There is no doubt that the greatest scientific challenge of our time, perhaps of all time, comes from the movement to phase out global carbon emissions. From the head of the United Nations to Mark Carney, to prime ministers and the CEOs of major corporations, the push to reduce carbon emissions to “net zero” by 2050 now sits as the ultimate moral, economic and scientific crusade. global.
But a big question must be asked: is this science or is it politics?
This week is FP Comment’s 24th annual Junk Science Week, dedicated to exposing the scientists, NGOs, activists, politicians, journalists, media, crackpots and charlatans who manipulate scientific data to achieve their goals. Our standard formal definition is that junk science occurs when scientific facts are distorted, risk is exaggerated (or minimized), and science is adapted and distorted by politics and ideology to serve another agenda.
Today, and for the next three days, Junk Science Week: Net Zero Edition will explore various aspects of the net zero movement, from its origins to some of its economic, political, and regulatory impacts.
There can be no better place to start than “How the World Really Works: The Science Behind How We Got Here and Where We’re Going” by Vaclav Smil. Published earlier this year, the book is described as “the product of my life’s work” by Smil, who has written 46 books in the past 50 years from his position on the University of Manitoba’s faculty of the environment. . A world-renowned expert on energy, food, economic systems, and environmental issues, Smil sums up his worldview: “I am neither pessimistic nor optimistic,” he writes. “I am a scientist trying to explain how the world really works, and I will use that understanding to better realize our future limits and opportunities.”
Smil’s scientific views on Net Zero 2050 are clearly summarized in the excerpt from How the World Really Works elsewhere on this page. His conclusion is that the goals are unattainable and pose destructive threats to human existence. Smil agrees that climate change needs to be addressed, but consistently explains that the global economic system that supports eight billion people cannot be stripped of fossil fuels. “We are a fossil fuel civilization,” he says, and we will need more of that energy to feed, clothe, house, and transport a growing world population.
It is impossible to read Smil’s extensive and complex description without realizing that attempts to reshape that world can only pose serious risks if they are not based on a sound, measured, scientific understanding of what makes the world go round, something that is missing in the net zero motion.
One of Smil’s central explorations is looking at what he calls “the four pillars of modern civilization.” It is not about political or ideological pillars such as life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, peace and good government. Smil talks about cement, steel, plastics and ammonia. The production of these essential products contributes 25 percent of all global carbon emissions from the burning of fossil fuels. They cannot be eliminated in a few decades, if ever.
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Ammonia is “the gas that feeds the world” as a fertilizer thanks to the use of natural gas in its production. Without coal-fired cement and heavy fuels, roads, bridges, office towers, apartments, power dams, and the windmills envisioned by environmentalists cannot be built or rebuilt. “Between 1990 and 2020, the large-scale concretization of the modern world has laid down almost 700 billion tons of hard but slowly crumbling material.” As concrete deteriorates, massive amounts will be needed to replace this existing structural mass that literally forms the foundation of modern life.
There is much more to the Smil perspective than net zero. It’s about “understanding our material world” and how we humans are woefully ignorant of what makes the world tick. In a relatively short book (230 pages of easy-to-read text supported by 70 pages of references and notes), Smil traces centuries of human industrial development and global economic transformation through brilliant and compelling narratives.
Smil is anything but predictable. Supports the ban on SUVs. On globalization, Smil describes the great achievements brought about by the global trade of products, technology and ideas during the last century, especially since the 1970s. However, looking ahead, the impact of COVID and other developments could bring changes. . “We may have seen the peak of globalization, and its ebb may last not just years but decades to come.”
No short review can do this book justice, a conclusion drawn not only from my own reading, but also from the scanned comments of other top reviewers, most of whom have a foot in the net zero door. His conclusion, typified by the Financial Times revision — is that while Smil has presented a dazzling history of industrial development and the role of carbon-based energy in that development, it is a pity that he is not on our side on the issue.
Smil says that his book is written for the layman. But I would argue that no serious policymaker or thinker, in government, business, or academia, could read How the World Really Works without at least worrying that there might be a big zero in the net zero.
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