The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion A scientist’s inconvenient truths about decarbonizing the economy

An oil rig in Midland, Tex,, in 2020. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez, File)

Former vice president Al Gore won an Academy Award 15 years ago for his documentary about the dangers of climate change, “An Inconvenient Truth.”

It’s too bad that title is already taken. It would have been perfect for a new book about how difficult — daunting, really — it will be to end or even substantially reduce global dependence on carbon-emitting fossil fuel use.

Author Vaclav Smil chose “How the World Really Works,” which was apt enough. Whereas Gore sought to alarm his audience into action, Smil offers something akin to a timeout for reflection. His goal is to steer climate debate between what he considers equally unproductive extremes of “catastrophism” and “techno-optimism.”

“We are a fossil-fueled civilization whose technical and scientific advances, quality of life, and prosperity rest on the combustion of huge quantities of fossil carbon,” Smil declares, “and we cannot simply walk away from this critical determinant of our fortunes in a few decades, never mind years.”

To be clear, Smil writes more in sorrow than in anger. He is no climate denier. An environmental scientist affiliated with the University of Manitoba and fellow of the Royal Society of Canada’s Academy of Science, he comprehends and acknowledges the risks posed by accumulating atmospheric carbon dioxide.

You might call him a climate complexifier. Smil reminds us that, as damnably carbon-intense as they are, fossil fuels are undeniably useful, and versatile. That is why the world adopted them to replace other energy sources over the past 150 years or so.

Specifically, humankind uses 17 percent of the world’s primary energy supply just to make four materials — ammonia (for fertilizer), steel, cement and plastic — resulting in 25 percent of all global carbon emissions. These substances, Smil explains, are “pillars of modern civilization,” crucial to feeding, housing, transporting and — through medical devices or hospital construction — healing billions of people.

Not only are there no readily available substitutes for these materials, but also there are no practical low-carbon ways to produce enough to meet current demand. And the world must actually expand their production as Africa and Asia modernize.

Some 3.1 billion people, including nearly all of those living in sub-Saharan Africa — consumed no more energy, per capita, in 2020 than the people of France and Germany did in 1860. Smil estimates that providing them “a dignified standard of living” would require doubling that rate.

Consequently, Smil argues, there is little or no chance of meeting the United Nations target of “net zero” emissions by 2050 — just 28 years from now. Despite a 50-fold increase in the supply of new renewable energy since 2000, he notes, fossil fuels still provide 85 percent of global primary energy, down from 87 percent.

Smil’s sobering assessment would probably still apply even if Congress were to adopt President Biden’s climate agenda or something like it. No industrialized country has pursued renewables and decarbonization more aggressively than Germany, which has spent many billions of dollars on that purpose so far in the 21st century. Yet between 2000 and 2019, Germany reduced the fossil-fuel share of its primary energy supply only modestly, from 84 percent to 78 percent, Smil observes.

Much of that energy came from Russia, alas. Now Germany is scrambling to find other sources in the wake of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggression in Ukraine. This could accelerate the German transition to renewables. Overall, though, the new geopolitical situation seems less conducive to the global political cooperation Smil rightly identifies as a precondition for maximum decarbonization.

In Smil’s provocative but perceptive view, unrealistic notions about carbon reduction are partly, and ironically, attributable to the very productivity that societies achieved by substituting machine work, powered by fossil fuels, for draft animals and human laborers.

Modern people live “disconnected” from firsthand experience of what it takes to make stuff, especially in the United States, a service-dominated economy where just 13 percent of the labor force is engaged in goods production and a mere 1.5 percent in agriculture.

“The proverbial best minds do not go into soil science and do not try their hands at making better cement,” Smil writes, “instead they are attracted to dealing with disembodied information, now just streams of electrons in myriads of microdevices.”

This argument will no doubt infuriate some readers, as will Smil’s contention that dependency on fossil fuels persists not just because of greedy industries or negligent politicians but also because of the general human “propensity" for short-term thinking.

He may fairly stand accused of failing to counter that propensity: This is that rare public policy book that offers essentially no solutions. Smil shows why one oft-cited idea, capturing carbon from the atmosphere, wouldn’t work but doesn’t really address arguments for a potentially more effective remedy: a carbon tax. “I am a scientist,” he declares, with “no agenda.”

You can agree or disagree with Smil — accept or doubt his “just the facts” posture — but you probably shouldn’t ignore him.

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