Much of the climate debate is dominated by catastrophists and utopians, but how should the rest of us think about real solutions to serious energy and environmental problems?
In 2021, China was responsible for 31% of the world’s carbon emissions, with the U.S. being responsible for the second-largest amount—about 14%. (Statista)
Fossil fuels supply about 83% of world’s energy needs. (Our World in Data)
Fossil fuels supply 61% of U.S. electricity. (US Energy Information Administration)
Advances in technology have made our lives better—who doesn’t appreciate being able to map directions or confirm obscure facts on their smart phone? But as we’ve seen technology improve our lives, whether it is better search engines, faster communications, improved medical procedures or other efficiencies, it is easy to begin to believe that technology can solve the stickiest problems—and can solve them quickly.
We are currently seeing that belief (hope?) play out in “net-zero by 2050” movement.
It is hard to deny that we need to find ways to stop polluting the globe. But how soon we can realistically move from fossil fuel to sustainable energy is the trillion-dollar question.
Right now, the world economy—and the lifestyle in mature economies— is overwhelmingly dependent on fossil fuels, which supply about 83% of the world’s commercial energy. Getting to this level has been excruciatingly slow. The dependence on fossil fuels has dropped just 3% since 2000.
A large part of the problem is that we don’t have any realistic replacement. And even the green technologies that we do have are reliant on fossil fuels. For example, the batteries of electric vehicles are charged using electricity produced by a variety of methods—most of them based on fossil fuel. An EV in Manitoba would truly be green because that province gets 100% of its power from hydroelectric sources. But in North China, it would be a 90% coal car; in France it would be a 70% nuclear car; in Russia it would mostly be a natural gas car and in Denmark a 50% wind car. In addition, the indirect energies going into the production of materials to manufacture the car are still mostly fossil fuels.
Another part of the problem—we aren’t just talking about an electricity problem. Carbon fuels are used in a myriad of ways that are necessary for civilization. Without modern nitrogen fertilizers, we could feed only about half of today’s humanity, but these fertilizers are synthesized using natural gas. The manufacture of cement, steel and plastics also uses large amounts of fossil fuels.
Making just ammonia, plastics, steel and concrete requires nearly 20% of the world’s total energy supply generating about 25% of all greenhouse gas emissions. Alternative, non-carbon, ways of making these materials have been developed—but none is available for immediate large-scale commercial use. Decarbonizing this massive demand cannot be done in a matter of a few years.
Net-zero by 2050 has become a rallying cry, but how realistic is it to think that the world economies are going to be anywhere near that goal? It took 20 years to reduce fossil fuel use by just 3%. Believing we can flip the remaining 83% in the next 30 years appears unrealistic. However, that doesn’t mean we don’t try. It just means we try smarter with realistic goals. Maybe it is better to continue to work toward better solutions in the future, while adopting behaviors that make a difference right now.
A few doable steps favored by economist and energy historian Vaclav Smil simply involve reducing how much energy we waste. He suggests we reduce the amount of food we waste (currently about 40%, which took large amounts of energy to produce and ship), improve the efficiency of the average housing unit to reduce the amount of wasted heat and cooling, increase the efficiency of cars while providing ways to reduce their use, design walkable / livable cities, reduce the use of plastics, and adopt other easy behavioral changes that, when taken together, can make a real difference now.
The goal is still to decarbonize. But taking small steps in that direction will still get us there. It might take longer, but it might also allow us to avoid the blunders, setbacks and disruptions often found when things move too quickly.