Book Review: The Carbon Crunch

The Carbon Crunch: How We’re Getting Climate Change Wrong—and How to Fix It, by Dieter Helm, Yale University Press 

“If the future of our climate rests on the ethical outlook of Vladimir Putin and the emerging Chinese leadership of Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang, then there can be little grounds for optimism.” 

Dieter Helm has met the enemy, and he is coal. The rap-sheet against coal is long, of course, and starts with mass murder: the thousands of coal miners who die in China every year, gruesomely, in explosions or of asphyxiation, the thousands more in other countries who die similarly, the tens of thousands of miners whose lives are ended prematurely by coal dust. Then there are the hundreds upon hundreds of thousands of miners who have died in coal’s bloody two-century rampage, a quarter of a million in the UK alone, to say nothing of the millions of civilians even now in Beijing and Ulan Bator whose lungs wheeze and breath rasps from sooty, sulfuric smog. But unchecked coal, abetted by its lesser accomplices oil and gas, has yet more murderous plans in store: ruinous climate change.

Coal these days is mostly about China, whose share of current world coal-burn is close to half, which is adding electricity capacity equivalent to the entire UK grid every year, most of it still coal, and which plans to add coal capacity equivalent to Europe’s total coal capacity this decade. Then there’s India: between the two of them, Helm claims, they are adding three coal plants a week. The World Resources Institute’s Global Coal Risk Assessment report lists c1,200 coal-fired power stations planned globally, three-quarters in China and India, with total capacity of c1,400GW, about seventy times Europe’s solar capacity.

Then beyond coal and China, there’s a wall of new energy demand that will be stimulated by economic growth and population growth: as Africa’s population doubles over the coming couple of decades, it is far from immediately obvious that the main energy sources of the newborn will be carbon-neutral windmills and solar panels. Try severing oil subsidies in Nigeria and you’ll be in for a nasty surprise from the Lagos street.

(All of this renders Fukushima the silly little storm in a nuclear teacup that it was.)

You might then expect the enlightened leaders of our Western and Eastern democracies to be eagerly discussing—and acting on—the real threats of coal, China (and coal in China), and economic and population growth, but instead we are led a dance of denuclearization in Japan and Germany and fobbed off with tumultuously expensive turbines in the Thames estuary and photovoltaic panels in unsunny Potsdam, which will have negligible anti-carbon impact. Helm caustically asks, “What is the question to which offshore wind and rooftop solar is supposed to be the answer? It can’t be global climate change.”

As Helm surveys the two decades of utter failure since Rio in 1992 to seal a binding international agreement on emissions and the dismal but absolutely certain prospect that nothing will be done this decade, the reader is treated time and again to the swooshing of the author’s word-sword scything into the comfy shibboleths of all concerned. Wind? Crippled by its miserable load factor, the need for “Goldilocks wind”—not too strong, not too weak, and not too gusty—the requirement for an entire parallel generation system for those nasty no-wind days, and the zero-marginal cost problem, which forces all other competing power suppliers off the grid, to name but a few. Biomass and biofuels? Leaky carbon loop. Corn ethanol for E85? Needs more acres of corn than there is farmland in the US. Nuclear? Shale gas has “pulled the economic rug from under nuclear’s feet,” with even the risk, waste, and proliferation issues overshadowed by the wonky economics of new nuclear, whose capital intensivity renders it hypersensitive to the cost of capital and needy for long-term contracts, bringing immense political risk. Energy efficiency? So sorry, just leads to increased demand via the substitution effect—a drop in the price always results in an increase in demand (the Jevons Paradox)—and the income effect, whereby income saved on energy bills is spent on stuff, and the production of such stuff naturally involves energy consumption.

Some fondly hope that the world will run out of fossil fuels before they cook us all. Not a chance, says Helm. Peak oil? Perhaps, but new finds, unconventional, offshore, the Arctic, and technology that wrings more out of existing wells will keep the tail fat. Doesn’t matter much, anyway, because of the shale gas revolution, unconventional gas in the shape of coal-bed methane and tight gas, and our old friend, super-abundant coal, supplies of which are ample enough to get us to the next century, with “the embedded carbon in that coal … sufficient to bring about catastrophic climate change.”

Why have two decades of international talk-fests on climate change yielded next to nothing? Because carbon targets are “a classic case of free-rider incentives” and climate change negotiations are a textbook real-world instance of the prisoner’s dilemma from game theory, in which betrayal is always more advantageous than cooperation—except that with climate change negotiations, the true prisoners (unborn future victims of climate change) aren’t even in the room and the ultimate penalty (the rise in temperature) is unknown, rendering betrayal even more likely than cooperation. “The realistic conclusion,” Helm sighs, “is that there is going to be no legally binding, international, and enforceable, deal for at least a decade, and possibly never.”

So what, as Lenin asked, is to be done? Helm offers a three-tined proposal: impose carbon taxes, in particular carbon border taxes, to properly price the negative externality of carbon and stop “carbon offshoring”, something at which the EU has excelled; dash for gas as a transitional solution, the least-regret way of swiftly cutting carbon; and the Hail Mary of investment in R&D into next-generation no-carbon technologies. Of these, a dash-for-gas seems most achievable but no ultimate panacea; carbon border taxes, while not, Helm insists, protectionist, are unlikely to be perceived that way by noisome free-riding polluters; and hopes for next-gen tech sees Helm at his most rosy-tinted—“my email inbox is full of excited reports of the latest ‘breakthrough’”—and a tad too harsh on current renewables, as opposed to future, pie-in-the-sky ones.   

Despite the inability of shilly-shallying humanity to halt the march of its beloved carbon in its tracks and the exceptional “wickedness” of the climate change conundrum, Helm concludes with the declaration that he is an optimist (do publishers insert a Mandatory Optimistic Conclusion Clause into authors’ contracts these days?Ed). All—all!—that needs to happen is for politicians to stop lying to their electorates that we can waltz effortlessly and painlessly into a carbon-free future: “the cost of the decarbonization of entire economies is likely to be very high, and it is going to involve sacrifices,” as “decarbonizing requires the coordinated replacement of almost all of the capital stock—of the world.” The pain of investment in that from savings is bound to mean less present consumption. Consumers, in their turn, “must … be willing to vote for politicians who will force them to pay.” All that, though, to purloin and amplify one of the author’s favorite expressions, is going to be a very big ask.

40 responses to “Book Review: The Carbon Crunch

  1. A few cynical thoughts:
    – the only effective ways to reduce human population are each destructive in their own way: wealth or pestilence
    – it wouldn’t be the first time a civilization has fallen from ‘fouling its own nest’ (

    We are well and truly cooked. Given our nature we’ll pull through just as well as other vermin, but it’s going to be in a degraded environment at a subsistence level.

  2. Can Carbon Capture provide meaningful relief? Can something useful be done with the captured carbon waste product?

    Can Solar/Wind be used to produce Hydrogen in meaningful quantities?
    Imagine having your own hydrogen producing unit at home dripping it straight into your car’s fuel tank… Or will it remain a dream??

    • Q1. No. Q2. Not really. Q3. Not really. Q4. It will remain a dream.

      To expand, one estimate I’ve seen says it will take 40% of the energy generated by coal to geologically sequester the resulting CO2 — it needs to be captured out of the smokestack exhaust stream at a rate of several hundred kilogrammes per second, purified, compresses and liquified, pumped through hundreds of miles of pipelines and then injected under pressure into depleted oil domes. There are no large-scale end-to-end trials on this technology going on anywhere; there was about 1.5 billion bucks on the table for an experimental scheme here in the UK involving exhausted North Sea oilwells but no takers.

      There’s no real use for captured CO2 as any purpose we would have for it such as pressurising liquids like beer involves releasing it back into the atmosphere eventually which misses the point. The best thing we could do with it is turn it back into solid carbon and bury it deep underground…

      Renewable electricity can produce hydrogen via electrolysis but the complete loop of renewable electricity -> hydrogen -> heat of combustion -> useful energy return is horribly inefficient, 10% or less. Pumped storage systems take in cheap electricity and pump water uphill where, on demand, it can run back down through turbines and (re)generate electricty when needed but it’s about 65-70% efficient in total. Batteries are very expensive but even better efficiency-wise.

      As for home electrolysis installations, hydrogen is the escape artist of the elements; it leaks through metal joints because the atoms are so small. The gas is highly combustible and in the correct ratios with air it is extremely explosive. Industrial facilities have all sorts of precautions to prevent this sort of disaster, a home installation built down to a price without a 24/7 team of engineers monitoring its operation is a bomb waiting to go off.

      • So either we ‘learn’ to adopt a life style that requires only a small part of our current energy consumption or we have to accept the consequences.

        I would put my money on apres nous la deluge…

      • if you will forgive me playing hyper-wonk once again (after getting after Pachiguy-san about watt-hours a while ago), hydrogen is normally in molecular form, formula H₂, not atomic form. That said, H₂ is still lighter than an atom of any other element and is just as much a skilled escape artist as you say.

      • I come reprehensibly late to this debate that I inadvertently started. Thank you, nojay, for the no-holds barred attack on CCS. As usual, I take MacKay as my gospel here:
        CCS “has a significant energy cost–it would reduce the delivered electricity by about 25%”. He goes into much greater depth about the unrealities of CCS in one of his technical appendices. What scares me most, though, about CCS is that it is spent nuclear fuel storage on steroids.
        Nojay, can I ask–is this an amateur or professional interest?

  3. The carbon-free future looks good. The transition into it looks bleak. Will be a long, messy transition full of conflict, greed, chaos, bloodshed and death, with some fun moments too, no doubt. Who is having kids these days anyways?

    • That seems to be a succinct summary of human history up to this point, so… more of the same?

    • “Will it be a long, messy transition full of conflict, greed, chaos, bloodshed and death?”
      I hate to be a cheap apocalyptician, but do you think it looks good? here’s The Economist, not known for facile Chicken Little-ism, last week:

      The latest report from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), published on the eve of the Doha conference, is alarming. In 2012 greenhouse-gas emissions reached 50 gigatons of carbon equivalent—20% more than in 2000 and roughly 14% above where emissions need to be in 2020 to hit the 2°C target. If emissions are not cut, the UNEP reckons, they will reach 58 gigatons in 2020—14 gigatons more than they should be. This is a vast excess, equal to the total emissions today of America, Europe and Russia combined.

      At Copenhagen, countries made various pledges—some firm, some conditional—to cut emissions. Brazil said it would reduce them by 36.1% by 2020; the European Union offered a 30% reduction below 1990 levels as long as others cut, too. If countries meet the unambitious, loophole-ridden versions of their pledges, the UNEP reckons it would make little difference to emissions. Even the ambitious versions would leave countries less than halfway to the 2020 level required to keep the global temperature rise at 2°C. And emissions would still be going up, not down.

      Several recent reports seemed to abandon hope of keeping to that limit. The International Energy Agency said the chance of doing so was virtually zero. PricewaterhouseCoopers, a business-services firm, asked whether it was “too late for two degrees?” and concluded it probably was.
      Instead, people have started wondering what the world might look like if it were 4°C or 6°C hotter. A new report for the World Bank by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research paints an ugly picture. Oceans, the study says, would rise by 0.5-1 metres by 2100, devastating coastal cities and bearing especially heavily on East and South Asia. Three-quarters of tropical forests could die, including many in Indonesia, India and the Philippines, adding further to global warming. Crop yields would fall overall and droughts would become more common and severe. “A 4°C world,” says the report, “can and must be avoided.” Alas, the Doha conference is unlikely to play much part in stopping it.

  4. A little off the topic, but check out:
    Follow the thread and download the paper on hyperbolic discounting. Combine that with prisoner’s dilemma, and our future is just about hopeless

  5. Not to mention the melting permafrost and the increasing signs of methane venting from the arctic sea clathrates.
    As private Frazer reminded us: “we’re doomed laddie”

  6. It’s fusion or bust. I don’t know how vulnerable the fusion research effort is, how well it and all its supply chain will be defended against the sort of chaos climate change is predicted to bring. … or by how much the programme could be accelerated if funding for it reflected its importance. It’s going to be a delicate mid-century. If it fails to deliver in time, it’s the absolute end, as far as I can see – since all the accessible metals that, say, a 18th century society used are all dispersed. Or is that too pessimistic? The 18th century produced some great civilisation..

    • There is no need to depend on fusion which is at least forty or fifty years from commercial rollout — the first prototype fusion power reactor (PROTO) isn’t expected to be grid-connected until 2040 at least with fully commercial designs coming on line ten years later. That assumes full funding of R&D and everything in the experimental testing working perfectly with no unforseen hiccups. The figure mentioned by researchers is 80 billion dollars to get to PROTO first fusion.

      Fission reactors are prefectly adequate no-carbon electricity-generating stopgaps until fusion is commercially available; despite all the panic and paranoia about radioactivity they are incredibly safe in operation, in part because of that paranoia meaning they are vastly overengineered to start with. The big problem with them is the upfront construction costs and the fact they are often built as one-offs with design changes introduced during construction; the Chinese push for fission is based on two or three standardised designs which they plan to simply replicate with no changes during construction which will speed up the rollout (four years from start of construction to first grid power) and also cut the total cost of construction. They expect to have 41 reactors operating by 2015 (about as many as France has) with even more being planned. Sadly they are still going to be burning a lot of coal even forty years from now.

      • Oh, God, here I am again! Fusion: I think it will continue to be, as it has been for decades now, a pipe dream that is only a decade (or three) from commercialization. Clue: in the Sun, fusion takes place at the core, not in the outer layers. Enormous temperatures and pressures prevail and I’m a monkey’s uncle if we will ever have the technology to emulate those conditions.

        IOW: color me skeptical in the extreme.

      • …the first prototype fusion power reactor (PROTO) isn’t expected to be grid-connected until 2040 at least with fully commercial designs coming on line ten years later.

        The problem with magnetic confinement fusion is it will probably never be commercially viable. Ever. Assuming it can be made to work at all, to get any kind of efficiency out of a tokamak you’ve got to build a great horking behemoth at tens of billions in today’s dollars. And it will take more than a decade to construct.

        There’s no point in building something like that if it’s going to cost you more than solar cells backed by one of any number of storage schemes (from thermal storage to banks of old car batteries) we consider uneconomical because of cost.

        Over at NIF they’ve given up on inertial confinement for commercial power, which was always a long shot anyway (and maybe something of a budgetary fraud), which just leaves some sort of Polywell device as the only real possibility for commercial fusion barring an out-of-the-blue breakthrough.

  7. MIchael Woodford’s book “Exposure” on the Olympus scandal has been published. Based on previous postings, I believe Spike has knowledge about Japanese corporation practice and he does like to rail against entrenched Japanese sensibility especially the toxic kind.

    A review by ever wise Spike will be appreciated

  8. In coal rich Australia, the current Labor government has successfully legislated for and introduced a Carbon Tax to marked public and political opposition. Its introduction will mean a change of government next election The neo-liberal ignoramii in our nation have created a very successful contra PR campaign against the policy centred in cost of living increases.
    We have a set of policies to offset the impact of carbon, we’ve now got to concentrate on the ceasing the sale of our coal..

  9. Future generations will look back on us as having the worst case of ‘The sky is falling in!’ syndrome the world has ever seen. The jury is still very much out on anthropogenic induced temperature increase. Even if it is occurring we don’t know what impact it will have (setting aside the very dodgy computer modelling). We have no idea how we could mitigate it, as if one of the most complex fields in science (climate) can be altered with a bit less carbon here, a bit more oxygen there. Yet here we are asking the world to shoulder what would be the biggest drop in living standards ever seen all because something might be happening and we might know the outcome and we might be able to do something about it.

    • The jury is not out on anthropic global warming, it returned its guilty verdict years ago. The appeals from people whose pocketbooks will be adversely affected by the sentence (reducing fossil fuel consumption to zero or as near as is feasible) continue with lies and deceit confusing those who don’t understand the rather basic physics and the results of adding more and more CO2 to the atmosphere year after year.

      You’ve been lied to by professionals, the same folks who for decades said tobacco wasn’t as bad for smokers are it really was, that lead in petrol wasn’t damaging children’s health, blue asbestos was benign and so on. Ten, twenty, thirty years later you look around and think “How could I have been so stupid?” when in fact very persuasive people were earning large amounts of money to keep you stupid.

    • “The jury is still very much out on anthropogenic induced temperature increase.”
      Which jury is that? There were 13,926 peer-reviewed climate articles published between 1991 and 2012 that supported (or didn’t reject) anthropogenic climate change.
      The number that rejected the hypothesis? 24.
      Are you sure you’re brave enough to take on those odds?
      To seriously dispute the scientific consensus, you’ll have to build me a vast conspiracy theory in which the *entire* pluralistic and generally argumentative scientific community is in thrall to and in the pockets of…well, who, exactly? Climate change deniers in their desperation reach for Lysenkoism as an equivalent scientific fraud–but the Soviet Union between 1920 and 1964 can hardly be compared to the entirety of the West (and the developed East) in 1990-2012, can it?
      Please tell me more about this jury.

      • When anyone starts quoting numbers for versus numbers against a theory then its really rock bottom time. Science isn’t subject to democracy, we don’t take a vote and go with the crowd. That is the exact opposite of what scientific endeavour is about. As for the reliability of the peer review process……No room for bias there. Ahem.

        You want motivation for bias? Funding for anything climate change related is guaranteed. Small wonder then that a zoologist will title his paper ‘effects of climate change on the nut eating habits of the red squirrel’.

        Most of the people writing papers on climate change are not experts on climate change. Dr Richard Lindzen is the worlds premier authority in the matter and he says 99% of what is being said is nonsense. As for using the word deniers to attempt to associate your opponents with the holocaust…….beneath contempt.

      • “When anyone starts quoting numbers for versus numbers against a theory then its really rock bottom time.”

        I sense I’ve touched a raw nerve. Or an open wound.

        “Science isn’t subject to democracy, we don’t take a vote and go with the crowd.”

        Who is the “we” in this? What are your scientific credentials?

        “Dr Richard Lindzen is the worlds premier authority in the matter and he says 99% of what is being said is nonsense.”

        Who tells me that Dr. Lindzen is the “world’s premier authority”? Apart from you? And, from a very cursory search, he *accepts*
        all the major tenets of ACC but expects cirrus clouds to save the earth. I’d like to place my trust in something more substantive.

        “As for using the word deniers to attempt to associate your opponents with the holocaust…….beneath contempt.”

        Oh come on now. You deny that ACC is happening, why can’t I call you a “denier”?

        But wait…did the Holocaust really happen?
        After all, you don’t have any first-hand evidence of it, do you? Perhaps all those historians in their “peer-reviewed” (how we
        laugh) papers are just making it up? This would only be the historians’ equivalent of the scientific conspiracy-theory.
        Binjamin Wilkomirski fabricated his childhood “experience” in Birkenau. If he did, then Primo Levi could have done the same,
        couldn’t he?

        What interests me most, though, more than any exchange on ACC, where we are obviously mutually not going to budge a jot, is
        what led you to become, to use a politer expression, a “climate-change skeptic”. In all sincerity, I’d be fascinated to hear
        how your conversion unfolded.

  10. Sorry to be a party pooper, but fusion is a non starter for large scale energy production. The ‘energy density’ of the sun is only 300W/m3, and we will be struggling to achive this without the sun’s gravity.

    • Which is why fusion bombs don’t work, right Roger?

      • See what above? Your understanding of fusion research is pretty seriously deficient. There’s no theoretical reason why you can’t get a torus to operate on an ongoing basis. Do you really believe all the physicists and governments that spent billions on ITER have managed to miss an obvious detail like that? Really?

        The problem isn’t energy production. If they build a big enough torus they’ll get sustained fusion and oodles of thermal energy. The problem is it will never be done at a cost that makes it a viable alternative to solar and wind backed by storage.

      • See above…..

    • >>>Sorry to be a party pooper, but fusion is a non starter for large scale energy production.

      You are not a party pooper, you are an ignoramus. Go educate yourself about the difference between the sun and a fussion reactor.

      • The JET (Joint European Torus) has a plasma volume of about 30 cubic metres and it holds the world record for plasma fusion at 16MW, achieved in 1997. That’s an energy density of about 500kW/m3.

      • I understand the 16MW lasted about 1 second.

      • Well, first I would have to show you how to respond to the correct post.

        Why should I explain all this? Surely you can look up the ITER wiki page as easily as anyone else. What is your fixation with the sun’s energy density, by the way? Do you think it means…. something?

      • Did you read this part: “The ITER fusion reactor itself has been designed to produce 500 megawatts of output power for 50 megawatts of input power, or ten times the amount of energy put in”?

      • Dear Eric, you are right. As you are obviously an expert can you, in three paragraphs, explain to the reasonably well informed, scientifically literate, readers of this blog how controlled fusion can operate at an energy density 1000 times greater than that of the sun? Many thanks.

      • Education is always good, but 300W/m3 was also educational. At least for me.
        Anyway, I’ve decided I’m going to enjoy this day! It’s sunny in London, got a nice gym session ahead and life is (still) good to us. Carpe diem.

      • Hello Eric,
        sorry, I am a bit new to this so hope I have got the reply in the right place this time. The reason I am interested in the sun is that the ITER Wiki page ‘What is fusion’ starts off explaining that fusion is what happens in the sun. Knowing that the sun’s energy density is so low I am just interested to know how, having replicated what’s happening in the sun, it is proposed to increase it to a level that would be economically viable. Is it simply by operating at a much higher temperature than the sun? The Wiki page doesn’t really explain this.

      • Yes, the very experimental JET torus only produced 16MW of thermal energy for about a second but it was never meant to do that when it was designed and built back in the 1970s when producing any amount of stable fusing plasma was a major achievement. ITER, the new tokamak being built in Cadarache, France is a lot bigger than JET and is meant to test technologies and materials for DEMO, the first prototype power-generating fusion reactor. If it works as planned ITER will easily beat JET’s record and go on to produce and maintain stable plasmas for hundreds of seconds in the MW range and a Q factor (energy out/energy in) greater than 1. JET’s 16MW fusion output record took about 22MW of electrical power input to produce hence Q = 0.7. DEMO, the next stage as envisaged will produce gigawatt thermal plasmas for hundreds of seconds with Q factor (energy out/energy in) of up to 10 and the first PROTO power reactor should produce 10GW plasmas for thousands of seconds with Q greater than 10 and an electrical power output of 2 to 4 GW.

        That’s the plan, anyway. It assumes no major physical obstacles to producing very large stable plasmas as the systems scale up and continued funding support for the research programme over a period of decades.

  11. Volvo’s looking at DME, a weird butane-like fuel:

    that can be created from biostock (the one thing Japan has is trees!) and methane.

    I’ve been toying with building a CNG-powered RV for my retirement years, but I’m hoping DME becomes viable since it looks superior (for space reasons CNG requires ~3000psi storage while DME can be tanked at 75psi).

    C2H6O or bust!

    The great thing about Japan shrinking in population is that hopefully their resource consumption will also shrink proportionally.

    With all the old people (us among them LOL), Japan in 2050 is going to be a pretty weird place, well, weirder than it is now at any rate.

  12. Pachi-sama,

    Sounds like a bit of optimism here.

    I’d always thought that, given Japan’s past leadership in many technologies, that it was a bit behind the curve in renewables.

    • Ah yes, “as the world absorbs the impact of Tokyo’s decision to phase out nuclear power over the next three decades”–or not, as the case may be…
      When you write to three-hour deadlines with a three-month time horizon, I suppose that’s the sort of error you’re bound to make.
      Cut to the chase–as you can easily tell, if you read through the cracks in that article, Japan will never allow foreigners to control, or even have a dominant stake in, any aspect of its energy market, and neither will it ever take the technological/commercial lead, or anything remotely like it, in wind or solar. Vestas will get taken to the mercantilist cleaners, just like General Electric was by Hitachi and Toshiba and so many others before them. So Japanese consumers will get stuck with doubly over-priced renewables and GDP at PPP will slide still further. I hate to be cynical, but…

  13. If I’m breaking protocol feel free to delete this comment, but would anyone be interested in reviewing a book related to “The Carbon Crunch?” I represent a group trying to spread awareness of 3/11 and the wider implications for energy use and Japan’s future (and the world’s), and I can send you a Mobi file or a paperback. My email is
    Spike Japan – thanks.

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