Plan B (not from outer space)

By Bryan Walker 12/10/2009


Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save CivilizationI hadn’t expected to be doing a Hot Topic review of Lester Brown’s book Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization, since he writes about a variety of sustainability issues. However the 90 pages or so he devotes to climate change were irresistible for their sensible optimism and I report them here.

The Plan B books have been appearing in updated form since 2003. They are no light undertaking. Intended to influence, they have translators into 22 languages and achieve worldwide circulation. Several thousand individuals purchase five or more copies for distribution to friends, colleagues and opinion leaders. Ted Turner does so on a large scale, distributing copies of each Plan B to heads of state and their key cabinet ministers, the Fortune 500 CEOs, and members of Congress. A film version of Plan B 4.0 is in progress.

Brown is a generalist. His work is to pull together scattered information and communicate it to the public. The results are scary on the reality of the problems and upbeat on the solutions. On climate change he is unflinching. He reports recent studies projecting a sea level rise of up to two metres by the end of the century. Up to a third of all plant and animal species could be lost. The chorus of urgency from the scientific community intensifies by the year. Higher temperatures diminish crop yields, increase the severity of storms, flooding, drought and wildfires, and alter eco-systems everywhere. The effects of melting glaciers on irrigation is a massive threat to food production.

Selecting items like this doesn’t do justice to the overall organisation of the chapter in which he sets out the threat. In 20 pages he presents a valuable summary reminder of what a continuance of anthropogenic global warming will result in for human life. It’s chapter 3 of the book, which by the way is available for free download here on the Earth Policy Institute website. The chapter can be recommended for anyone who wants to know in short compass what it all adds up to and why it matters supremely.

 Always positive in the face of threat, Brown sets out his Plan B response. He stands with James Hansen and others on the necessity to reduce CO2 levels to 350 parts per million concentration. Plan B envisages cutting emissions 80 percent by 2020 in order to keep levels from exceeding 400 ppm before starting to reduce them. This will be challenging, ’but how can we face the next generation if we do not try?’ And it’s feasible.

Two steps are needed. The first is an energy efficiency revolution, the beginnings of which are already under way. The revolution in lighting technology is a good start, and one which many countries are joining (while New Zealand is pulling back by decision of our benighted Minister of Energy). Compact fluorescents (CFLs), using 75 percent less electricity than incandescents are the first step. The light-emitting diode (LED), using up to 85 percent less is the ultimate. Lighting is not a small matter. It currently uses 19 percent of the world share of electricity. This would be cut to 7 percent with a move to CFLs in homes, advanced linear fluorescents in offices, shops and factories, and LEDs in traffic lights.  The lighting efficiency gains would be even greater if LEDs reduce in cost and can be used more widely.

Energy-efficient appliances are already lowering considerably their electricity requirement. A worldwide set of appliance efficiency standards keyed to the most efficient models on the market would offer as much or more than the 12 percent of world electricity savings from more efficient lighting.

Low energy use buildings are already being built in some countries.  There is enormous potential for reducing energy use in buildings. Even energy retrofits on older inefficient buildings can cut usage by 20-50 percent.  Brown discusses the LEED certification offered by the US Green Building Council in interesting detail. New buildings can easily be designed with half the energy requirements of existing ones.

The overall electrification of transport will mean much greater energy efficiency, especially as the power comes increasingly from renewable sources. New technologies have opened the way for hybrid plug-ins and all-electric cars and all major car makers have plans, as Brown details, to bring them to market. The future of intercity travel lies with high-speed trains, which under Plan B will be powered almost entirely by renewable electricity. Japan has set the standard, but many countries are now participating. Public transport has a significant role to play; shifting public funds from highway construction to public transport would reduce the number of cars needed. (A point lost on our Transport Minister, who shares the Energy Minister’s preference for outdated practice.)

A striking section on metal recycling demonstrates that it requires only a fraction of the energy needed to produce the metals from virgin ore. Design of products so that they can be easily disassembled for reuse or recycling carries economic benefit, as do reusable containers. Waste reduction is central. In summary, there is a vast worldwide potential for cutting carbon emissions by reducing materials use, and beginnings have been made. 

There follows an illuminating account of what a smart grid combined with smart meters can add to energy efficiency and how moves in that direction are already under way in various parts of the world. He concludes the chapter (4) by expressing his confidence that the energy-saving measures identified and proposed will more than offset the nearly 30 percent growth in global energy demand projected by the IEA between 2006 and 2020.

The second major step is the shift to renewable energy.

’…this energy transition [to wind, solar and geothermal energy] is moving at a pace and on a scale that we could not have imagined even two years ago. And it is a worldwide phenomenon.’

He instances Texas which is looking to have 53,000 megawatts of wind generating capacity, which will more than satisfy the state’s residential needs and enable it to export electricity, just as it has long exported oil.  Some 70 countries are now using wind power. A Stanford University study concluded that harnessing one fifth of the world’s available wind energy would provide seven times as much electricity as the world currently uses. Plan B involves a crash programme to develop 3000 gigawatts (3 million megawatts) of wind generating capacity by 2020, enough to satisfy 40 percent of world electricity needs. That’s 1.5 million 2-megawatt wind turbines over the period. Intimidating? Compare it with 70 million cars per year. 

Solar energy is the second source undergoing dramatic expansion. Photovoltaic installations are increasing rapidly, by 45 percent annually, and production costs are falling fast. Solar thermal electricity, which uses reflectors to concentrate sunlight on a closed vessel containing water or some other liquid, is on the move, with big plans mooted for the southwest US and Algeria and the Indian Desert. Solar water heating, now seen in many countries, is another obvious benefit.

There is more. Geothermal energy in a variety of forms is a barely tapped source, with very large  potential.  Hydro power from the movement of tides and waves is starting to be developed. Biomass offers a small but worthwhile contribution. Brown doesn’t rule out nuclear, but thinks it is expensive by comparison and unlikely to reach a level of new development which would do much more than replace current aging plants.  Carbon capture and storage doesn’t figure, at least at this stage, for reasons of expense and lack of investor interest.

The chapter (5) is full of facts and figures to support his sense that movement on renewable energy is strongly under way and that the resource is more than adequate to our need to cut emissions by 80 percent by 2020. It won’t just happen. Strategic government intervention is needed to put a price on carbon, to offer appropriate assistance to desirable developments, sometimes to mandate changes. He frequently turns to the analogy of wartime mobilisation. But he clearly looks to the vigour of enterprise and innovation in business and industry to see the job through. Indeed there is a strong sense of that vigour already present and poised like a wave ready to be caught. If we do catch it it will take us safely to shore.

[Dexys Midnight Runners]