Net Zero: How We Stop Causing Climate Change Audible Audiobook – Unabridged
A Nature Book of the Week.
What can we really do about the climate emergency?
The inconvenient truth is that we are causing the climate crisis with our carbon-intensive lifestyles and that fixing - or even just slowing - it will affect all of us. But it can be done.
In Net Zero the economist Professor Dieter Helm addresses the action we would all need to take, whether personal, local, national or global, if we really wanted to stop causing climate change.
Net Zero is Professor Dieter Helm’s measured, balanced view of how we stop causing climate change by adopting a net-zero strategy of reducing carbon emissions and increasing carbon absorption. It is a rational look at why the past 30 years' efforts have failed and why and how the next 30 years can succeed. It is a vital book for anyone who hears the clamour of Extinction Rebellion and other ecological activists but wonders what they can actually do.
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|Listening Length||8 hours and 50 minutes|
|Whispersync for Voice||Ready|
|Audible.com Release Date||September 03, 2020|
|Best Sellers Rank|| #146,211 in Audible Books & Originals (See Top 100 in Audible Books & Originals) |
#39 in Environmental Engineering (Audible Books & Originals)
#135 in Climate Change
#234 in Environmental Conservation
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On the other hand, if you embrace the Green New Deal as a development which will solve our climate ills at little cost but with great benefits, this book will be a rude awakening. The infosphere contains plenty of material extolling the virtues of the green economy: how it will generate jobs and sustainable growth, create healthier lifestyles, offer a higher quality of living and cost only a small fraction -- perhaps only one percent -- of GDP. You might prefer to stay in that bubble.
But if this storyline gives you that too-good-to-be-true queasy feeling, you will have some basic questions, e.g.: If the green economy costs basically nothing and solves our climate ills, why has it not evolved automatically in the current economy? If you are one not to look away from the unpleasant, Dieter Helm will explain to you, in succinct layperson’s terms, what should be common sense: the reality is much more sobering and, frankly, at times unpleasant to read:
Politicians will have to stop promising a painless transition to a sustainable future,
and economists will have to stop telling us that decarbonisation is going to be just
a huge economic opportunity, all gain and no pain.
Helm readily admits that he is angry and frustrated with the mitigation efforts so far. Part One, aptly titled "30 Wasted Years", can be summarized as follows: if our goal was to mitigate climate change, we have done pretty much everything wrong in that time. While pessimistic, the preponderance of evidence is on his side. In spite of all those diligent efforts of reducing our carbon production over the past thirty years, global carbon emissions have increased every year, in fact at an accelerating rate. Since 1990 the burning of oil and gas increased dramatically; coal has as well, thanks largely to China. In short:
[The last 30 years] could not have been much better from the perspective
of the fossil fuel industries; from the climate perspective it could not have
been much worse.
What about international efforts like the Kyoto Protocol? Helm again points out the obvious: that reducing our national carbon production means nothing if we simply outsource it to nations like China which produce our goods with an even higher carbon footprint than we would. The key to mitigating the climate crisis is to focus on our carbon *consumption* from all the goods we consume, whether domestic or imported.
The Paris Agreement of 2015 is another top-down arrangement which is destined to fail. As a concession to the countries most hit by climate change, countries agreed on an aspiration of limiting global warming to 1.5C. But Helm assures us rather convincingly that Paris, like Kyoto, is not going to deliver:
Kyoto and now Paris have not made any real difference, and indeed to the extent that
political leaders who signed their countries up to Paris tell their voters and citizens that
they are therefore taking action, their pledges can become fig leaves for business as usual.
For those of us who felt that massive European investments in renewables have led, at the very least, to a dramatic price drop which can now help enablethe transition to Net Zero, Helm shows no mercy:
As fast as renewables costs are falling, so too are fossil fuel costs (and prices),and although
there is great and welcome progress in getting the costs of renewables down, they will
require subsidies for some time to come.
Helm has damning words not only for China and the US, but also for the EU which was, in the end, the only active implementer of the Kyoto Protocol:
[The Europeans] tried to set an example by starting to decarbonise thedomestic production.
By ignoring carbon consumption, the efforts have been largely in vain. If this poor outcome
had been achieved at low cost, if it had created create new global Europeanrenewables giants,
and if it had avoided causing collateral economic damage, this might not matter too much.
Europe failed on all three counts.
Particular ire is reserved for the Germans, who used their modest decarbonization gains to justify the expansion of electricity production from brown coal. This might assist with the decommissioning of nuclear power plants but achieves next to nothing in terms of overall carbon emissions and other pollutants.
Finished with his annihilation of the mitigation efforts up until today, Helm moves on to Part Two "The Net Zero Economy", which maps out what a serious and potentially viable climate response would look like. It is based on three principles:
1) The polluter pays;
2) Secure public funding for public goods;
3) Net gain: environmental loss must be more than compensated for.
These principles are all simply common sense. It boggles the mind that so few politicians, industrialists or environmentalists are willing to utter the first of these: whether they are called carbon taxes or greenhouse gas emission disposal fees, we all have to pay for the damage we cause through our consumption. Only then will less damaging, and therefore cheaper, lifestyles prevail. Next, public funding is clearly needed for crucial infrastructures (such as the national power grid, glass fiber for communication, and a car charging network) which build the playing field for legitimate and non-destructive competitive business interests. The last pillar is no less obvious if one really hopes to get the planet on the path to recovery; mitigation efforts must lead to a net positive gain in order to slowly repair the planet.
In the context of the new economy, Helm comes up with an interesting description of the current one: it is staggeringly *inefficient*. This would come as a surprise to the aspiring industrialist who considers current processes as being mercilessly optimized to squeeze out the last penny of profit. In fact, these processes have been optimized with incorrect boundary conditions: the profit advantage comes at the destruction of natural capital which is ignored in the cost-benefit analysis. If the real costs of these externalities were properly assessed, the degree of inefficiency of the current economy would be witheringly apparent.
Helm only peripherally addresses the democratic viability of the new economy -- nay, in fact, the new society -- he is proposing. Several internet reviews have latched onto this; one even rather hilariously compares the government intervention implied in Principle 2 to the Pol Pot regime [link deleted as per Amazon guidelines, but easy to find]. But this is only a perceived deficiency: it is a book from a clinical economist, not a politician, sociologist or anthropologist. Much as climate scientists tell us the cold facts about what our continued polluting lifestyle will bring, Helm lays out the economic realities which are needed to address them. He frequently explains that "we will fry" if we don't change our society but concedes that this awareness still might not be a sufficient motivator. Realistically, people only change if their perceived prosperity arguably improves with change. Therefore Helm tries poetically to emphasize the 'no regrets' changes:
Imagine what you could do with full fibre in your home. Imagine all the
businesses that could move out of crowded cities so that their employees
need not commute on crowded trains. Imagine the air quality
improvements that might follow from all these transport changes.
In the following six chapters, Helm goes into extensive detail about carbon fees, infrastructures, sequestration, agriculture, transport and electricity generation. Many of these solutions are based on blog postings and existing writings. None are original, and many are highly contentious, for example his view of agriculture:
In the case of British agriculture, the opportunities are great because
the baseline is so bad: chronically inefficient; overwhelmingly dependent
on subsidies; and with high levels of pollution for which it pays little or
All of that is true, but with BBC broadcasting "Farming Today" every morning, he has grabbed a national institution by the horns.
In the chapter "The Price on Carbon", Helm systematically builds his case for taxation based on total carbon consumption rather than, say, tradable permits for domestic carbon production like the EU Emissions Trading System (ETS). A tax on consumption necessarily implies a border correction on imports, assessed on their carbon footprint, which is often much higher than domestic production:
If we do not make the polluters -- us -- pay for the emissions that are caused by
our consumption of carbon-intensive imports, we merely delude ourselves.
Not including a border correction necessarily encourages us to 'outsource' our carbon footprint and gives foreign industries which do not price in the damage to natural capital an unfair price advantage. Even more importantly, a border correction would encourage the foreign countries to introduce their own carbon taxation to motivate their industries to become more carbon efficient in order to reduce the correction on imports into the consumer’s country. In this way, our unilateral action can lead to multi-national policy change, even without explicit international agreements.
Why would voters possibly choose to increase cost on all their carbon-intensive amenities, from SUVs and consumer electronics to vacations in the Maldives, from heating oil to non-renewable electricity? Here Helm cautiously suggests that voters need to be told the truth, rather than being fed fantasies about the low-cost of transition to net zero. But:
Once the truth is out, that decarbonisation is costly and will force us to
live within and not beyond our environmental means, voters get higher bills.
This will lead to street protest, e.g. what happened in France with the Gilets Jaunes protests. The trick is, like British Columbia's Carbon Tax [Link deleted for Amazon review], to start low with a credible signal that the price will go up as high as needed. Sadly, Helm does not write about potentially politically palatable strategies (e.g., the Climate Leadership Council) which would, at least initially, redistribute carbon tax income back to the population on a per capita basis in an attempt to address the criticism that carbon taxation is regressive. While the sales pitch for the CLC's "climate solution" is clearly too good to be true, it could later transition to recipients who provably sequester carbon, either naturally or artificially.
Throughout the book the contentious statements just keep on coming: e.g., the (unproven) suggestion to operate empty gas and oil fields 'in reverse' to sequester carbon, or to use natural gas as a bridge fuel for electricity generation. The latter was one of the three pillars in the Carbon Crunch (2012) which Helm proposed to exit from coal more quickly. This idea riles scientists and authors who emphasize the 25x larger heating effect of methane than carbon dioxide. But the point is mute: for better or worse, the world economy, particularly the USA, is going down the natural gas path anyway.
In the chapter "The Electricity Future" Helm summarizes the concept of equivalent firm power (EFP), detailed in the Helm Review (2017), as a way to quantify the intermittency of the electricity provider, with solar or wind not being the same quality as baseload providers, such as nuclear. There would be EFP auctions to motivate providers to cluster intermittent producers and flexible consumers in order to improve the 'firmness' of their power offering. While again not original or universally agreed upon [Link deleted; reviews can be found on the internet], the depth and detail of these suggestions clearly shows that Helm has put extensive thought into the subject matter. Moreover, it becomes clear that there are technical mechanisms which can actually be effective in mitigating climate change, even if they may cause considerable discomfort as we are forced to live within our planetary boundaries.
In his writings over the last decades, Helm has emerged as one of the key economists with real ideas about addressing the climate crisis. He has managed to criticize all of us in some way -- consumers, capitalists, environmentalists, politicians, scientists, and indeed economists -- so no one constituency will be able to call him one of its own. For example, he has vigorously criticized the 'one-percenters' such as Nicolas Stern (Stern Review (2006), Why Are We Waiting? (2015)) for their adherence to rosy projections about the cost of mitigation. But he arguably shares their larger objective more than that of the forces which lock us into the fossil fuel economy. Helm refuses to pander to neo-liberal doctrine: "The idea that, left to the markets, climate change could be cracked is nonsense." But be also does not burnish any socialist credentials, insisting that the solution is about balance: "Use the State where it has ... the advantage; and use the market where it has been adjusted to deal with market failures."
Net Zero incorporate concepts from Carbon Crunch (2012), Natural Capital (2015), the Helm Review (2017), Green and Prosperous Land (2019) and many short works which can be found on his home page [Link deleted]. In all of these works, there are statements with which to take issue. My personal peeve is his aligning himself with the sustainable growth crowd and referring to the limits of growth crowd [Malthus, Jackson, the Club of Rome, etc.] as 'too pessimistic':
There is one resource which we continually invent and do not run out
of. It is ideas, and these lead to new technologies which are passed
down the generations... There needs to be a rebasing, to a sustainable
consumption level, and then growth can continue as ideas, science and
technology increase human possibilities.
It is clear hat our society is exceedingly inefficient; Its carbon efficiency can and should improve, perhaps even by orders of magnitude. But by definition growth is not limitless: it will always ultimately push against the boundaries of finiteness. It is not a question of if, but when. But in the shorter term, we can hope that applying Helm's principles might stave off the carbon boundaries which are now making themselves so evident, giving us breathing room to address the next limits.
The first part of the 240-page book, "30 Wasted Years," blasts the U.N. climate process for accomplishing nothing. Helm logically concludes that nothing can be expected, and he calls instead for unilateral action by countries. The U.K. passed the Climate Change Act 2008, which calls for Net Zero CO2 emissions by 2050, and that is the framework within which the British Helm develops his plan. The three pillars are a carbon price, the provision of public goods, and sequestration.
According to the principle "The Polluter Pays," Helm calls for an across-the-board price on carbon. Where he departs from many is calling for it to be applied 1) to all consumer goods, and 2) to all imports -- a border price. He argues persuasively that the EU actuallly caused an *increase* in CO2 emissions when it closed industry which then moved to China. The price would need to be set by the state, and then gradually raised. Helm does not make clear what sort of state body would set this price and withstand changes in government.
PROVISION OF PUBLIC GOODS
Helm makes clear that markets are not enough (130-131), and calls on the state to provide the infrastructure for the radical energy transition, including the electricity system, the communication system, and the road system.
Helm calls for mainly natural sequestration through tree planting. He includes but downplays the role of carbon capture and storage. He does not see zero CO2 emissions as possible -- hence net zero, with some residual emissions and an increase in carbon absorption to offset them.
Helm devotes separate chapters to agriculture, transportation, and electricity. His ideas are compelling, and certainly not designed to please corporations. For instance, he calls for a battery swapping infrastructure for electric vehicles. Instead of everyone buying their own battery, drivers would pull into a service station and have a fresh battery installed, eliminating the need to take any time for recharging.
HOW TO MAKE IT HAPPEN?
This is one of the best plans I've seen for how to rapidly achieve a (net) zero carbon society. The problem of course is implementing it. Helm is dedicated to the democratic process, but it is difficult to imagine the voting public supporting the increase in prices and resulting decreased level of consumption voluntarily.
The situation is even worse, of course, in the U.S. where there is no Climate Change Act but only a goal of the Biden Administration which cannot be achieved with the current Congress and will certainly be overturned by the next Republican administration.
The longer emissions continue the greater the chances that democratic governments will break down. Decisive non-capitalist state action might then result, either in left or right form. Before it comes to that, Helm's book should be widely read and discussed so that his plan has at least a slim chance of being realized.
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However he doesn’t touch upon how he would democratise the process and where ambitions collide with the politics
Of climate change.