The new year has brought a batch of books bristling with views on the widening debate about the best way to deal with climate change. Their authors want to change your mind about everything, from the power of renewables to the need for net zero policies and machines that can suck carbon dioxide out of the air. For a shift of pace, there is a gentler tale of what a voyage in a 100-year-old sailing vessel can tell us about the future of shipping.
The weightiest work comes from Mark Z Jacobson, a Stanford University professor who has spent years arguing that wind, water and solar power can provide 100 per cent of the world’s energy. Climate campaigners from Hollywood to Washington have seized on his work, which has also drawn fire from critics questioning the feasibility of 100 per cent renewables.
Jacobson addresses all sides in No Miracles Needed: How Today’s Technology Can Save Our Climate and Clean Our Air (Cambridge University Press, £11.99). Much of the book explains in meticulous — and I do mean meticulous — detail how each of the wind, water and solar technologies works, and why they are needed to eliminate air pollution, global warming and energy insecurity.
More contentious sections address detractors who say 100 per cent renewables would risk blackouts on windless or cloudy days, or require too much land to be slathered in wind and solar farms, or cost too many jobs.
Jacobson responds to each charge, adding that the big advantage of renewables is that they are better than all alternatives. Natural gas still causes global warming. Nuclear power is costly. Biofuels cause air pollution. And so on. He is equally dismissive of direct air carbon capture, a relatively new technology that extracts carbon dioxide from the air.
This is unlikely to upset Paul McKendrick, a Canadian writer who makes his admiration for direct air capture plain in Scrubbing the Sky: Inside the Race to Cool the Planet (Figure 1, C$28.95). This is the story of the scientists, philanthropists and investors who have spent more than 20 years bringing to life direct air capture, which uses chemicals to extract CO₂ from the air that is then captured for underground storage or use elsewhere.
It is a timely book. Scientists say carbon removal measures will probably be needed to avoid more harmful global temperatures. Companies including Microsoft and Swiss Re have started to pour millions of dollars into direct air capture start-ups.
But as McKendrick explains, none of this seemed likely back in 1992 when US-based scientists such as Klaus Lackner first came up with the germ of the idea for direct air capture. Bill Gates, Elon Musk and Richard Branson also feature in the tale of a technology we are likely to hear a lot more about.
Direct air capture gets a mention too in the anti-net zero polemic of British journalist Ross Clark, Not Zero: How an Irrational Target Will Impoverish You, Help China (and Won’t Even Save the Planet) (Forum, £20). Clark’s argument, which will be well known to readers of his British newspaper columns, is that the UK was mad to make a legally binding pledge to cut its emissions to net zero by 2050.
He says there should have been more debate about a policy fed by alarmist “hyperbole” that could cause “huge damage to our economy” while bigger carbon polluters such as China let themselves off the hook.
So far, so familiar to students of what has come to be known as “climate inactivism”, a newer breed of scepticism that no longer rejects climate science outright but questions the extent and pace of action needed.
Clark is on more interesting ground when he complains that the UK’s net zero goal is impractical in a country with a “hopelessly inadequate” electric car charging network; meagre hydrogen infrastructure; insufficient energy storage and other shortcomings.
Frustrated net zero advocates make similar arguments. But very few agree with the concept underpinning Clark’s thesis: even if the downsides of global warming outweigh any benefits “there is nothing coming that will be beyond our ability to cope”. Trusting that blithe prediction is, of course, a luxury most of the world cannot afford.
Finally, Melbourne-based academic Christiaan De Beukelaer has written a more gentle but adventurous climate book, Trade Winds: A Voyage to a Sustainable Future for Shipping (Manchester University Press, £20/$29.95).
In February 2020, De Beukelaer boarded the Avontuur, one of the world’s largest sailing cargo vessels, for what was supposed to be three weeks of field work on the prospects for reviving emissions-free shipping. The three weeks became five months as De Beukelaer and his 14 fellow crew members were cast out at sea by the Covid-19 pandemic.
The result was what he calls, with some understatement, “a confronting journey”. The ups and downs of life on board make a lively travel story. But interwoven is an engaging tale of efforts to decarbonise the global shipping industry — and a compelling assessment of the role sail cargo ships might play.
Pilita Clark is an FT business columnist
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