And the resulting increase in carbon emissions has been exponential, so even though we know we have to decrease fossil-fuel use, the rate of increase is accelerating: the current trajectory suggests that within 600 years, our fuel-burning will annually consume all of the oxygen within the Earth’s atmosphere.
Moreover, the rate at which the planet responds to carbon emissions – and the fact that carbon dioxide remains in the air for a long time – means that the eventual temperature the Earth will reach depends on a cumulative carbon total. In other words, we need to remain within an ‘all-time carbon budget’, and given how much we’ve released since the Industrial Revolution, we don’t have a large margin to play in. Fuel scarcity, then, is not an issue; what’s required is a ‘sky-diving decline’ in our use of it.
The authors suggest divesting from fuel companies to decrease their lobbying power, and investing in carbon-capture techniques, such as using sustainably harvested wood in conventional power plants and developing farming techniques that accelerate carbon build-up in the soil.
To illustrate our predicament, they use the analogy of mushroom poisoning, which can affect the system so slowly that by the time you know you’re ill, it’s too late.
THE BURNING QUESTION: We can’t Burn Half the World’s Oil, Coal and Gas. So how do we Quit? by Mike Berners-Lee and Duncan Clark, Profile Books, £9.99