Sobering perspective on ‘net zero by 2050’ from Vaclav Smil

The Australian (theaustralian.com.au)

BY: TICKY FULLERTON

OCTOBER 24, 2021

Since the first global climate meeting in 1992, the world has only achieved a drop from 87 to 83 per cent fossil fuels.

Dr Vaclav Smil, global thought leader & the go-to guy for Bill Gates on the future of energy & resources, delivered an incendiary start to the Credit Suisse Asia Pacific ESG conference last week.

Asked for his thoughts on how to transition energy in the middle of an energy crisis, he said this was the wrong question.

Sure, Glasgow can have its group hug at COP26 but Smil says targets & forecasts are of no use when the world is fundamentally, overwhelmingly a fossil fuel civilisation.

“Next time when you take a chicken breast, that’s one cup of diesel fuel behind it. A small steak, depending on the cut, is nine to 10 cups of diesel fuel, unless it’s an Australian grass fed steak. Most beef is finished in feed yards,” he says. Tractors, combines, trucks & ships mean transport costs more than the food itself.

The emeritus professor from Manitoba University in Canada reads around 70 books a year, outside his brief & has so far written 45 of his own. All of his are reportedly read assiduously by Gates, who apparently waits on them like a new episode of Succession.

Smil pitched a barrage of problems to a slightly stunned investment audience.

The world gets 83 per cent of its energy from fossils. For the Middle East that number is 99 per cent, Australia 91 per cent, China 87 per cent, the US 83 per cent. Germany spent 20 years turning itself green but it is still 78 per cent fossil fuels.

Since the first global climate meeting in 1992, the world has only achieved a drop from 87 to 83 per cent fossil fuels.

In absolute terms, the amount of fossil fuel has increased.

“Now I am told in the next 30 years by 2050, we are going to go from 83 per cent to zero. That strains one’s imagination. We are burning more than 10 billion tonnes of fossil fuels & we are dependent, in every facet of existence.”

Smil starts with eating: nitrogen fertiliser, where the main input is gas. Without it, he says we could feed only half the world. There is no ready replacement for ammonia synthesis at scale.

Then to heating, which for the northern hemisphere in particular is a human right. The threat of a winter of discontent in Europe & Britain comes just ahead of Glasgow.

And lastly there’s the world’s dependence on the four pillars of civilisation: steel, ammonia, cement & plastics, all of which use fossil fuels.

Smil has no argument about global warming, something he says was acknowledged in 1860. Nor has he an issue with transition, where he sees gas playing a central role.

It is the pace of the transition, pushed by organisations like the International Energy Agency, that he believes to be cuckoo.

“We are in the very early stages of transition from fossil fuels to something else,” he says. “It took us 100 years to go from wood to 50 per cent coal, 100 years to go from zero oil to about 40 per cent oil. It has taken us so far about 70 years to go from zero gas to about 25 per cent gas. “

“These transitions are always unfolding, always at their own sweet pace. This could be accelerated, but within reason. You can’t say ‘by 2030 or by 2035’ – it doesn’t work that way.”

The reason is that with fossil fuels action needs to be taken at the same time on every front.

Yet the West can barely solve one problem at a time.

The pace of transition is where Smil & Gates part company. Innovation is the DNA of the Microsoft founder, who believes new technology like hydrogen is the answer.

“Bill is an American,” says Smil. “Americans are optimists. They think that they can invent their way out of some problems.”

He points to the Covid-19 vaccine breakthrough. “Putting it together was no problem but making it into billions was a problem. We have overcome that, but now 10 to 20 per cent don’t want to take the vaccines, marching through the streets & saying ‘my body, my choice’. Technical solutions don’t solve everything.”

Smil remains sceptical of progress in technology. Take the efforts being made to replace diesel container ships that underpin world supply chains.

“The Norwegians put into operation the first electric container ship just this year with 120 containers. It goes about 30 nautical miles. The biggest container ships in the world carry 24,000 containers, can go easily 13,000 nautical miles.”

And 20 years since talk began on electric cars, he says, the world has 7 million, with 1.2 billion internal combustion engines still on the road. The 2050 “net zero” target also involves massive amounts of carbon being captured underground, a challenge of scale that looks bleak.

Until all five big emitters pitch in to cut emissions – China, the US, the EU, Russia & India – Smil predicts any change will be small, perhaps a fall from 36 billion tonnes of emissions a year to 32 billion. “Neither China, India or Russia is rushing to sign on any dotted line.”

Asked what the world will look like in 2050 if it does not meet the 2050 target, Smil says simply: that depends. Perhaps France’s Macron will have convinced the EU to accept nuclear.

Sobering perspective on ‘Net-Zero’ by 2050 from Vaclav Smil – The Oz 24th Oct 2021 3 “We are not powerless, we are always changing – just not at the pace people would imagine it should be now. We have raised expectations too much,” Smil says.

“We’ve got into this habit that anyone can forecast. No, anything beyond about six weeks, it’s not even guessing. A fairytale. Thirty years ago in 1991, there was still the USSR & China was a minor economy. China’s economy has multiplied 14 times.”

“Would someone in 1991 have forecast there would be no USSR by now & China would expand & that global warming would be the No.1 international issue? It certainly wasn’t in 1991.”

“The climate crisis at that time was acid rain. And the world did solve it & moved on. “

 

TICKY FULLERTON EDITOR-AT-LARGE, THE AUSTRALIAN BUSINESS REVIEW Ticky Fullerton is one of Australia’s most experienced commentators and journalists. She has worked as an investigative reporter with Four Corners, as a political reporter in Canberra and also as presenter for the national farming program, Landline.

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2 comments

  • Peter Corran October 26, 2021   Reply →

    And 25,000 dreamers flying each way on fossil fuelled planes, staying in warm hotels in cold Glasgow, and eating about a million diverse meals is going to save the planet? This is the 26th conference!
    What has been achieved so far and at what cost? Insanity personified.

  • Greg Ivey October 27, 2021   Reply →

    The COP26 Conference in Glasgow is a vital step in reducing fossil fuel emissions and reducing global warming despite the “cost”.
    Dr Smil speaks from the fossil fuel industry point of view, is pessimistic about the pace of transition, and is discouraging companies from joining the transition. His views are minority views now and the tide of scientific and popular opinion is against him.

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