Helm runs through multiple policy failures on the road to the beginning of the end of the fossil fuel ageby Isabel Hilton / March 15, 2017 / Leave a comment
Published in April 2017 issue of Prospect Magazine
Burn Out: The Endgame for Fossil Fuels, by Dieter Helm (Yale, £20)
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 i…