This is an extremely interesting book and should be read by all with an interest in combating anthropogenic climate change - particularly policy makers. It lays out the history of climate change talks from Rio, through to Kyoto and on to recent talks in Copenhagen and Durban, explaining why they are hailed as successes, even though they have produced little in the way of visible results. Helm also dispels many prevalent myths such as the potential contribution current renewable technologies and energy efficiency measures can make - typically vastly overstated by environmental groups. He comments on the damage which results from picking energy generation winners, such as spending enormous amounts of money on wind power programmes which can only ever provide energy intermittently and are therefore normally backed up by fossil fuel plants. This approach means that money is not being put into other technologies where we would get more bang for our buck. After clarifying why past policies have failed and current policies will have little positive effect, he sets out his own short, medium and long term plans to address climate change.
He rightly states that the first objective of every country is to stop using coal for energy generation. From a carbon dioxide perspective, coal produces roughly double the emissions per unit of energy production when compared to gas. Gas (e.g. CCGT) power plants are a well developed technology which can be built quickly and relatively cheaply. Increasing gas energy production would lead to a reduction in emissions, especially in countries like China and India. He correctly identifies why carbon taxes in the developed world are explicitly flawed, since manufacturing is increasingly being exported to the developing world along with the associated emissions. This penalises countries with a strong manufacturing base such as China and is part of the reason they are so reluctant to sign up to a global climate treaty which would limit their emissions. Helm cites a study which concluded that while UK emissions had officially dropped from 1990 - 2005, UK consumption of foreign products had increased so much that the UK caused a net increase of carbon dioxide emissions in that period. Many European countries claim similar victories.
There are gaps in this book. These are not gaping holes which cause his logic to collapse, but areas that I think should have been discussed. A key point is that his carbon tax is purely based on energy production. He expands this so that imported products are taxed based on the energy production ratio in the country of origin, but does not comment on other forms of emissions: energy is only one part of the puzzle. Deforestation was responsible for 17% of global GHG emissions in 2007 (IPCC). This should also feature on the carbon border tax, as should other factors such as whether the country uses progressive waste treatment technologies such as incineration or archaic solutions such as landfill.
Helm comments on The Stern Review, criticising the discount rate used, but never clarifies he thinks this rate should be.
His point that enormous amounts of public money has been put into low carbon technologies, such as windfarms, is well made. Politicians, with the help of lobbyists, have picked winners in the current scramble to reduce emissions. The result of this is that we have not reduced emissions as much as we could have and that we have spent far more money than we needed to. Spending this money in one area means that it is not being spent in another, probably more fruitful area. I agree that more money needs to go into R&D, but a lot of R&D ends up being fruitless and it is unlikely that R&D will produce a silver bullet. I think that R&D in tandem with executing more emissions reduction projects (including low carbon energy production) is a better solution, since most technological progress is down to incremental improvements which are made in successive installations.
Finally, increased gas use over coal and oil is proposed to reduce emissions, but energy security should also be part of this discussion. An economy which relies primarily on any energy source (be that coal, gas, nuclear, hydroelectricity, biomass or anything else) is at risk of experiencing a serious shock. I would like to see some figures on the percentage of energy he proposes providing from gas for a typical country.
Overall, an excellent and important book. A must read for policy makers and anyone interested in energy or climate change!