Ban Fossil Fuels

It’s the simple solution to climate change – and quite a lot else besides

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 9th November 2000

If you want to know whether fuel in Britain is too expensive or too cheap, just look at how it’s used. One superstore chain lands its fish at Aberdeen and trucks it down to Cornwall to be smoked. Another buys vegetables in Worcestershire, then drives them first to Hereford, then Dyfed, then Manchester before trucking them back to Worcestershire to be sold. Onions are shipped in from Argentina, potatoes from Australia. Every day, aeroplanes, whose fuel, being wholly untaxed, costs only 17 pence a litre, bring lettuces from Kenya and Zimbabwe.

Truckers in Britain are in trouble not because diesel prices are too high, but because their own trade associations, being partly controlled by the superstores, have demanded that the government allow ever heavier lorries onto the roads. This means that fewer vehicles are needed to shift the same amount of goods (though they have to travel further), with the result that the sector is now suffering from overcapacity. Their customers are, therefore, able to nail the truckers to the floor.

It is a source of enduring mystery to me that farmers, like lorry drivers, are calling for cheaper, rather than more expensive, fuel. Cheap fuel has destroyed British farming. It has allowed produce from the other side of the world to outcompete our own. Within Britain, it enables superstores to centralise their distribution networks, playing farmers off against each other until they find the lowest national prices for the products they want to buy. The concessions Gordon Brown made yesterday will harm the very people who demanded them.

By a marvellous stroke of irony, the deadline for government action the truckers and farmers have set (this Monday) is also the day on which the global climate talks open in the Hague. Their purpose is to encourage countries to ratify the Kyoto Protocol on reducing carbon emissions. Governments will be able to meet their targets only if they keep fuel prices high.

Prospects for the climate treaty look, if George Bush has indeed won the US presidency, less than promising. Mr Bush, who was suckled on oil, will block its implementation by any means possible. Even if it were to be enforced, however, the cuts it demands are just a fraction of those required to prevent the proliferation of such freak weather events as those we have suffered over the past two weeks. If governments are to make any appreciable difference to their impact on the world’s weather, in other words, they will have to go it alone.

But what on earth could we do? It’s simple. All that needs to be done to bring our contribution to climate change to an end is for the government to announce that in five years’ time the burning of fossil fuel in the United Kingdom will be illegal.

This is the point at which all those kind souls who write every week to express their tender concern for my sanity conclude that I have finally taken leave of my senses. The entire economy is built on the combustion of fossil fuels. To ban them would surely be to bring the country to its knees. I suggest it would do precisely the opposite.

The task is certainly more achievable than it might at first appear. In 1941, the entire US economy was turned around in a matter of months, as civil manufacture was switched to military production. As Jack Doyle’s new book The Autocrats documents, General Motors designed, tested, and started mass producing an amphibious truck in 90 days from a standing start. Ford was soon turning out a precision bomber every 63 minutes. This transformation was attended, of course, by a massive boost in economic activity and employment. And all this was 60 years ago, before the age of “flexibility” and “just-in-time production”.

Northern Europe, according to a new report commissioned by Greenpeace, could meet three times its total energy needs simply by exploiting offshore wind. Every terraced house could produce more energy than it consumes by covering its roof with solar panels. And many of us could cut our consumption in half by replacing our clapped-out fridges and rattling windows and insulating our lofts.

As the most accessible reserves are depleted, the price of oil will continue to rise. The countries which control it will be able to hold their clients to ransom. Were Britain to announce a ban on fossil fuels today, then in five years’ time ours would be the advanced economy, while America, governed as ever by oil, will still be locked in the fossil era. As an oil sheikh once remarked, the Stone Age did not come to an end through a shortage of stone. Why should we wait for the oil to run out before abandoning the Fossil Age?