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Ten Technologies to Save the Planet

Chris Goodall
Profile Books, 292pp, ISBN: 9781846688683

Despite the title, this book is not about technology per se, nor do I believe it is really about 'saving the planet'. It is, however, about energy: how we produce it and consume it, and how we could produce it and consume it differently. Following his award-winning book How to Live a Low Carbon Life Goodall examines his top ten technologies for low-carbon energy production and consumption. It is a simple, clear and optimistic book: these technologies are all feasible on a large scale and all are relatively environmentally benign. Yet the book leaves unexamined the many intractable reasons why the world tends not to adopt simple and logical solutions to the complex and challenging problems of unsustainable energy.

I first encountered the paradoxes of global energy in 1974 as a studious teenager interested in science and geography. In the aftermath of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, the first great oil crisis impressed on me both the finite nature of fossil fuel resources and our folly in ignoring the many feasible renewable energy technologies we already knew about.

A third of a century later, little has changed. Peak oil is still approaching fast, renewable energy technologies which could remove our need to dig up fossil carbon remain both many and feasible, and in George W Bush's words we remain 'addicted to oil'. One thing since 1974 has changed, however: climate. The prospect of global climate being substantially altered - some would say catastrophically so - by human emissions of greenhouse gases now forms one of the world's most visible and powerful meta-narratives. It is a narrative that drives a new geography of international diplomacy, energises movements for environmental justice, demands our attention regarding our lifestyle choices and - as Goodall argues here - reshapes the ways we should think about energy.

The format of the book is straightforward. Adopting the idea of 'carbon wedges' popularized a few years ago by American scientists Steve Pacala and Robert Sokolow, Goodall offers his ten favoured technologies for reducing the burden of greenhouse gases - mostly carbon dioxide - accumulating year-by-year in our atmosphere. No one of these technologies is offered as a silver bullet for carbon addiction, but pursued collectively they offer the prospect, Goodall says, of 'probably solving the world's climate problems at moderate cost'.

It is an attractive thesis, well researched and well written. If you want a quick guide to the current status of those old favourites wind and solar (but not nuclear: it is too expensive to make Goodall's top ten), or the newcomers biochar and carbon capture, then this is a really useful book. Even the idea of electricity from waves and Salter's Duck - the alluring idea which first engaged my attention in 1974 - make it into Goodall's hit list.

All of this is good; the information and arguments are important to lay out for an attentive readership. There are two things that concern me however: the framing of our energy dilemmas as ones which lead either to planetary destruction or salvation; and a lack of attention to political, cultural, behavioural and ethical dimensions of energy production and consumption.

On the framing point, Goodall adopts the conventional position that attending to climate change is all about energy management and, conversely, that energy policy is dominated by concerns about climate change. I believe that this is too restrictive and that such a rigid lock-in between energy technology and climate change holds back both energy policy and climate policy. The inadequacy of this framing is illustrated by the image of a planetary thermostat on the book's front cover. It suggests a degree of climate control which (fortunately?) is not open to us. We cannot control the temperature of the planet like we control the temperature of a room.

The book also suffers from its inattention to the many reasons why, in the 35 years since the 1974 oil crisis, the world has barely moved in the directions Goodall advocates; and why in the 12 years since the Kyoto Protocol, global carbon emissions not only have continued to rise, but have accelerated. The really interesting book would be an attempt to explain why the Carbon Age does not yet seem to be ending, despite the availability of these attractive renewable energy technologies.

Goodall's final plea to us to vote for governments that are prepared to take the measures needed to reduce our need for fossil fuels is to be expected from a former Green Party parliamentary candidate - and is a plea many Christians may share. But it is not enough. Planets are not saved by technologies; nor are they saved by politicians. (I'm not even sure planets are in need of salvation: people are.) The peculiarity of our world is that our creative, ingenious and visionary instincts are so frequently thwarted by our destructive, selfish and myopic ones. This paradox is as relevant for explaining our meandering attempts to secure sustainable energy as it is for explaining our frustrations in attending to the perennial demands for social justice, racial tolerance and human security. Goodall in his 'ten technologies' has offered only half of the story the world needs to hear.

Mike Hulme