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The Burning Question by Mike Berners-Lee and Duncan Clark – review | Energy in BC & beyond

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The Burning Question by Mike Berners-Lee and Duncan Clark – review

Peter Forbes, The Guardian, 31 May 2013

Humankind cannot bear very much reality but climate change will not go away: 400 parts-per-million, Prince Charles on the warpath, and here is the most succinct exposition of the great dilemma for some time. Mike Berners-Lee and Duncan Clark are honest about our reluctance to face up to the challenge: "If you wanted to invent a problem to induce confusion, disbelief and the turning of blind eyes, it would be hard to come up with something better than climate change."

The Burning Question: We can't burn half the world's oil, coal and gas. So how do we quit?
by Mike Berners-Lee, Duncan Clark

It is this cussed nature of the climate-change conundrum that has led, in the last three and a half years since the failed Copenhagen climate summit, to the triumph of the rightwing lobbies over the scientists, environmentalists and concerned citizens. Effective political action to mitigate climate change has ceased and, as Berners-Lee and Clark point out, carbon dioxide emissions are building up at an exponential rate (compound interest, in the vernacular).

Beyond its raw facts about emissions, this book's great contribution to the debate is to point out that the markets are gambling trillions of dollars on a bet that governments will never seriously curb carbon emissions. How do they know this? Because to address climate change would mean leaving most of the remaining fossil carbon in the earth. But that would entail the future value of the fossil-fuel energy companies falling to a fraction of their present valuation: current share prices declare that no climate mitigation will happen. However, sudden action may be forced on governments by a period of catastrophic climate damage and food shortages. This would cause a global collapse of the energy industry greater than the crash of 2007-08. Something will have to give. If the markets are playing their usual game – we know a bubble will burst but that's OK because we'll get out in time – they are gambling with the lives of hundreds of thousands of people and the livelihoods of billions.

The second vital contribution to the argument is the revelation that so far the switch to renewables has had no effect on global carbon emissions, which are increasing by about 3% a year. New technologies have often not supplanted the old but simply added to the mix: the appetite of the world's population for burning energy, including carbon energy, is insatiable.

Berners-Lee and Clark (and also Bill McKibben in a lucid foreword) explain the maths with stark clarity. Because carbon stays in the atmosphere for a long time what matters now is the total we can safely burn. To come within the agreed 2C rise we can add around 565 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide by 2050. But using established reserves of fossil fuels would add 2,795 gigatonnes and the City is betting on all of that being burned. At the present rate we'll hit 565 gigatonnes in a mere 16 years. After which, if we are serious, we will have to stop emitting carbon altogether. Obviously, this is not going to happen, but what is? If nothing is done, there is expected to be a 4-6C rise in average global temperature, wreaking havoc.

The Burning Question is eloquent on the trade-offs between economics and ecology, and especially wise on the psychology that has most of the world paralysed. The authors quote JK Galbraith: "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." When of course what everyone should be busy on are the solutions to the problem. As Prof David McKay, chief scientific adviser at the Department of Energy and Climate Change, has said: "You need almost everything and you need it very fast – right now." Berners-Lee and Clark almost endorse nuclear power (why is the French example of decarbonising 80% of their electricity generation by means of nuclear power in the 1980s accorded so little attention and respect?) and they have sensible ideas about agriculture and deforestation, neglected but important sources of carbon dioxide. Above all, they advocate carbon capture and storage, which, as they say, is a way of making the oil, gas and coal industries "part of the solution" by exploiting their vast knowledge of piping large quantities of stuff around the world.

Carbon capture is not merely a way of snatching the carbon dioxide from the air and burying it. It could be a major source of the fuel we need. By focusing on clean energy sources such as solar, wind and wave power, it is sometimes assumed that carbon-free electricity is the whole solution. But planes are never going to run on electricity; nor are heavy agricultural and mining equipment ever likely to; and biomass is needed as feedstock on a huge scale for the chemicals industry, especially bulk plastics.

All our biomass, whether fresh-grown or fossil, comes from one process: natural photosynthesis whereby complex organics are created by splitting water and carbon dioxide using sunlight. The mechanism of this fabulously complex feat of photochemistry is gradually being unravelled. The holy grail is to replicate this industrially and economically to bypass natural photosynthesis, leaving that for food production. Surely, this process, which is already feasible on a pilot scale, warrants an international moonshot or Human Genome Project approach? Momentum is building to consider global artificial photosynthesis as "the moral culmination of nanotechnology".

Meanwhile, we have the fossil-fuel lobby: a modern version of the Catholic church refusing to admit the evidence of Galileo's telescope. The church apologised 367 years later. The lobbyists for the dirty black stuff are just as wrong and will be proved to be so. But any (at present, most unlikely) apology from them is going to be too late for us all.

There have been many books on this issue but The Burning Question lives up to the urgency of its title. Clearly set out, steely with the numbers but fair and humane in its assessments of human strengths and weaknesses, it is a book to reignite the debate.

• Peter Forbes's Dazzled and Deceived: Mimicry and Camouflage is published by Yale

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