaining work and you have the feeling that it was a chore for him. Most of the book reviews numerous reports on the state of global coal supplies broken down country by country and region by region. His conclusion? Well, yes there is lots of coal left but the peak is still likely to come far sooner that the claim of “200 years supply” suggests. We are likely to see the peak of coal production somewhere between 2025 and 2075. So, by mid-century (within the lifetime of this reviewer) we will learn if we can expand our economies any further on the supply of cheap coal.
Putting the peak issue to one side Heinberg moves on in the latter part of the book to address the complex relationship between coal and climate. He reviews the existing (but limited) work on how carbon fuel depletion will mitigate climate change. Whilst agreeing that peak fossil fuels will mitigate against the worst case scenarios used by the IPCC he goes on to tell us that (in his opinion) there is more than enough carbon in the ground to cause runaway global warming. This is not his most lucid point. What he does better in this book is demolish the case made by techno-optimists that tells us we’ll convert coal into liquid fuels. He shows us how the energy return on energy invested is likely to fade so quickly that it will only be a temporary respite from depletion. He also tears through that other great hope: carbon capture. He points out just how much carbon has to be captured and buried and what it would cost. Heinberg ends the book with three scenarios: go-for-growth, green-growth and transition. He shows how the first two are bound to fail by the hand of peak oil/gas/coal alone. He doesn’t even need to add climate change. He concludes (as do we) that only the transition to a low-energy culture. He writes “[r]eorganisation on this scale cannot be imposed from the top down. [..] the transition is designed to support community organising via relocalisation groups…” This may well not be his greatest book and you may find it less than entertaining but “Blackout” does fill an important gap in Heinberg’s work. It is an essential book and everyone should read it. Magnificent.