Sir Dieter Helm, professor of Economic Policy at the University of Oxford and Fellow in Economics, outlines a plan to solve climate change in the final chapter of his book, ‘Net Zero. How we stop causing climate change’. It will rapidly bring emissions down if implemented.
Carbon consumption pricing is at the core of professor Helm’s plan. It works by making consumers pay more for carbon intensive products and this alters their buying habits and rapidly brings emissions down.
The alternative, carbon production pricing, puts a price on emissions from producing goods. However, the production of goods that would have been made in the UK is exported to developing countries instead. Additionally, China and India have less effective environmental regulation and polluting coal powered manufacturing. This way the UK government can claim that UK emissions are down but globally they rise.
The government should create policies that motivate consumers to buy low carbon products and services. A price on carbon (such as a tax) that covers imports and domestic production would enable this. Once the carbon price is in place, we will see the cost of our C02 pollution every day in the things we buy. The goods made with more C02 pollution will cost more.
In the present economic paradigm, the economy is considered to be doing well if it grows quickly as measured by the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). When the economy grows, emissions increase. Environmental issues or damage are ignored because GDP does not measure environmental impact or consider rising emissions to be detrimental to economic growth. Professor Helm wrote that we need “Sustainable economic growth, not a GDP fetish”. Reliance on the GDP to measure economic success will have to go and other sustainable measures introduced.
A technological revolution is required. To crack global-warming, new technologies in electricity as well as agriculture and transport are essential. Governments need to increase funding of research and development into areas which look promising: how to generate lots of low-carbon electricity, store it effectively and improve the demand for it.
New ways of generating low carbon electricity are needed. New smart and artificial intelligence technologies will be necessary to optimise the demand side and integrate it with supply and storage. Additionally, better storage options and breakthroughs in battery technologies are required.
All aspects of daily life must be electrified. Transport, manufacturing, agriculture and households will need to become digitalised. This will depend on electricity. Electricity needs to be decarbonised so that one form of polluting energy is not substituted for another. This is probably the easiest part of the plan to achieve.
Once the market is driven by the price of carbon and the infrastructures and research and development are in place, a detailed plan of radical change can be created.
Infrastructures such as roads, rail, power supplies and buildings are needed for the operation of businesses and society. Low-carbon infrastructure generate fewer carbon emissions and include projects which use renewable energy such as hydropower, solar and wind energy which produce lower carbon emissions than fossil fuel. The government must plan and deliver low carbon infrastructures for communications, transport and energy.
Distribution and transportation is possible because motor vehicles and aircraft consume oil. This reliance on oil consumption will need to change. Transport needs to electrify using electric vehicles or hydrogen made from electricity.
According to The International Monetary Fund (IMF) the world economy is growing at around three to four per cent per annum. This means that the burning of coal is set to increase unless we do something to stop it. Most damage to the climate has been caused by coal generated electricity. To limit global warming to two per cent the burning of coal must end.
Professor Helm provides a detailed description of how this can be achieved. In brief, he advocates driving “the fast-track closure of coal” by increasing regulation, emissions standards and the carbon price. Dependence on gas will also have to end but not yet because we will need it over the transition from coal.
Once built gas power stations are hard to remove from the energy mix. To get out of gas two steps are necessary. First, the price on carbon consumption will make coal expensive causing, consumers to seek alternatives. When coal use has declined a further carbon price increase would do the same for gas.
Second, regulation would require new power stations to remove and store C02 using Carbon Capture Storage (CCS) which would also make coal and gas more expensive.
A key component of professor Helm’s plan is to enforce compensation for environmental damage to protect ecosystems and their role as carbon sinks.
Atmospheric carbon dioxide is captured and stored by plants, trees and the soil in a process called carbon sequestration. Seventy per cent of UK land is used for subsidised agriculture. However, agricultural land sequesters carbon inefficiently. UK food production is uncompetitive without tariffs. Crops are grown via intensive chemicalisation of land that removes the soil carbon. It is viable only because of subsidies. The government must ensure that this changes.
Professor Helm writes that people might ask, “Why bother?” When other countries might continue with the GDP economic model. China, India and others might continue to burn more coal. Brazil might continue deforestation of the Amazon rainforest. There is a range of possibilities. If the UK government do the right thing and take the correct action other countries may not follow their lead. Carbon could go beyond 500 PPM. In the last 30 years almost nothing has been achieved why should the future be any different?
Professor Helm answers the question. We need to think carefully. He has provided a “no regrets” plan. We will end up having to do the things that he describes anyway. It is the right thing to do. Our consciences will be clear. It benefits us because the current system is inefficient and makes climate change worse.
If we follow the plan, by 2050 we should see additional benefits. Clean air, lakes and rivers. We will see the removal of most household air pollution, and less tree damage by sulphur. There will be lower water bills due to cleaner water. We would not be wasting our money on climate policies which make things worse and subsidising bad agriculture. The countryside would be transformed. Everybody would have improved mental health.
The transition to net zero will be expensive and it will hit our standard of living but we are lucky that a solution is possible. The government must be honest about the cost. At the moment they are telling the public that the transition will not cost them anything and failing to take action. It will cost but is better than the alternative.
Professor Helm advises against wasting another 30 years trying to make Paris and its successors work out.” They are almost certain to fail.
Professor Helm writes, “We have a stark choice…We could continue cheating the next and subsequent generations, by failing to clean up our mess and we can carry on writing an ever-bigger mortgage on the future. Or, we could face up to the sheer inefficiency of our economy, and get cracking on transforming infrastructures, and introduce a comprehensive carbon price.”
When the UK government changes its policies and reduces our emissions to zero, we will end our contribution to rising global temperatures. Hopefully, other governments will follow our example and we may be able to think optimistically about our Earth’s future.