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Fossil fuel-free in 20 years?

Prospects for renewable power are promising. But it means nothing, argues George Monbiot, if the public interest is drowned by corporate power.

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Reading a scientific paper on the train recently, I found, to my amazement, that my hands were shaking. This has never happened to me before, but nor have I ever read anything like it. Published by a team led by James Hansen at NASA, it suggests that the grim reports issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) could be absurdly optimistic.

The IPCC predicts that sea levels could rise by as much as 59 centimetres this century. Hansen’s paper argues that the slow melting of ice sheets that the panel expects doesn’t fit the data. The geological record suggests that ice at the poles does not melt in a gradual and linear fashion, but flips suddenly from one state to another. When temperatures increased to between two and three degrees above today’s level 3.5 million years ago, sea levels rose not by 59 centimetres but by 25 metres. The ice responded immediately to changes in temperature.

We now have a pretty good idea of why ice sheets collapse. The buttresses that prevent them from sliding into the sea break up; meltwater trickles down to their base, causing them suddenly to slip; and pools of water form on the surface, making the ice darker so that it absorbs more heat. These processes are already taking place in Greenland and west Antarctica.

Rather than taking thousands of years to melt, as the IPCC predicts, Hansen and his team find it “implausible” that the expected warming before 2100 “would permit a west Antarctic ice sheet of present size to survive even for a century”. As well as drowning most of the world’s centres of population, a sudden disintegration could lead to much higher rises in global temperature, because less ice means less heat reflected back into space. The new paper suggests that the temperature could therefore be twice as sensitive to rising greenhouse gases than the IPCC assumes. “Civilisation developed,” Hansen writes, “during a period of unusual climate stability, the Holocene, now almost 12,000 years in duration. That period is about to end.”

I looked up from the paper, almost expecting to see crowds stampeding through the streets. I saw people chatting outside a riverside pub. The other passengers on the train snoozed over their newspapers or played on their mobile phones. Unaware of the causes of our good fortune, blissfully detached from their likely termination, we drift into catastrophe.

Or we are led there. A good source tells me that the British government is well aware that its target for cutting carbon emissions -- 60% by 2050 -- is too little too late, but that it will go no further for one reason: it fears losing the support of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI). Why this body is allowed to keep holding a gun to our heads has never been explained, but the United Kingdom’s new prime minister, Gordon Brown, has just appointed Digby Jones, the CBI’s former director-general, as a minister in the department responsible for energy policy. I don’t remember voting for him. There could be no clearer signal that the public interest is being drowned by corporate power.

The government’s energy programme, partly as a result, is characterised by a complete absence of vision. You can see this most clearly when you examine its plans for renewables. The European Union has set a target for 20% of all energy in the member states to come from renewable sources by 2020. This in itself is pathetic. But the British government refuses to adopt it: instead it proposes that 20% of our electricity (just part of our total energy use) should come from renewable power by that date. Even this is not a target, just an “aspiration”, and we are on course to miss it. Worse still, the government has no idea what happens after that. I recently asked whether it had commissioned any research to discover how much more electricity we could generate from renewable sources. It has not.

It’s a critical question, whose answer -- if its results were applied globally -- could determine whether or not the planetary “albedo flip” that Hansen predicts takes place. There has been remarkably little investigation of this issue. Until recently I guessed that the maximum contribution from renewables would be something like 50%: beyond that point the difficulties of storing electricity and balancing the power grid could become overwhelming. But three papers now suggest that we could go much further.

Last year, the German government published a study of the effects of linking the electricity networks of all the countries in Europe and connecting them to North Africa and Iceland with high-voltage direct-current cables. This would open up a much greater variety of renewable power sources. Every country in the network would then be able to rely on stable and predictable supplies from elsewhere: hydroelectricity in Scandinavia and the Alps, geothermal energy in Iceland and vast solar thermal farms in the Sahara. By spreading the demand across a much wider network, it suggests that 80% of Europe’s electricity could be produced from renewable power without any greater risk of blackouts or flickers.

At about the same time, Mark Barrett, of University College London, published a preliminary study looking mainly at ways of altering the pattern of demand for electricity to match the variable supply from wind and waves and tidal power. At about twice the current price, he found that we might be able to produce as much as 95% of our electricity from renewable sources without causing interruptions in the power supply.

Now a new study by the Centre for Alternative Technology, in Wales, takes this even further. It is due to be published very shortly, but I have been allowed a preview. It is remarkable in two respects: it suggests that by 2027 we could produce 100% of our electricity without the use of fossil fuels or nuclear power, and that we could do so while almost tripling its supply; our heating systems (using electricity to drive heat pumps) and our transport systems could be mostly powered by it.

It relies on a great expansion of electricity storage: building new hydroelectric reservoirs into which water can be pumped when electricity is abundant, constructing giant vanadium flow batteries and linking electric cars up to the grid when they are parked, using their batteries to meet fluctuations in demand. It contains some optimistic technical assumptions, but also a very pessimistic one: that the UK relies entirely on its own energy supplies. If the German proposal were to be combined with these ideas, we could begin to see how we might reliably move towards a world without fossil fuels.

If Hansen is correct, to avert the meltdown that brings the Holocene to an end we require a sort of political “albedo flip”. The government must immediately commission studies to discover how much of our energy could be produced without fossil fuels, set that as its target and then turn the economy round to meet it. But a power shift like this cannot take place without a power shift of another kind: we need a government which fears planetary meltdown more than it fears the CBI.


George Monbiot is 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 © Rob Welham

Copyright Guardian News & Media Ltd 2007



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匿名 | Anonymous




The harm of business interests!

Business interests usually run in opposition to the environmental protection drive.

However, it is welcome that nowadays many big investors have realized that promoting environmental protection will benefit their businesses and bring them greater profits.

Today, governments still hold the position as the only power capable of confronting business interests. The question is: are governments willing to do so?

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Aren't they the earth's citizens?

For the members of these enterprises, how can they act as if they were not our earth's citizens?Can't they anticipate the destined catastrophy once the earth suffers disasters----after all nobody has been able to emigrate to the moon hitherto.Or they may take us fuss?But ,don't they see the global warming and abnormal climate taking place?For whatever should people stand oppositely towards the nature,ruining it endlessly,which will deprive our offsprings' living?Perhaps they care no about their offsprings,what they focus is just pure expedience.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


用温水中的青蛙来比喻人类对于气候变化反应最形象不过的了,与Al Gore在其演讲以及电影《An Inconvenient Truth》所描述的一样,人类对全球变暖漠不关心。著名的温水煮蛙实验说明了青蛙是死于缓慢加热的水中,反过来说如将青蛙放到沸水中,它将会跳出来而不是待在逐渐加温的冷水中等死。(参见:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boiling_frog)。应对气候的改变我们已经滞后三次了,第一次发生于初始的科学研究到公众接受这一时间段(从起初Svante Arrhenius的CO2气候变化模型到最近的IPCC对是人类活动导致全球变暖的证实用了一个世纪)。第二次的滞后发生在采取政治及法律措施与实际产生效果这一时间段,比如,如果没有强烈的动机,开发一项成熟的技术(像燃料电池)通常需要十几年;公众意识及行为也需要时间来改变。最后但并非最不重要的滞后是热惯性,上升的气温逐渐与海洋的热质量融合。这里的热惯性是指,由于水体加热膨胀的缘故地球现在还不能感觉到今天温室气体的程度,这一次滞后将带来海平面的升高(http://www.newscientist.com/article.ns?id=dn7161),我们注定会看到冰川全部溶化这一灾难性时刻,唯一避免这一变化的方法就是我们应像置身于沸水中一样做出应有的反应,但是我们可以么?Tian Ming

We are the frogs in slowly boiled water

There is no better figurative expression to illustrate human beings' reaction to climate change than the
boiling frog, as Al Gore uses the analogy in his presentations and the movie An Inconvenient Truth to describe people's ignorance towards the issue of global warming.

The famous boiling frog experiment states that a frog can be boiled alive if the water is heated slowly enough — it is said that if a frog is placed in boiling water, it will jump out, but if it is placed in cold water that is slowly heated, it will never jump out.
(See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boiling_frog)

There are three time lags in climate change matter which will make sure that we are being boiled motionless. The first time lag is between a primitive scientific study and publicly accepted truth (it took a century from the first CO2-induced climate change model developed by Svante Arrhenius , to recent IPCC confirmation of man-made global warming).

The second time lag is between policies & actions being taken and real impact of the effort, such as generic technology which normally takes decades to develop and mature (like fuel cell) without strong incentives; public awareness and behavior also take time to change.

The last but not least is thermal inertia. rising air temperatures take time to make themselves felt throughout the immense thermal mass of the oceans. This "thermal inertia" means that Earth has not yet felt the full effect of today's level of greenhouse gases, and because water expands as it warms, this time lag in temperature will continue to push sea level higher. (http://www.newscientist.com/article.ns?id=dn7161)

We look doomed to a catastrophic glacial melting point. Our only chance of avoiding it is to act like we are in boiling water now, or can we?

Tian Ming

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


德国的建议实在是太棒了,我们应该马上行动起来。我们现在的困境是荒谬的,我们该去想想了,比如,在英国,能源就是个大问题。人们现在还没有完全清醒去认识现实,政府也没有采取任何措施来鼓励人们合理地利用能源,这些太可怕了,对此我十分同意。感谢George Monbio,使我改变了对Digby Jones 的看法。
Dr Brian Robinson, Bucks, UK

Fascinating article

The idea behind the German proposal sounds just terrific and we should go for it right away. It's absurd in our present predicament that we should be thinking, e.g. in Britain, only about energy produced in and / or for our own country. I also agree that it's terrifying that people haven't woken up fully yet to the realities and that governments are not really doing anything serious about encouraging people to use energy more judiciously. Thanks to George Monbiot for this, but also for making me revise my opinion of the Digby Jones appointment. Dr Brian Robinson, Bucks, UK