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4.2 out of 5 stars
The Carbon Crunch
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on 25 October 2014
If you have any interest in energy, read this book. It's well written and accessible - you don't need to know anything about the technicality side of energy, the science of climate change, or economics. You'll get lots of insights and new understanding. The down-side is that you might be worried you were getting a one-sided view and might need to read more. So don't make this your one and only venture into understanding this mightily important subject.

Dieter Helm is, deservedly a well known energy expert, a great communicator, and enjoys being a controversialist. It doesn't mean, he's wrong. Indeed it is quite hard to fault many of his arguments. His prescriptions are weaker - but definitely worthy of the attention of policy makers.

Briefly the thrust of the argument is: - in targeting reducing our carbon-footprint by increasing renewable generation in the UK, particularly wind, we are focussing on the wrong things. Because of de-industrialisation in the West (i.e. industry is shifting to places like China and we are buying their manufactured good) we should be tackling where carbon generation is driving carbon consumption. We have simply exported the problem and the small amount we are doing to shift to low carbon electricity generation is so tiny as not to have any overall impact. The solution to that is a carbon tax.

Accepting, however that we should do something about shifting to low (er) carbon electricity generation in the UK, picking wind was a bad idea. Lots of people dislike wind-farms for many reasons - Helm's has a very specific and powerful argument. Wind is expensive - especially if you have to go off-shore - it costs a lot to build and to connect to the system - and most crucially is intermittent (the wind does not always blow so most turbines do well to operate at 25% capacity). That means you can't rely on it and you need significant 'base-load' (which runs all the time) and back up (which kicks in when needed). The danger of over-relying on wind is that you discourage investment in other capacity - he is great fan of gas, which produces fewer emissions than coal and should be our transitional fuel until we can seriously get our act together and invest in genuinely cheap sustainable energy. Underlying this is his other powerful argument, which I think may be right, that there is still plenty of coal, oil and gas in the world and it is not getting more expensive. Governments, he argues, are not being honest about this. They want to justify spending lots of money on things like wind by arguing that, although it may need to be heavily subsidised in the short-term (by consumers and disproportionately by low income consumers) in the long run it will be economical as the prices of fossil fuel rises. Helm seriously challenges this.

There's much more in this relatively short but packed book about Kyoko and climate change negotiations, shale oil and gas, other technologies, the nature of energy markets, and the role that energy plays in the wider economy. If you're worried about climate change and want to understand more, read this book and then challenge your environmentally savvy friends to explain why it's wrong.
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on 18 September 2014
A very thought provoking book that anyone who has anything to say about climate change should read. You may be surprised to learn that the USA is the only country in what is known as the western bloc that has cut its carbon emissions and this despite not signing the Kyoto agreement. Germany on the other hand has recently built 8 new power stations, all coal fired and all using the dirtiest type of coal we have.
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on 27 April 2018
Book as expected
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on 9 March 2014
A helpful summary of current policy and the problems with it. Surprisingly for a book about economics, it is gripping and really easy to read. My only quibble would be that the chapters on technology are weaker than the rest of the book and not well evidenced.
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on 21 August 2015
very well argued case
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on 27 November 2012
The history of international attempts to address global warming can be traced back to the Rio conference of the early 1990s, which led to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. In the twenty years since Rio, agreements have been signed, targets set, laws passed and speeches made. Whole industries have grown up to tackle the problem. But for all the time and money that has been expended, the result so far has been utter failure. The unspinnable fact is that carbon emissions relentlessly continue to rise; the rate of increase is if anything getting faster.

Why? Who's to blame? What should be done? These are the three questions which lie at the heart of Dieter Helm's provocative and entertaining monograph.

The main reason for the relentless increase in emissions is, of course, the build out of coal burning power stations, particularly in China.

It is common therefore to hear China being blamed for the lack of progress on climate change. European leaders often point to the fact that emissions are falling in most European countries and argue that they are 'leading' on climate change, while implying that sadly nothing can be done about Chinese emissions.

Helm doesn't buy this smug European line. Take the example of Britain. Our production of carbon in the last twenty years has fallen; our consumption of carbon has not. Essentially we are outsourcing our emissions to China and other less developed economies. We let China pollute on our behalf, and then pretend it is nothing to do with us.

One of the key problems with the targets that have been set in Britain and Europe is that they focus on the wrong variable: carbon production rather than carbon consumption. These targets have been at best useless, and possibly even counterproductive: if the carbon intensive goods that are consumed in Europe are produced in China then the total carbon cost is even higher than if they had been produced using coal power stations in Europe due to the carbon used in transporting the goods here.

What should be done? Helm suggests a three pronged strategy. First, introduce a credible carbon price, which must include border taxes to choke off our consumption of carbon intensive goods from China. Second, switch rapidly from coal fired power stations to gas (which produces about half the emissions). Third, fund R&D into improved renewable technologies.

While Helm is optimistic about future renewables, he is scathing about the effectiveness of current renewable technologies and regards the subsidies to support them as deeply wasteful. Wind power, for example, is 'one of the most expensive ways known to man to marginally reduce carbon emissions' (p.76).

The Carbon Crunch was written quite quickly, and there are a few outbreaks of industry conference style talk about 'game changers' and 'level playing fields' (not to mention split infinitives: 'to marginally reduce' indeed: standards are slipping among the Oxford professorship). But it is a thought provoking book. It deserves a wide audience.
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on 31 December 2012
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!
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on 15 April 2013
There is so much written about energy, sustainability, green, eco etc. This book simply describes how badly we are doing in attempting to solve the needs of society and the realities of our environment by pursuing the wrong policies at high cost for little gain, whilst at the same time devising an energy/carbon accounting system that is misleading at best and morally bankrupt in general.

If you are in energy, carbon, green, eco or sustainability you simply must read this book.
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on 30 July 2014
Superb critique of the green movement and how obstructive they've been to quicker fixes. How governments have bowed to 'public' pressure, otherwise known as the green fanatics. However, we need fanatics to balance inefficient and unchecked burning of fossil fuels. Nevertheless, the solution does not lie in one technology. Although Helm appears to put entire faith in natural gas, Gas cannot be part of the equation without carbon capture and storage, no fossil burning system can. It's a well written book, and extremely thought provoking. Green economics is far more complex, and current thinking relies on too many flimsy assumptions. But, this book actually questions those assumptions, and the circus they call COP. One of the better books out there, but not without major weaknesses. NOT for climate sceptics either.
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on 24 January 2014
This is the best carbon book i have read - very clear thinking, it explains what is going on (green lobby that hate nuclear rather than wanting to reduce emissions) - also tells how the investment in wind farms led to more use of coal because it messes up the business proposition for gas, which is crazy and ought to be more widely known

Dieter Helm believes that EU emissions haven't actually gone down - as EU officials claim - because we've just moved manufacturing outside Europe and imported the goods in. Putting a carbon price on imports (with money going to either the importing country or exporting country, it doesn't matter because the purpose is to have a price not make a profit) would make this clearer.
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