Reviewed: The Burning Question

We’re never meant to judge books by their covers but The Burning Question, by carbon footprint consultant Mike Berners-Lee and consultant editor of Guardian environment Duncan Clark, sets itself incredibly high standards. Wrapped inside laudatory quotes from Al Gore, George Monbiot and Sir Tim Smit, a prospective reader will imagine they hold in their hands a vital addition to popular environmental literature. Fortunately, this insightful, lucid and often brutal book lives up to its billing.

Burning Question

In this compact volume – it runs to just 268 pages – two key problems dominate: the almost incredible scale of our carbon crisis and why it is proving so hard to alight the fossil fuel addiction train. These issues have been discussed what feels like endlessly, but Berners-Lee and Clark present fresh perspectives and communicate them with chilling reality.

Cutting through the believer-denier filibustering over anthropogenic climate change, the authors jump straight to the dangerously uncertain effects of global warming as we approach the consensus limit of a 2°C rise. Easily-remembered, nightmarish figures illustrate the scale of our challenge: our remaining budget for a 50% chance of exceeding 2°C is 1,600 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions or 700 billion tonnes for a 75% chance. Burning the world’s current proven (that’s not even potential or possible) fossil fuel reserves would create around 2,800 billion tonnes of carbon emissions. Put simply, we cannot afford to burn even half of them. Blunt figures in tandem with uncomplicated yet striking graphs make a complex problem digestible, if not particularly palatable.

The second and third parts of Burning Question are what this text will be remembered for. Flying up to a global viewpoint, Berners-Lee and Clark problematize the reasons we cannot kick the carbon habit and why our current solutions might be exacerbating the problem. Their central conception is of counterintuitive “rebounds and ripples”. The drive for energy efficiency – which we’ve been winning for centuries to sustain economic growth – has always led to increased fossil fuel use. If we’ve made it cheaper, we’ve just used more. If we’ve saved money on fuel bills, we’ve usually spent it on carbon-intensive food, leisure activity, technology or travel. And if we’ve used less oil, gas or coal, energy prices have dropped allowing other homes and businesses to use more. The same applies to nations: America’s emissions fell by 1.7% in 2011 and, as a whole, OECD emissions fell by 0.6%, but the carbon curve continued its irrepressible, exponential rise. In the authors’ oft-used metaphor, we are just “squeezing the balloon”.

The other main roadblock is the tremendous value of the world’s oil, coal and gas reserves to us all. The proven oil reserves alone amount to over 170 trillion dollars, over twice global GDP. Berners-Lee and Clark again use straightforward figures and graphics to demonstrate the widely known vested interests of countries and companies. What is most fascinating, however, is how much of our lives are predicated on the fossil fuel boom. Due to globalised finance, pension funds, savings and investments connect much of the world to the success of energy companies. In addition, any write-off of carbon-reliant infrastructure will render obsolete power stations, factories, planes, cars, boilers and much, much expensively more. The cutting back is going to hurt.

Another intriguing contribution is the short chapter on our collective human inertia in the face of crisis. The climate change problem is a “mix of abstraction, complexity and long-term uncertainty”. When matched with our optimistic disposition, short-termism and confirmation bias, we shelve climate change as low priority. It’s a common theme throughout the book, as the authors avoid taking the obvious route, namely pointing an accusative finger at evil corporations and oil-rich governments. These ‘villains’ are just the motors in a complex, carbon-reliant global society.

The Burning Question is less about solutions and more about realising the stickiness of the quagmire, but Berners-Lee and Clark do call for a globally enforceable carbon cap-and-trade scheme as well as national carbon footprints which take into account the origin of imported goods. They also see carbon capture technology – or at least more optimism on the subject – as a means of making any international carbon agreement and write-off more attractive to those all-powerful energy giants.

The book seems to peter to a conclusion with the customary call-to-arms so common in this genre: “At all levels of society, there simply aren’t enough people taking the reins.” In fact, the “What now?” final section of suggested actions fizzes with less energy than the central ‘problem’ chapters. That is less a criticism than a reflection of the exciting, fresh light the authors’ throw on what can feel a dusty, old topic.

Berners-Lee and Clark have demonstrated that the carbon crisis is broader, deeper and more urgent than we might think. Their overriding message is that a global agreement on capping emissions is essential, otherwise valiant efforts by governments and citizens face being squandered. When framed like this, comparisons with other major contemporary concerns such as tax evasion and internet pornography come into sight.

The conclusions of The Burning Question should inform any action on climate change. The hope is that the global complexity of the crisis outlined by the authors induces progress, rather than yet more denial.


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