Climate change is speeding up, exceeding the worst predictions of the IPCC. The arctic could be ice-free in summer within five years. Without ice, the sea warms up more quickly, melting the undersea tundra, and releasing huge quantities of methane into the atmosphere. Methane is a much more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon-dioxide. We may already have reached the tipping point beyond which lies catastrophe. Two degrees of warming is inevitable, but six degrees, by the end of this century, is a real possibility — a level which threatens the continuance of our species, but if humanity does survive, there will be far fewer of us, living in very changed and worsened conditions on far less of the planet’s surface.
International attempts to tackle the problem have failed utterly. Emissions keep going up. We Europeans were apt to be smug because we were meeting our Kyoto targets, but that had nothing to do with the EU emissions trading system, which is dead in the water. Our emissions went down because of de-industrialisation. If we take into account the carbon emitted in the goods we import, then UK emissions have gone up by around 20%. The conferences at Copenhagen and Durban were a disaster. To quote Dieter Helm:
“what was ‘agreed’ was that the parties would try to agree by 2015 what they may do after 2020. This really would be hard to make up!”.
So what is the way forward? Is there a way forward at all? Helm thinks there is and that is one reason to read this book. Another reason is if you are unsure how shale gas fits into the picture. As a relatively low carbon fuel does it buy us time, or is the environmental cost too high? And finally, Helm is reputed (according to Simon Jenkins) to have the ‘ear of the Treasury’, which in itself makes what he has to say interesting.
Dieter Helm, Professor of Energy Policy at Oxford, has written extensively on climate change, but this is his first book for the general reader. If he wanted to reach a wide audience, it was possibly a mistake to be so politically partisan, particularly in the early chapters. His centre-right perspective may give him more leverage with Conservative politicians, but it is off-putting if, like me, you are not so committed to one side of the political divide. While he painstakingly teases out the different strands of Conservative thought (basically Roger Scruton’s traditional Conservatism = good, Neo-Cons = regrettable), he has Scruton’s tendency to lump everyone else together, as impossibly idealistic and often authoritarian socialists. Contrast Helm’s sympathetic treatment of Nigel Lawson who, he tells us “found it hard to get his book on climate change published, even though he accepted that climate change was likely to occur” (and also showed a profound lack of understanding of the science, questioned whether climate change was in fact occurring, asking whether a 3 degree rise really mattered, called for the IPCC to be disbanded, and set up a climate change sceptic organisation), with Helm’s treatment of John Sauven, who is labelled intolerant for calling the delegates to Copenhagen ‘criminals’. Although I’d agree that Greenpeace is often intolerant, an exhausted and frustrated lobbyist lapsing into hyperbole at the end of the Copenhagen debacle is not the best example.
Because solutions to climate change are long term, any realistic strategy must command a large degree of consensus across the political spectrum. It would have been helpful for Helm to acknowledge the heterogeneity of environmentalism. They are not all socialists who want to ration carbon worldwide to one tonne per person per annum. Helm thinks that almost everything done so far has been either useless or counter-productive, but he would not have difficulty finding environmentalists who agree with his criticisms: nuclear is needed — ask Mark Lynas; wind turbines are an expensive irrelevance — try James Lovelock; solar power also — George Monbiot agrees; carbon emissions trading has failed, and we need a carbon tax — widespread agreement; coal is the main problem — over the pond, James Hanson has been shouting it from the rooftops for years; insulating people’s home may reduce fuel poverty but won’t reduce emissions — try the Canadian Mark Jaccard, and so on.
Helm proposes a three-fold strategy to set us on the right track. Firstly we need shale gas as an interim transitional fuel. He stresses that extraction must be properly regulated (he is, unsurprisingly, pro-nuclear, but doesn’t see it making a significant contribution for another 20 years). Secondly we need a carbon tax, charged at the point of consumption not production, which would include a tax on imports. Thirdly we need a major programme of R&D, funded by the carbon tax, to find technological solutions.
I’m not competent to make a detailed critique of what he proposes, but there is one glaring problem — that of persuading the public, and governments, that carbon taxes are necessary. Recent history is not encouraging. In the UK the Labour government was forced to back down on road charging. In Canada, the Liberal Party’s ‘Green Shift’ manifesto, which proposed a carbon tax, lost them an election. In the current US presidential race neither candidate dares even mention the subject of climate change. Helm is critical of leftist greens for making politically unachievable demands. but on the other hand, he is critical of governments for misleading the public by telling them that we can tackle climate change without any cost. He wants politicians to come clean and admit that it will cost money and jobs, and cause a drop in standard of living for us all. Given the public reaction to austerity budgets, what chance is there that any government that tries to impose a carbon tax will stay in power?
To allow import taxes on carbon, Helm proposes WTO rules should be amended if necessary. How many decades would it take to get international consensus for that?
If Dieter Helm does have “the ear of the Treasury”, I’d love to be a fly on the wall to hear the conversation. It follows from Helm’s position that Britain should vote to implement the EU Fuel Quality Directive. I hope he points that out, and the government listens. It is a small thing, but something they can do without angering the electorate.
For a more informed review than mine — by development economist Simon Maxwell — see here.
The Carbon Crunch by Dieter Helm - link to Amazon.co.uk