Climate Change Politics

I have been seeing a lot of wind farms in Europe recently and have wondered
what difference are they really making to the overall problem. Here is part
of the answer:

Interview: Dieter Helm; author of "The Economics and Politics of Climate
Change."

Q: There have been a slew of climate policy books out lately - what's new
about this one?
A: We're trying to stand back and take a colder and harder look at the
challenge. The question is not so much what we should do as why we've
achieved so little so far. Why is it - after all the efforts that have gone
into Kyoto, all the goodwill, all the 'political conversion' that has taken
place - that so little progress has been made on slowing worldwide emissions
growth?
Q: Where, in your view, has policy gone wrong?
A: Let's remember what lies behind Copenhagen. The Kyoto Protocol measures
countries' production of carbon, not consumption. It's no accident the
Europeans like Kyoto. It's a set of measures which, as they de-industrialize
and production moves to countries like China, makes them look good. But the
carbon consumption record of Europe, once you take those imports back, is
pretty awful. That's why Kyoto looks like a success, and yet it hasn't
caused even a blip in the emissions path.
Q: Do we also need to re-think climate economics?
A: What we have learnt is that politicians tend to choose the most
expensive options first. Faced with climate change, what's our solution? In
Europe, it's to devote most of our energies to a rapid build-out of wind
power. This is the sort of thing that makes nuclear power look cheap.
Climate change is about the massive increase of coal burning
internationally, especially the growth of China and India fuelled by
coal-based energy - and America too, where the Obama plans are also small
relative to the problem.
Q: What exactly will windmills across Europe do to address that
overwhelmingly dominant effect? A: Of course they'll play some role, but it'll
probably take a couple of weeks for China to add sufficient new coal power
stations to cancel out any renewables effort in Britain. It's time to grow
up. It's time to realize that coal is where the core of the problem lies,
and to think cleverly about solutions towards that.
Q: What should governments be spending their windmill money on instead?
A: The problem we have in Europe is that people are obsessed by 2020, and
that's a time period in which actually we can't do much on the technological
front. By putting all our emphasis onto the technologies we can get in place
by 2020, we're missing longer-term opportunities like nuclear power, and
carbon capture and storage.
Q: What about the need to peak emissions sooner rather than later?
A: Obviously we want to peak emissions as quickly as possible, but there
are only a limited number of technologies that could make a difference in
time. Of those, wind will have only a marginal effect. Climate change is a
long-term problem, and unfortunately there are no short-term fixes. Mucking
around at the margin, building a few wind farms in the Outer Hebrides, won't
solve anything. If Rome is burning, what's relevant about putting out a
chimney fire in Edinburgh? That's what I mean about being cold and
realistic. Climate change is not going to be solved in Europe alone.
Q: You've written that now is the time to invest in decarbonizing the
economy. Given the recession, how is that possible?
A: The American government and the British government are spending
something like 12 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) to prop up
consumer spending. My view is the level of consumption is far too high in
the US and the UK, both for the macroeconomic cycle and for the environment.
We're living beyond our means. I would have taken the money that's been used
to prop up demand and put it into investment - and climate change can fit
within the investment component.
Q: What are the chances of success in Copenhagen?
A: What's the question to which Copenhagen is supposed to be an answer? If
the question is how do you have a political jamboree in which lots of world
leaders can congratulate themselves, it will probably be an unmitigated
success. If you think Copenhagen is about addressing climate change, then
you come to a very different conclusion.
I think the Chinese opening gambit is about right: 40-per-cent emissions
reduction in Europe from a 1990 baseline, 40-per-cent reduction in the US,
and a one-per-cent GDP transfer to developing countries, just to start with.
If you really did want to peak carbon emissions quickly, this is the scale
of effort one would be talking about. Marginal tightening of the
production-based Kyoto numbers won't make much difference.
Published online: 3 September 2009
doi:10.1038/climate.2009.86
Anna Barnett is assistant editor and copy editor of Nature Reports Climate
Change. The Economics and Politics of Climate Change, edited by Dieter Helm
and Cameron Hepburn, is due for release by Oxford University Press in
October 2009.
Oxford economist Dieter Helm co-edits a new book, The Economics and Politics
of Climate Change, due out next month. Anna Barnett caught up with him in
London to get his take on a long-term strategy for reducing emissions.
DIETER HELM
Economist Dieter Helm
Mucking around at the margin, building a few wind farms in the Outer
Hebrides, won't solve anything. If Rome is burning, what's relevant about
putting out a chimney fire in Edinburgh?
nature reports climate change | VOL 3 | SEPTEMBER 2009 |
www.nature.com/reports/climatechange 108
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