Book Review: The Burning Question, Mike Berners-Lee & Duncan Clark
The central thesis of The Burning Question is that all our wonderful solutions to the climate crisis – renewables, nuclear, population control, energy efficiency – come to nowt unless about half of fossil fuel reserves remain where they are – underground.
That might seem a statement of the bleedin’ obvious, but all too often we ignore the obvious in favour of the complex. For example, many have called for the exploitation of shale gas to drive down emissions from coal burning. But use of shale gas in the US has simply driven down the price of coal, leading to generators in other countries such as the UK switching from conventional gas to coal and increasing emissions. This type of ‘rebound effect’ suggests that, if fossil fuels are in the game, they will be used.
As the authors point out, financial markets are clearly assuming that identified reserves will be exploited at a similar or faster rate than they are today. This means they have rated the risk of those reserves being written off in favour of a low carbon economy as zero. It is worth noting that the markets have been wrong, very wrong, recently on the dotcom boom and the subprime mortgage market with quite spectacular results, but it would be more reassuring if they saw a clean energy revolution as something worth investing in.
After discussing the reasons why this might be, the authors take a slight, but interesting and potentially crucial, tangent. By moving swiftly to tackle non-fossil fuel greenhouse gases, such as methane from landfill and nitrous oxides, we could relatively painlessly buy ourselves some time to tackle the more ingrained problem of fossil fuels.
The longer term solutions put forward for our fossil fuel addiction are:
- Waking up: facing the facts;
- Capping the carbon: a global cap and trade scheme and divesting in fossil fuel companies;
- Pushing the right technologies hard: carbon capture, renewables, nuclear – we’ll need them all;
- Dealing with land and smoke: protecting forests, dealing with methane and black carbon;
- Making a plan B: geoengineering;
- What can I do – personal interventions such as speaking up and eating less beef and lamb.
This is a short, punchy, provocative book. However, it suffers from the problem that most such books suffer – that the solutions provided at the end are rather vague compared to the precision with which the authors analyse the problem. In this case they briefly cover the pros and cons of different options but rarely nail their colours to any particular mast (with the notable exception of the need to tackle non-fossil fuel sources of greenhouse gases.)
That grumble aside, The Burning Question is definitely worth a read, if only to remind ourselves of that key central truth – that about half of the world’s fossil fuel reserves must remain untouched, or everything else we do will be in vain.