Financial markets are gambling trillions of dollars on a bet that governments will never seriously curb carbon emissions say Mike Berners-Lee and Duncan Clark in The Burning Question: We can’t burn half the world’s oil, coal, and gas, so how do we quit? published by Profile. Why do they claim this? Because to address climate change would mean leaving most of the remaining fossil fuels in the ground. But that would mean the future value of the fossil-fuel energy companies falling to a fraction of their current market valuation. In any event, sudden action forced on governments by a period of catastrophic climate change and food shortages would cause the collapse of the energy industry, far greater than the banking crash of 2008. Something will have to give.
The authors explain the maths very well. CO2 in the atmosphere has now reached 400 parts per million from 280 ppm in pre-industrial times. The switch to renewable energy has so far had no impact upon global carbon emissions (since this book’s publication, figures released for carbon emissions show that in the UK, emissions went up by 3% in 2012, the highest in Europe). What is the amount of fossil fuels we can safely burn to stay within the agreed 2 degree C rise in average surface temperatures above which the lives of millions of people are a risk. The answer is 565 gigatonnes of CO2 by 2050. But established reserves of fossil fuel are 2,795 gigatonnes, and the 565 gigatonne emission limit will be hit by 2030.
And this does not allow for the dramatic increase in potential shale gas fields world-wide. In the UK, estimates of reserves of shale gas are continually being revised upwards, with claims that just the fields in the north of Englad could meet UK energy needs for five years. In the USA, the extraction of shale gas is welcomed, it is cheaper and it is the solution to their dependency on imported oil from dictatorial regimes. So it’s carry on as normal.
The book covers the many possible solutions each of which has its benefits and pitfalls: solar, wind and wave power; carbon capture and storage; nuclear power, burning of biomass. It focuses at the end on the ‘holy grail’ of replicating natural photosynthesis whereby complex organic molecules, which can be a source of energy, are created by splitting water and carbon dioxide using sunlight. But will the global fossil-fuel lobby, and compliant governments, fully recognise the threat to mankind presented by climate change, and the need to put vast resources into sustainable energy? Corporate-might aside, the authors quote J K Galbraith, best known economist of the 20th century,’Faced with the choice of changing one’s mind and with proving there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy on the proof.’