Wednesday, October 18, 2006

George Monbiot on the new politics to stop the planet burning: HEAT

The George Monbiot talk was sponsored by the Royal Geographical Society and the department of Geography and Development Studies at the University of Chester and the member of the geography department who introduced him also told us of a couple of interesting local projects:

First he described the 'CREd 60% challenge'. This is an initiative started by Chester City Council in which people pledge to: insulate their home; install at least three energy efficient light bulbs; keep thermostats at 18 degrees C; use the car less frequently; not leave appliances on standby; change to renewable tariffs and tell their friends about the scheme.

This scheme was, apparently, launched in Chester Town Hall last Thursday, although I was not aware of that. There was nothing in the local newspapers as far as I remember or noticed, which is surprising and disappointing given the seriousness of the situation. I think it should have been front page news. The aim to reduce carbon emissions by 60% by 2025. However, according to George Monbiot this is not enough.

Second there is the very interesting scheme in a village called Ashton Hayes (5 miles east of Chester) which is aiming to become the first carbon neutral village in England in ten years time. I intend to find out more about this because I think this too has received insufficient publicity. They are going to do this, according to a newsletter produced by the Geography and Development Studies department of the University of Chester, by using renewable technologies such as solar panels and wind turbines and increasing carbon 'sinks' by planting more trees and energy crops. However according to George Monbiot small scale schemes like these are not the answer either.

George Monbiot is an enthusiastic and inspiring speaker, Even though the talk was long - an hour and three quarters altogether including questions - he held our attention throughout, although there were some who disagreed with what he said. Altogether I made eight pages of notes but will attempt to condense what he said here.

The fact that we can change the atmosphere of out planet by our infinitesimal individual actions stretches our imaginations, but the planet could be destroyed by love - because many of the journeys we make are to visit people we love - and for each journey we make we produce carbon dioxide. However it is also possible that we can change the climate for the better with our individual actions.

According to a recent paper in the Journal of Hydrometeorology the net effect of climate change would be to desiccate the plant. This would change the current net surplus of food into a net deficit. This would have a greater catastrophic effect on humanity that any previous war, plague or genocide. Apart from this net drying effect, the climate change would cause sea-levels to rise - and since half the world's population lives near the coast they would be displaced - not just by flooding but also by sea-water inundation making present fresh water undrinkable.

We can only prevent this from taking place by ensuring that temperatures are reduced to 2 degrees below industrial levels. In order to do this we must cut carbon dioxide emissions by 60% by 2030 - and for this to happen emissions in the developed world must be reduced by 90%. If, conversely, the temperature rises by 2 degrees then feedback such as the permafrost melting and releasing a reservoir of methane in Siberia, will cause the temperature of the earth to rise inexorably due to natural effects and there will be nothing we can do.

According to George Monbiothere is a denial industry that has been working hard to cover up this prediction which is the consensus view of most scientists. This, he says, is the same industry, the tobacco industry, that denies the harmful effects of tobacco smoke. The climate change denial was used as a smoke screen to distract the public from the findings on passive smoking - which were also denied. This fed on the fact that most of us do not want to hear what the scientists have to say and we have lost ten years (when we could have been taking action) as a result.

Monbiot has studied how we can achieve this 90% reduction in the UK and has come to the conclusion that there are various ways we can do this and live with the result. He describes these in his book called HEAT (not a title he favoured, he says).

Many of the houses in the UK are so old and inefficient they are beyond hope. However with better regulations there is much to be done to the rest in terms of cavity wall and loft insulation.

Appliances within the house could also be of increased efficiency. He suggests incandescent light bulbs should not longer be sold; points out plasma screens on TVs use 5% more energy than the cathode ray; and that fridges which have vacuum insulated panels are much more efficient than conventional fridges. These vacuum-panelled fridges are rated A++ but are little known because the rating system found in shops stops at A due to pressure from manufacturers.

As for the provision of electricity - that should come from wind turbines out at sea which give a good reliable and consistent source. Similarly solar power in the Sahara could power Europe. The electricity could be transmitted using high voltage DC using new advanced materials. This method, he believes. would be a more efficient use of money than individual turbines (as in the Ashton Heyes scheme, I would guess).

Land transport he believes should consist of a series of coaches using an adapted version of the current infrastructure of roads. He discounts hydrogen (too bulky to store), and biodiesel and bioethanol as fuel (crop used to fuel cars instead of feed people); advocating instead electricity with batteries replaced at 'filling stations' in place of petrol stations. The coaches would travel in priority lanes on the existing motorways with public transport linking the motorway junctions to the urban centres. He envisages these coaches arriving at frequent intervals so no one has to wait a long time.

However, for aviation there is no satisfactory substitute. Hydrogen, ethanol and diesel are all unsatisfactory as fuels. Flying must be cut by 90% and in order to achieve this he suggests that there should carbon rationing with everyone being given a quota - so that people who wish to have more buy it from those who have no use for theirs.

In answer to questions he said that the government energy review is not enough: they advocate a 60 % reduction by 2050 when he thinks there should be a 90% reduction by 2030 - anything less will lead to a point of catastrophic feedback.

Coaches, he says are more efficient than trains and require no new infrastructure.

Planting trees will not compensate for the change in climate quickly enough.

He admits that the industrial development in China and India is problematic but says that we must show the way as we produce the most greenhouse gases per head of population.

George Monbiot's summary was most inspiring. He says that the present generation on earth have a responsibility to confront global warming as future generations depend on them. This is a mind-numbing concept but also gives us something big to do with our lives; something of mythical dimension. Our response must be to begin right now and join in the campaign to prevent climate change.

I came from the talk determined, I suppose, to do better. As I drove home alone in my own car I wondered if I needed it and whether I could live my life without it. I went through my week and thought of how I use it: for the weekly shop, the meetings with my friends and my sessions at the gym. They are all small journeys (the worst sort, environmentally) and I suppose I could use public transport or walk (riding a bike is out of the question because the roads around me are too busy to be safe) to get to most of them - although I would have to shop more frequently... and everything would take much longer. At the start of the journey I was determined to try but by the time I arrived home this had faded to a 'perhaps I might try'. But I shall. As I looked at our house I realised at least I needn't feel too guilty about not having solar panelling or a small wind turbine attached to the roof; but this weekend I am intending to clear out the loft. The insulation up there has never been adequate.

One step at a time, I guess. And like the rest of the population of this country I need lots of encouragement.


Blogger Jonathan Wonham said...

That's a very thoughtful article Clare.

Perhaps you could trade in your car for a scooter which would be much more energy efficient? You can buy them with compartments for carrying shopping these days.

And then boycott your local supermarket which is highly inefficient in energy terms since everything they sell is shipped from hundreds if not thousands of miles away...

Wed Oct 18, 09:33:00 pm  
Blogger Anne S said...


Interesting article...

It's very relevant to the utterly dire situation facing South Eastern Australia where we have been experiencing drought for years. Some country towns are very close to having no water at all.

The government has been very slow to do anything about it except throw money at agriculturalists to keep them on side, and proposing to develop nuclear energy to replace fossil fuel energies. The issue remains a very serious one and the Government doesn't appear to be doing anything practical to help.

Our house has four water tanks, installed by B some years ago. He uses the water for the garden, but we may need it for more essential things in the long run. And it has to rain for the tanks to maintain their levels.

The Victorian State Government, to its credit, has been pushing for 5 star energy efficiency for several years and provides rebates to people who adopt green technology like solar and wind power and water waste management systems.

The building where I work, being new, is a model for new energy efficient technologies.

But all this is not enough.

Rivers are dying in Australia which is pretty horrifying to contemplate.

Thu Oct 19, 07:54:00 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I shudder whenever I actualy stop and consider the changes in our environment and our responsibility for future generations. This is an informative post Clare - thanks so much - it's a keeper. ABM will be interested in reading it too as it relates to his work as a science teacher.
I like the idea of the wind turbines out at sea as just now som of us are fighting a proposed wind farm (meant to be the biggest in the world so far) on pristine land near us.
This whole subject of environmental change and management is huge but we can no longer ignore it or leave it up to someone else. Like you, I will be thinking of ways to use my car less.

Fri Oct 20, 05:47:00 am  
Blogger Lee said...

I've printed copies of this post to pass on to my children, especially the one determined to be an airline pilot.

Fri Oct 20, 08:51:00 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jonathan: although I love the idea of a scooter I think it would be unsafe on the roads in Chester.

You have made me start thinking about alternatives to supermarkets. Thank you.

Anne S - I believe, if I have followed Monboniot's thinking correctly, that he would recommend solar power as the way forward for Australia. The skies of your pictures I have noticed seem to be particularly blue and cloudless most of the time.

It is a dreadful picture that you are painting - and not one that Europeans consider very much. We are too caught up in ourselves, so it is very interesting to hear this cross the world view.

CB: I shall be interested to hear how your wind turbine project gets along. It sounds the ideal solution to me. I think I was very fortunate being able to hear Monbiot. Everyone listened most intensely. It was quite sobering. I am really glad some of what he said is being heard through this so many miles away.

Lee: Thank you. I think if the world was different I would want to be a pilot too. The view from up there never ceases to fascinate me.

Sat Oct 21, 12:33:00 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Claire. I'm glad you went to hear George Monbiot: we need more thinkers like him. Climate change is the single greatest threat facing life on Earth, and at the current rate of inaction we risk losing so much simply because we can't be bothered not to. Still, action is the only remedy to despair. Though making every effort to reduce one's footprint is very important (and it's rewarding to try), there is another action I would recommend.

Join a pressure group! I work with FRIENDS OF THE EARTH and GREENPEACE here in Edinburgh and though much of the time we are frustrated, we DO get things done. Lobbying - or pestering - businesses and politicians is time-consuming and frustrating - but again, it can make a difference. After two years of badgering, I managed to get my former MP, the Tory James Arbuthnot, to sign the Early Day Motion supporting Michael Meacher's Climate Change Bill. A teeny victory, but a victory nonetheless.

So - for what it's worth - my tips on becoming a climate champion:

1. Become a member of a pressure group. In my experience, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, and WWF are the most effective.

2. Sign the climate pledge:

3. Install energy saving light-bulbs. Insulate. Reduce consumption. Only fly if you really, really have to. And don't drive if you can walk, cycle, take a bus, or steal sombody's donkey.

4. Talk to people about climate change. Make the link between their lives and what's happening to the planet. And show them what you are doing to help combat the problem.

Sorry if this all comes across as rather didactic; I'm sure you and your excellent blog's readers have already thought of these things. But please, if you don't already do so, join a pressure group. If 10% of the population supported at least one ecological NGO, just think of the clout the green movement would have. Remember: the AA claims every one of its policy holders as a 'supporter'. Such is the weight of the opposition.

Sun Oct 29, 04:56:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Talking of which, have you seen this petition?

It's asking the Government to legislate for greater transparency in the energy efficiency ratings of appliances. (You have to be a British subject or resident to sign it.)

Wed Nov 22, 09:38:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you Kate. I've just signed this and I'll write about this on my blog.

Wed Nov 22, 09:47:00 pm  
Blogger Gryphon said...

Thank you very much!

Mon Nov 27, 08:15:00 pm  

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