Turning up the heat

We have the means to combat climate change, says George Monbiot, but lack the political will. Caspar Henderson talks to the British environmentalist about his radical vision for a low-carbon future.

Caspar Henderson: What is your recent book about and why did you write it?

George Monbiot: Last year I was at a political meeting in London where I said that in order to prevent runaway climate change we need a cut of 80% in greenhouse gas emissions in the rich nations. I later found out it was 90%, but that [80%] was what the information said at the time. Someone in the audience said, "well when that happens what will this country look like?" I didn’t know the answer so I asked Mayer Hillman, a well known campaigner on climate change in the UK who was also there, to tell us the answer. He said "a very poor third world country".

I thought if that’s the case we’re doomed. So I set out to see whether it was possible to achieve a 90% cut, without turning Britain into a very poor third world country. And I found that it is possible: we can introduce the changes at some economic cost but without a major reduction in our freedom and our lives except in one respect which is flying. There are not good technological substitutes for aviation. We just have to fly a lot less

CH: Many people will agree with you about the necessity of a cut of this size, at least in the long run. So what is different about your book?

GM: I argue that the cut has to be achieved by 2030. What we are talking about is reducing carbon emissions to the point at which the manmade production of carbon dioxide is in balance with the biosphere’s ability to absorb it. But there are two problems. Number one: the human population is rising. Number two: that the biosphere’s ability to absorb carbon is declining.

So in order to be in balance with the biosphere by 2030, we have to cut the amount of carbon every human produces to 0.33 tonnes by that date (assuming total global population is 8.2bn people, the UN mid range projection). That means a total world wide reduction of 60%. This cut should be distributed fairly so that everybody by that date is entitled to the same right to emit. And that means a cut of roughly 90% in rich nations 87% in the UK, for example, and 94% in the US.

CH: Most accepted research to date suggests that such cuts are out of reach. How do you find differently?

GM: I find in the book that the necessary cuts in the UK are technologically and economically possible. The difficulty is political: it is in convincing governments that it can be done.

But so far as the health of our economy and our quality of life is concerned, we are not talking about major changes expect in terms of aviation. We are, however, talking about a massive technological transformation coupled with some brave political moves, including the introduction of carbon rationing.

CH: It’s often claimed that free markets, when properly regulated, help contribute to the sum of human freedom. Once you start to talk about rationing, though, aren’t you likely to lose support in a country like the UK?

GM: I choose rationing because, within the limits it sets, there can be much more freedom as to how to spend your carbon allowance than any other system will allow you. If instead you were to make laws controlling human behaviour for example, laws preventing you from installing inefficient light bulbs, laws preventing you from flying or laws obliging you to turn off your television at the wall you would be restricting freedom far more.

Rationing is an intrusion on human freedom but people must accept we cannot live with the total freedom of an unlimited carbon allowance such as we have today. Rationing is a small price to pay for the survival of the biosphere and most beings in the world.

CH: How, if at all, is your manifesto relevant to China where hundreds of millions of people want to improve their life chances and lifestyle, and where all that is likely to mean greatly increased energy consumption?

GM: At the moment in the UK, we use China as an excuse for inaction. We say "look at all those Chinese: they will swamp any effort we might make to cut our carbon dioxide emissions". The truth is that emissions per head in China are far smaller than those in the UK. I believe the figure for the UK is about 2.6 tonnes per person, while for China it is about 0.74 tonnes.

So when we point to China or other developing countries as being the cause of the problem it is simply hypocritical. This is particularly bad in the case of the US and Australian administrations who have recruited China and India to the Asia Pacific Partnership as a means to undermine the Kyoto Protocol. And having done so they then turn round and say China and India are not signing up to the Kyoto Protocol therefore we can’t. They create a perfect excuse for themselves.

All that being said, it is true that carbon emissions for every individual must be limited wherever they live. Some country’s emissions are already below the final sustainable level and some are a long way below. In a fair world they can afford to raise their carbon emission. China’s emissions will have to peak soon, otherwise they will become a big global problem. But we in Britain are in not position to tell China to do that until we have sorted out our own emissions.

China‘ great advantage is its excellence in engineering and technological innovation. It has already shown more enthusiasm for developing alternative energy sources than we have in the UK or indeed the US.   But China has its share of challenges too. It is generating more and more power from coal fired power stations. Car ownership is increasingly rapidly. In some cities here we are trying to go in the opposite direction although without much success.

Even despite those problems, China offers us all a great deal of hope because of its ability to change quickly, to develop new technologies and get them onto market very quickly in deed. If left unchecked Chinese emissions will continue to rise and can do a great deal of damage. But China has the potential to change that and become a low carbon economy. It is already developing a low carbon city which sounds very interesting indeed.

CH: What have you and others researching and campaigning for a low carbon economy in the UK learned that you would like people concerned about these issues in China to be particularly aware of?

GM: One of the things to be aware of is the very effective network of corporate funded campaigners who don’t identify themselves as such. They take money from companies like Exxon in order to change the agenda. We have been very naïve in that we haven’t realised the extent to which this goes on. I would say, be very wary of these people. Look very hard at the scientific and technical claims they are making, because the ones I have investigated have turned out to be completely bogus.

CH: You have set up a web site called "Turn up the heat." What are you trying to do there?

GM: I regard climate change as having the potential to turn into the great crime of the 21st century. While all of us who live high carbon lifestyles are guilty to a degree, some are more guilty than others. If those people were planning to use other (I presume he means illegal or less socially acceptable) means to kill what could turn out to be many people they would be objects of hatred and derision and – by rights – in prison by now. But because they are killing by means of climate change they are looked up to as leaders of society. I want to make it unacceptable for people to produce huge amounts of carbon and to remain respected figures in our society. This is one way to help change the debate.

The people I am targeting on the web site have a particular responsibility for large, very large carbon emissions. They are people who run airlines. They are people who run companies that claim to be reducing emission but aren’t doing so. They are people who run political parties which have made misleading statements about their commitment to cut carbon machines. And in one case, for someone who has become a one man planet killing machine in his own right. I’m talking about the rock star Chris Martin who claims to be very concerned about the environment but flies everywhere in his private jet. I have calculated that he uses at least 250 times his sustainable carbon emission every year. I feel they need to be named and shamed. This is one method to change the debate.

CH: Under what conditions, if any, will you fly?

GM: I have stopped for tourism and normal business. But I face a dilemma in that I have been asked to go to several parts of the world to talk about climate change! I feel if by doing so I can make a difference then in some cases it is worth doing, but not in all cases by any means.

A particular problem is that the people who work for the other side have no difficulty in flying all round the world to spread their message. And now what I have seen Al Gore’s film “An Inconvenient Truth” in which he shows a map of all the places he has flow round the world to lecture on climate change I feel a little better!


Caspar Henderson is an award-winning writer and journalist on environmental affairs. He writes an occasional blog called JebIn08

George Monbiot is the a best-selling author and environmental journalist. He is currently visiting professor of planning at Oxford Brookes University. In 1995 Nelson Mandela presented him with a United Nations Global 500 Award for outstanding environmental achievement.

Homepage photo by Dave Gilbert