The Burning Question

Mike Berner-Lee & Duncan Clark: The Burning Question, Profile books, 2013, 268 pages, £9.99.

This book received praise from Al Gore, Jim Hansen, George Monbiot, Kevin Anderson, Tim Lang, Chris Goodall and many others – for a good reason: it presents the big problems of our time in an easy, readable way and shows how possible solutions are.

If you only have time to read one book about climate change, resource depletion, how to feed a growing world population, etc this is the book to read.

The book’s foreword is Bill McKibben’s famous essay ‘Do the maths’ – the article from the Rolling Stones website that went viral in 2012 (

McKibben compares how much fossil fuel we can still use to stay within a 2 degree C increase with the known reserves we have in the ground. The conclusion is that the majority will have to stay in the ground if we want to avoid catastrophic climate change. This is not just his view. The UN’s IPCC said the same in their latest report.

However, our whole civilisation is based on a massive use of fossil fuel (coal, gas and oil). We use huge quantities of fertilisers in our food production and the fertiliser is made of … fossil fuel (gas).

Almost everything we do uses energy and most of that energy comes from fossil fuels. Manufacturing, heating, electricity, transport, etc all depend on the use of fossil fuel.

So what would happen if we left most of the fossil fuels in the ground? Most of the fossil fuel industry would go bust – taking many banks with them as the banks would not get their money back from these industries. This is likely to lead to a financial meltdown much bigger than that we saw in 2008 unless we plan for a low carbon economy now and do it fast. So far there is no sign that this is happening.

Those countries with the biggest fossil fuel reserves are also potentially the biggest losers if a global deal on drastic greenhouse gas emissions is agreed in Paris in 2015. The value of the current known reserves is around $35 trillion in today’s prices and ten countries have nearly 75% of all these reserves. About 25% of the reserves are owned by private companies. The rest are owned by governments. On top of that we have the value of the whole infrastructure that is connected with the fossil fuel industry.

If a global deal agreed that only 20-33% of the known fossil fuel reserves can be used whose oil, gas and coal should be used and who should have to leave their reserves in the ground?

And will the populations be willing to lose the affluence and comfort that comes with the use of fossil fuels? No wonder the politicians find it hard to make a global deal on greenhouse gas emissions.

One of the things that makes this book so interesting – and frightening – is that all the social and technological changes implemented so far to reduce greenhouse gas emissions have had no impact. To quote the authors: “While green energy, greener behaviour, energy efficiency and slower population growth all have a role to play, they do not appear to reduce the ever increasing rate at which fossil fuels comes out of the ground.”

In fact, the rate of increase in greenhouse gases has gone up – from an average of 1.8% per year to 2.3% in the decade 2000-2010. Looking at just fossil fuels – excluding deforestation – the increase is 3% in that decade.

The increase is down to economic growth in the developing world (China, India, Brazil, etc). However, the emissions have not fallen in the developed world (USA, Europe, Japan, etc).

If we want to have a chance of avoiding catastrophic climate change the rich countries need to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 10% per annum and the poorer countries should soon reach their peak emission rate. Average global reductions should be 3-4% p.a.

Pricewaterhouse Coopers and most other analysts (World Bank, International Energy Agency, etc) now think it is unrealistic we will stay within a safe 2 degree C limit and that we are heading for a 4 degree C increase.

This means we have to prepare for both adaptation and mitigation. The floods of the South of England in the winter 2013/14, the summer heat wave in 2003 that killed up to 70,000 in Europe, shortage of food, new diseases, etc will be the new norm.

The sooner we act the less it will cost both financially and in human suffering. So our choice is: what type of world do we want to leave our children and grandchildren?

What I like about this book is that it describes in an honest way all the difficulties we are faced with in dealing with this the biggest ever challenge faced by humankind. It is full of facts, well researched extensive notes to the sources if one wants to dig deeper.

The only weakness in the book is the list of possible solutions. This is the shortest part of the book and does not list some important contributing solutions such as anaerobic digestion and carbon storage in the soil. The books seems rather relaxed about some of the risks to the identified solutions (nuclear power and carbon capture and storage, CCS).

However, this does not take away the excellent description of the mess we are in with an honest look at how difficult it is to deal with this mess. We all have a responsibility of doing what we can to sort out the mess.

See also