In Part 1 of this story, Vaclav Smil ended with a suggestion that the United States is a long way from decarbonizing its energy grid. David Marchese of the New York Times Magazine pressed him on that point. “Mark Jacobson at Stanford has said we have most of the technology we need to produce America’s power renewably and keep the grid secure and stable by 2035. Or what about the example of countries like Norway or Namibia that are producing a vast majority of their energy from renewables?
“Check the China statistics. The country is adding, every year, gigawatts of new coal-fired power. Have you noticed that the whole world is now trying to get hands on as much natural gas as possible? This world is not yet done with fossil fuels. Germany, after nearly half a trillion dollars, in 20 years they went from getting 84 percent of their primary energy from fossil fuels to 76 percent. Can you tell me how you’d go from 76 percent fossil to zero by 2030, 2035? I’m sorry, the reality is what it is.”
Marchese then asked about Pascal’s Wager, the argument proposed by the 17th century French philosopher Blaise Pascal that belief in God is a good bet because the potential benefits far outweigh any drawbacks. “Couldn’t we think about the problem of decarbonization in similar terms? Maybe all the effort to transition to renewables won’t work, but the potential upside is enormous. Why not operate according to that logic?”
“This is the misunderstanding people have: that we’ve been slothful and neglectful and doing nothing. True, we have too many SUVs and build too many big houses and waste too much food. U.S. food waste has been estimated to total between 30 and 40 percent of our entire food supply.
“But at the same time we are constantly transitioning and innovating. We went from coal to oil to natural gas, and then as we were moving into natural gas we moved into nuclear electricity, and we started building lots of large hydro, and they do not emit any carbon dioxide directly. So we’ve been transitioning to lower-carbon sources or noncarbon sources for decades.
“Moreover, we’ve been making our burning of carbon much more efficient. We are constantly transitioning to more efficient, more effective and less environmentally harmful things. So, yes, we’ve been wasteful, but our engineers are not asleep. Even those SUVs, as wasteful as they are, are getting better than they were 10 years ago. The world is constantly improving.”
Next, Marchese asked about a paper Smil wrote about the future of natural gas in which he referred to Bill McKibben as America’s “leading climate catastrophist” because he describes the coming climate crisis as “imminent.” McKibben has written that moving from coal to natural gas is tantamount to breaking “our Oxycontin habit by taking up heroin instead.”
“In science you have to be careful with your words. We’ve had these problems ever since we started to burn fossil fuels on a large scale. We haven’t bothered to do anything about it. There is no excuse for that. We could have chosen a different path. But this is not our only imminent and global problem. About one billion people are either undernourished or malnourished.
“The fact of possible nuclear war these days. Remember what they used to say about Gerald Ford? He can’t walk and chew gum at the same time. This is the problem of society today. We cannot do three things at the same time. So who decides what is imminent?”
“For more than 30 years, global warming has been making headlines,” Marchese says. “We’ve been aware of this for 30 years, on a planetary scale. Our emissions have been going up steadily every year. So here’s the question: Why haven’t we done anything? I could give you a list of things we could do but we haven’t done. Why do we keep saying it’s a catastrophic problem but do nothing about it?”
“Because of systemic and institutional inertia combined with vested interests working against change.”
“But you aren’t suggesting that because we haven’t done enough in the past, then we don’t need to do something in the future?” Marchese asks.
“No. I’m just telling you that this is a totally unprecedented problem, and people don’t realize how difficult it will be to deal with. You don’t have to have 200 countries to sign on the dotted line to reduce emissions. But you have to have at least all the big emitters: China, the United States, India, Russia.
“What are the chances today of Russia, China and the U.S. signing on the dotted line as to the actual reduction of emissions by 2030? Also please notice that the Paris agreement has no legally binding language. In an ideal world, we could cut our emissions if we put our minds into it.”
In Smil’s view, that means “doing things on the margins” with far greater efficiency and less waste, Marchese points out. “So how do you understand the risk of climate change? Are we just screwed?” he asks.
“The key to understanding risk — forget about climate change — is very simple. It’s discounting the future. People will eat pork bellies and drink a liter of alcohol every day because the joy of eating pork belly and drinking surpasses the possible bad payoff 30 years down the road.
“Suppose we start investing like crazy and start bringing down the carbon as rapidly as possible. The first beneficiaries will be people living in the 2070s because of what’s already in the system. The temperature will keep rising even as we are reducing these emissions. So you are asking people now to make “sacrifices” while the first benefits will accrue to their children and the real benefits will accrue to their grandchildren.
“You have to redo the basic human wiring in the brain to change this risk analysis and say, ‘I value 2055 or 2060 as much as I value tomorrow.’ None of us is wired to think that way.”
Mark Jacobson Responds
We reached out to Mark Jacobson of Stanford University about Vaclav Smil’s remarks and he sent along these thoughts:
“First, between early 2021 and early 2022, China installed 49 GW of wind and 59 GW of solar PV, for a total of 108 GW. That buildout — 108 GW in one year — is possibly the fastest buildout of energy in history. It is 27 times the completion rate of 4 GW per year during France’s 15 year nuclear buildout. In comparison, during 2021, China installed only 25 GW of coal, which is less than one-fourth the buildout of renewables in terms of peak power.
“Second, primary energy is an irrelevant metric. What is relevant is end use energy, which is what people actually use. The end use energy required for an electric vehicle, for example, is one fourth that required for a gasoline or diesel vehicle. The end use energy for an electric heat pump is one fourth that of a natural gas heater.
“As such, when Germany and other countries switch from fossil fuel to electric vehicles and heating, end use (and primary) energy will plummet. In fact, electrifying all end uses in Germany will reduce end use energy demand by 57% without people changing their habits. That is how efficient an all electric system is.
“Such a transition will also save over 19,000 lives per year from air pollution, reduce Germany’s annual energy costs by 64%, reduce its annual energy plus health plus climate costs (social costs) by 89%, while creating 550,000 more long-term, full-time jobs than lost. There is only a benefit from a rapid transition.”
Watch for Part 3 of the interview with Vaclav Smil coming soon.