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Carbon Crunch by Dieter Helm


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I would highly recommend “The Carbon Crunch” by Dieter Helm.  Dr. Helm is professor of energy policy, University of Oxford and fellow in economics at New College, Oxford.  He is a member of the Economic Advisory Committee to the UK Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change.  In 2011 he was Special Advisor to the European Energy Commissioner. In this relatively brief (~250 pages) and readable book Dr. Helm makes the case that the current approach for climate change mitigation is not working, describes why it is not working, and gives recommendations on how to “fix” it.

The book is divided into 3 main sections. The first section is titled “Why should we worry about climate change”.  In it the science of climate change is briefly reviewed; this will be familiar ground to OEIC members. More uniquely, he includes a detailed discussion of the causes of climate change “skepticism”. While Dr. Helm is by no means a climate change skeptic, he makes some telling points regarding the blurring between science and green advocacy (by lobbyists and NGOs) at climate change conferences and in the preparation of IPCC reports.  Throughout the book he also questions the assumptions and conclusions of Nicholas Stern’s widely quoted The Economics of Climate Change (“The Stern Report”)- which made the case that the switch to green energy would, on average, be economically painless. Helm (himself an economist) states “such claims stretch economic and political credibility”. He then addresses the issue of why- in spite of much international attention - emissions have continued to rise.  He has 3 answers 1) Coal use - he makes a strong and detailed argument that “burning of coal should be the most important immediate focus of attention in climate change mitigation”, 2) Economic growth, particularly in China and India.  He provides a number of mind-numbing statistics on growth of energy usage in these countries; perhaps my favorite is that one thousand 5 MW wind turbines would need to be erected per week to meet the growth in their energy demand (unfortunately they plan to meet this increased demand with coal-fired plants), and; 3) Population growth. The first section closes with a chapter titled “Who is to blame”.  This contains an absorbing discussion of the ethical and political philosophies, historical and current responsibilities, the concept of carbon consumption rather than carbon emissions (something missed by the Kyoto Treaty), and concludes that the current approach to mitigating climate change is unlikely to be effective.

The second section is titled “Why is so little being achieved”.  In this section Dr. Helm offers an economist’s evaluation of currently available wind, solar and biomass power generation.  His analysis is detailed (especially with regards to wind power), and his conclusion is that the large investments governments are making in implementing currently available renewables would be better spent on research into more economically practical iterations of these technologies. This section also contains interesting chapters on improving energy efficiency (obviously a good idea, but a “micro solution to a macro problem”), nuclear power (questionable economics and regulatory environment), peak oil (there are more than enough fossil fuels available to cause catastrophic climate change), and an excellent, insightful chapter on the inability of international treaties to successfully address climate change (he gives an interesting discussion of game theory and “free riders” in this context)

In the third section of the book – “What should be done” – he gives his prescription on how to effectively address climate change.           He recommends a product-based carbon tax, based upon “carbon consumption” i.e. – an estimate of the amount of carbon emitted in the production of the product.  Products manufactured abroad would have a tax added at the border to reflect the amount of carbon embedded in their production.  This would address the issue of “free riders” and “carbon leakage”- the dynamic that occurs when emission controls in one country simply shift manufacturing to a country without emission controls.  He makes the case for the use of unconventional natural gas as a transitory option - replacing coal. China and India plan more than 1000 GW in new coal-fueled power plants during the next 2 decades – if that happens – climate game over in his view.  He hopes the use of gas will allow time for research that will improve renewable power sources and electric storage/distribution technology to the point where it is able to meet our power needs.  His discussion on the risks of hydrofracking relative to the risks of other energy sources is interesting and concise, and quite pertinent to us in New York.

This is a well researched, thoughtfully presented – and challenging book that should be of interest to anyone concerned about climate change.  It is endnoted, indexed and contains a large bibliography. Strong points include a balanced (non polemic) viewpoint from an economist.  It does have weak points – I found the sections on energy efficiency and “peak oil” somewhat superficial, and his proposal of a carbon consumption tax probably unrealistic   If anyone else has read this book I would love to discuss it with them.


John Carson is a pharmacist with a M.S. in Pharmacology/Toxicology. He can be reached with comments to this blog or privately through member email.


Comments on "Carbon Crunch by Dieter Helm"

  1. Dan Gibson's avatar Dan Gibson February 11, 2013 at 12:17 am

    Thank you John for recommending this important book. Carbon Crunch is the 80/20 Rule applied to Global Warming and it is a sobering view.

    Helm convincingly shows that burning coal, driven by our need for economic growth and growing populations in developing countries is the key determinant of Global Warming.

    I see why he claims Peak Oil is irrelevant, Energy Conservation is over stated, and excess subsidies in Current Renewables are misguided. His review of our lack of progress and Kyoto Protocol machinations over the last twenty years are discouraging.

    While I believe our efforts to use less energy are important, globally we need to focus on COAL! I hope we will see the kind of unified action Dieter Helm recommends. I’m also beginning to understand why Jorgen Randers whimsically calls for a Benign Dictator. Of course the problem is, few dictators are benign…

    Carbon Crunch, a book worth reading!

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