October 21, 2023
Across the globe, there are concerted efforts to ameliorate the anticipated effects of global warming by reducing use of fossil fuels and carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. The goal is to reach “net zero” emissions at some time in the near future. This will not happen. Significant utilization of fossil fuel resources will continue, not for several years, but for several decades. The concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere will continue to rise. The greenhouse effect is locked in and will not be aborted through political action.
There is an innumeracy problem. People fail to grasp the magnitude of the numbers involved in the terrestrial carbon cycle. Individuals are advised to reduce carbon emissions by driving less, eating less meat, using less energy, and recycling. One might as well attempt to empty the Pacific Ocean with a thimble. Efforts by state governments will also have no appreciable effect. California has mandated that all new car sales be electric vehicles by the year 2035. New York state has banned the use of natural gas in stoves and furnaces. Even if fully implemented, regulations such as these will have no appreciable effect on emissions. California, with 39 million people, has annual CO2 emissions of about 300 million tons. This sounds like a large number, but it’s less than one percent of total world CO2 emissions, less than 0.001 percent of the CO2 that’s already in the atmosphere, and about 0.0002 percent of the CO2 stored in the oceans.
Year after year, CO2 emissions continue to rise inexorably. Coal is responsible for more CO2 than any other fossil fuel, and worldwide use of coal continues to increase. The rate of utilization is increasing, not decreasing. Although renewable energy sources like wind and solar are the fastest growing category, their net contribution to the energy mix worldwide remains small, about 7 to 8 percent. For decades, fossil fuels have supplied about 80 percent of world energy. Fossil fuel utilization is not going to zero at any time in the foreseeable future. Energy produces human prosperity. Life expectancy, literacy, educational achievement, and wealth all correlate strongly with total energy use. And when it comes to supplying energy, fossil fuels have four great advantages: they are relatively inexpensive, reliable, abundant, and concentrated. In contrast, renewables such as wind and solar are diffuse and intermittent. If the wind does not blow, or the sun does not shine, electric power generation drops to zero. Battery storage is insufficient by many orders of magnitude. The fuels may be free, but the machinery for capturing and transferring power is neither cheap nor sustainable. We lack the technology to replace fossil fuels, nor is there any foreseeable path to this chimerical future. The limitation is not political, it is physical.
Even if there were a technological path to reach net zero, the political impediments are insurmountable. A commons area, such as the atmosphere, will undergo exploitation and degradation unless it is controlled by coercive means. Altruistic appeals to conscience are ineffective. While the US and other countries undertake herculean efforts to reduce emissions, China continues to expand coal use, and very significantly, too. In 2022, China moved forward on the construction of more than 100 coal-fired power plants. India, now the world’s most populous country, also continues to increase its use of coal. Both India and China have pledged to move away from coal in the future. But coal resources are enormous. At present consumption rates the world can continue to burn coal for hundreds of years. Commitments to future reductions in coal use are little more than unenforceable promises, likely to be forgotten under the irresistible lure of cheap and convenient energy. The reasons for utilizing coal today are compelling and will not change in the future. A few days ago, Germany announced that they’re bringing several coal-fired power plants back online, an implicit admission that their determined effort to move away from fossil fuels has failed.
There is no going back. The transition to mechanical and artificial power was initiated during the High Middle Ages when Europeans first began the wholesale exploitation of wind and water power and developed mechanisms such as the crank for transferring and regulating power. The Industrial Revolution of the late eighteenth century was the culmination of centuries of social change and technological development. The modern world has become wholly reliant upon a complex web of machinery that is largely powered by fossil fuels. People no longer have the means for self-sufficiency. We don’t live on farms, keep livestock, grow food, or have reliable networks of extended family and trusted friends.
The current political emphasis on carbon mitigation is worse than useless because it diverts attention and scarce resources that could be devoted to adaptation. If the world does not come to terms with reality, trillions of dollars will be wasted in futile and misguided efforts to stop what cannot be stopped. Funds that could have been used profitably to reduce human suffering and restore the natural environment will be squandered through hubris and ignorance. The anthropogenic greenhouse effect can be slowed, but it cannot be halted or reversed. The future, however need not be hopeless. Nuclear energy offers the promise of a sustainable low-carbon economy. But we need to recognize the physical limits on energy technology imposed by the laws of physics.