Read the Burning Question to know the scorching truth

— Shashwat DC

For far too long, we have been contemplating the consequences of our addiction to oil. But much of our concerns have been cantered around the focal point, of what will happen when we run out of it. Our economies are virtually floating on hovercraft that is powered by this oil; everything would come to a grinding halt, if and when those billion-barrel oil wells in Middle East and South America run dry. While there are varying estimates as to when that Armageddon-sort of moment will occur, 30 years, 50 years or could even be 100 years, but

bqcoverbigoccur it surely will because of two things; the rate of our consumption is far-outstripping the supply, let alone the creation of fossil fuels. Thus it is just a matter of time.

But, what if instead of waiting for the wells to run dry, or the global economy to come to a grinding halt, If we could start looking away from oil altogether, something like an addict going into rehab. If only we were to look at our dependence on oil and gas, as a sort of addiction, we could then look at the solutions then. And the reason we need to do so is fairly obvious, as simply as it has been elucidated in 15 words, or 2 small sentences as done by Mike Berners-Lee and Duncan Clark in their book The Burning Question, the leader to the title says “We can’t burn half the world’s oil, coal and gas. So how do we quit?” The title and the leader of the book set the stage for the discussion to follow in the 200+ pages.

Much like the docu-drama by Al Gore (whose highly recommends this book) The Inconvenient Truth jolted us out of our collective reverie, the Burning Question shatters our carbon reverie, the lull that we seem to have slipped into. Mind you this is not some discourse on ice-caps melting and species disappearing, but it is a practical and honest analysis on how our addiction of oil is going to wreck us all. The only way out is to abandon oil altogether. But is that a feasible solution?

The agenda for the discussion is brilliantly set by Bill McKibben in the foreword, where he asks the reader to “Do the maths” and then goes about and does a significant amount of it himself. This entire mathematical construct is based on 3 numbers; namely, 2 (Degrees Celsius) 565 (gigatonnes) 2795 (gigatonnes). Putting it simply, to ensure that the average mean-temperature stays below or at 2 Degree Celsius, we have a budget of around 565 gigatonnes of CO2 emissions by 2050. Were we to burn up all the estimated reserves of fossil fuels, we would be adding 2795 gigatonnes of CO2 in the air. Anyways, the rate at which we are going, we will hit the 565 ceiling in a mere 16 years. Post that temperature rise is inevitable.

To give an idea of the impact of temperature rise, the authors in the book discuss some models in detail and thereon, but the most interesting (and also the scariest) revelation is that our switch to renewable energy is not solving any problem. I mean, so far, the capacity addition of solar, wind, and others has no impact on the global CO2 emissions, which are increasing by almost 3% annually. Renewable energy does not substitute conventional energy systems, it merely appends them (what the authors describe as the Squeezing the balloon). The hunger for energy is such that, we continue to burn oil, even as we add more and more windmills.

The lucid discourse in the book flows easily, and the best part is that you need not be an expert to understand the core arguments made in the book, the maths is simple (with handy graphics and illustration) and for all to see. The another big plus of this book is the copious use of footnotes; in fact the footnotes by itself present a study themselves, coming along with lot of web-links that can used for further research.

The downside that one can see is that after building up scenario and putting up the right questions, the answers that appear seem a tad unfulfilling. Capping carbon, carbon sequestration, nuclear energy, geoengineering, are the solutions promoted. But we all know, how unachievable they are, for instance, no country will agree to voluntary carbon capping, Carbon capture and storage (CCS) is a too costly and complicated process, and post Fukushima, nuclear has lost support. Thus, a sort of helplessness hangs over, when you finish the book. The other fact is that since it was published in 2013, some data might be dated, in that sense.

But that aside, reading the book is a must, only to understand and comprehend the severity of the crisis that faces us. Authors Berners-Lee and Clark put the facts on table as candidly as possible, warning against the dangers of inertia and ignorance.

The book can be ordered online at, check

Book Review: The Burning Question
Author: Mike Berners-Lee & Duncan Clark
Publisher: Profile Books
Pages: 268
Date of Publishing: 2013
Price: Rs. 352

  1. Ankur Verma April 26, 2015 at 8:33 pm

    As interesting as it seems, I believe I will certainly like it for a detailed discussion on future of oil and energy.

    But I ardently believe that the nexus between technologists, international communities and global economists will never allow such a crisis to happen. Politicians should also strive to align policies in such a way so as to assist and promote the development of alternatives.

    It is a rather interesting point to note that addition of solar, wind etc forms of renewable energy has not been able to reduce CO2 emissions, but we must not overlook the rate of growth of them. Developing economies are growth hungry and technology deficient, and hence will continue to rely on old technologies for some time, unless guided properly by the developed countries.

    – Ankur Verma


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