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More heat than light?

Heat: How to stop the planet burning

By George Monbiot

Penguin/Allen Lane, 2006, £17-99 (hbk)

Reviewed by

Pete Mason

"WE HAVE a short period – a very short period" in which to act, explains leading environmentalist George Monbiot as he discusses how to stop the planet burning up. Monbiot presents a vast torrent of facts. Since 2005, "there is no longer any data contradicting the predictions of global warming models".

Monbiot seeks a 90% reduction in carbon emissions in the ‘rich countries’ by the year 2030 to keep global temperatures from soaring past the point of no return, although there is a "30% chance" it is too late. The British government seeks a 60% reduction by 2050, which is still "next to useless". Monbiot’s book brings a welcome emphasis on solutions.

His solution to global warming is to propose rationing in a market system. Not always prominent in the book, this rationing concept exposes Monbiot’s weakness and contrasts with his courageous advocacy of change. While everyone in the world is to start out with the same carbon emissions entitlement, "if you can afford it, you can burn your entire ration in a single carbon orgy, then buy what you need for the rest of the year from other people".

Freely tradable carbon allocations are becoming a ‘mainstream’ idea, says the business editor of The Independent, Jeremy Warner (5 October). This can mean only one thing. They will benefit the rich and further impoverish the poor. But there needs to be "a massively accelerated programme to improve the condition of the poorest people’s homes", Monbiot adds. "Simply creating a market [in carbon allocations] and expecting it to solve the entire greenhouse gas problem is like asking the people of the slums of Manchester in the 1840s to sort out their own sanitation". Precisely. Monbiot has consistently argued on the need for ‘effective regulation’. But you can’t effectively regulate what you don’t own and control. No one demonstrates this better than Monbiot himself, but he does not draw the conclusions. It is, he says, ultimately, a "moral question, not an economic one".

Warner points out: "Climate change is perhaps the best example there is of what economists call market failure". (The Independent, 16 September) Protecting the environment is an extra cost which, in most cases, individual companies cannot bear because they will lose their competitive edge and go bankrupt. So, Warner admits, "the system breaks down".

Consider transport. Monbiot correctly says: "A rational, efficient system, producing 10% of current emissions or less, would save us billions. But the real problem is neither technological nor economic. It is political or, more precisely, psychological". Monbiot argues that the growth in car driving is a primary source of the psychology of our individualistic, alienated, ‘free-market’ society.

Yet it was Ford Motors which consciously promoted mass production consumerism in the early 20th century: the planned obsolescence, continual replacement of one model for another, and attempts to influence our behaviour. All the earth’s resources are being feverishly consumed and thrown on the scrap heap, quite unnecessarily, a mass production of shoddy goods. Furthermore, this continual tumult requires enormous energy, the generation of which produces much of the carbon emissions which threaten our planet.

Monbiot was right the first time: it is political. Our society is shaped by the market-based, competitive mode of production, which came to dominate through a historical process of wars and revolutions, not a psychological process. This mode of production, once so potent it created ‘wonders of the world’, has become destructive in the highest degree, and requires replacing.

It’s a chicken-and-egg problem, says Monbiot, when discussing alternative fuels: "The filling stations won’t supply it until they have a market, and the market can’t develop until there are supplies". The system breaks down. Yet, although Monbiot discusses a rational transport system (based on coaches), he does not even place in his schema the renationalisation of the railways, which is immensely popular since the privatisation of the railways decisively showed the failures of ‘the market’ for large-scale infrastructure.

He does not demand a massive reduction in pricing, which would result in a big transfer of people from cars to public transport. This was proved with London’s 1982 ‘Fare’s Fare’ campaign, when the once radical Ken Livingstone was head of the Greater London Council. Monbiot shows that bus and coach fares have risen by 66% since 1975, while car costs have fallen by 11%.

In addition, a publicly-owned car industry, freed from ‘market forces’ and under the control of car workers, as part of an integrated and democratically agreed plan of production, could immediately undergo a complete conversion to the production of transport which runs solely on nationally agreed carbon-free fuels. (See: The Car Industry, The Socialist, 12 October)

Transport accounts for 22% of our carbon emissions, our homes account for a third. Monbiot shows that houses can be and have been designed and built, at no more than 10% extra cost, which "save around three-quarters of the energy of an ordinary modern home". They are termed ‘passive houses’ and generally do not require heating, even in winter. If all houses met this standard, this would achieve the required 90% cut in carbon emissions in the housing sector, Monbiot points out. He gives the most conservative figure for passive houses. An article in Scientific America by Eberhard K Jochem in September 2006 gives a reduction to one sixth of the average energy requirement. Monbiot quotes figures for a 79% saving in a development in Freiburg, Germany. But the government does not favour an ‘unwarranted intervention’ into ‘the market’, it says.

The system breaks down. In the 1970s, Labour governments boasted of building a million homes a year. In the 24 years between now and Monbiot’s target year of 2030, this equates to practically the entire housing stock, built to the standard of passive houses, or renovated, at varying approximations, to that standard. In addition, solar panels (not necessary for passive houses) would ensure renovated houses at least approached the standard, while better-equipped or situated houses would be positive suppliers of energy.

Monbiot finds this inconceivable. Bucking the system clearly requires public ownership of the major construction companies and an ambitious plan. Monbiot is fearful of a "statist" approach. Yet the example of Liverpool city council, led by the Militant (now the Socialist Party) in the mid-1980s, elected precisely on a massive programme to build and renovate houses, shows in microcosm what a socialist state could do. The council fully involved tenants from the design board to the completion of thousands of homes with front and back gardens.

Monbiot appears aggrieved to discover that workers, such as shop assistants, seem to be more aware of climate change than "the professional classes", who "don’t want to know". The big, highly competitive supermarket chains contribute significantly to global warming in various ways, although Monbiot has misinterpreted the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution figures (pp191-92). But the supermarket bosses don’t want to know: "retail is a very harsh environment". The system breaks down. The solution is clear: a socialist government will have to bring into public ownership the big retail concerns and put the shop assistants in charge.

Monbiot examines everything from nuclear power to effluent, searching for a way to generate the electricity and heat we need free from carbon emissions, without initial success. But, "I have been looking at the problem the wrong way round". Instead of looking at electricity and heat "as commodities supplied over great distances from major sources", Monbiot embraces the alternative, "micro-generation" or the "energy internet", the generation of power and heat at the point of use.

Monbiot’s solution, a very important, holistic contribution to the discussion, suggests a "micro-generation system using solar panels with battery storage and either hydrogen boilers or hydrogen fuel cells", all linked to the national grid. It would be more, rather than less, reliable than the current supply. In addition, grid-based electricity is provided by "a few very large power stations" burning natural gas and pumping their carbon emissions underground, and offshore wind and wave machines. But, as with every viable technology Monbiot discovers, the market system cannot make the leap to implement the technology or infrastructure. It requires, as Monbiot says, "a massive and extremely ambitious government programme".

This book presents excellent research and mature, informed discussion on the much maligned carbon-free technologies. But, as Monbiot comments when discussing the car industry’s duplicity and its Faustian pact with fossil fuels, "it is beginning to look like the last days of the Roman Empire". Rather than let the outmoded, self-consuming system of capitalism decline into barbarism in a burning desert, we urgently need socialism, a mode of production based on democratic planning, with the power to produce a new ‘wonder of the world’, the saving of the planet.


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