The Paris climate change talks that start at the end of the month will be a confusing mix of numbers, nations and needs. There’s a book to make it simple.

Protesters saying time is running out for climate measures, 24 October 2009. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)
Protesters saying time is running out for climate measures, 24 October 2009. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)

By Marilyn Smith

Barrels of oil and gigawatts of electricity. Tonnes of CO2. Technology, policy and economics.

The Climate Change talks that start in Paris at the end of the month, also known as COP 21,‪ are a confusing mix of numbers, nations and needs.

To wrap your head around the complexities at the negotiating table, pick up a copy of The Burning Question by Mike Berners-Lee and Duncan Clark.

“How do we quit?” is the sub-title of the book, which explores why we cannot burn half the world’s oil, coal and gas if we want to avoid disasters.

burningquestionIf you think you don’t know enough about energy to get through a book like this, good news. The authors have made sure you can.

When technicalities are impossible to avoid, the authors quickly make analogies to stuff you can probably relate to. Like this gem.

Scientists think we can pump 565 gigatonnes of CO2 (GtCO2) into the atmosphere and maybe keep temperatures from rising more than 2°C above pre-industrial levels — a global target set in 2010 in Cancun.

But fossil fuel reserves, which energy companies are eager to bring to markets, contain 2,795 GtCO2.

Berners-Lee and Clark think of 2°C as the legal drinking limit – the 0.8 blood alcohol level that for U.S. drivers can mean the difference between going home or going to jail. Think of 565 GtCO2 as the six beers over a long evening that you could drink and still possibly stay under the 0.8 threshold.

The 2,795 GtCO2 figure, then, is the three, chilly 12-packs of beer that the fossil fuel industry has cracked open and wants to pour down your throat before you leave the party.

The fundamental problem, they argue, is one of abundance: we have a LOT of easy-to-use energy at our fingertips. A lot of cash has been poured into fossil fuels and there’s more to be made by pumping it into the equipment and gadgets that enable our fast-paced lives.

Still, if you think all the blame falls on big industry, you’re overlooking your own role, itty-bitty as it might seem.

While fossil fuels grab most of the attention, The Burning Question reminds us that other things are also pushing up CO2 levels, including open fires, gas-emitting cows and a raft of industrial practices.

The world is divided between those in energy poverty and the rest of us — energy pigs.

Fittingly, the final question from Berners-Lee and Clark is “What now?”. They explore policies that will get clean technologies into our energy systems as quickly as possible.

Transforming the global energy system won’t come cheap, though. Investments of US$40 trillion are needed by 2050 to make the shift from dirty to clean energy, according to the International Energy Agency. But at $100 per barrel, global fossil fuel reserves would have a market value of $170 trillion.

Ultimately, it might be less about how much has to be spent and more about how much potential profit needs to be left underground.

By the end, you feel The Burning Question has been broken into bite-sized pieces and you’ve managed to nibble your way to understanding the energy and emissions equation. For those who want more to chew on, Notes and References are provided.

The one disappointment is the measly three pages devoted to the question you might most want answered: “What can I do?”

At the end of the day, it’s people and how they act that determine how much energy needs to be fed into power grids, combustion engines, cook stoves and boilers.

The world is divided almost evenly between the 3.5 billion people who live in energy poverty and the rest of us who are energy pigs.

Consider this: Each Ethiopian consumes on average 52 kilowatt hours (kWh) a year.

It takes almost 10 times that much electricity (452 kWh) to run your refrigerator.


msmithAfter serving as chief editor at the International Energy Agency, Marilyn Smith decided people need to “get” energy — whether that means acquiring access to modern energy services or understanding how to be better consumers. She’s now launching The Energy Action Project, an online magazine that reports on the energy story as it unfolds. It’s first full edition is set for January 2016.

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