The Carbon Crunch

By Dieter Helm (Yale University Press, updated edition 2015), 304 pages, $22, ISBN 9780300215328

The Carbon Crunch by Dieter Helm is a measured and dispassionate look at the economics and politics behind tackling climate change. The first section of the book establishes the basic realities of the problem from a scientific and economic standpoint. The second looks at why nothing has been accomplished over the past two and a half decades. The third and final section is more optimistic and outlines the author’s plan for more effectively attacking the problem. This updated edition includes new insights and reflections on recent events, including the shale gas boom that continues in the US, recently plummeting fossil fuel prices, and the 2015 Paris Agreement which was imminent at the time the updated edition was published.

Helm begins by laying the foundation and the science of climate change research, much of which has been addressed many times before. Perhaps most interestingly, he examines the question of who is to blame for our carbon emissions and who should be asked to pay for it. The author makes the careful distinction between carbon production and carbon consumption. While production is relatively easy to assess, carbon consumption is a more accurate measure for blame. One rather brilliant example that Helm uses is the supposed decrease in carbon emissions that many European countries have achieved in recent decades, for which European leaders have congratulated themselves greatly. While it is true that European countries have decreased their own emissions, much of that reduction is due to de-industrialization. But that does not mean that these countries have stopped consuming carbon intensive products; they instead import products from countries like China and India. The author calls this problem “carbon leak,” in the sense that one may have controlled emissions within a country, but emissions are still leaking across the borders. If you look at the consumption-based emissions from some European countries over the past decades, those emission numbers have actually increased. With many developing nations planning on building up their economies with large numbers of new coal-powered plants over the coming decades, Helm makes a compelling argument that the only way to contain this carbon leak is to have an effective tax on consumption that mirrors the true cost of carbon intensive products.

In the second section of the book, Helm analyzes the reasons for the lack of any real action on climate change. The author makes an unapologetically harsh assessment of the largely ineffectual measures enacted by the world’s governments and politicians. Helm has a decidedly skeptical outlook on the effectiveness of global accords like the Paris Climate Agreement, for which time will have to be the final judge. But the author also spreads the blame for inaction around to other parties. He is skeptical that current renewable technologies have the ability to be truly viable alternatives for our global energy budget, and argues that lobbyists for the renewable sector today actually do more harm than good. He is particularly critical of current wind and nuclear technology but seems more optimistic about solar energy. A third criticism he makes in regards to inaction amounts to a figurative moving of the goalpost. Many tout energy efficiency as part of the solution to reducing our carbon footprint. However, Helm points to historical data that shows while efficiency is always a good thing, it leads simultaneously to increased consumption. One could argue with the author that those two are not necessarily causally linked. But it is hard to argue that, while many devices have indeed become more energy efficient, at the same time we have also greatly increased the number of power-hungry devices in our households.

While the first sections of the book largely paint a very bleak picture, the book ends on a more positive note as the author constructively explores his vision of what an effective approach to tackling climate change would look like. Having a background in economics, the author is very keen on free market solutions, yet also notes that the market we have today is not free and informed when it comes to the true cost of carbon. Helm advocates for appropriate carbon pricing through the implementation of a carbon tax. But by targeting carbon consumption, not production, and having a border adjustment tax on imported carbon-intensive products, one can attempt to deal with the aforementioned “carbon leak” problem. The revenues from these taxes can then be funneled into research that comprises the next part of the author’s approach to climate change: future renewable technologies. As mentioned, Helm is skeptical of current renewable technologies, but more optimistic about potentially transformative future technologies and advocates for their continued research and development using the proceeds from carbon taxes. He offers no clear details on any particular future technology, which seems in line with his opinion against picking favorites. Finally, to bridge the divide while awaiting those future technologies, Helm encourages the idea of shale gas as a transition energy source. Being cheap, abundant, and lower in carbon emissions when compared with other fossil fuels, the author argues that natural gas will provide the necessary stability in our energy production while simultaneously allowing developing nations to achieve their own economic goals in a reasonable and environmentally conscious manner.

Overall, Helm offers unique insights into the discussion on climate change. While some readers from the scientific community might not like the harsh economic realities behind his criticisms, and while it's perfectly reasonable to question some of his criticisms, they are all most certainly worth reading. While climate change is an imminent threat, we cannot rely on continued alarmist calls for action if those calls are ultimately ineffective. One could argue over a market-driven approach being more effective, but if it shifts the needle in the right direction, it should definitely be worth consideration.

Brian Geislinger, PhD
Gadsden State Community College

These contributions have not been peer-refereed. They represent solely the view(s) of the author(s) and not necessarily the view of APS.