A World Turned
By George Monbiot
21 September , 2005
change denial has gone through four stages. First the fossil fuel lobbyists
told us that global warming was a myth. Then they agreed that it was
happening, but insisted it was a good thing: we could grow wine in the
Pennines and take Mediterranean holidays in Skegness. Then they admitted
that the bad effects outweighed the good ones, but claimed that it would
cost more to tackle than to tolerate. Now they have reached stage 4.
They concede that it would be cheaper to address than to neglect, but
maintain that it's now too late. This is their most persuasive argument.
Today the climatologists
at the Snow and Ice Data Centre in Colorado will publish the results
of the latest satellite survey of Arctic sea ice(1). It looks as if
this month's coverage will be the lowest ever recorded. The Arctic,
they warn, could already have reached tipping point: the moment beyond
which the warming becomes irreversible(2). As ice disappears, the surface
of the sea becomes darker, absorbing more heat. Less ice forms, so the
sea becomes darker still, and so it goes on.
Last month, New
Scientist reported that something similar is happening in Siberia. For
the first time on record, the permafrost of western Siberia is melting(3).
As it does so, it releases the methane stored in the peat. Methane has
20 times the greenhouse warming effect of carbon dioxide. The more gas
the peat releases, the warmer the world becomes, and the more the permafrost
Two weeks ago, scientists
at Cranfield University discovered that the soils in the UK have been
losing the carbon they contain: as temperatures rise, the decomposition
of organic matter accelarates, which causes more warming, which causes
more decomposition. Already the soil in this country has released enough
carbon dioxide to counteract the emissions cuts we have made since 1990(4).
These are examples
of positive feedback: self-reinforcing effects which, once started,
are hard to stop. They are kicking in long before they were supposed
to. The intergovernmental panel on climate change, which predicts how
far the world's temperature is likely to rise, hasn't yet had time to
include them in its calculations. The current forecast - of 1.4 to 5.8
degrees this century - is almost certainly too low.
A week ago, I would
have said that if it is too late, then one factor above all others is
to blame: the chokehold big business has on economic policy. By forbidding
governments to intervene effectively in the market, the corporations
oblige us to do nothing but stand by and watch as the planet cooks.
But on Wednesday I discovered that it isn't quite that simple. At a
conference organised by the Building Research Establishment, I witnessed
an extraordinary thing: companies demanding tougher regulations, and
the government refusing to grant them(5).
from BT and John Lewis (which owns Waitrose) complained that without
tighter standards that everyone has to conform to, their companies put
themselves at a disadvantage if they try to go green. "All that
counts", the man from John Lewis said, "is cost, cost and
cost." If he's buying eco-friendly lighting and his competitors
aren't, he loses. As a result, he said, "I welcome the EU's Energy
Performance of Buildings Directive, as it will force retailers to take
these issues seriously."(6) Yes, I heard the cry of the unicorn:
a corporate executive, welcoming a European directive.
And from the government?
Nothing. Elliot Morley, the minister for climate change, proposed to
do as little as he could get away with. The officials from the Department
of Trade and Industry, to a collective groan from the men in suits,
insisted that the measures some of the companies wanted would be "an
unwarranted intervention in the market".
It was unspeakably
frustrating. The suits had come to unveil technologies of the kind which
really could save the planet. The architects Atelier Ten had designed
a cooling system based on the galleries of a termite mound. By installing
a concrete labyrinth in the foundations, they could keep even a large
building in a hot place - like the arts centre they had built in Melbourne
- at a constant temperature without air conditioning(7). The only power
they needed was to drive the fans pushing the cold air upwards, using
10% of the electricity required for normal cooling systems.
The man from a company
called PB Power explained how the 4 megawatts of waste heat poured into
the Thames by the gas-fired power station in Barking could be used to
warm the surrounding homes. A firm called XCO2 has designed a virtually
silent wind turbine, which hangs, like a clothes hoist, from a vertical
axis. It can be installed in the middle of a city without upsetting
These three technologies
alone could cut millions of tonnes of emissions without causing any
decline in our quality of life. Like hundreds of others, they are ready
to deploy immediately and almost universally. But they won't be widely
used until the government acts: it remains cheaper for companies to
install the old technologies. And the government won't act because to
do so would be "an unwarranted intervention in the market".
This was not, I
now discover, the first time that the corporations have demanded regulation.
In January the chairman of Shell, Lord Oxburgh, insisted that "Governments
in developed countries need to introduce taxes, regulations or plans
... to increase the cost of emitting carbon dioxide."(9) He listed
the technologies required to replace fossil fuels, and remarked that
"none of this is going to happen if the market is left to itself."
In August the heads of United Utilities, British Gas, Scottish Power
and the National Grid joined Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace in
calling for "tougher regulations for the built environment"(10).
So much for the
perpetual demand of the thinktanks to "get government off the backs
of business". Any firm which wants to develop the new technologies
wants tough new rules. It is regulation that creates the market.
So why won't the
government act? Because it is siding with the dirty companies against
the clean ones. Deregulation has become the test of its manhood: the
sign that it has put the bad old days of economic planning behind it.
Sir David Arculus, the man appointed by Blair to run the government's
Better Regulation Task Force, is also deputy chairman of the Confederation
of British Industry, the shrillest exponents of the need to put the
market ahead of society. It is hard to think of a more blatant conflict
I don't believe
it is yet too late to minimise climate change. Most of the evidence
suggests we could still stop the ecosystem from melting down, but only
by cutting greenhouse gases by around 80% by 2030. I'm working on a
book showing how this can be done, technically and politically. But
it has now become clear to me that the obstacle is not the market but
the government, waving a dog-eared treatise which proves some point
in a debate the rest of the world has forgotten.
1. This was reported
by Steve Connor, 16th September 2005. Global warming 'past the point
of no return'. The Independent. But the centre has just announced that
its results won't be published until the end of the month. http://nsidc.org/news/
2. Steve Connor,
3. Fred Pearce,
11 August 2005. Climate warning as Siberia melts. New Scientist.
4. John Pickrell,
7th September 2005. Soil may spoil UKs climate efforts. New Scientist.
5. Resource '05,
13th-15th September 2005. BRE, Watford.
6. Bill Wright,
energy and environment manager, John Lewis Partnership.
7. See http://www.atelierten.com/ourwork
8. Quiet Revolution
6kW. Brochure from XCO2. Offord St, London.
9. Lord Oxburgh,
27th January 2005. Quoted in Greenpeace press release: Shell Chair urges
government to act now on climate change. http://www.greenpeace.org.uk/climate/
10. Tony Juniper
et al, 1st August 2005. Letter to Margaret Beckett and other ministers.
Available on request from Friends of the Earth.