Discussions about climate change can quickly get personal. Should I keep eating meat? Travel by plane? Offset my emissions? Buy an electric vehicle? How many kids should I have? Greenwash, lies and the sheer complexity make it hard to know what to do.
Collective action challenges like climate change are frustratingly difficult: each of us individually can make no real difference, but if we all acted together the problem would be solved.
The total effort required is not enormous: most studies suggest a few percentage points of income each year invested in climate solutions would do it, and would deliver a multitude of other benefits — cleaner air and water, fewer premature deaths, more jobs and a fairer world. And yet, as COP27 in Egypt shows, we still struggle to get our act together.
In Saving the Planet Without the Bullshit, Assaad Razzouk argues that individual action is largely irrelevant. It is a trap set by coal, oil and gas companies to shift the blame on to us, and to let them off the hook. You should not offset your carbon footprint. You should not go vegan. You should fly without guilt. And have as many kids as you like!
Razzouk, a clean energy entrepreneur (and husband of the current FT editor), draws a distinction between systemic and behavioural change, and argues strongly for the former.
To stop emissions from coal, oil and gas, governments must stop subsidising fossil fuels, and force companies, rather than individuals, to pay for the environmental damage of their products. NGOs should use the law aggressively, and “sue the bastards”, holding directors personally liable for damage from emissions. The authorities should speed up the permitting of renewable energy. Institutional investors should use their leverage on our behalf. We can do it if we want to: look at the trillions mobilised to combat Covid-19.
Fast paced and energetic, this is a very readable book with myriad interesting facts. For instance, the average human now consumes 200,000 plastic particles a year. Hydrogen makes up 70 per cent of the universe. Palm oil may be driving deforestation but it is magical: it makes crisps crispier, soap bubblier, stops ice cream from melting, and the Egyptians buried themselves with casks of the stuff. Fossil fuels cost roughly what they cost 140 years ago; solar is 2,000 times cheaper than in 1958, when it first entered commercial use.
Those looking for strong and clear opinions will be delighted. According to Razzouk, conventional nuclear power is finished for a multitude of reasons. ESG is a con. Green bonds are worse than useless, because they do not even need to be green. Flying is fine, because short-haul electric flights exist and fossil-free long haul will be possible by 2040.
Luxury cruises are not fine, because they are floating garbage trash cans. Don’t bother changing your diet, but do buy a bike and an electric vehicle. Readers looking for evidence-backed advice may be disappointed, and decision makers — both personal and professional — should proceed with caution.
Saving the Planet Without the Bullshit is not pretending to be peer-reviewed scholarship. Rather, it is an enjoyable and thought-provoking polemic, and ultimately it is successful in forcing us to focus more sharply on the bigger picture.
In our confused world, with emissions stubbornly high and yet another COP failing to make meaningful progress, that is to be welcomed.
Saving the Planet Without the Bullshit: What They Don’t Tell You About the Climate Crisis by Assaad Razzouk Atlantic £20, 304 pages
Cameron Hepburn is director of the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment at the University of Oxford
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