3E Intelligence

Politicians should stop pretending that decarbonising our economies can be done on the cheap. This is the conclusion of a damning analysis of EU climate/energy policies published by Oxford energy professor Dieter Helm in the Wall Street Journal today.

Helm starts his evaluation with a critical look at the EU’s achievements in terms of emission reductions. The apparent decoupling of economic growth and emissions is just “smoke and mirrors”, says the UK expert. If one factors in the “carbon outsourcing” (our imports from China, where the EU and US have exported their smoke-stack industries), the picture is less rosy.

If this carbon outsourcing is factored back in, the U.K.’s impressive emissions cuts over the past two decades don’t look so impressive anymore. Rather than falling by over 15% since 1990, they actually rose by around 19%. And even this is flattering, since the U.K. closed most of its coal industry in the 1990s for reasons unrelated to climate change. No doubt, recalculating the figures for other European countries and the U.S. would reveal a similar pattern.”

It is consumption and not production that matters, according to Dieter Helm.

This means that if global warming is to be limited, the U.S. and Europe will have to take much more drastic action to reduce those emissions embedded in their own consumption. Their appropriate emissions-reduction targets will have to be based on the consumption of goods that cause those emissions in the first place. This not only means that the true scale of required emissions reductions in the Western world will be much higher but that the impact on economic growth and living standards there will also be more severe than so far believed.”

Criticising the Stern report, Helm goes on to explain why he thinks costs of decarbonising our economies will be much higher. There will be high “policy costs” with policy makers investing heavily in the wrong solutions.

Helm’s conclusion is strong but, in my view absolutely correct:

“The U.S. and Europe refuse to acknowledge that halting the relentless rise in the concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere will take a significant slice out of economic growth. It will probably mean living standards will have to be cut if our consumption is going to be environmentally sustainable. We are simply living beyond our — and the planet’s — means.”


More interesting energy commentaries and publications are available on Helm’s personal web site.

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  1. Willy De Backer has usefully summarised Dieter Helm’s trenchant criticisms of the EU’s climate change policies, ahead of today’s Spring Summit.

    Another persuasive critique is provided by Jennifer Morgan of E3G: http://www.e3g.org/index.php/programmes/climate-articles/eu-commitments-on-climate-strengths-and-weaknesses/ . This points up the huge gap between the EU rhetoric on carbon capture and storage (CCS) and the reality: too little by too few which will not provide the incentives for China, India and other emerging economies to follow suit.

    Watch out for more weasel words from the conclusions of the EU summit this week-end.

  2. Carbon Dioxide Emissions Threaten An Ocean Apocalypse Now – Sins of emission need absolution not dissolution

    Many of us who love the ocean are likely reading with alarm the news reports on the impact of CO2 from the burning of fossil fuels that is creating ocean acidification and a survival crisis for our coral reefs. In most of those reports the emphasis is given to the threat to and ideas for saving the beautiful coral reefs by reducing emissions, our carbon footprint. While it is good to reduce the fossil fuel and other green house gas emissions we are all contributing, I beg to differ with the position that reducing our global carbon footprint will help save our ocean bathing beauties, the reefs. It’s not that I don’t fully support reducing our carbon footprint, I am rather more concerned about the more potent role of the deadly dose of anthropogenic (fossil) CO2 already in the air on its way to our surface ocean waters. Those hundreds of billions of tonnes of CO2 from the fossil fuel age burning, the bulk of which we’ve emitted in the past 75 years, is slowly but surely dissolving into the surface ocean. By most accounts CO2 in the atmosphere takes on the order of 200 years to equilibrate with the surface ocean. As it dissolves in the surface ocean it makes the water more acidic. The pH (acidity) drop of 30% that we’ve been recording of recent is just the proverbial tip of the dry-iceberg.

    As the surface ocean absorbs the rest of this deadly dose, regardless of whether we emit more which we surely will do, the acidification process already destined to occur is more than sufficient to change ocean ecology in far wider and disastrous fashion than merely scalding the bathing beauty reefs at the shore. In fact the devastating effects CO2 has on the ocean is not proceeding only via acidification, H2O+CO2=H2CO3 (carbonic acid), there is a secondary reaction wherein CO2 is enhancing the greeness of the planets dry lands. This added greenery is is a major benefit our high and rising CO2 delivers to droughty grasses who are losing less water via evaporation and transpiration as they take CO2 from the enriched air, are remaining green and growing bushier each spring, and as such are superior ground cover thus reducing topsoil loss in the wind. Tragically that dust in the wind is the major source of vital mineral micronutrients for the open ocean. Prophetically it seems, all we really are is dust in the wind.

    So as our reef beauties cry out and dissolve like Dorothy’s wicked witch in our acidifying oceans, the acidification will certainly continue for at least another century, unabated even if we never emit another molecule of fossil CO2 into the air. At the same time as the oceans suffer this chemical shock treatment, akin to those we give our swimming pools, they will continue as well to lose their phyto-plankton and photosynthetic capacity to counter this onslaught. The loss of net primary productivity (ocean greeness), NPP, is reportedly 17% in the North Atlantic, 26% in the North Pacific, and 50% in the sub-tropical tropical oceans. Last spring a scientific report of a transect of the Eastern Pacific between French Polynesia and Chile reported it found “the clearest water on Earth. In the middle of the Pacific the waters were of such clarity that they even exceeded the clarity of the former record holding lakes which lie beneath a mile of ice on the Antarctic continent, in the cold and dark for a million years. Clear water is lifeless water and while it may be a scientific curiosity under the Antarctic icecap it is a horrifying finding in what should be an ocean murky with an abundance of life.

    We can find the fundamental proof of the depth and breadth of this problem by considering it from the point of view of basic chemical thermodynamics. Indeed we have expended a hundred terrawatts or so burning fossil carbon to put that deadly dose of CO2 into our atmosphere and ocean. The present human energy use continues at about 12 terrawatts per year today. No trivial energy savings will serve to counter the certain first principals chemical effects of this burning of fossil carbon as it impacts the biggest and most sensitive ecosystem on this small blue planet, the oceans. We can still trust in what the Second Law of Thermodynamics teaches us in that one must balance chemical equations energetically. If we are to address a problem created by terrawatts of energy we must devote terrawatts of energy for the cure. In this case those curative terrawatts better be emission free or we are lost.

    So where is there a source of emission free terrawatts of curative power we can devote to saving the oceans and help restore the balance of Nature? It is of course ONLY available from ocean photosynthesis and therein lies the course we must chart to restore our oceans. We must not simply imagine the damage we’ve prescribed can be ignored by staring only ahead and not behind. We must not only take actions that assume the present mortally wounded state of the oceans is something we can’t deal with. No mere conservation ethic or effort will suffice, we are far to far over the tipping point for that to work. We must replenish and restore ocean plant life and photosynthesis for there in the vast living ocean expanse the terrawatts of solar power, captured by living green plankton, can be found and used to compete with the H2O+CO2=H2CO3 reaction. There in lies our only hope if we act now to assist the ocean plants, phyto-plankton, to convert CO2+Sunlight in the ocean to life instead of death. Without replenished mineral micronutrients, without our determined efforts to administer the antidote, life in the oceans, and on this small blue planet, will surely not remain as it is. It will revert to the cyanobacterial; state the oceans were in 600 million years ago before green plants made abundant oxygen and higher life forms, including ourselves, evolved.

    If you are a religious person you might liken what we need to do as seeking absolution for our sins of emission by our acts of contrition and ecorestoration, otherwise the path to perdition is that of dissolution of those CO2 sins into dying oceans.

    Russ George – founder/president
    Planktos Science
    San Francisco

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