George Monbiot on climate change: Why we need a 90% cut in CO2 emissions, and how we can achieve it

In his book Heat, George Monbiot looks at the possibility of a climate change catastrophe. He argues that a 2°C rise in global average temperature would precipitate such a disaster, as it would cause many ecosystems to begin to collapse. They would become CO2 emitters rather than the CO2 sinks that they are at present, and runaway global warming would follow, regardless of what we humans might do.

In order to be sure of avoiding that scenario, Monbiot estimates that humanity must achieve a 90% reduction in its CO2 output by 2030. Is it at all possible? In his book, Monbiot attempts to show that it is.

Having disposed of the climate change sceptics in chapter 2, he tackles most of the important causes of CO2 emission in western nations, the areas of our lives where we must make that 90% cut:

  • Domestic heating, lighting, and other domestic electrical consumption, and ‘traditional’ power generation systems. While domestic consumption is around one-third of total energy consumption in western countries, Monbiot concludes that all the essential domestic energy savings of insulation, low-energy lighting, passive heating architecture, smart metering and so on will still not come close to the 90% target. Consequently, the reduction in CO2 emissions must occur on the production side of the equation. CO2 capture at power stations and permanent geological storage is seen to be the most realistic solution, especially for nations reliant on gas turbine generation.
  • Cars and aviation. The short version of the analysis provided here is that we in the west must learn to ration the freedom to travel that we love so dearly.
  • Retail businesses. The ridiculous level of electricity consumption in our supermarkets is exposed, for the first time for me at least: the high intensity ceramic discharge metal halide lamps to make fish look shinier; the aisle lighting to the intensity of tv studios; the open freezers which each run up annual electricity bills of £15,000. Absurd indeed. Online supermarket shopping – already very much available in many urban areas – is the primary solution.

Renewable energy sources are an important part of the solution, and they are examined with care. Offshore wind and wave generation systems, which avoid the loss of ‘visual amenity’ that so bedevils large scale wind farms, seem to be the most attractive solutions. Distributed generation, or ‘the energy internet’ is also considered: domestic solar, micro wind power, micro heat and power generation, and hydrogen cells. Hydrogen fuels cells seem to be favoured. A very sceptical eye is applied to the frequent naïve claims of inventors who believe they have discovered the clean green perpetual motion machine: Monbiot and his researchers seek out peer-reviewed scientific evidence at every turn.

Overall, the necessary 90% reduction in CO2 emission is, Monbiot suggests, just within the realms of technical feasibility – as long as we act soon. By ‘we’, Monbiot means ordinary citizens such as ourselves, and by ‘act’, he means act politically. Most politicians are far too afraid of electoral unpopularity to advocate for radical action on climate change. To borrow a slogan from the anti-nuclear movement of the 1980s, we must protest and survive.

The book has its drawbacks. For example, it is not universally applicable in all its details. As an Englishman, Monbiot understandably takes a UK perspective and deals mainly with circumstances that are specific to the UK. For example, in the UK, hydro generation schemes produce only 1% of electricity; in contrast, here in Aotearoa New Zealand, hydro accounts for about 54% of electricity generation. That would change the balance of some of the arguments made by Monbiot when they are translated to the New Zealand context. Then again, New Zealand has to find ways to deal with a problem not considered in Monbiot’s book at all: the methane generated by sheep and cattle which adds up to 31% of New Zealand’s total greenhouse gas emissions.

Heat is certainly not a dreamy plea for a return to a pre-industrial rural idyll. The assumption throughout the book is that we want to maintain current western lifestyles reasonably intact. However, Monbiot certainly recognises that significant changes to the way we live must be made in rationing our personal CO2 budgets, and that some of life’s little pleasures will have to go. Major changes will be needed to certain forms of resource use and industrial production too. The way in which all the proposed changes might impact on economic performance overall is not considered, but that’s fair enough, I think; Monbiot isn’t arguing about whether we can or cannot afford to make the changes from an economic point of view, he’s saying we must make the changes. If we don’t, massive global warming certainly will have a major impact on economic performance.

What I particularly like about Monbiot is the humanism that permeates everything he writes. Not once in Heat did I see the size of the human population blamed for global warming, nor is any argument for a severe reduction in global population advanced as a solution. Such ideas are common coin in environmentalist circles, but they are pure misanthropy. Greens must find another pathway that embraces social and economic justice, and Monbiot brings together and sifts the ideas that may well take us in that direction.


George Monbiot (2007) Heat (2nd edition). London: Penguin Books.

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