Insanity Check on Climate Change
Stanford climate scientist and ecologist Chris Field talked with podcast host Sam Harris last week. He was quite good through most of this episode called Sanity Check on Climate Change: A Conversation with Chris Field until he said,
“A few years ago, it was really unclear how we would bring emissions of carbon dioxide especially down to zero but now there are really clear pathways.”
That statement and everything that followed needed an insanity check.
Most climate-change policy addresses only electric power generation. That makes some sense since that sector is responsible for about 40% of global CO2 emissions.
At the same time, the power sector represents less than 20% of global energy consumption. It is unlikely to increase to much more than that 25% by 2050 if we optimistically assume that countries meet their stated-policy climate commitments (Figure 1).
What is the plan for the other 80% of world energy consumption?
If you think that electric vehicles (EVs) are the answer, you have a lot more faith in things that haven’t happened yet than I do. Despite the headlines about the explosive growth of EVs as a percent of new car sales, electric passenger cars accounted for only 2.1% of the global fleet in 2022 (Figure 2).
Perhaps you imagine a burst of EV growth that has not yet appeared as of 2022. The U.S. Department of Energy’s EIA does not share that view. EV energy consumption is expected to increase to only 5% of world transportation by 2050 (Figure 3). Gasoline use is expected to decrease from 41% to 36% and diesel use from 37% to 30%. Those are steps in the right direction but hardly consistent with the popular idea that oil use will collapse because of EVs.
Some will say that these projections are wrong and I agree. All projections are wrong. Still, projections by credible organizations like EIA and IEA should not be dismissed. They are based on the best available data and both agencies have an energy transition bias. If EIA is 100% wrong, that means that EVs will account for 10% of energy consumption by 2050. Big deal. You can play those multiplication tables forward and see that it would require a miracle for EVs to replace gasoline and diesel over the next few decades.
To compound this problem, passenger cars accounted for only 8% of global CO2 emissions in 2020 (Figure 4). People should buy EVs if they like them but not because they will save the planet from climate change.
Most renewable energy enthusiasts ignore the cost and land use-implications of increased wind and solar energy use, and the effect of energy substitution on the environment. Solar PV is expected to account for 24% of world electric power generation by 2050 in IEA’s stated policies scenario (Figure 5). Wind will account for 21%, hydro 14%, nuclear 9%, natural gas 13% and coal 12%.
That means adding 9,550 Gigawatts of wind and solar electric power generation from 2020 to 2050. The incremental land-use for that additional capacity will be approximately 3.2 million square kilometers or an area about the size of India. The cost will exceed $10 trillion.
IEA’s Net Zero by 2050 scenario requires roughly seven-and-a-half times the land use and five times the cost. The additional land use compared to 2020 is approximately 24 million square kilometers or an area about the combined size of Russia and Australia (Table 2). The cost would be more than $51 trillion.
Renewable researchers will correctly point out that neither solar nor wind farms occupy 100% of the area on which they are located, and may be integrated into existing crop and pasture land to a greater or lesser degree. It’s also important to note that not all areas are well-suited for wind and solar so country boundaries only serve as visual guidelines. The amount of land use is, nonetheless, stunning and its potential effect on the natural world is horrifying.
In addition to these concerns, IEA’s projections assume unrealistic improvements in energy efficiency. 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. Without these outsized efficiency gains, energy consumption and carbon emissions will almost certainly continue to increase. As the IEA explained,
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.”
In other words, all of these “really clear pathways” to net zero are not only unclear but are almost certainly wrong.
Most well-intentioned climate-change activists are energy blind and simply don’t know that renewable energy is a partial solution to carbon emissions that applies mostly to electric power generation. Field, however, should know better. He apparently doesn’t see or chooses not to talk about the limitations of renewable energy.
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