Book Review: “Putting the Genie Back: Solving the Climate and Energy Dilemma” by David Hone (Emerald Publishing), 2017, list price £12.99
Hugh Richards, September 2017
“An uninformed belief is gaining ground and leading to the false conclusion that a very rapid energy transition is underway that will solve the [carbon] emissions issue. This belief is that renewable energy is becoming so cost-competitive that emissions will fall rapidly and decisively without real financial outlay…” So begins the final chapter of this book by Shell’s Chief Climate Change Advisor. The book is not an attack on renewable energy, but rather, a closely-argued case that the energy transition required by the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change will need much more than global growth in renewable energy and increased energy efficiency. In particular, Hone argues that carbon emissions pricing in globally linked national or regional schemes will be essential to drive the transition, and that carbon capture and geological storage (CCS) at vast scale will be needed if anything like the Paris goal of “well below 2°C” of warming is to be achieved.
On carbon pricing, his thesis is that the structure of something like the EU Emissions Trading System (EU ETS) is essentially correct as a model for delivering an effective global carbon price, but such schemes as do exist have been rendered ineffective by overlapping policy initiatives, to the point where the carbon prices are so low that they have negligible effect on the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere, and remain far below the level (about $100/tonne CO2) needed to create a market for CCS. In the absence of a functioning global carbon market, he suggests the development of tradable “CCS credits” to get CCS going at scale, but acknowledges that carbon pricing purists [my term] would say this would be to set a technological objective above the principle of an efficient market.
Hone’s language is mostly dispassionate but sometimes blunt, and there is evidently underlying frustration with the unwillingness of policy-makers to tackle head-on what he calls the “stock” of cumulative carbon emissions since pre-industrial times and the resulting concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere. Rather, he observes a tendency to prioritise what (in the context of climate change mitigation) should be secondary (albeit desirable) objectives such as poverty reduction, health improvement, “green jobs”, energy security, etc.
Hone is perhaps the ultimate insider on climate change, having been a Shell employee since 1980 and in his current role since 2008, attending many of the major international conferences and in a position to influence key texts, possibly even the Paris Agreement Itself. He does question whether the main Paris goal (which he interprets as aiming to limit warming to 1.5-1.8°C) is so difficult to achieve as to endanger the whole enterprise. However, he returns frequently to the notion that cumulative carbon emissions since 1750 should not exceed 1 trillion tonnes (3.7 trillion tonnes of CO2) and the implication that the great majority of the world’s proven fossil fuel reserves should remain in the ground.
As an “amateur” observer of the climate change scene, I found little in the book I could take issue with, apart from one statement: “Opting to leave these [fossil fuel] reserves in the ground forever … will happen only if alternative energy sources are developed that out-compete them …” [emphasis mine]. This makes the assumption that the option to regulate the extraction of fossil fuels (such as through a system of tradable extraction permits under a 1 trillion tonne cap) has been properly explored and rejected for good reasons. I am not aware that it has [see end-note]. As Hone says on the last page of the book: “The success of the Paris Agreement will … require extraordinary transparency, governance and institutional capacity …” – and trust, he could have added. Trust seems to be in short supply at this crucial point in the climate change saga, and a more coercive approach to keeping what should be un-burnable fossil fuels in the ground may yet be needed. Who knows, might such an approach even result in an effective carbon price that delivers CCS, as well as incentivising renewables and energy efficiency?
One other criticism I would make is that, in almost a throw-away line near the end of the book, Hone implicitly classes CCS and other “negative emissions technologies” as “geoengineering” techniques. As others have noted, there is a big difference between techniques that seek to mask the effects of CO2 accumulation in the atmosphere (such as sulphur injection into the stratosphere) and techniques such as CCS that are designed to reverse releases of carbon from the geosphere and biosphere. It may be unhelpful to give all of them the emotive “geoengineering” label.
Given the nature of the subject matter, I found the book mostly a good read, albeit sometimes a little repetitive, reflecting its origins as largely a compilation of previously published e-books and blog-posts. Some parts of the text are heavy with numbers that are not always in consistent or fully explicit units, but the text itself only becomes hard going when describing inherently opaque concepts such as “shadow carbon value”. Use of more graphics would have been welcome, but that would have increased the modest page count (about 250) and cost.
Overall, this book is the most informative account I have read how we got to where we are, in terms of science and policy, up to the Paris Agreement, and President Trump’s stated intention to withdraw from it. It also gave me an insight into just how difficult it is to avoid unintended consequences of well-intended policies, although Hone would probably argue that this is because there are too many overlapping and indirect policies. In the end, I was left sceptical as to whether the solutions he advocates will materialise quickly enough for an outcome of even a 50% chance of staying below 2°C, let alone the more ambitious Paris goal. I suspect that Hone shares that scepticism, but he is clear that is not a reason for inaction.
I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to understand current policy responses to climate change, without preconceptions of what they should be.
[End-note: I have written a 2-page note, Fantasy Climate Control V8, [updated to newer version of 2020 – ed.] intended to promote consideration of such an approach.]
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