“The Carbon Crunch: How We’re Getting Climate Change Wrong — and How to Fix It.”: The Angry Economist

Q and A: The Angry Economist


Dieter Helm has long been frustrated that, despite more than two decades of international negotiations, the world has failed to tackle climate change. So he got angry, he said, and decided to write a book about it: “The Carbon Crunch: How We’re Getting Climate Change Wrong — and How to Fix It.”

Dieter HelmOxford UniversityDieter Helm

Dr. Helm, a professor of energy policy at Oxford and an economic adviser to Britain’s secretary of state for energy and climate change, recently discussed what he views as America’s lucky break with natural gas and what we can learn from Europe’s energy policy mistakes. Following are excerpts, edited for brevity and clarity.


Why has the world failed to tackle climate change?


It’s not for want of trying. We tried very hard. But if you look at the Kyoto framework [a climate pact to which the European Union was party] between 1990 and today, there’s a continuously upward increase in carbon emissions from two parts per million in 1990 to three parts today. Kyoto has had no effect whatsoever. Kyoto is fatally flawed.

What we did in Europe was essentially shut down deteriorating rust-bucket manufacturing, swap production from energy-intensive industries and import the stuff from China. In Europe, Britain did the best and drove down carbon emissions from 1990 to 2005 by 15 percent. If you factor in imports, our emissions on a consumption basis went up 19 percent in the same period.

Kyoto is a framework to make Europe look good. That’s the climate merry-go-round. It was badly structured and bound to fail. It has failed. And as soon as possible it should be taken off life support.


Is the United States in a better position than Europe to reduce carbon dioxide emissions?


The paradox of all this is the Europeans put all this effort into global leadership on carbon emissions, and that has failed. And the Americans arguably have no sensible energy policy at all, and no climate change policy, and have done much better. The reason has got nothing to do with policy. Gas arrived. America has as a result got out of coal and into gas. As gas is half the emissions of coal, you see this really sharp fall in emissions.


What do Europeans think about America’s switch to natural gas?

Yale University Press

Europeans are in denial. The Europeans believed that oil and gas prices would go up sharply, and they bet on expensive renewables. In that world, they pity the poor Americans. They were going to be lumbered with all this fossil fuel and all this energy-intensive industry and would end up flocking to Europe, where we had all these cheap wind farms available.

Now, the ratio of gas costs between the United States and Europe is 1 to 5. America, it’s extraordinary. Gas. The lucky country! You know? It’s like having a frontier again in American history. Natural gas gives America an excuse not to do anything now.

That will be a big mistake because gas is only a transitionary fuel. But compared with Europe? You’ve got competitiveness, you’ve got cheap energy, you’ve got an economic recovery, and you’ve got falling carbon emissions. And in Europe, it’s just denial. [In the Europeans’ view], this is the land of the evil Bush who wouldn’t do anything about climate change.


What would you really have to do to address climate change?


Current renewables cannot do it. There isn’t enough land to do it. There isn’t enough land for biomass. There isn’t enough land for wind farms or for solar panels in their current form. They are just low-density power sources. You can’t run a modern economy on wind farms and rooftop solar. They have a role to play, but the only way to crack climate change is with new technologies.

There are only four ways of moving to low carbon: solar, geothermal, nuclear and gravity – -that’s essentially hydro. There are remarkable changes taking place in all those areas and with electric cars, with batteries, etc. Now, what’s America’s strength? It’s the home of technology. It’s the home of the Internet.

This isn’t rocket science. We’ve already started to split the light spectrum to bring infrared into the mix. There are enormous developments on this front. America is capable of putting money and resources into a serious research program.


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