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Green and pleasant lands

The Carbon Crunch - review

The Carbon Crunch: How We’re Getting Climate Change Wrong – and How to Fix It
Dieter Helm
Yale University Press, 304pp, £20

Climate change is a real threat, but greens have hindered attempts to tackle it; the Kyoto Protocol is counter-productive; the solution is a global dash for gas driven by import duties on high-carbon products. That is the thesis of the economist Dieter Helm’s bracing but flawed The Carbon Crunch. It will doubtless influence opinions. But for all its bravura, its expert diagnosis is followed by an unrealistic remedy. It’s a bit like a football coach dissecting the failings of a parks team striker, then recommending the purchase of Ronaldo.

Let’s start with the bracing bit, Helm’s dismemberment of the teetering UN climate process. He notes that since the Kyoto Protocol set a limit on greenhouse gases 15 years ago, emissions have soared. The US, which is the world’s biggest polluter, refused to join, and China and India were exempted because they were relatively poor. The UN has finally accepted that emerging nations must be carbonconstrained too, but Helm is understandably sceptical about the likely success of the UN’s latest all-in-together plan for 2020, partly because, on the current trajectory, by 2017 the world will have overshot the threshold associated with the risk of disastrous climate change.

Helm excoriates Europe’s politicians for grandstanding in the climate talks. He highlights the uncomfortable truth, reported by me and others, that if you measure CO2 consumed in the UK, the total has gone up, not down. We blame the Chinese for the emissions they produce when creating the goods that we buy.

Helm scorns the EU’s crippled “flagship” climate programme, the EU Emissions Trading System (ETS). It was inevitable, he says, that the system would encourage industry lobbying and result in a surplus of carbon permits. (The US insisted on carbon trading in the Kyoto negotiations, before leaving the EU holding this policy grenade.)

He also pillories German Greens for securing the closure of the country’s nuclear plants, leading to a new generation of power stations fired by the dirtiest fuel of all: coal. And drawing on projections from the UK government’s energy economist David Mackay, he expresses disbelief at the idea that we will smother our land and seas with windfarms to meet targets by 2050.

The task of tackling emissions, he insists, is much greater than politicians admit. “Consumers must be able to pay,” he writes. “And if they can they must be willing to vote for politicians who force them to pay.” Helm’s solution is a dash for gas. This may be favoured by the Chancellor, George Osborne, but it is feared by others, including Ofgem, who warn that it may leave consumers vulnerable to price spikes as China expands its demand and gas becomes unaffordable on the global markets.

Helm asserts the unknowable premise that gas will be plentiful and cheap. Gas, he insists, is the transition fuel towards the low-carbon economy. All we need is to tilt China and India from dirty coal to cleaner gas to slow down dramatically growth in global emissions.

But this transition from one fossil fuel to another will still take us above the 2C risk threshold mentioned above. And here’s where Helm swaps his sword of truth for what some will see as a magic wand, because when we ask why the Giants of the East will abandon their mines of black diamond, the answer is . . . border taxes and investment in energy research and development. Rich countries, he argues, should impose levies based on the carbon embedded in imported goods. That will protect low-carbon industries from Chinese manufacturers freeloading on the global atmosphere with coal fuelled energy.

This solution has long been advanced by some economists. But supply chains for manufactured goods can contain items from 50 different countries, each with its own shifting carbon intensity. Imagine how long the trade negotiations will be spun. And, in the meantime, hear the Chinese sabre-rattling over the scheme to include aviation in the EU ETS – a plan that is simple, transparent and, the EU believes, legally defensible. China threatens a trade war because this is the thin end of the carbon wedge.

The other wishful solution to climate change is to divert funding from what Helm regards as the inadequate technologies of wind and solar power into lavishly supported government research for new energy sources. First, it’s most unlikely that governments would use any spare cash for research. Second, there are plenty of inventions already – what is lacking is the cash to get them from the demonstration stage to the commercial stage, through the so-called industrial valley of death. The massive German government solar programme has radically driven down PV costs by providing certainty to private investors, yet that is just the sort of targets- inspired policy that Helm disparages.

I challenged Helm recently on a few of his key recommendations: I suggested that nations would be probably be unwilling to provoke a trade war by introducing border taxes on carbon; warned that if governments scrapped renewables subsidies they wouldn’t spend the cash on energy innovation; and said the key to new technology was not blue skies innovation but coaxing existing inventions through the so-called Valley of Death to commercial scale.  

He replied: “I don’t disagree with your points.” If that’s so, one wonders why his book's conclusions are so confidently asserted.

Roger Harrabin is the BBC’s environment analyst. @rogerharrabin

Flickr/Alfred Grupstra
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How will future videogame makers design a grand strategy game about the 21st century?

With the diminishing power of nation states, and the lack of conventional warfare, what would a 21st-century grand strategy game look like?

In the world of historical strategy games, it always seems clear how to win. Paint the map your colour. Raise your flag over the capitals of your rivals. Pave the streets of your cities with gold. Games based around statecraft in olden times will tend to have diverse objectives, they usually focus on the greatness of a nation in the traditional senses of the word: military might, technological advancement, religious and cultural hegemony. These same priorities hold up from the times of the Roman Republic to the Cold War.

Yet if games designers in the future were to look at the world of today, how would they interpret the actions of modern governments? Do the same goals as before apply or have we moved on? Are the objectives of contemporary societies different, and if so, just what would a player in a game of 21st-century grand strategy be trying to achieve?

One thing is for sure, the conventional measures of success in historical grand strategy games don’t stack up so easily in a modern setting.

War, for instance, has always been a staple part of historical games and it remains a preoccupation of contemporary society too. In the 15 years of the 21st century, Britain has invaded two countries, conducted armed interventions in three more and is even now lining up the procurement of new fighter jets, new aircraft carriers and new nuclear weapons at incredible expense. So we can safely say we do not live in a peaceful age.

But despite having all this firepower and the political will to bring it to bear at the drop of a dossier, war doesn’t seem to serve Her Majesty’s Government in the way it does in either the history books or the strategy games. There is no territory to be won and no rival great powers being thwarted – only air strikes, occupations and teetering puppet governments.

Indeed the only country whose military adventures bear any resemblance to the old-timey way of doing things is Russia, with Putin perhaps the last of the breed of world leaders who still thinks swapping out the flags on municipal buildings constitutes a legitimate redrawing of national boundaries. Given his famous distrust for technology it seems quite likely he didn’t get the tersely worded Tweet from Obama about how that kind of thing isn’t supposed to work anymore.

On the economic side of things the approaches opted for by governments today don’t fit with the historical mind set either. Nations are no longer trying to get rich for their own sake. Privatisation relinquishes the assets of the state in return for a temporary financial gain and long term loss of revenue. Deregulation and poor tax enforcement bleeds capital overseas. It is here we see perhaps the key difference between games where you play as The State itself and real countries, countries run by people who have bank balances of their own and competing party financiers to appease.

The idea of running a country for the purpose of making that country wealthier and then reinvesting that wealth back into the country by developing assets and infrastructure has gone out of the window. Simultaneously both the leftwing model of a state run for the benefit of its citizens and the rightwing ideal of a country mastering its economy to become a more powerful force on the world stage have been quietly phased out. Outsourcing and tax havens suggest that there is no longer room for patriotism in economic policy – unless you’re China, of course, but it wouldn’t be much of a game with only one nation playing it.

On a technological front there was the space race, and there have even been games built around it. But in the 21st century, the urgency and the sense of competition has been lost. Rovers on Mars, probes on comets and space stations tend to be viewed in a spirit of collective human achievement, partly because of the collaborative nature of modern space exploration, and also, I suspect, because lots of people in those fields are Star Trek fans.

The idea of going to Mars so you can stand on the surface of another planet and tell the Communists to stuff it no longer appeals as much as that whole "pushing back the scientific boundaries for the benefit of all life of Earth" deal. It is laudable, but not ideal for games built around competing with other countries.

In the 21st century grand strategy game, we wouldn’t be looking to conquer the world, we wouldn’t be looking to buy it and we wouldn’t be looking to leave it in our technological wake either. So what does that leave? What would 21st-century grand strategy look like?

It could be argued that we’ve moved beyond the era of nation states as the bodies driving world affairs, and such a game might reflect that. Maybe something more akin to a Crusader Kings game would be the way to go, with the player taking the role of an individual – a connected political blueblood, perhaps, like an oligarch, a CEO, an activist turned politician, a drugs baron or a terrorist leader. Or maybe we would play not as an individual, but as an organisation, for example the CIA, ExxonMobil, Isis, Amnesty International or the Solntsevskaya Bratva.

It may be that we never see the present day immortalised in a strategy game, at least outside of that passing phase in Civilization where everything is either settled down or exploding in nuclear fire. Perhaps we’re destined to nestle into a historically obscure crack between the tumult of the 20th century and something spectacular or horrible yet to come. It is nice to think, however, that the times we live in are at least interesting and that maybe we’ll get to see it all laid out in a game one day, if only to find out what winning the 21st century would look like.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture