Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Just what does George Monbiot want us to do about climate change?

This article by Dan Savage for Slog at the Seattle newspaper The Stranger doesn't so much fisk a Monbiot article for the Nation as point out what he actually said. The ridiculousness of his ideas almost speaks for itself. First, Monbiot repeats just how much CO2 a plane produces. However, he then compares it to other modes of transport.

First, biofuel:

"Forests in South America and Southeast Asia are being cleared to plant palm oil, sugarcane, and soya for transport fuel… [But] the production of every ton of palm oil results in up to 33 tons of C02 emissions, as trees are burned and peat is drained. This means that palm oil causes up to ten times as much global warming as petroleum."

Hydrogen fuel cells:

"Jet engines can run on hydrogen; however, because it is a far less dense fuel than kerosene, the planes would have to be much wider to carry it. This means that they must fly in the stratosphere—otherwise they’d encounter too much drag. Unfortunately, the water vapor produced by burning hydrogen in the stratosphere would cause a climate-changing effect thirteen times greater than that of an ordinary plane."

Go by train?

"Though trains traveling at normal speeds have much lower carbon emissions than airplanes…. energy consumption rises dramatically at speeds above 125 miles per hour…. If the trains are powered by electricity, and if that electricity is produced by plants burning fossil fuels, they cause more C02 emissions than planes."

Those self-satisfied French with their spiffy high-speed trains aren't so green after all. This also seriously undermines a proposed central plank of the Tory environmental strategy.

Passenger ships are an awful idea:

"Passenger ships appear to be even worse for the environment than jets…. [The] Queen Elizabeth II, the luxury liner run by Cunard, produces 9.1 tons of emissions per passanger on a return trip from Britain to New York. This is 7.6 times as much carbon as you produce when traveling by plane."

You know what's left? Zeppelins. Blimps!

They produce very little CO2. However, it'll take forty-three hours to get from New York to London on one. Don't even think about visiting Australia. Oh the humanity!

What that really means is that there isn't an effective substitute for flying. Air-fuel is already more than expensive enough to encourage efficiency savings. This is a key rationale behind the huge and therefore very fuel efficient per passenger Airbus A380.

As such, the only way new taxes on aviation can have any effect is if they just make us travel less. Stay at home except for when we take a slow train to the next village. This is a pretty dismal idea. It is a reversal of the great broadening of people's horizons and shrinking of the world over the twentieth century. It is also a high price to pay for the gesture that is any emissions curb without an international agreement.

That is why people like Monbiot need to overstate the extent of the threat posed by global warming. They need to make out the threat to be so severe no one pays attention to the price we're paying for averting it.


Tony said...

Matt, do you remember the kid at school who always sneeringly maintained he alone was right? The one who teachers had to correct time and again for being inaccurate? The one who was always doing the opposite to others?

You know, the one who played hopscotch with the girls while every boy was playing 40-a-side football on a pitch 250 yards long and 400 yards wide?

The one who would wear a Pringle jumper even when motiffs were banned. The one who acted bookish then ended up with nothing above a grade C. The one who would hear a weather forecast saying that it might shower yet told everyone it would rain.

That is George Monbiot.

fido said...

If Monbiot was a weather forcaster he would be a poor one, always taking time to sneer that the cold front is somehow the fault of the USA's carbon emissions.

Lascar said...

Monbiot is actually on the optimistic side--he believes that run away global warming can possibly be adverted by radical and draconian countermeasures. Realistically, there is a very low probability any of those measures being implemented. They are too “dismal” for most of us to endure.

James Lovelock’s view is much more direr. He believes it is pointless to invest time and resources in efforts at sustained development (green technologies) rather he advocates sustained retreat. Preparing for the relocating of the remnant human population to the upper latitudes, which will have a habitable sub tropical environment after the Earth has reestablished climate equilibrium at 6 to 10 degrees Celsius above the current global average. The lower latitudes will by and large be too hot and dry to support significant populations.

Lovelock, who along with Lynn Margulis, first proposed the Gaia hypothesis in the early 70s (which is now widely accepted in the Earth Sciences community), believes that the positive feedback systems that constitute the self regulating Earth systems (Gaia) are most likely on course to reestablish the Earths climate to a higher average global temperature. In other words, our emissions of greenhouses gases in the past two centuries may have kick started the process but the Earth is going to finish it regardless of what we do about emissions at this time.

Monbiot’s proposals would indeed require a severe contraction of the broad horizons that we have come to expect, but if Lovelock is correct that contraction will be orders of magnitude greater and it won’t be voluntary it will be imposed by the Earth’s regulatory systems.