Energy expert Vaclav Smil clearly explains why ‘net zero by 2050’ is simply impossible, writes public policy analyst Tristan Prasser.
Have you ever wondered how the world will transition to an all-renewable future? Or whether it is even possible? Have you ever thought about why we have fewer famines today despite there being more people than ever before, and what makes it possible for us to feed them all? Or more simply, have you realised how little you know about anything—especially when it comes to energy—and just want to know more? Thankfully, Vaclav Smil explains all this and more in his latest book, How The World Really Works: A Scientist’s Guide to Our Past, Present and Future.
Vaclav Smil is a Distinguished Professor Emeritus in energy and environmental studies at the University of Manitoba in Canada. The Czech-Canadian has written more than 40 books and 500 research papers in the fields of energy, environmental and population change, food production, history of technical innovation, risk assessment, and public policy. He is a quintessential ‘polymath’, “… a scientist who is trying to explain how the world really works and to use that understanding to make us better realise our future limits and opportunities …”, illuminate the complexities we face, and set out desirable tools and sensible outcomes achievable within those limits and opportunities.
Smil’s previous books—from China’s Energy: Achievements, Problems, Prospects (1976) to Grand Transitions: How the Modern World Was Made (2021)—are generally incredibly information dense, data-rich affairs. This makes them not always the easiest of reads for the layperson. However, it does not diminish Smil as perhaps the pre-eminent writer on all things energy and the environment, but only highlights he is also a detailed thinker down to the most micro of levels. How The World Really Works is a culmination of his decades’ worth of expertise and work presented in a more accessible format in seven chapters covering energy, food production, the material world, globalisation, risk, the environment, and the future.
Our dependence on fossil fuels will continue for at least several decades.
While this book is an easier read than many of his previous writings, the reader should still prepare to have their mind spun by the dizzying array of figures, calculations, and statistics that Smil packs in to illustrate his key arguments. The key point Smil makes repeatedly (and relentlessly) throughout How the World Really Works is this:
… we are a fossil-fuelled civilization whose technical and scientific advances, quality of life, and prosperity rest on the combustion of huge quantities of fossil carbon, and we cannot simply walk away from this critical determinant of our fortunes in a few decades, never mind a few years.
The second chapter, ‘Understanding Food Production: Eating Fossil Fuels’, highlights how inextricably linked fossil fuels are to our food production system. Smil is quick to dismiss any notion humanity can turn to organic farming any time soon, pointing out that using such methods could at best feed half of this planet’s eight billion people. In the third chapter, ‘Understanding Our Material World …’, Smil examines what he calls “the four pillars of modern civilisation” (ammonia, steel, concrete, and plastics). He explains each of these pillars are dependent upon vast quantities of fossil fuels in their production and use. Significantly, he highlights there are currently no substitutes to fossil fuels on a global scale that can continue to produce these basic commodities needed to sustain modern civilisation. Thus Smil concludes that until we can substitute fossil fuels with something else at scale globally, our dependence on them will continue for several decades at the very least.
Smil also points out that attempts to limit and eliminate fossil fuels so far have not fared well, citing Germany as one example. In spite of fanfare that the renewable wunderkind Germany has received and the billions upon billions of euros it has spent, “… during the two decades of Energiewende the share of fossil fuels in the country’s primary energy supply has only declined from about 84 per cent to 78 per cent”.
In the run up to last year’s Glasgow summit, Scott Morrison committed his Government to ‘net zero by 2050’. Smil addresses this idea head-on:
Complete decarbonization of the global economy by 2050 is now conceivable only at the cost of unthinkable economic retreat, or as a result of extraordinarily rapid transformations relying on near-miraculous technical advances.
Which brings us to the techno-optimists, environmental catastrophists, and misguided policymakers who have made all sorts of claims regarding decarbonisation and the ‘easy transition’ to a (not-too-distant) future powered solely by renewables. Smil is known not to suffer fools lightly, as has been clear in his rare public interviews and appearances, such as his most recent interview in The New York Times. This book is no exception. As you read through the pages, one cannot help but sense Smil’s growing exasperation and disdain for people who much prefer “mantras of green solutions” and “ignore the energy and material imperatives of our world”. Smil makes it clear he has little time for so-called experts and their cheerleaders with their overly simplistic and naïve prescriptions and inherent biases to addressing the world’s complexities and ills. As Smil writes in chapter 6. ‘Understanding the Environment: The Only Biosphere We Have’:
… it makes no sense to argue with the details of what are essentially the academic equivalents of science fiction. They start with arbitrarily set goals (zero by 2030 or by 2050) and work backwards to plug in assumed actions to fit those achievements, with actual socioeconomic needs and technical imperatives being of little, or no, concern … But we cannot instantly change the course of a complex system consisting of more than 10 billion tons of fossil carbon and converting energies at a rate of more than 17 terawatts, just because somebody decides that the global consumption curve will suddenly reverse its centuries-long ascent and go immediately into a sustainable and relatively fast decline.
A broader theme of How the World Really Works is that when platitudes and feel-good rhetoric come up against the modern world’s physical and material realities, these realities win out every time. No amount of wishful thinking will change this. As Smil points out, “the gap between wishful thinking and reality is vast” and we do not need people “trotting out their biases and advancing claims disconnected from physical possibilities”.
Realities win out against platitudes and feel-good rhetoric every time.
In Australia we have witnessed the direct result of policy derived from wishful thinking and framed by platitudes. Today’s Australian energy policy is a result of years of misguided and flawed thinking driven by gesture politics and rabid activism, all pursuing the myopic objective of carbon dioxide emission reduction. This has come at the expense of other equally (if not more important) considerations such as energy affordability, reliability, and stability. The implications of such policy failure will be far-reaching and long-lasting, and yet to be fully realised.
Thus for those wishing to further their understanding of the state of the world in which we now find ourselves and ponder what’s next, this book comes highly recommended. It is from an extraordinary writer, who sets out to explain how the world really works in a rational and dispassionate manner, supported by data, and without the polemics and hyperbole that other similar books tackling topics such as energy and climate change often suffer. It is not always an easy read, but it certainly is a must read. If you only buy one book this year, buy this one.
Tristan Prasser is a former IPA Research Fellow who has worked in State and federal government in various policy areas.