Contributed by Robert Lyman © 2021 Bio
Several western governments have committed their countries to have “net zero” greenhouse gas emissions in future. In this note, I explain why achieving net zero for an entire economy would face insuperable technical and cost barriers and demand unacceptable political changes for democratic societies. Today, 84% of the primary energy needs of the world are met by oil, natural gas and coal. Five per cent is met by renewable energy sources. Net zero means increasing the uses of renewable energy entirely to replace the 84% of energy supplied by oil, natural gas and coal, and doing this in less than 30 years.
Many of the Technologies Needed are Not Available
The following are examples of technologies that would be needed to meet the “net zero” goals, but are not ready yet:
• Cellulosic ethanol as vehicle fuels
• Electrification of long-distance trucks (“semis”)
• Electrification of commercial aircraft
• Grid-scale electricity storage in batteries
• Hydrogen produced from renewables
• Large-scale tidal power
• Production of petrochemical products without hydrocarbon feedstocks
• Recovery of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere
No one can predict when, or even if, the technologies listed above will reach the stage of commercial viability, let alone wide-scale commercial acceptance.
The Costs to Consumers and the Economy would be Unacceptably High
Surprisingly, we do not know the likely full financial and economic costs of reducing emissions or of foregoing the economic benefits of continued reliance on the use of affordable and plentiful energy sources. All we have is anecdotal evidence about the costs of the measures drawn from a wide range of sources. The largest of these costs so far in Canada has been the loss in value of the energy and mining projects cancelled due directly and indirectly to climate policies – $196 billion over the 2014 to 2019 period.
The industries most likely to be affected in future are in petroleum, petrochemicals, mining, metal refining and fabrication, cement, steel, pulp and paper, and vehicle and parts manufacture. In other words, climate policies threaten to accelerate the deindustrialization of the Canadian economy and eliminate our most productive and economically viable resource industries, imposing great harm on the regions now dependent on them.
The World Cannot Produce the Materials Needed for Such a Transition in the Timeframes Proposed
In May 2021 the International Energy Agency (IEA) issued a report on “The Role of Critical Minerals in Clean Energy Transitions”. The IEA projected that the demand for key minerals such as lithium, graphite, nickel and rare-earth minerals would explode, rising by 4200 percent, 2,500 percent, 1,900 percent and 700 percent respectively, by 2040. The world does not have the capacity to meet such demand and there are no plans to fund and build the necessary mines and refineries.
The Costs and Changes in Standards of Living Involved Would not be Accepted by Western Countries under Democratic Systems of Government
There are no precedents for governments of democratic countries imposing on their citizens costs as high as those that would be entailed in net zero policies. Even in countries governed by totalitarian regimes, as in the former Soviet Union, Nazi Germany and today’s China, where governments imposed central planning and absolute state control, no country has sought to force the implementation of comprehensive changes where the results of the changes were known from the outset to sharply diminish the incomes and standards of living of the people governed.
The Non-OECD Countries Will Continue to Place their Economic Development Objectives Ahead of Emissions Reduction
By 2050, the world population is projected to grow by more than two billion people. Almost all of that growth will occur in Asia and Africa which, by 2050, will hold 80% of the world’s population. Emerging markets (E7) could grow around twice as fast as advanced economies on average. The billions of people living in those regions cannot, and will not, be constrained from making sensible economic choices by the climate policy preferences of those in the west who already enjoy high incomes and living standards. The global dog will not be waged by the ever smaller G7 tail.
The political impetus behind the net zero emissions goal in western countries must contend, sooner or later, with the combined economic, technological and political barriers to global decarbonization. The western world can proceed on a path by which it progressively reduces its industrial capacity and incomes, transferring economic activity and emissions to the countries of Asia and elsewhere. It cannot, even by the most drastic and authoritarian measures, unilaterally end the growth in fossil fuel use or emissions. One can only wonder what will happen when the majority of people in western countries comes to realize this.