Vaclav Smil is the author of more than 40 books, most of them dealing with how humans can live sustainably on the Earth. His most recent book, “How the World Really Works: The Science Behind How We Got Here and Where We’re Going,” will be published in May. In a lengthy interview published recently in the New York Times Magazine, he argues that climate need to get real and follow the science if they are to be effective. Due to the length of the interview, we are breaking it down into several parts for our readers to make it more digestible.
Who Is Vaclav Smil?
Many of us are not familiar with Vaclav [pronounced Va:tslaf] Smil, so here is a synopsis of who he is and what he stands for from our friends at Wikipedia*. Smil was born in a remote part of what is now the Czech Republic. As a youth, his primary role in his family’s home life was chopping wood to heat their cottage, which gave him a keen appreciation for the concepts of energy density and efficiency.
He and his wife Eva emigrated to the US and then to Canada in 1969, shortly after Russia did to Czechoslovakia what it is doing to Ukraine today. (Some things never change.) In 1972, he began teaching introductory environmental science courses at the University of Manitoba and writing books about energy, atmospheric change, China, population and economic development.
He is skeptical there will be a rapid transition to clean energy, believing it will take much longer than many predict. He says, “I have never been wrong on these major energy and environmental issues because I have nothing to sell,” unlike many energy companies and politicians. In 2018, he noted that coal, oil, and natural gas still supply 90% of the world’s primary energy. Despite decades of growth in newer renewable energy technologies, the worldwide proportion of energy supplied by fossil fuels had increased since 2000.
He emphasizes that “the greatest long-term challenge in the industrial sector will be to displace fossil carbon used in the production of primary iron, cement, ammonia and plastics,” which account for 15% of the total fossil fuel consumption globally. He favors reducing demand for fossil fuels through energy conservation and believes the price of energy should reflect its real costs, including greenhouse gas emissions.
[Nothing could be closer to the truth. The real crime against humanity perpetrated by the fossil fuel industry has been convincing political leaders it should be exempt from one of the most basic principles of capitalism, which is that all costs of production must be accounted for.] Smil believes unchecked economic growth has to end and that humans should consume fewer materials and less energy.
The interview was conducted by David Marchese, a staff writer for New York Times Magazine. He asked Smil, “If rapid decarbonization isn’t feasible, then what’s the best way to stop heating the planet?” Smil’s response may be a bit unsettling to those of us — particularly at CleanTechnica — who think we have a handle on what is happening and what needs to be done.
“The most important thing to understand is the scale. An energy transition affecting a country of one million people is very different from a transition affecting a nation of more than one billion. It is one thing to invest a few billion dollars, another to find one trillion. This is where we are in terms of global civilization: This transition has to happen on a billion and trillion scales. Now, according to COP26, 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 IPCC, 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? Especially considering that we have yet to develop a widespread and widely agreed upon method of carbon sequestration? People toss out these deadlines without any reflection on the scale and the complexity of the problem. Decarbonization by 2030? Really?”
“I understand the problem of setting difficult goals, but aren’t goals necessary for orienting our actions?” Marchese asks.
“What’s the point of setting goals which cannot be achieved? People call it aspirational. I call it delusional. We are forging ahead with more SUVs. On average, SUVs in the United States put out 14 percent more carbon dioxide than small passenger cars. Additionally, the International Energy Agency released a study in 2019 that found SUVs to have been more responsible for increasing carbon emissions over the previous decade than heavy industry, trucks, aviation and shipping.
“We are building bigger houses, we want to invent new techniques to make more steel. But do we need all that more and bigger? I’m not against setting a goal. I’m all for realistic goals. I will not yield on this point. It’s misleading and doesn’t serve any use because we will not achieve it, and then people say, ‘What’s the point?’ I’m all for goals but for strict realism in setting them.”
“When you talk about SUVs and building bigger houses, you’re really talking about people’s consumption choices,” Marchese says.
“Do you think changing those is an easier goal than decarbonizing? Well, we changed people’s consumption by letting them have their SUVs. We can change people the other way. We could say, “To save the planet people should drive smaller cars. If you drive a smaller car, you get a rebate. If you drive an SUV, you pay a surcharge.
“There are many ways to go around bringing realistic goals. You don’t have to invent new things to solve these problems. This promise of inventions — 3-D printing! Houses will be printed! Cars will be printed! Have you seen any printed houses and cars? We live in this world of exaggerated promises and delusional pop science. I’m trying to bring it onto some modest track of reality and common sense.
“The official goal in the US is complete decarbonization of electricity generation by 2035. That’s Biden’s program: zero-carbon electricity in 2035. The country doesn’t have a national grid! How will you decarbonize and run the country by wind and solar without a national grid? And what will it take to build a national grid in a NIMBY society like the US?”
Vaclav Smil is saying things that challenge many of us who proselytize about the transition away from fossil fuels. In Part 2 of the interview, Smil clarifies his views on sustainability and common sense.
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