Review: Helm Points the Finger at Us in Climate Action Plan

22 January 2021

Dieter Helm
Net Zero – How We Stop Causing Climate Change

For thirty years we have been trying and failing to reduce carbon emissions. The ability of the planet to absorb carbon continues to be degraded. We look to governments and international conferences, such as in Glasgow later this year, to set targets but we continue on track for more than two, if not three, degrees of warming this century. Why? The inconvenient truth is that our carbon intensive lifestyles cause the problem. It is all about consumption not just emissions.

More fossil fuels have been burnt in the last thirty years that in the entire nineteenth century. Our economies have grown, and we have consumed more and more as our standard of living has risen. Frustrated that the Kyoto and Paris agreements have made little difference, Dieter Helm, an Oxford economists and UK Government advisor, sets out a plan to make a difference in the next thirty years.

His starting point is taking the UK’s Committee on Climate Change (CCC) to task. They claim that by reducing emissions produced in the UK, we ‘end our contribution to rising global temperatures’. This is not true unless all those countries we trade with do the same. We import carbon-intensive goods, which we once might have made in the UK. De-industrialisation resulting in a reduced manufacturing base, makes it possible for the UK to meet reduction target for emissions in the UK. We may be creating more emissions as goods now have to be made in countries with coal intensive power generation and shipped around the globe. It is net zero carbon consumption that matters.

Although a global problem, Helm advocates unilateral action by the UK. Going it alone will be a ‘no regrets’ way forward – we should do them anyway as they will be good for us, and others may follow our lead. The action involved applying three principles: the polluter pays, the provision of public goods by the state such as a sustainable infrastructure, for example, carbon free electricity, and the environmental damage requires compensation.

It is you and I who are the polluters. Uncomfortable as it may be, we will have to pay carbon tax. Such a tax should be imposed on imports unless the country of origin also applies carbon tax at the same rate. Such additional costs might slow our unsustainable consumption path and enable us to tread more lightly on the planet. We will still tread so carbon capture by nature and through technology will have to be enhanced. Reduced consumption might allow us to invest in the changes needed.

Investment in a sustainable infrastructure and Research & Development (R&D) has to be led by the State, according to Helm. Planning and co-ordination is required to ensure that there is comprehensive fibre and communication networks, that electric car batteries can be exchanged and charged, the transition from coal and gas fired generators is managed in the timescale, that transport and agriculture are transformed. Agriculture accounts for around a quarter of emission and land use determines much of the natural sequestration of carbon. Helm is very critical of current farming practice in the UK but does not appear to take account of local food production reducing carbon by avoiding transporting goods to us from abroad.

If we kept a carbon diary that took account of the carbon required to produce all that we do and consume – then we can see the scale of the challenge and understand why so little has changed. Helm’s plan calls for a carbon price that will stimulate the market, for the State to determine land use, build infrastructure and fund R&D and for you and me to make low carbon choices. Many will say that their actions make little if any difference – but lots of small differences will create big changes.

A thoughtful, challenging book in many ways – it points the finger at each of us; we will be less well off if we take climate change seriously. Don’t put your faith in the Glasgow UN-COP this year – rather encourage our Government to take action that will allow you and me to reduce our carbon consumption choices.

Review by Canon Mike D Williams

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