Dirty Coal – The Real Priority for the Paris Conference

The United Nations Conference on Climate Change – an annual meeting of all countries that want to take action for the climate – opened on 30 November 2015. This year, Paris chairs and hosts the 21st Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP21), and the event will focus on key debates in global energy consumption, including global warming, extreme climate events and other controversial issues.

Dieter Helm, economist and recent Yale author of Natural Capital and Carbon Crunch is guest blogging for us to coincide with COP21, highlighting some of the important issues that will be discussed at this year’s conference, as well as examining why global politics and climate change are so inextricably linked.


Dieter Helm –

paris conferenceGermany has been leading the green argument in Europe. The Energiewende was supposed to usher in a new era of renewables, and at the same time give Germany a competitive edge by getting out of what it confidently predicted would be ever more expensive fossil fuels. In the run up to the Paris Conference, Germany wants others to follow this lead.

All however is not quite what it seems. The Energiewende turned out to be as much about a renaissance for German coal – a switch from nuclear to coal, and from gas to coal. as renewables. The result – the emissions have started to rise again, and Germany is in serious danger of missing its own 2020 targets.

Though this may start to change, a great deal of damage – and emissions – has resulted from the switch to coal. Contrast this with the often-criticised British approach. The British policy objective is to get out of coal by 2025 or earlier, and into nuclear. Whatever the merits of new nuclear, the contrasts between an exit from dirty polluting coal in Britain, and from existing well-regulated nuclear plants in Germany is a stark one from a climate perspective (and Germany is of course still importing nuclear from France).

German politicians – like most European leaders – got the fossil fuel prices very wrong. Instead of the sharp rises they all so publicly expected by now, coal and oil prices have more than halved, and gas price have fallen over a quarter. So in addition to climate problems, Germany has not gained a great competitive advantage over the US with solar panels and wind farms. The reverse is the case.

Paris Conference

The US, like Britain, is finally doing the right thing, and tackling coal head-on. Shale gas has made a big difference, helping the US to cut emissions without extra costs, and create the scope for Obama’s push to regulate coal out of the market.

What all this shows is that in the struggle to decarbonise, getting out of coal is the urgent necessity, and the Paris negotiators need to translate the various pledges into concrete actions against coal. This matters not only in the US and Europe, but in the other big (and growing) polluters – China and India. The former is the cause of the great rise of coal in the last two decades, and the latter promises a further expansion of coal going forward. In the period to 2030, it will be all about whether the world starts to wean itself off the dirtiest and most polluting of all fuels. Climate change mitigation is all about a global exit from. The US and Britain are leading on this – Germany, China and India need to follow.


Dieter Helm is professor of energy policy, University of Oxford; fellow in economics at New College, Oxford; and professorial research fellow at the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, Oxford. He is chair of the world’s first Natural Capital Committee.


Further Reading:

Natural Capital  Carbon Crunch

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