Dieter Helm Wrong: There is Progress Since 1990

Dieter Helm’s recent New York Times op-ed article proposing carbon taxes is wrong on so many accounts that a whole series of posts is necessary to address his many errors.

This post will discuss the following misguided observation by Helm:

This is not to paint too rosy a portrait. Since world leaders met in Kyoto, Japan, in 1997 and agreed to reduce the carbon dioxide emissions of industrialized countries by about 5 percent below 1990 levels by 2012, virtually nothing has been done to slow the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. In 1990, carbon emissions were rising at less than 2 parts per million per year. Now they are rising at nearly 3 p.p.m. per year.

First off, it may be true for the United States that “virtually nothing has been done”, because the Republicans are bought off by fossil fuel companies, the fossil fuel companies still don’t understand that reducing production would increase their profits, and the American legislative process makes sure that nothing ever gets done without consensus.

But Europe has done quite a lot. It has introduced the carbon tax Helm wants, with the exception of a border tariff (not counting the recent extension of the emission trade system to international aviation). And it is way ahead of the United States in installing renewable energy. That’s not “virtually nothing”.

And Europe will of course achieve the Kyoto targets, and then some.

So “nothing has been done” is just plain wrong.

But the statement might still might sense as a complaint about lack of progress. Even if there have been serious efforts, these may have been insufficient to achieve the necessary results.

Of course, considering the enormity of the consequences of global meltdown, nothing will ever be quite enough. But it is also wrong to just say there is no progress at all.

Let’s look at a couple of numbers.

World CO2 emissions were 22.7 billion tons in 1990, and 34 in 2011. That does not look like progress.

But World GDP was 27.5 trillion in 1990 and 69.1 in 2011. Clearly GDP has increased much faster than CO2 emissions. For one dollar of GDP CO2 emissions in 1990 were at 825 gram. In 2011 that has gone down to 492 gram. That’s substantial progress.

Also, in 1990 world population was at 5.3 billion, while it has recently passed 7 billion. Per capita emissions were at 4.2 tons in 1990 and are at 4.9 tons now. That’s not progress, but considerably less increase than the absolute numbers of emissions.

Also, the price of oil has gone up since 1990. Brent crude oil trades at $109 right now. It was $36 at the height of the “oil price shock of 1990” caused by the first Gulf War.

That’s very significant progress. Especially if, like Helm, you think the solution is a carbon tax, you should be happy about oil getting more expensive to begin with. Getting the oil price from $ 36 to $109 would have needed a carbon tax of over 200 percent. Assuming one ton of oil releases 3.2 tons of CO2, based on this, the price difference between 109 and 36 would be equivalent to an $22 carbon tax per ton of CO2.

Don’t get me wrong. There is certainly not enough progress. But it would be wrong to assume that there is “virtually none”.

Related posts:

Dieter Helm Wrong: Renewable Can Eliminate CO2 Emissions

Dieter Helm Wrong: Europe Beating the United States on Emissions

Dieter Helm New York Times Op-Ed

Published by kflenz

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

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