The energy historian who says rapid decarbonization is a fantasy
Vaclav Smil rarely agrees to interviews. Too many in the media have portrayed him as a tool of Big Oil, he says — because he insists on pointing out how deeply dependent humanity is on fossil fuels and how difficult it will be to give them up.
The economist and professor emeritus at Canada’s University of Manitoba heats his house with solar energy. He’s no global warming denier. He recognizes the need to move away from plastics, but asks readers to note how often they touch plastic every day and ask themselves how rapid they think the switch can be.
His mission: lay out facts. “I’m not an optimist or a pessimist,” he likes to say. “I’m a scientist.”
Smil, 79, has spent a lifetime studying the history of energy — from wood to coal to oil to gas and nuclear to wind and solar — and has written dozens of deeply researched books.
He’s highly regarded and frequently cited in academic circles and counts Bill Gates among his most famous fans.
Smil recently switched to a new publisher, and his two latest books, “Numbers Don’t Lie” and “How the World Really Works,” were written and edited to be more accessible to a wider readership.
The Times interviewed Smil via email. Following are excerpts, lightly edited for length and clarity.
Much of the climate debate, you write, is dominated by catastrophists who are certain humanity finds itself on the eve of destruction, and utopians who fervently believe that technology will save the human race. How should the rest of us think about real solutions to serious energy and environmental problems?
Nothing can be more counterproductive than any certainty regarding complex affairs.
Uncertainty and unpredictability will always remain the most fundamental attributes of human existence.
In managing our energy affairs we should constantly favor doable steps: not wasting 40% of our food grown with high energy expense, not to heat or cool the universe in poorly designed but oversize houses, not to waste fuel and materials driving SUVs (nearly two tons of mass to move, usually, a single body), not to design cities that demand lengthy commutes, not to keep amassing rarely used products, not to travel mindlessly.
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Instead we continue, and expand, our wasteful ways while trying to come up with miraculous — and in the near-term most unlikely — solutions, everything from running on hydrogen to controlled fusion. Good luck with that.
Many people and policymakers seem to think with enough money and willpower, we can rapidly switch to renewable energy. You believe this is a delusion, and the transformation will take decades.
It’s not a matter of belief. What is decisive is the size of the global energy system, its economic and infrastructural inertia.
Fossil fuels now supply about 83% of the world’s commercial energy, compared to 86% in the year 2000. The new renewables (wind and solar) now provide (after some two decades of development) still less than 6% of the world’s primary energy, still less than hydroelectricity.
What are the chances that after going from 86% to 83% during the first two decades of the 21st century the world will go from 83% to zero during the next two decades? Especially as a few weeks ago China announced additional 300 million tons of new coal production for 2022, and India additional 400 million tons by the end of 2023. We are still running into fossil fuels, not away from them.
You drive a Honda Civic with a small, efficient engine. While not opposed to electric vehicles, you take issue with those who buy them thinking they’re doing their part to solve global warming, mission accomplished.
There are no EVs. They are battery vehicles reflecting the electricity’s origins. If I were to buy an EV in Manitoba, it would be a 100% hydroelectricity, truly zero carbon energy, car. In North China it is a 90% coal car, in France it is a 70% nuclear car, in Russia mostly a natural gas car and in Denmark a 50% wind car et cetera.
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But that is only as far as the direct energies go. Indirect energies going into the production of steel, plastics, glass and batteries are still mostly fossil fuels, because the world’s primary energy use is now still 83% dependent on fossil carbon. The notion that any EV is a zero-carbon car is nonsense.
“How the World Works” goes into what you call the Four Pillars of Modern Civilization: ammonia, plastics, steel and concrete. It seems most people think of only electricity generation and transportation in relation to fossil fuels and climate change.
You are quite right, most people think of decarbonization as just an electricity problem. They do not realize the amount of energy used directly, as fuels and electricity, and indirectly as feedstocks to make materials that define modern civilization.
Without modern nitrogen fertilizers we could feed only about half of today’s humanity. They start with ammonia, and ammonia synthesis is based mostly on natural gas. No material is made in larger quantity than cement, the key ingredient of concrete, the ubiquitous construction material. Steel comes second and iron smelting needs coke made from coal. Synthesis of plastics needs natural gas and oil as feedstocks and fuel.
Making just these four materials requires nearly 20% of the world’s total energy supply generating about 25% of all greenhouse gas emissions. Alternative, non-carbon, ways of making these materials are known — but none is available for immediate large-scale commercial deployment. Decarbonizing this massive demand cannot be done in a matter of years.
Some might agree with your conclusions and then become hopeless about humanity’s ability to address climate change in any meaningful way. What would you say to them?
Old Romans knew it well: Where difficult matters are at stake, the change is best affected by slow but relentless progress.
Evolutions are always preferable to revolutions and gutta cavat lapidem, non vi sed saepe cadendo. [The drop of water hollows out the stone by frequent falling.] We should persevere in doing many small things, and eventually they add up.
But so far, we are not even seriously trying — see the ascent of SUVs, the pervasiveness of excessive flying, and food supermarkets that now average 40,000 items. That all requires plenty of carbon.
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