Rule Five Energy Reality Friday

The energy blog Master Resource ran this a while ago, but I stumbled across it while on an airplane last week and found it an interesting read:  Antidote to Magical Thinking.  Excerpts, with my comments, follow:

In an article filed under “climate crimes,” The Guardian claims that environmental nirvana is reachable if only politicians stop listening to Big Oil and start listening to social scientists. Author Amy Westervelt argues that the technology needed to achieve “net zero” carbon emissions is at hand; we just lack the will and the laws to implement it. She quotes from a recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC):

Factors limiting ambitious transformation [to address climate change] include structural barriers, an incremental rather than systemic approach, lack of coordination, inertia, lock-in to infrastructure and assets, and lock-in as a consequence of vested interests, regulatory inertia, and lack of technological capabilities and human resources.

At least this quotation refers to real limitations, which contradicts Westervelt’s claim that:

The report made one thing abundantly clear: the technologies and policies necessary to adequately address climate change exist, and the only real obstacles are politics and fossil fuel interests.

The technologies to achieve what these people want – zero carbon emissions – do no exist, and will no exist in the foreseeable future, for a number of reasons.  As Vaclav Smil points out:

In a recent interview with the New York Times, energy expert Vaclav Smil offers an antidote to Westervelt’s magical thinking. Smil’s latest book, How the World Really Works: The Science Behind How We Got Here and Where We’re Going, examines what he calls the “four pillars of modern civilization: cement, steel, plastics, and ammonia.” Creating these requires burning huge amounts of fossil fuels.

Given this reality, Smil maintains, we are not going to achieve decarbonization by 2050, much less 2030. “What’s the point of setting goals which cannot be achieved?” Smil asks. “People call it aspirational. I call it delusional.”

Check the China statistics. The country is adding, every year, gigawatts of new coal-fired power. Have you noticed that the whole world is now trying to get hands on as much natural gas as possible? This world is not yet done with fossil fuels. Germany, after nearly half a trillion dollars, in 20 years they went from getting 84 percent of their primary energy from fossil fuels to 76 percent.

Can you tell me how you’d go from 76 percent fossil to zero by 2030, 2035? I’m sorry, the reality is what it is.

Yet, Smil does not counsel despair:

[W]e are constantly transitioning and innovating. We went from coal to oil to natural gas, and then as we were moving into natural gas we moved into nuclear electricity, and we started building lots of large hydro, and they do not emit any carbon dioxide directly. So, we’ve been transitioning to lower-carbon sources or noncarbon sources for decades.

Exactly so; carbon dioxide emissions in the Western world have been declining steadily for decades now, not because of the maniacal shrieking of climate activists but because of basic economics; improvements in technology delivering more product (energy) more efficiently, therefore cheaper.

One of those facts, of course, is that we do have a source of electricity generation right now that results in little or no carbon emissions and is cheap to boot:  Nuclear power.  But, at least in the United States, the regulatory process is so onerous that it’s difficult (and in some places impossible) to open a new nuclear power plant.  We keep hearing as well of the possible advent of small modular reactors that could power a neighborhood or a small town, but one would expect that the regulatory burden placed on those would render them impossible as well.  And that’s a shame, because I can tell you from experience that would be a damn fine solution for places like our little rural Alaska community.

The article concludes:

Amy Westervelt in The Guardian implies that all that is needed to solve global warming is will. Politicians, properly schooled, can wave their legislative wands, creating good and banishing evil. Green energy sources will pop up like mushrooms across the land, and fossil-fueled power plants will vanish into the mist.

Smil reminds us that physical laws and resource scarcities matter. Economics matters. Reliability matters. National, regional, and personal interests matter. Time matters.

Indeed.  We solve today’s problems with tomorrow’s technology, and in many cases a lot of those technological solutions are unforeseen.  For example, I can tell you with great certainty that in the 1970s nobody predicted the Internet, and yet here we are today, with a tool that has literally changed the world and ushered in the Information Revolution.

But facts matter.  Reality matters.  And the reality is that the climate activists, including Amy Westervelt, have been drinking too much Kool-Aid.