books climate change energy

Heat: How we can stop the planet burning, by George Monbiot

heat monbiotI have a lot of admiration for George Monbiot, so I’ve been meaning to read his book Heat for some time. There are several things that I appreciate about Monbiot’s writing. It is extremely well researched, and well footnoted, making his articles and columns a mine of useful reports. It’s also thorough and painstaking and rational, and Monbiot does not suffer fools, of any persuasion. He is just as likely to come down hard on misguided environmentalism as he is to criticise big business.

All of which sounds very promising in a book on climate change, and Heat delivers. It is a hard nosed, unsentimental analysis of the problem and what can be done about it. Heat sets itself a difficult challenge of a 90% reduction in carbon emissions by 2030, considerably deeper cuts than most would consider, but the minimum target to realistically avoid serious climate change.

With this target in mind, Monbiot then tackles each source of carbon emissions in turn, from housing to transport. Some of it is familiar and easy to agree with, such as better insulation, or passive house architecture. Other sections are less comfortable reading – many popular solutions are stripped down and exposed as useless, from biofuels to small scale wind turbines. Ardent greens will find plenty to worry about as nuclear power gets a tacit nod, and the sacred cow of renewable energy gets cut down a size.

A great many ideas are discarded, but this is ultimately a book of solutions, and there are all manner of things that will work. Efficiency measures, tighter planning laws, improved coach travel, combined heat and power, hydrogen fuel cells, tele-working, internet shopping. There is no single answer, but dozens of helpful avenues that will trim carbon from our current lifestyles.

The only sector beyond help is aviation. After reviewing every mainstream solution or proposal, Monbiot concludes that there is just no way for flying to survive. “Long distance travel, high speed and the curtailment of climate change are not compatible” he writes, adding a statement I have often seen quoted for its sheer brutality: “if you fly, you destroy other people’s lives.

As well as the solutions, the book spends some time exploring why it has been so hard to get climate change onto the political agenda. The findings here are fascinating. A lot has been said about climate change denial and conspiracy theories. I don’t have a whole lot of time for that, or for environmentalist matyrdom, but anyone tempted to dismiss those theories entirely should read Monbiot’s chapter on ‘The denial industry.’ Obviously not everyone who disagrees with climate science is in the pay of the oil companies, but a shocking number are, and there is plenty of evidence here to prove it.

There are a couple of things missing from Heat, in my opinion. One is any discussion of consumption, or of food, both of which account for a large and mostly indefinable amount of our carbon emissions. There is no mention of re-localization, an idea which seems to have been embraced since the publication of ‘Heat’ two years ago.

Still, as a guide to what can practically be done about climate change, as a society, this is second to none.


  1. This seems like a fascinating book. I’m associated with Recycled Energy Development (RED), a company that works with heat for a living. Specifically, RED turns waste heat at manufacturing facilities into clean power and steam, thereby improving efficiency. Combined heat & power (which is mentioned above as one of Monbiot’s solutions) is a big part of what RED does. And the potential there is indeed massive: studies done for the EPA and DOE suggest there’s enough recoverable waste energy (most of which is heat) to slash US greenhouse gas emissions by 20%. Meanwhile costs would fall due to increased efficiency. We should be doing much more.

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