books sustainability

Book review: What we need to do now, by Chris Goodall

Here’s a book with a satisfyingly straightforward proposition: What we need to do now for a zero carbon future. Now that Britain has set itself the target of being net zero by 2050, what does that mean? What’s on the to-do list?

You’ll know some of the priorities already, such as green energy, electric transport and refurbished homes. Other chapters address topics that generally get less attention, such as concrete or fashion. Net zero requires us to look at everything. As the book says, “clothing alone will stop us achieving net zero.”

Our guide here is sustainability commentator Chris Goodall, author of The Switch, which was my top recommended book from 2016. He writes with real clarity, showing the numbers and setting the targets, and explaining technologies without getting too technical. There are things here that everybody needs to know more about, such as using hydrogen in the gas grid, or encouraging local ownership of grid networks. There are also things that everybody can do, because the urgency of the climate crisis doesn’t allow us the luxury of leaving it all to the government to sort out.

Having read Goodall’s previous books, it’s interesting to see this urgency reflected. In Sustainability: All that matters, Goodall looks at trends in meat consumption and asks if we should be concerned. Any sense of that being a question have been swept away in the seven years since that book. “Routes to net zero for agriculture while feeding the ten billion on the planet in 2050 are hard to find without moving away from meat and switching to very low impact agriculture.” The technologies have shifted too. It was assumed that nuclear power was a “vital” technology for a low carbon society. Renewable energy has advanced so fast that it is much harder to justify it today.

To meet its zero carbon target, Britain will need to build a huge oversupply of renewable energy, suggests Goodall. The oversupply is so that we can store it, and also so that we can use surplus electricity to produce hydrogen. That hydrogen can be used in the gas grid to reduce the carbon from heating, which is a bigger challenge than green electricity. Hydrogen can also be used in forms of transport that are harder to electrify, such as shipping. Everything that can be electrified will be, along with reducing demand where possible. The book highlights the role of public transport, pedestrianisation and cycling.

There are two sides to a net zero target – the reductions of CO2, and the increase in offsetting it. So there’s a chapter here on reforesting Britain, raising our tree cover from England’s rather woeful 10% to the rates more commonly seen in Europe of 20-30%. As I’ve noted before, there’s broad political consensus for tree planting, and there is some very useful information in the chapter on how it could be done and be a real benefit to the economy.

Finally, I was pleased to see that the book strikes a good balance between various levels of action. It emphasises the need for system level change without dismissing individual action: “If we want the world to change, we have to demonstrate in our own lives that such changes are possible.”

If you’ve been aware of the talk around 2050 and are unsure what it will involve in the coming decades, What we need to do now is a great place to start. Read it, vote for the solutions described, and let’s get on with it.

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