Crunching the numbers on carbon

The world is failing to tackle man-made climate change and energy policy needs to be rethought, says Professor Dieter Helm, author of The Carbon Crunch: How we are getting climate change wrong and how to fix it.

Oxford University Economist Professor Dieter Helm’s new book The Carbon Crunch makes a sobering read. In it, he reflects on attempts to prevent man-made climate change.

“It is not beyond the wit - and the sheer ingeniousness - of humans to crack climate change.”

Professor Dieter Helm
Author of The Carbon Crunch: How we are getting climate change wrong and how to fix it

Helm notes that global efforts to reverse C02 emissions have achieved essentially nothing in the last quarter of a century, and argues that Europe’s actions to date amounts to worse than nothing. Atmospheric C02 levels are still set to double and their rate of increase is actually accelerating.

The notion of oil production peaking as global oilfields decline and of other hydrocarbons is a myth, eroding the rationale for current renewables policies that are founded on the assumption of ever-rising fossil fuel prices. That is bad news for the environment, says Helm.

Coal, the dirtiest fuel, is hugely abundant and electricity generated from burning it will continue to expand massively, as it has done in the past decade. Growing use of coal in India and China is already dwarfing efforts to reign in emissions elsewhere.

Helm predicts gloomily that rising levels of affluence and a growing global population in the next few decades will bring much higher energy consumption. He also believes that nuclear power and energy efficiency measures will only play a marginal role in mitigating soaring carbon emissions and energy demand.

It is depressing stuff and Helm declines to put a positive spin on its implications. According to the best educated guesses of the world’s climate scientists, the likelihood of global temperatures rising by more than 2°C is great, with potentially catastrophic consequences. We need not surrender to despair, however, and Helm argues persuasively for new priorities, policies and efforts to avoid such a future.

The most pressing of these is the need to do away with coal-fired electricity generation. China, which is planning to build the equivalent of two new coal-fired power stations every week for the foreseeable future, must be the main focus of these efforts. “This dominates all other immediate climate issues: fail to achieve this and we are in serious trouble,” says Helm.

The newfound abundance of natural gas in shale rock, exploitable thanks to new fracturing and horizontal drilling techniques, offers a chance to achieve rapid cuts in the carbon intensity of power generation. This is already happening in the US, where carbon emissions are down to 1990s levels and falling, thanks to cheap and abundant shale gas replacing coal.

Natural gas holds numerous advantages over coal, not least its lower carbon intensity and the absence of certain toxins. Moreover, natural gas could be a great source of energy for powering transport.

While attempting to exploit gas, Helm says, nations must also explore and develop new forms of renewable energy technologies that actually work. These are likely to include smarter electricity supply and demand management, together with better and cheaper solar generation systems, affordable grid-scale energy storage technologies and the electrification of transport.

“Without significant technological development of existing low-carbon technologies and new ones, climate change is unlikely to be limited to anything like 2°C,” warns Helm. But, on a more hopeful note, he adds: “It is not beyond the wit – and the sheer ingeniousness – of humans to crack climate change.”

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