Books in brief: Burn Out by Dieter Helm

Helm runs through multiple policy failures on the road to the beginning of the end of the fossil fuel age
March 15, 2017
Burn Out: The Endgame for Fossil Fuels, by Dieter Helm (Yale, £20)

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There is much to admire in Dieter Helm’s latest book, Burn Out. It is a characteristically dyspeptic account, by the professor of energy policy at Oxford, of multiple policy failures on the road to the beginning of the end of the fossil fuel age. Yet he saves most of his scorn for NGOs and European politicians. He argues they promoted the expensive and ineffective remedies of intermittent renewables and carbon trading, while failing to anticipate the rise of China. His evidence? Emissions continued to rise throughout the period of the Kyoto Protocol. His solution? Use gas while waiting for better technology.

It is a bracing argument, but an unfair one. If politics is the art of the possible, a glance across the Atlantic reveals many worthier targets for his indignation. Human affairs are messy, and economic wisdom, even Helm’s, does not translate directly into policy without politics. He is right that a carbon tax might yet prove more effective than trading. But trading was adopted at Kyoto to try to accommodate tax-hating US politics.

The market ignores catastrophic externalities unless policy forces them on to the books. The rest of the argument is about how to do it. Equally, low-carbon technologies do not happen spontaneously in a market dominated by fossil fuels. They need investment and policy support. Today there are important efficiency gains and impressive price falls in both solar and wind that change the calculations against new gas.

Rather than writing NGO efforts off as misguided, perhaps we could view them as a necessary element in the lamentably slow mobilisation against the forces of self-interest, ignorance, political indifference, and, sometimes, flawed economic theories.