The Net Effect of Net Zero Will Be Zero

Net Zero is a naive and unscientific fantasy. The silver bullet is decoupling.

Decoupling or the energy intensity of GPD means that it takes progressively less energy consumption to produce a dollar of GDP because of improved efficiency. The net zero dream includes the counter-factual delusion that GDP and energy consumption can continue to increase while carbon emissions magically decrease simply by decoupling and by substituting one form of energy for another.

IEA’s Net Zero Roadmap assumes that consumption per $ GDP (energy intensity of GDP) will average 4% through 2030, and will then average 2.2% from then through 2050.

“A major worldwide push to increase energy efficiency is an essential part of these efforts, resulting in the annual rate of energy intensity improvements averaging 4% to 2030—about three‐times the average rate achieved over the last two decades.

It is unclear where these improvements in energy intensity will come from but historically, the rate has been decreasing instead of increasing (Figure 1). The average from 2010 through 2021 was 1.6%, a decrease from 3.8% during the previous decade.

Figure 1. Energy consumption per $GDP has decreased progressively over time and has averaged -1.6% per year since 2010. Source: World Bank, BP & Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.

The agency goes on to say that,

“Without a projected annual average reduction of 2.2% in energy intensity, i.e. energy use per unit of GDP, TES (Total Energy Supply) in 2050 would be around 85% higher.”

And that is precisely the problem. Net zero is only dream without energy intensity improvements for which there is no basis over the last 11 years.

The energy intensity of GDP calculation involves a simple arithmetic average. That may result in distortion from rich, service-oriented economies that offshore considerable energy consumption, and then import finished products. Those countries include the U.S. and other OECD nations like Japan and Germany (Figure 2).

Figure 2. GDP is proportional to oil consumption (Logarithmic scales). Source: EIA, World Bank & Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.

To test that potential distortion, I calculated primary energy consumption per $ real GDP for every country, and then computed a world average weighted by population. Weighted-average energy consumption per dollar GDP has averaged-1.3% since 2010 (Figure 3). In other worlds, efficiency gains are probably somewhat lower than in the simple arithmetic calculation.

Figure 3. Weighted average energy consumption per dollar GDP has averaged a -1.3% since 2010. Source: Our World in Data & Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.

The bigger problem is that CO2 emissions have increased since at least 1980. It is unclear if falling energy consumption per $GDP is the controlling factor  (Figure 4).

Figure 4. CO2 emissions have increased since at least 1980. It is unclear if falling energy consumption per $GDP is the controlling factor. Source: OWID, World Carbon Atlas & Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.

Figure 5 shows that energy consumption, economic growth, population growth and carbon emissions all increase and decrease together. It seems unlikely that consumption per $GDP—a derivative of two of the curves in the figure—is, in fact, the controlling factor for carbon emissions. What is clear from the graph is that carbon emissions are unlikely to decrease as long as energy consumption, world GDP and population continue to increase. There’s no obvious escape.

Figure 5. Carbon emissions and overshoot of planetary boundaries are unlikely to decrease as long as energy consumption, world GDP and population continue to increase. Source: OWID, Global Carbon Atlas & Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.

Among the factors shown in Figure 5, energy is primary. The rest are secondary. Few of those concerned about climate change seem to understand this. That’s because they want to solve the emission problem without considering the whole system. They want to treat the symptom but not the disease.

For most, this means replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy but not making other changes in their lifestyles or behavior. Others believe that economic growth is the problem and that degrowth is the solution. Still others think that by limiting population growth, emissions will decrease. They are all partly right and but mostly wrong.

The concept of clean energy is absurd. All energy is clean until it is used and converted into work. Carbon emissions and heat are the unavoidable waste products of that conversion. When the full life-cycle of energy-plus-work is considered, no energy source or technology is substantially cleaner or more energy-efficient than any other.

Technology plays a role in addressing emissions but it is not the solution. There is only thing that really matters, and that is to use less energy. Less energy use will eventually result in reduced emissions, lower GDP and a smaller population. No other approach will work, at least not in time to make a difference for our ecosystem and for climate change.

As I wrote in late May,

“I favor a future society that is based largely on renewable energy. That society will look very different that what we know today. Substituting renewables for fossil fuels is not a solution without greatly curtailing our total energy consumption. That’s what the physics indicates will happen in a renewable future. I suggest that we stop trying to make renewables look like something that are not and cannot be, and just learn to live with them as they are.”

The great irony is that I doubt that the IEA understands the flaws in its net zero plan. The agency is narrowly focused on carbon emissions. It is not taking a system view of the problem. It is—like most of the protagonists on all sides of the climate-change debate—fundamentally energy-blind.

That does not change the fact that decoupling is a mirage and the net effect of net zero will be zero.


1 Comment

  • Very informative and somewhat disturbing series of articles. I have one question that has been bothering me which I hope you can answer.
    Fossil fuels entail burning whereas “green energy” (wind and solar) do not. However to get the wind and solar you need to make massive generators and plant them somewhere or you need to make solar panels and stick them somewhere. I am assuming that when you take into account the energy need to make solar and wind, the net effect is about the same as fossils. Is this correct?
    Thanks in advance.

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