“The Burning Question” by Mike Berners-Lee & Duncan Clark

Clark_Berners-Lee_Burning_QuestionISBN 978 178125 045 7. “The Burning Question – We can’t burn half the world’s oil, coal and gas. So how do we quit?” by Mike Berners-Lee and Duncan Clark.  We reviewed Mike Berners-Lee “How Bad are Bananas?” just over two years ago. He is a master of the back-of-the-envelope carbon footprint calculation. Duncan Clark is a “consultant editor for Guardian environment, a visiting researcher at the UCL Energy Institute and co-founder of [a] digital journalism company”. Together they have written probably one of the most important books on man-made climate change of the last few years. And they are not pulling punches. Which may well be where the problem is.

Don’t get me wrong. This is a great book with an important message. Early on they warn the reader that they will be brutally frank. They then go and over-do it. There is great material here for you if you are a climate change denier who revels in debunking renewable energy and energy efficiency. It is a double edged sword and this one cuts to the bone. It reads like a manifesto for hopelessness at a time when we need to motivate people to actually do something. Not that we are asking for wide-eyed naivety & optimism. Only at the end of the book do they seem to realise what a great job they have done is convincing us to jack it all in. They then deliver a few pages imploring everyone to go out and lead their communities into an orgy of carbon-reduction. Just how does this stack up?

This is the first significant popular book to be published on the growing phenomena of the growing ‘carbon bubble’ – the buried fossil fuels that we have valued in our monetary economy yet we cannot burn because the resulting climate-chaos would destroy the same said economy. It is a conundrum and one introduced by Bill McKibben’s opening Foreword – a shorter version of an essay he wrote for Rolling Stone Magazine that become quite the viral internet hit. McKibben is not the only big name associated with this project as the front covers quotes praise from Al Gore whilst there are further plaudits from the likes of George Monbiot, Chris Goodall and Jim Hansen (amongst others) on the inside cover. You know this is going to be good. However you can also guarantee that with a cast like that we are in doom-monger territory. This was always going to be the sort of message that some people will hold up as the example of how NOT to do climate change communication. But sometimes things need to be said. The positive point on the carbon bubble is that it strikes to the heart of the City of London and Big Business. It will hurt the people “who matter”. And when they feel pain something gets done; like bank bailouts and such-like.

Or maybe not. Like the Guardian’s own review of this book we would now like to cherry-pick an excellent quote by JK Galbraith that Berners-Lee & Clark use:

“Faced with the choice of changing one’s mind and with proving there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy on the proof.”

So, despite the fact that this carbon bubble could be an effective tool to engage big government and big business it could have entirely the opposite effect. Since it strikes to the very heart of our money-making system it deeply threatens the status quo. How can anyone truly admit that there entire carbon paradigm is about to come crashing down? Look at it another way: how will Governments go into climate-negotiations with knowledge that what they are about to agree (and MUST agree) will devalue the stocks of some of our biggest companies? The sort of companies that our pension-funds invest in? The carbon bubble is, in fact, an immensely strong reason to do nothing. And not only do nothing – it is a great reason to get “busy on the proof” that the man-made causes of climate change are hokum. The bigger the threat – the bigger the resistance to grasping that reality. What’s my motivation again? We are just waiting for some right-wing libertarian pundit to come up with the line that asks “why are we listening to these environmentalists when they want to put Big Oil out of business?”

The message we need to deliver is that our climate will put us ALL out of business.

“If we stayed on our current trajectory for, say, 600 years, emissions would rise so steeply that our fuel-burning would consume all the oxygen that is currently in the Earth’s atmosphere…”

There is no doubt that we will eventually have to do something.

“…if the current carbon-curve continued, we’d most likely run out of all of them [fossil fuels] – including all the obscure and unconventional fuel sources such as tar sand and shale gas – within a century or so.”

So there you have it – the true bottom-line. We have at most a hundred years to get off fossil fuels. Even if we conjured up some more fuels then five-hundred years after that the burning of fossil fuels will extinguish all life on Earth anyway. But there-in lies the problem. It is not that these things are inevitable – its that they seem too far away to matter. They are somebody else’s problem.

So these authors have one big idea to sell to you – and it isn’t about what the solution is. It is about what the problem is. They show that for all our attempts to cut our carbon footprints the global rise of carbon emissions has not responded. Their point is that carbon-cutting only seems to beget more carbon. Energy efficiency only seems to increase consumption. It is called rebound. However it is contentious and is argued over endlessly. The problem with rebound theories are just that – they remain theories. The idea that energy efficiency increases consumption increases is a statistical anomaly observed only in a period of history in which there has been rapid increases in both human population and affluence.

Of course our improvements in energy efficiency may be partially to blame for begetting further consumption but these ’causes’ and ‘effects’ are complex and contested. Some have argued that if we build more roads then we just get more cars. However car ownership is related closely to affluence and the cost of motoring. We could build more roads but if we don’t get richer, and the cost of running a car outstrips the costs of the substitutes, then car ownership will not increase. Hence if the economy doesn’t grow due to resource depletion and climate change, and the cost of running such luxuries is outside of most people’s pockets (because we have reached the end of easy oil), then all those new roads will be empty. New roads do not beget new cars. Affluence does.

In recognition of some of these realities the authors introduce us to the “Kaya Identity” which is a handy little formula which reads:

emissions from energy use = average GDP per person x average energy used to create a unit of GDP x average emissions caused by a unit of energy

Hence affluence is a factor here. The authors do go on to suggest that the end of economic growth has been touted as a solution to climate change. We don’t think this is quite the right way to see it. The end of affluence and economic growth is the consequence of resource depletion and climate change. Not vice versa. The situation is partially self-correcting. However this is not quite how the authors pitch it:

“As for voluntary carbon and energy savings at the personal, corporate and national level, their real value may be less about reducing emissions directly and more about showing leadership and changing cultural norms in a way that would make a global deal more likely.”

Berners-Lee and Clark are holding out for a “global deal”. They see it as the only way forward in a world where any progress in one part of the planet is offset by reversals in another part of the planet. So for all the carbon cuts in Europe there is an equal and opposite impact in China. Hence we can only make global progress if there is a global regulatory system. The author’s reason that local action by itself is insufficient. If you put it that way it is hard to disagree however there somewhat belittles the point of local and personal action. YES – it is about leadership but it isn’t only our Governments who respond. It is everyone in our communities. Given a following wind the reduction in the need for carbon-based fuels will itself devalue the fossil fuel companies. Just as the introduction of kerosene sunk the whale oil industry before it. It didn’t take a “global deal” to put the whalers out of business. It took a better alternative. And that is what we also need.

What we learn is that the four elements of the Kaya Identity interact such that isn’t as simple as reducing population growth or affluence in isolation. We need to work on all four factors. We wouldn’t disagree with this at all. To echo Professor David MacKay:

If you’ve looked at ways of making plans that add up you come to the conclusion that you need almost everything and you need it fast – right now… I think it is unrealistic to say we could get there solely with renewables … the costs would be high if you attempted to do that…”

In brief: there are no single magic bullets. You need everything right now. So the idea that these authors sell (of the developing nations “mopping up” the fossil fuels that the developed world won’t burn) is only part of this equation. If these developing nations cannot afford those fuels then the market price signal will do the job of the “global deal” these authors seek. Our problem is that fossil fuels remain too cheap. And that, in itself, is a self-correcting situation. But it isn’t self-correcting quickly enough. It is worth repeating the authors’ own words here:

…we are not saying alternative energy sources aren’t important. It’s obvious that phasing out fossil fuels will only be practically and politically possible in parallel with a monumental effort to scale-up low carbon energy sources.”

EXACTLY. We need to have every alternative at our finger-tips and we need to be working the economies of scale. That is why that local leadership is also so valuable; the more people that buy into the new cultural norm – the lower the price will be for everyone else. In essence again; it can be self correcting without a global deal. We cannot wait for that global deal, it is not a panacea, just an accelerant in a time when we need urgent haste for change.

But this book isn’t only looking at affluence and alternative energy. The authors turn to the other side of the equation – carbon sequestration. Several times they mention the work of Allan Savory who worked out a way of using livestock management to rebuild degraded soils. Apparently we could use new agricultural techniques to stop destroying soil and to start it absorbing carbon again.

“…if rolled out widely enough [it] could return the atmosphere to its pre-industrial carbon levels at the same time as massively increasing global food production.”

As a general rule; if something sounds too good to be true then is usually is. The catch here is to change the agricultural practices of millions of farmers world-wide. In comparison building wind turbines seems easy. But, as for this and other technologies, such as Nuclear, these authors often state “we will regret not having every trick up our sleeve“. Amen to that.

Berners-Lee and Clark turn their attention to the sunk cost within our fossil fuel powered economic system. Should we really bother to build all those cars and oil refineries if we MUST NOT use them? If we are to build them then we had better hope that they can be easily converted into the nearest non-carbon equivalent.

“The IEA estimates that each $1 that we fail to invest in transitioning to low-carbon energy systems in the next decade will eventually cost us $4.3 further down the line..”

Ain’t that a bitch? It’s called true cost economics. You build in your future externalities. Something we are very poor at as a species.

Despite all of this, an air of hopelessness pervades this book:

“…thus far popular concern about climate change has been conspicuous by its absence. A small proportion of people, deeply worried about global warming, are making efforts to call for change or lead by example, but for most of us, from punters to presidents, act as if we just don’t care…”

Yes, welcome to our world. We have T-Shirts. So , what hope is there? These authors believe that there has to be a massive opportunity for carbon capture and storage. Indeed they believe, with the right motivation, that the big oil companies have all the infrastructure and expertise to make CCS work. All they need is the right motivation. If capturing and storing carbon was as profitable as extracting oil, coal and gas then these companies would lead the way. The trouble again is the market failure – there is no motivation in the price of carbon.

Where does this leave us? The authors leave us with this conclusion:

“The key question of our era is which complex system will tip first, the climate or the human response.”

This book is as deep as it is broad. Berners-Lee and Clark pack an awful lot into these 200 pages (we also recommend you read the Notes and References). We couldn’t cover it all in this brief review. So it worth getting a copy and studying it. It says what needs to be said.

For us this was an uncomfortable read. It overplays the rebound effect in an effort to explain away why emissions keep growing. But you cannot deny the truth of the “squeezed balloon”. All the local carbon cuts we make are displaced by growth elsewhere in the economy. But this is NOT an excuse to give up. Imagine how bad it would be if we were NOT erecting wind turbines and solar panels. This is the brake we need but alone it is not enough. The brake is on but the economy keeps accelerating. The way these authors see it the “brake” is the accelerator. The relationship is complex but, as far as we can see, this is not a good corollary. Even if there is some relationship then it isn’t helpful to align public-thought with the idea that doing ANYTHING just pumps out more carbon. Otherwise we all just stay in bed all day.

And that would solve nothing.


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