It is a testament to the power of money that Nicholas Stern’s report should have swung the argument for drastic action, even before anyone has finished reading it. He appears to have demonstrated what many of us suspected: that it would cost much less to prevent runaway climate change than to seek to live with it. Useful as this finding is, I hope it doesn’t mean that the debate will now concentrate on money. The principal costs of climate change will be measured in lives, not pounds. As Stern reminded us yesterday, there would be a moral imperative to seek to prevent mass death even if the economic case did not stack up.
But at least almost everyone now agrees that we must act, if not at the necessary speed. If we’re to have a high chance of preventing global temperatures from rising by 2C above pre-industrial levels, we need, in the rich nations, a 90% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030(1). The greater part of the cut has to be made at the beginning of this period. To see why, picture two graphs with time on the horizontal axis and the rate of emissions plotted vertically. One falls like a ski jump: a steep drop followed by a shallow tail. The other falls like the trajectory of a bullet. To the left of each line is the total volume of greenhouse gases produced in that period. They fall to the same point by the same date, but far more gases have been produced in the second case, making runaway climate change more likely.
So how do we do it without bringing civilisation crashing down? Here is a plan for drastic but affordable action the government could take. It goes much further than the proposals discussed by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown yesterday, for the reason that this is what the science demands.
1. Set a target for reducing greenhouse gas emissions based on the latest science. The government is using outdated figures – restated by Blair and Brown yesterday – aiming for a 60% reduction by 2050. Even the annual 3% cut proposed in the early day motion calling for a new climate change bill does not go far enough. Timescale: immediately.
2. Use that target to set an annual carbon cap, which falls on the ski jump trajectory. Then use the cap to set a personal carbon ration. Every citizen is given a free annual quota of carbon dioxide. He spends it by buying gas and electricity, petrol and train and plane tickets. If he runs out, he must buy the rest from someone has has used less than his quota(2). This accounts for about 40% of the carbon dioxide we produce. The rest is auctioned off to companies. It’s a simpler and fairer approach than either green taxation or the Emissions Trading Scheme, and it also provides people with a powerful incentive to demand low-carbon technologies. Timescale: a full scheme in place by January 2009.
3. Introduce a new set of building regulations, with three objectives. A. Imposing strict energy efficiency requirements on all major refurbishments (costing £3000 or more). Timescale: comes into force by June 2007. B. Obliging landlords to bring their houses up to high energy efficiency standards before they can rent them out. Timescale: to cover all new rentals from January 2008. C. Ensuring that all new homes in the UK are built to the German passivhaus standard (which requires no heating system). Timescale: comes into force by 2012.
4. Ban the sale of incandescent lightbulbs, patio heaters, garden floodlights and several other wasteful and unnecessary technologies. Introduce a stiff “feebate” system for all electronic goods sold in this country. The least efficient are taxed heavily while the most efficient receive tax discounts. Every year the standards in each category rise. Timescale: fully implemented by November 2007.
5. Redeploy the money now earmarked for new nuclear missiles towards a massive investment in energy generation and distribution. Two schemes in particular require government support to make them commercially viable: very large wind farms, many miles offshore, connected to the grid with high voltage direct current cables; and a hydrogen pipeline network to take over from the natural gas grid as the primary means of delivering fuel for home heating. Timescale: both programmes commence at the end of 2007 and are completed by 2018.
6. Promote the development of a new national coach network. City centre coach stations are shut down and moved to the junctions of the motorways. Urban public transport networks are extended to meet them. The coaches travel on dedicated lanes and never leave the motorways(3). Journeys by public transport then become as fast as journeys by car, while saving 90% of emissions. It is self-financing, through the sale of the land now used for coach stations. Timescale: commences in 2008; completed by 2020.
7. Oblige all chains of filling stations to supply leasable electric car batteries. This provides electric cars with unlimited mileage: as the battery runs down, you pull into a forecourt. A crane lifts it out and drops in a fresh one. The batteries are charged overnight with surplus electricity from offshore windfarms. Timescale: fully operational by 2011.
8. Abandon the road-building and road-widening programme, and spend the money on tackling climate change. The government has earmarked £11.4 billion for new roads(4). It claims to be allocating just £545 million a year to “spending policies that tackle climate change”(5). Timescale: immediately.
9. Freeze and then reduce UK airport capacity. While capacity remains high there will be constant upward pressure on any scheme the government introduces to limit flights. We need a freeze on all new airport construction and the introduction of a national quota for landing slots, to be reduced by 90% by 2030. Timescale: immediately.
10. Legislate for the closure of all out-of-town superstores, and their replacement with a warehouse and delivery system. Shops use a staggering amount of energy (six times as much electricity per square metre as factories, for example), and major reductions are hard to achieve: Tesco’s “state of the art” energy-saving store at Diss has managed to cut its energy use by only 20%(6). Warehouses containing the same quantity of goods use roughly 5% of the energy(7). Out-of-town shops are also hard-wired to the car – delivery vehicles use 70% less fuel(8). Timescale: fully implemented by 2012.
These timescales might seem extraordinarily ambitious. They are, by contrast to the current glacial pace of change. But when the US entered the second world war, it turned the economy around on a sixpence. Carmakers began producing aircraft and missiles within a year, and amphibious vehicles in 90 days, from a standing start(9). And that was 65 years ago. If we want this to happen, we can make it happen. It will require more economic intervention than we’re used to and some pretty brutal emergency planning policies (with little time or scope for objections). But if you believe these are worse than mass death, there is something wrong with your value system.
Climate change is not just a moral question: it is the moral question of the 21st century. There is one position even more morally culpable than denial. That is to accept that it’s happening and that its results will be catastrophic; but to fail to take the measures needed to prevent it.
George Monbiot’s book Heat: how to stop the planet burning is published by Penguin.
1. This is explained, with references, in Heat: how to stop the planet burning.
2. The idea was first proposed by Mayer Hillamn in 1990, and has been championed and refined by David Fleming. See David Fleming, no date given. Energy and the Common Purpose: descending the energy staircase with tradeable energy quotas (TEQs). http://www.teqs.net/book/teqs.pdf
3. This plan was proposed by Alan Storkey, 2005. A Motorway-Based National Coach System. Available from firstname.lastname@example.org . I summarise his paper in Heat.
4. Department for Transport statistics, December 2005, collated by Road Block. http://www.roadblock.org.uk/press_releases/info/TPI%20and%20local%20schemes%20Dec05.xls
5. Lord McKenzie of Luton, 10th October 2005. Parliamentary answer HL 1508. http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld200405/ldhansrd/pdvn/lds05/text/51010w04.htm
7. See the figures and discussion in Heat.
8. S. Cairns et al, 2004. Home shopping. Chapter in Transport for Quality of Life, p324. Report to the Department for Transport. The Robert Gordon University and Eco-Logica London, UK. http://www.dft.gov.uk/stellent/groups/dft_susttravel/documents/page/dft_susttravel_029756.pdf
9. Jack Doyle, 2000. Taken for a Ride: Detroit’s big three and the politics of pollution, pp1-2. Four Walls, Eight Windows, New York.
Published in the Guardian 31st October 2006