Kyle T. KramerJanuary 09, 2013
The Carbon Crunchby Dieter Helm

Yale University Press. 304p $35

Superstorm Sandy brought climate change back into public consciousness with a vengeance. Although no single weather event can be directly linked to climate change, Sandy’s devastation offered an undeniable preview of the kinds of extreme weather events we will face regularly in a warming world.

At such a critical moment in the climate change conversation, Dieter Helm’s new book, The Carbon Crunch, could not be more timely. A professor of energy policy at the University of Oxford and a fellow in economics at New College, Oxford, Helm also sits on various British and European governmental committees related to energy, economics and climate change. His is a voice to be reckoned with, not only because of his knowledge and authority regarding these issues, but also because Helm levels a blunt critique of current efforts—by governments and “green” organizations alike—to deal with the serious threat of anthropogenic climate change.

Helm unfolds his argument in three sections. He first explores why carbon emissions continue to rise and who is to blame. Burning fossil fuels is the general cause, but Helm narrows in on coal as the “prime villain,” since in terms of carbon emissions per unit of energy produced, “coal is worse than oil, and much worse than gas.” Unfortunately, coal is the primary energy source fueling the economic boom in the developing world, especially in the populous nations of India and China, who between them build three new coal plants every week.

Developed Western nations are responsible for the lion’s share of historical emissions, given current standards of living and the long arc of an Industrial Revolution built on coal. And even if Britain, for example, boasts of cutting its direct domestic production of carbon “by 15 percent between 1990 and 2005,” its total “carbon consumption went up by over 19 percent.” This is largely because Brits, like the rest of Europeans and North Americans, increasingly consume goods made in coal-fired China—indirect emissions for which they are still ultimately responsible but that they fail to acknowledge.

In the second section of The Carbon Crunch, Helm explores why reining in carbon emissions is so challenging. Current renewables, like wind and solar, he argues, cannot feasibly scale up to meet the world’s growing energy needs, and focusing on them diverts capital from more effective alternatives. Improvements in energy efficiency, while essential, paradoxically tend to increase energy use (the Jevons paradox). Nuclear energy is no likely savior; it is too capital-intensive, red-tape-ridden, risk-laden and politically unpalatable.

Some argue that since fossil fuel is a finite resource, eventually the supply will wane, the price will rise and the market will curb our carbon addiction for us. Helm, however, makes a convincing case that new production technologies, like hydraulic fracturing, will keep the supply stable for the foreseeable future. Unfortunately, there is more than enough accessible fossil fuel to fry the climate.

Helm sharply criticizes international agreements for reducing carbon emissions, like the 1997 Kyoto Protocol and the more recent conferences at Copenhagen and Durban. The past two decades have demonstrated that these frameworks are incapable of reversing or even slowing the global emissions juggernaut; they simply shift emissions to industrializing nations, like China and India, whose carbon production is unregulated.

What, then, can be done? In his final section, Helm proposes solutions. First, carbon pollution must have a price tag that reflects its environmental consequences. Helm recommends that developed Western nations (independently, if necessary) institute a carbon tax on domestic emissions as well as a border tax on carbon-intensive imported goods.

Helm’s second recommendation is a rapid transition from coal to gas as a primary (though transitional) energy source. Gas also has environmental consequences, but it produces only half the emissions of coal per unit of energy. As the recent U.S. shale gas boom demonstrates, new (though controversial) drilling technology has already made gas a game-changing alternative to coal.

A move to gas buys time to pour capital into researching and developing new low-carbon energy technologies that can meet the huge energy demands of an increasingly large and affluent global population. Helm hesitates to pick winners, but he sees promise in several possibilities. He advocates developing a computerized “smart” utility grid that can provide flexible ways of matching energy supply and demand.

New energy storage technologies are necessary to smooth out the intermittency issues associated with renewables (the sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow). Electrifying the transport sector will help with this, as vehicles become grid-integrated means to store electricity. Helm is bullish on new solar technologies (including biomass production) and geothermal heat—both potentially unlimited sources of energy if we can harness and store them more effectively.

But for some occasionally bogged-down sections on ethical responsibility and economics, Helm’s level-headed prose is very accessible to the general reader, even as his book serves as a velvet sledgehammer in the global conversation about climate change. I wish he had addressed forest management and agriculture more meaningfully, which offer large-scale and cost-effective means to reduce and sequester carbon emissions. While Helm may place a bit too much faith in the power of tax policy, the market economy and as-yet unproven energy technologies, he is realistic enough to acknowledge that reducing carbon emissions, while possible, is neither easy nor painless; there is a price to pay in first-world economies and lifestyles. His ideas deserve a hearing from government decision-makers and the general public.

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