Dieter Helm Wrong: Europe Beating America on Emission Reductions

I already discussed the proposal by Dieter Helm in the New York Times to solve global warming with a carbon tax. I agree that a carbon tax is an useful instrument. But I disagree with just about everything Helm writes in that article.

In this post, I would like to discuss this paragraph:

But while environmentalists have lamented America’s slow response to climate change, the United States is actually on a much better path than Europe. It is making the transition from coal to gas, it is investing in new energy technologies, and its carbon emissions are falling faster than Europe’s.

The European Union has reduced CO2 emissions in the period from 1990 to 2011 by 16.5%, or by 17.5% not counting international aviation (which is the standard under the Kyoto Protocol) and is well on track to reach its goal of a 20 % reduction until 2020.

In contrast, the United States has increased emissions by 10.5% from 1990 to 2010.

That seems to make the last statement about America’s carbon emissions falling faster than Europe’s rather dubious.

On the other hand, it is true that cheap gas produced by unconventional methods has started to displace coal in the United States. However, that is a very short term development. Gas prices will go up eventually. In the long term (which is relevant when discussing global warming) having very low gas prices is useless and harmful. It is useless because it just replaces one fossil fuel source with another, and harmful as far as it leads to gas power plants undercutting the price of renewable energy.

And as I said before, the effect of this temporary shift from coal to gas is limited to the United States. In contrast, Germany dramatically lowering the price of solar by enabling the mass market has lowered that price everywhere, making it possible to displace coal in china with solar earlier.

That’s two out of three where the United States loses to Europe. Remains the point that the United States invests in new energy technologies.

Well, yes, of course they do. But much of that investment is in finding new ways of pressing the last gram of fossil fuel out of their resources, making them cheaper (like fracking for gas), and therefore actually damaging the climate.

I think the United States should be on a better path than Europe. Just as a moral issue, there is no developed country that has contributed as much historically and is contributing right now to CO2 emissions as the United States. They should be at the very front of doing something, and even paying something.

But I don’t see that’s the case right now at all.

Published by kflenz

Professor at Aoyama Gakuin University, Tokyo. Author of Lenz Blog (since 2003,

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