The year 2050 is the target moment for those who want an end to greenhouse gas emissions, and a lot of countries have signed up to it. Ours hasn’t yet, thank goodness. The target year is a long way away, and nearly all of those who have signed up to it won’t be alive then, I should think. I shan’t be there — I’d be 113 if I were, and that is rather unlikely, to say the least. How is the process of transition going to work? I haven’t seen any detailed plans for implementation. I doubt there are any, at least in the world of publication. It all seems to depend on technological advances that are referred to as likely, R&D that is going to be funded on a gigantic scale, advances in the use of elements like hydrogen, and giant batteries, the like of which we do not have now. I am sceptical about all of this, but don’t really care, because I don’t think it will happen and to repeat, I won’t be here anyway.
Well, Vaclav Smil, a Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of Manitoba, has written a clear and accessible article suggesting that 2050 is far too soon a target-year for all of this to take place. It’s an interesting piece in other ways, too, for it is built around the notion of ‘energy transitions’, the first of which was the shift from traditional biofuels (wood, charcoal and crop waste) and ‘animate prime movers’ (human and animal muscle) to inanimate energy converters like water-wheels and windmills. That transition took a thousand years or so. Then came the second shift, to the burning of fossil fuels for heat and to generate electricity. This second transition began in the 19thcentury and only after 1950 in most of Asia. The place of coal declined after 1900 as the use of oil and gas increased.
The author goes on: In contrast to previous energy transitions the unfolding quest for decarbonization is not primarily driven by resource shortages or technical imperatives (most of the existing conversions are highly efficient and also very reliable). Today’s quest for decarbonization has one dominant goal: limiting the extent of global warming. The goal is to establish a new global energy system devoid of any combustion of carbon-containing fuels or the world with net-zero carbon emissions where a limited amount of fossil fuel combustion would be negated by the removal and sequestration of the gas from the atmosphere resulting in no additional carbon releases…
Later he adds this quirky thought: The most important fact of rising concerns about global warming is that the world has been running into fossil carbon, not moving away from it. He provides chapter and verse: China and India are responsible.
And then this: Historians of energy transitions are not surprised by this development, as history shows that neither the dominant sources of primary energy nor the common energy converters can be displaced rapidly and completely in short periods of time. The high degree of the global dependence on fossil carbon and the enormous scale of the fuel-dominated global energy system mean that the unfolding energy transition will inevitably follow the progress of all previous large-scale primary energy shifts and that it will be a gradual, prolonged affair.
Smil argues that it really doesn’t matter how much more alternative energy we have. [Even] if the decarbonization of global electricity generation were to proceed at an unprecedented pace, only the availability of affordable, massive-scale electricity storage would make it possible to envisage a reliable system that could rely solely on intermittent renewable energies of solar radiation and wind… Even securing just three days-worth of storage for a megacity of more than 10 million people that would be cut off from its intermittent renewable sources (a common occurrence during the monsoonal season in Asia with heavily overcast skies and high winds) would be prohibitively expensive by using today’s commercial batteries.
It’s not on, he might have said. The only way to store electricity at gigawatt scale is pumped hydro, which is a lengthy business and not really efficient. Anyway, at a global level, electricity generation accounts for only twenty per cent of total final energy consumption. The other eighty per cent is much more challenging, and he goes on to set out why. He sees electric vehicles (EVs) as representing at best twenty per cent of all cars in 2040. But that’s just cars, so to speak.
Shipping and flying present particularly insurmountable challenges as only high energy density fuels can power massive container ships carrying more than 20,000 steel units on their long intercontinental routes (Smil2019) and high-capacity commercial airliners. He points out that while air-conditioning relies on electricity, heating in cold parts of Eurasia and North America now relies overwhelmingly on natural gas delivered by large-diameter trunk lines and dense networks of small-diameter distribution lines serving more than half a billion customers. Obviously, replacing this fuel supply and abandoning this extensive infrastructure will not be achieved over a single generation.
He has styled ammonia, cement, steel and plastics as the four pillars of modern civilisation, and all of them depend on fossil fuel stocks. Without the synthesis of ammonia, he argues, half of today’s global population would not be here. And there are no available non-carbon alternatives that could be readily deployed on mass commercial scales. There are innovations that the green dreamers rely on, but none of these innovations has been deployed even as pilot plant experiments, and once again, it is obvious that scaling up those processes that may eventually prove acceptable in order to reach annual outputs of hundreds of millions, even billions, of tonnes is a task that would take generations to accomplish.
And to conclude, Designing hypothetical roadmaps outlining complete elimination of fossil carbon from the global energy supply by 2050 (Jacobson et al. 2017) is nothing but an exercise in wishful thinking that ignores fundamental physical realities. And it is no less unrealistic to propose legislation claiming that such a shift can be accomplished in the US by 2030 (Ocasio-Cortez 2019). Such claims are simply too extreme to be defended as aspirational. The complete decarbonization of the global energy supply will be an extremely challenging undertaking of an unprecedented scale and complexity that will not be accomplished — even in the case of sustained, dedicated and extraordinarily costly commitment — in a matter of few decades.
This is tough stuff, and since it accords with my own thinking I am inclined to agree with him. It’s a good paper, and well worth a read. It makes me feel, yet again, that the whole 2050 target has nothing to do with science and technology and a great deal to do with politics. I hope that our PM, who must know all this, can be prevailed upon to stick to his current strategy — say as little and do as little as possible in this fraught domain.