Fossil Free Europe Tour

Peter Greaves
Peter Greaves
Bill McKibben is a charismatic speaker, a sort of Billy Graham for the Environment, filled with an evangelical fervour, writes Peter Greaves. But ...

I went to the last night of Bill McKibben's Fossil Free Europe Tour in London on 1st November. A large audience, of all ages but mostly young, responded enthusiastically to his call for disinvestment in the fossil fuel industry.

There were other speakers too, mostly women and mostly young, giving their testimonies, and an electrifying performance by the South African International Director of Greenpeace, who began by recalling the heckler who shouted "You say you have a dream, but it sounds more like a nightmare to me". So be constructive, be positive. He spoke of the importance of disinvestment in the anti-apartheid struggle.

And there was live music, and film. And literature: a particularly impressive "University Guide to Fossil Fuel Divestment" produced by People and Planet - a step-by-step guide to help students to plan and run "a successful Fossil Fuel campaign on your campus".

And yet - I found myself wondering about balance. There was almost nothing said about investment in renewables, surely the other side of the coin. The potential for renewables is enormous. They can produce results faster and cheaper than new nuclear facilities, which thus become irrelevant.

This is where much more research is needed - not, as McKibben pointed out, in searching for yet more fossil fuels, when the existing known reserves currently hold 2,795 gigatons of carbon, five times more than the 565 gigatons which if burnt are estimated would raise global temperatures by 2ºC.

Fossil fuels will not remain in the ground until renewable sources of energy become cheaper. This time can be brought forward by imposing a progressively diminishing cap, under the aegis of the UN, on permits to extract them. McKibbben's organisation,, has in my view missed an opportunity in not advocating strenuously enough for a global cap.

He has been hugely successful in motivating thousands of volunteer organisers in over 188 countries for campaigns, but if he had focussed on galvanising this grass-roots movement to pressure governments the world over to insist on a global cap on fossil fuel extractions - as part of a package of means of achieving the 350 ppm limit - who knows what might have happened?

There is still time. Several schemes have been suggested. I believe the best is that proposed by Oliver Tickell in his book Kyoto2 (Zed Books 2009), a global upstream cap-and-trade system which has the great advantage of creating a substantial "climate change fund" which could be invested to tackle both the causes and consequences of climate change, with emphasis on addressing the needs of the poor and those most adversely affected.

Peter Greaves studied Natural Sciences before taking a PhD in Nutrition, but became more interested in application than in research, first with the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, and later with international organizations, FAO and UNICEF.