Sunday book review – Net Zero by Dieter Helm

This book arrived in the post out of the blue from the publisher, probably because they had spotted that I have favourably reviewed two previous books by Prof Helm, Natural Capital and Green and Prosperous Land, and they were right to bank on my admiration of this further volume. It contains the same mixture of clear argument, forceful and clear prose and many allusions and references to the natural world which make it a winner with me.

If you were to read the 7-page Preface at the front and the 9 and a half-page last chapter, Conclusions: a no regrets plan, you would get much of the message of the book but you really should read the chapters in between too for the basis of the argument and those chapters come in three parts; Part One: 30 wasted years, Part Two: the net zero economy and Part three: agriculture, transport and electricity. If you do read the bits in between, you will find some cracking quotes too (as always with Helm’s writing). Here are just three quotes on farming:

Renewables UK … rivalled only by the NFU in its subsidised domain … exist to pursue their members’ private interests, not public interest. The more powerful they are, the greater the distortions away from the public interest to the private interests of their members (p110)

…there is a great difference between paying farmers on carbon-poor, intensive cereal production land to put carbon back that they have allowed to be depleted without paying the carbon price, and rewarding farmers who, through their more sustainable practices, have already protected their carbon reserves (pp146-47)

It is understandable that farmers and their lobby groups love biofuels. It is a whole new market for them. It takes nearly 40% of US corn production, driving up demand and prices. As a result, farmers make more money not only in the biofuels market but also from the higher prices in conventional food markets (p197-8)

…and none of these comes from the Agriculture chapter in which you will find many more (pp163-80).

It’s a very good read and a challenging argument. We are told that much of the current approach is wrong and that we must put a price on carbon and exact that price at our borders (which soon will be our borders and not those of the EU). It is a powerful argument and one which I warm to much more when I read Helm’s writing than when many others espouse it.

I’m not an economist (never have been, never will be, never wanted to be) and maybe because my politics are well to the left of Dieter Helm’s, and maybe because I am a simple-minded scientist by background, I tend to favour regulation (maybe wrongly) a lot more than Helm does. But he is not totally against it, and I agree that he nails many of its drawbacks. One of its drawbacks has been mentioned in this blog many times and that is that you never get the regulation you really wanted because of lobbying by the people who didn’t want the regulation at all. Such is life. I’d like to think that if you gave me absolute power over regulation to help biodiversity then I could make things better, though not perfect, pretty quickly. And similarly, I would back the ability of Prof Helm, if put in charge of carbon pricing to do an excellent job. But I think his preferred solution would suffer similar problems to my preferred approach in life, as there would be lobbying for exemptions, for special cases and probably for the level to be set at too low a level to have maximum impact. That’s my guess. But I’m not against the idea at all.

There is a lot in here about how consumers should be forced to take the climate consequences of their actions, or actually, the economic consequences of the climate impacts of their actions – that’s what leads you to carbon pricing.

I would love to be an observer in a debate between Helm and someone who thinks he is completely wrong – and by a debate I mean a proper discussion sticking to the arguments and the strengths and weaknesses of each others’cases. Not enough of that happens in public policy. Politicians tend to pick the approach that fits their prejudices rather than examine the arguments and see them clash.

The reasons I enjoyed this book are fivefold and I think they are reasons that many readers of this blog would enjoy it too. This book is very clearly written, on an important subject, by someone who knows their stuff, by someone who is a friend of the natural environment and, perhaps most importantly, it challenges my own starting point on this subject.

Net Zero: how we stop causing climate change by Dieter Helm is published by Harper Collins.


7 Replies to “Sunday book review – Net Zero by Dieter Helm”

  1. Dieter Helm is certainly a prolific writer on subjects that affect climate change. His reasoning is always well argued. I hope this very poor Government pay much attention to what he Is say saying and act on much of it. I fear they won’t however, as a political party that gains much of its support from the farming industry and from those that like to kill and shoot our wildlife for fun, they are hardly in a position and suited to form objective policies and take objective decisions. eg moorland burning is just allowed to continue unabated.
    By the way I particularly like his quote about the NFU.which is absolutely on the button. It is not an organisation whose policies take holistic views off issues which include climate change, and wildlife conservation. It centres only on the wishes of the big farming combines.

    1. I’m having trouble remembering which trade union it is that serves the interests of the public before those of its members

  2. Just got his last book now its in paperback… was intending to start reading it a couple weeks ago but my other half has started it, so havign to engrosse myself in other tomes for a while…….looking forward to challenging myself reading something I wouldn’t normally pick up but did acquire solely on the basis of god reviews. Will have to keep this one for next year!!

  3. Really interesting – I look forward to reading it. You could almost sum it up with the simple test: Where’s the carbon ? Where’s the money ?

    Why is there so much fuss over carbon capture which doesn’t even exist ? Simply beacause it’ll make lots of (subsidised public) money for big energy. Why is it we hear so little about housing – as Mark has mentioned, his Victorian house ( The Avery mansion to our friends in the Hen Harrier shooting industry) isn’t very energy efficient – along with millions of similar British homes. We get very excited about air travel (3%) but buildingd account for 49% of UK carbon emmissions – if we can send a man to the moon or capture carbon surely we can halve this figure ? Not the only game in town but certainly the big one and largely ignored because there’s no money in it for big business and anyway a lot of people seem to benpretending that gas is an honorary renewable.

    British Gas seem to think so – they’ve just told me I’m gping to save the world by not having a paper bill from them.

  4. Debate: a proper discussion of the arguments for and against a proposition.

    “Not enough of that happens in public policy. [Politicians] tend to pick the approach that fits their prejudices rather than examine the arguments … “. Right enough – and that describes the Climate Assembly UK Net Zero process very well. It had no open debate but instead bigged-up its selected experts (some of whom in 2017 rejected Helm’s ‘least cost’ ideas for meeting the UK’s climate targets) to positions of authority above any scrutiny by the delegates. The BS was allowed to proliferate unchallenged in a manner that even surpassed the Costing the Earth R4 prog of 15 October 2019 which exposed CCC CEO Chris Stark’s complete lack of concern – or even a clue – about the costs to be imposed on the taxpayer. In addition to his £0.3M p/a package, of course.

    I would love to be an observer in a debate between Helm and Stark. There would be no ‘phoning a friend allowed.

    In 556pp of The Path to Net Zero the word “trillion” does not appear

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