Contributed by Robert Lyman 2019. Lyman’s bio can be read here.
In October, 2019, I posted an article on the Friends of Science blog discussing the consequences if, by an unfortunate miracle, some all-powerful world government were to heed the demand of Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg and order the immediate decarbonization of the world economy. By “decarbonization”, I mean ending the use of the fossil fuels (oil, natural gas and coal) upon which the world now depends for 84% of its primary energy needs.
The previous article can be read here:
The results would be, in a word, catastrophic. Among other things, the elimination of modern farming techniques and motorized equipment would so reduce global food supply as to likely result in the starvation of over six billion people.
Some of those who commented on the article took issue with it because it did not consider the ability of non-carbon energy sources like wind, solar and nuclear energy to replace fossil fuels and it did not acknowledge the role that, in their view, electricity storage will play in assuring reliable energy supply in the face of intermittent production by wind and solar energy.
Fortunately, a few well-informed writers on climate and energy issues have already plowed this ground, so we can take advantage of their analysis. One is Roger Pielke Jr., a frequent writer on science and innovation subjects with the University of Colorado.
Pielke examined what would be required if the world tried to reduce carbon dioxide-equivalent emissions by 45% (from 2010 levels) by 2030, and completely eliminate them by 2050. These are the targets increasingly being advocated by those who believe that humans are causing catastrophic global warming. Note that these goals are considerably less demanding than Greta Thunberg’s demand that we all stop emitting immediately.
Considering 2018 global emissions and likely emissions growth to 2030, Pielke calculated that to meet the 2030 target, new carbon dioxide-free energy consumption would have to reach about 10,000 million tonnes of oil equivalent (mtoe). That means the world would have to add about 1,000 mtoe of carbon-dioxide-free energy every year over the next decade. Over the past decade, the world added about 64 mtoe of carbon dioxide-free energy per year on average. So, over the next ten years, the world would have to increase the deployment of new energy sources about 15 times faster than over the past decade.
Reaching the 2050 target would mean the replacement of almost 20,000 mtoe of projected energy consumption, which equates to the deployment of about 1.6 mtoe per day between now and 2050.
As the concept of an mtoe is difficult to grasp, one can view this in terms of the needed additions of carbon-dioxide free energy production sources, like nuclear power plants or industrial wind turbines. Pielke uses the production of a modern nuclear plant in the United States, the Turkey Point Generating Station in Homestead, Florida, which produces about one mtoe of energy per year. To achieve zero carbon dioxide emissions by 2050, the world would need to deploy three new nuclear power plants every two days for 20 years. For comparison, the United States has deployed about one new nuclear plant per year over the last 40 years.
It is an understatement that a few people might object to this option. Thus, Pielke considered how many more wind turbines the world would need to deploy. Zero carbon dioxide by 2050 would require the deployment of about 1500 wind turbines, with capacities of 2.5 MW each, every day until 2050. As 1500 wind turbines would occupy about 300 square miles of land, these turbines would cover about 3.3 million square miles (85% of the area of Canada).
These estimates ignore several other points:
• They assume that all current production of fossil fuels would have to be phased out starting immediately. The fuel-producing jurisdictions, faced with economic disaster, might “push back” a bit. Further, as the imposition of regulatory restraints on fossil fuel consumption would undoubtedly cause the price of existing production to decline sharply, governments would have to centrally plan (i.e. totally control) virtually all parts of the energy economies in all the countries of the world.
• Eliminating oil and natural gas use would end their availability as feedstocks for petrochemical production, including fertilizers, with very large impacts on food production;
• It would be necessary to replace most of the world’s existing industrial and transportation infrastructure that now depends on fossil fuels; the costs of this would be in the many trillions of dollars;
• It would require the electrification of all parts of the global economy. Currently, electricity supplies only about 20 % of the world’s energy needs, so the needed additions to transmission and distribution infrastructure would be many times what has been accomplished over the past century – all done in 30 years.
• The technological constraints are enormous. To take one example, electricity supply must be reliable, and wind and solar energy are intermittent (i.e. they produce only when the wind blows or the sun shines, not when electricity is needed). Bulk electricity storage is in its infancy. Recent estimates for utility scale storage show battery costs of around Cdn $650 per kilowatt for the system plus Cdn $250 per kilowatt for the actual batteries. The cost to provide enough storage for one cold winter day in Alberta would be $69 billion.
• It ignores the energy and carbon dioxide emissions “embedded” in the nuclear power plants and renewable energy generation equipment.
In other words, the claim that the world can and will reduce carbon dioxide emissions to attain either the proposed 2030 or 2050 targets is the product of politics and theatre, not serious analysis and understanding of the global energy system.