7 november 2009

Our Choice

Review by Tristram Stuart in Financial Times, November 7 2009

Our Choice: A Plan to Solve the Climate Crisis

By Al Gore

For those who felt that former US vice-president and Nobel Peace Prize-winner Al Gore left a few questions unanswered in An Inconvenient Truth, his latest book, Our Choice: A Plan to Solve the Climate Crisis, offers full redress. Many of Gore’s ideas are inevitably familiar, but the clarity of his argument and the fissile power of his analysis combine to elevate Our Choice into the top-ranking environmental books of our time.

Above all, Gore’s magisterial way with words should administer the electric shock required to defibrillate policymakers from their present semi-comatose state. In addition, Our Choice is illustrated with a stunning array of photographs and diagrams.

Gore’s roadmap for the survival of human civilisation is clearly marked. But Our Choice still makes for painful reading. It is depressing to see how many of the mistaken paths and illusory solutions Gore warns against are in fact the ones our political leaders are pursuing. This is true of carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) whereby carbon-dioxide emissions from coal-fired power stations can be captured and pumped into porous rock formations deep underground. As Gore explains, coal companies have “aggressively promoted the illusion that CCS is actually near at hand”. They thereby persuaded policy makers to allow them to continue building new “capture ready” coal-fired power stations, even though key issues regarding this expensive technology are as yet unresolved.

Pillaging the public purse to subsidise dangerous and uneconomic nuclear power stations makes no sense either when there are commercially available technologies capable of producing clean power immediately.

Wind energy is already so efficient it could provide 20 per cent of the energy mix without delay. There is also a range of solar devices that would be adequate to provide the entire world’s energy requirements several times over. The variable supply of wind and sun can be compensated by installing a reliable base load source. Gore’s favourite issue here is the unjustly neglected geothermal energy, which taps heat from beneath the surface of the earth.

To connect all these energy sources to each other, as well as to an electric automobile fleet, he calls for the installation of high-efficiency supergrids, such as the one being built in China. He is adamant that such progress would occur naturally if the damage done by global warming were adequately reflected in the cost of emitting carbon.

Energy aside, deforestation is also wreaking havoc by releasing at least 20 per cent of all greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Gore alludes to the agreement to achieve a reduction of emissions from deforestation and degradation (REDD) to be finalised at the Copenhagen climate summit. But his book was written before the desperately ill-advised removal of a critical clause that ensured that countries could not merely replace virgin forest with ecologically and carbon-depleted commercial plantations.

Subsidies and legislation in the US, Europe and in south-east Asian countries have been encouraging the conversion of food into fuel and the destruction of the remaining forests to produce biofuels. Instead of encouraging the wasteful overproduction of food, Gore argues that farmers should be rewarded for accumulating carbon in soils. Gore’s admission that producing “ethanol from corn is a mistake” constitutes a supremely graceful climb-down from the former champion of the US bioethanol industry.

For the sake of the planet and everything that lives on it, let us hope that the rest of the world’s political leaders will be as nimble as he is when it comes to reversing the trends of their current disastrous policies.

Tristram Stuart is author of ‘Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal’ (Penguin)

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