Vaclav Smil vs. Everyone
Some online reactions to Vaclav Smil and his new book, "How the World Really Works: the Science Behind How We Got Here and Where We’re Going"
Vaclav Smil has a new book out (How the World Really Works: The Science Behind How We Got Here and Where We’re Going), as referenced in the Second Power 04/26/22 Energy Link Archipelago and 05/13/22 Energy Link Archipelago.
For those unfamiliar, Smil is a world renown energy expert. A general consensus among many energy nerds is that, when Smil talks, people should listen. And people do seem to listen — even people at the New York Times, who recently interviewed Smil.
THE COMPLEXITIES of DECARBONIZATION
A key takeaway from the NYT interview is that Smil is deeply skeptical of whether fashionable net-zero emissions targets are even remotely achievable.
Smil says (emphases added):
…according to [the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference], we should reduce our carbon dioxide emissions by 45 percent by 2030 as compared with 2010 levels. This is undoable because there’s just eight years left, and emissions are still rising. People don’t appreciate the magnitude of the task and are setting up artificial deadlines which are unrealistic. Now, to answer your question. If you assume that carbon dioxide is our deadliest problem, then of course we should decarbonize totally. But people say by 2050 — they call it “net” carbon emissions. The [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change], they don’t say zero, they say “net zero.” Leaving that cushion — one billion, five billion, 10 billion tons of CO2 we will still be emitting but taking care of by carbon sequestration. Is it realistic that we’ll be sequestering so rapidly on such a scale?
People toss out these deadlines without any reflection on the scale and the complexity of the problem. Decarbonization by 2030? Really?
INFERNAL PERDITION vs. GODLIKE SINGULARITY
In a Substack piece entitled Communist Bricolage, author Daniel Pinchbeck references Smil’s unique castigation of two extreme poles: doom-and-gloom climate scientists and techno-utopian Singularitarians:
While climate scientists issue apocalyptic warnings of “imminent near-infernal perdition,” Singularitarians promote “speed-of-light godlike omnipotence.” Smil believes we will have neither: “We do not have a civilization envisioned in the early 1970s—one of worsening planetary hunger or one energized by cost-free nuclear fission—and a generation from now we will not be either at the end of our evolutionary path or have a civilization transformed by the Singularity.”
ASPIRATIONAL GOALS (or DELUSIONAL GOALS?)
Richard W. Fulmer at Master Resource, also citing the above-mentioned NYT interview, dives into Smil’s description of what constitutes civilization:
…Vaclav Smil offers an antidote to…magical thinking. Smil’s latest book, How the World Really Works: The Science Behind How We Got Here and Where We’re Going, examines what he calls the “four pillars of modern civilization: cement, steel, plastics, and ammonia.” Creating these requires burning huge amounts of fossil fuels.
Given this reality, Smil maintains, we are not going to achieve decarbonization by 2050, much less 2030. “What’s the point of setting goals which cannot be achieved?” Smil asks. “People call it aspirational. I call it delusional.”
THERE ARE NO AVAILABLE ALTERNATIVES to THE FOUR PILLARS OF CIVILIZATION
And over at The KCP Group, some additional insight is provided on those four pillars:
These pillars are essential, energy intensive and utterly embedded in the fabric of our limitlessly complex society. We are now operating at such unimaginable scale, that even if a superior substitute were found for any of these today, actually replacing them could take decades.
Cement is a good example. In just two years (2018 and 2019), China produced nearly as much cement as the U.S. did during the entire 20th century. The world now consumes more cement in a single year than it did during the entire first half of the 20th century. Cement also degrades over time, which means it needs to be constantly replaced. A less energy-intensive replacement would need to scale up to meet that kind of extraordinary and completely historically unprecedented perpetual demand. Currently there are no commercially available and mass-scale alternatives that can displace any of the established processes for producing the four pillars.
VACLAV SMIL vs. REDDIT
The final word on all things Smil goes to Twitter friend Spotted Toad, who recommends that Smil act as moderator of the sub-Reddit r/energy: