Author Dieter Helm
Publisher Yale University Press
ISBN 9780300186598
RRP £20.00
The Carbon Crunch

Don’t be fooled by the title: the Carbon Crunch isn’t the latest in confectionary, but a term coined by Dieter Helm, economist and Oxford University Professor of Energy Policy, to drive home the message that decarbonization of the planet can’t be achieved with zero pain.

It should clear by now that we need to decarbonize — that is, to achieve an existence that doesn’t require we pump out CO2 all the while. After all, a rise of 1°C in the temperature of the planet might lower heating costs and enable the Greenlanders to become mineral millionaires, as their ice-free territory starts to yield its riches, but up to 6°C and it’s the stuff of nightmares.

Helm’s views on how we should achieve that result, however, often diverge from the popular. He asserts, for instance, that the entire Kyoto Treaty is an irrelevance, based on fundamental misapprehensions; a means of allowing governments to pat themselves on the back and avoid the issue, whilst making political capital out of vilifying the US. By covering production, but not consumption, argues Helm, it allows carbon-intensive goods to be produced in the developing world and find their way unhindered to be consumed in the developed world. It’s hard to ignore his point.

Naturally, then, there must be someone or something to blame for the shaky political foundations on which current climate policy is built — and Helm fingers Nicholas Stern’s The Economics of Climate Change, often dubbed the Stern Review. Popular with politicians it may have been, but Helm explains that it’s based on idealism rather than realism, and that an ethical approach, “grounded in resource allocation, demand and supply” could have changed the political approach to climate change for the better, way back in 2006.

As it stands, though, we’ve been aware of the problems but done little to solve them. To Helm, this smacks of political, environmental and economic illiteracy — all of which are, he feels, neatly summed up by the current lust for renewables and ideological opposition to the nuclear option. He points out, for instance, the potentially catastrophic policies which have seen nuclear power plants closing in Germany in response to the Fukushima Disaster “presumably on the grounds that a tsunami might reach Munich”. All of which leaves one wondering exactly what can be done.

Don’t fret, though, because Helm has a plan. To save the world from frying, he claims, there should be a carbon price covering consumption as well as production. Sadly he struggles to explain in detail how such a system should be brought about — and perhaps this book really serves as mechanism through which he can raise the point rather than solve it. But one thing he is clear on is that a longer-term gaze is required. He urges politicians and the Green lobby to embrace a transition to renewables via gas — half as polluting as coal and, thanks to fracking, now significantly cheaper — rather than spending our finite resources on intermittent wind and solar power.

Even then, though, the process is going to prove painful: a shift via gas will require us all to pay much closer attention to our energy use, and stump up more for what we do use, if it’s to be successful. “Climate change is a problem that can be cracked,” reassures Helm, “but it won’t be on current policies.” And that means that governments and individuals alike look set to face tough times if the planet is to be saved. Watch out for the crunch.