Climate Change


A new approach is needed if a net zero world is to be achieved

Sir Dieter Helm, Professor of Economic Policy at the University of Oxford and Fellow in Economics at New College Oxford, also spoke at the meeting.

In his talk, Sir Dieter Helm noted that the world was adding two parts per million annually to the concentration of carbon in the atmosphere. This has been happening for the past 30 years without exception. None of the Conferences of the Parties has so far made a dent in that accumulation.

Even in 2020, despite a steep reduction in emissions due to coronavirus lockdowns, he stressed that the world had still added a further two parts per million. The key statistic, he argued, is the concentration of carbon in the atmosphere, not just territorial carbon emissions. That involves both sequestration, i.e. the way our natural world absorbs carbon, and emissions.

Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) of carbon reductions are not, he noted, legally binding. Similar commitments have never been fully met in the past. Even if they were in the future the world would still experience more than two degrees of warming. Climate change is not going to be solved in Glasgow or London. The solutions will primarily be found in places like China, India and sub-Saharan Africa.

Yet China does not intend to stop increasing its emissions of carbon until 2030. It currently accounts for nearly 30% of global emissions. India expects to take half a century to get to net zero. He argued that, given what has happened so far, proponents of this process really need to explain why ‘one more heave’ is going to work now.

There were some important agreements at COP26 but these are not going to deliver the change required. The funding commitment to developing countries is not being met in full. The deforestation programme is not due to deliver completely for another decade, while the destruction of the Amazon proceeds faster than ever. There was also a coal pledge: yet the USA, China and India are not parties to that. The future cannot be built on such foundations, he argued.

If the UK is serious about reducing emissions and not merely offshoring them, all of our carbon footprint, domestically produced and imported, must be treated on the same basis – it all results in carbon in the atmosphere. The obvious way to do so is through a carbon border adjustment. Then, when a ship arrives at Southampton, the owners can only avoid paying the carbon tax if they have an exemption certificate showing they have paid the carbon price to their own Government.

He insisted there should be greater honesty with the population about the costs of decarbonisation. It is fashionable to say these will not be high: that is nonsense, he said. The costs of replacing household gas boilers with heat pumps are not trivial. That is just the beginning of converting an overwhelmingly fossil fuel economy into a low carbon economy.

But he was convinced that COP26 does not provide a sound foundation for taking things forward. The world is in a very, very serious situation. There are pathways to a decarbonised world but not the COP pathway. It is always good to have discussion and debate but now is the time to face reality and take steps to eliminate the causes of climate change, starting with our own country, he concluded.