Climate change is one of the greatest challenges facing humanity today. As societies across the globe grapple with the consequences of warming temperatures, rising sea levels, and their impact on human populations, governments and policy-makers try to square the circle, balancing and counter-balancing calls to protect living standards with efforts to transform our energy supplies. Few political or policy problems feel at once so urgent and so existential as the need to protect the future of our planet, its natural resources, and its diverse civilisations.
But is there cause for hope as well as concern? Has the coronavirus pandemic provided us with an opportunity to renew our efforts to reduce carbon emissions and regenerate our natural environment? And how will the climate challenge play into global power politics in the coming decades?
In the latest episode of The New World, recorded in September, I hosted Dieter Helm, Professor of Economic Policy at the University of Oxford and a world-renowned expert on energy policy and the economics of climate change. He is the author of the 2017 Helm Review, an independent report on the United Kingdom’s energy supply chains and climate change targets, which was commissioned by the British government.
He has since written a book on carbon emissions targets – the aptly-named Net Zero: How We Stop Causing Climate Change, which was published by William Collins this September. The book sets out to provide practical policies that could help societies affect a transition to a low carbon future.
There are some bitter pills to swallow. Helm pulls no punches in his scathing assessment of how Western governments have sought to tackle the causes of climate change so far. He argues that they have “wasted” the last thirty years with dishonest targets and counterintuitive schemes. The greenwashing of our political debate has not actually translated into the types of changes we need to carry out in order to preserve and improve our natural environment.
Two fatal flaws in the current global approach are emphasised in Helm’s book – the focus on reaching Net Zero carbon emissions while maintaining high levels of carbon consumption, mostly through off-shoring carbon-intensive activities, and the faith in a symbolic but ineffectual top-down approach to solving the climate conundrum, as exemplified by grand United Nations summits in Paris and Tokyo. The result, he argues, has been the creation of an illusion that something is being done while individuals and governments are consistently failing to take decisive measures.
One of the startling revelations in Helm’s book, for instance, is the sheer – perhaps even scandalous – failure of European countries, including the UK. He describes how the EU’s Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) has been “captured by lobbying”, fuelled “opportunities for corruption” and anti-competitive practices, and “made no contribution at all to decarbonising.”
Instead, Helm argues, “The EU ETS played a significant role in maintaining coal-burn and, at least in Germany’s case, it flourished.” This could be a story to watch over the next decade if these policies begin to unravel.
This is just one of many surprises: “Of all the carbon myths, the presentation of Germany as the great green champion, the greenest in Europe and indeed the world, is a triumph of spin over substance.” In reality, Helm explains, the German Energiewende is “an object lesson to the rest of the world of just how not to do it.”
The United States, on the other hand, has a better record than has commonly been assumed: “The simple mantra that the Europeans are the good guys and the US the bad guys is not quite as black-and-white as it seems.”
“The US has a thriving, energy-intensive manufacturing base. As cheap shale gas has come on stream, it is not only switching from coal to gas, but it is also reshoring lots of energy-intensive businesses from China and elsewhere, and attracting European investments too. It is swapping energy-intensive imports, based largely on coal, for domestic production based on gas. It is sobering to reflect that the US could even have a better record than Europe on carbon consumption, and without any of the European policies and their costs.”
To remedy the problems we face, we need to rapidly shift to a new bottom-up approach to climate change, Helm suggests – one in which individuals and national governments take the lead in driving forward key changes to consumption habits and lifestyles. A carbon tax to make consumers pay for the price of polluting and a healthy dose of honesty about the impact that effective measures will have on lifestyles both form crucial pillars of Helm’s overall solution.
Yet, and it is crucial to emphasise this, Helm remains sceptical of the fashion for “Green New Deals” and is a fierce critic of the anti-democratic, doomsday culture of activist groups such as Extinction Rebellion. Neither a dogmatic statist nor a free market fundamentalist, he has spent a lot of time trying to find practical, workable solutions to the challenges posed by climate change. In a debate that is so often filled with frenzied apocalyptic predictions and moral panic, the softly-spoken Helm is one of the few voices calmly articulating a blueprint for a more sustainable society. It is well worth listening to his carefully-considered conclusions: