President Obama, Vaclav Smil and the Energy Budget

By Bryan Walsh, TIME

Speaking at George Washington University today on the nation’s finances, President Obama drew a line in the sand, promising to protect Medicare and Medicaid from Republican budget cuts. But at the same time, Obama didn’t play down the severity of the country’s debt woes, pledging to cut a combined $4 trillion from the U.S. budget deficit over the next 12 years:

Even after our economy recovers, our government will still be on track to spend more money than it takes in throughout this decade and beyond.  That means we’ll have to keep borrowing more from countries like China.  That means more of your tax dollars each year will go towards paying off the interest on all the loans that we keep taking out.

Indeed, politicians in both parties are competing to see who can be tougher on spending, who can pull the nation’s belt tighter. And with good reason—as President Obama pointed out, our current of spending and taxing is simply unsustainable. (Though perhaps the tail end of the recession isn’t the best time to suddenly get fiscal religion.)

But the language being used around the budget crisis—calling the country’s path “unsustainable”—should sound rather… familiar for environmentalists. Indeed the parallels between the nation’s dire fiscal future and the scary math of climate change are impossible to miss. In both cases, we’re writing checks the future can’t cash, using or spending too much now, with the bill coming due in the near future. And both fiscal hawks like Peter Peterson Paul Ryan and climate hawks like Bill McKibben demand immediate cuts and some pain now to prevent a truly frightening crash in the future.

All of which brings me to Vaclav Smil. You probably don’t know Smil, unless you’re an even bigger green nerd than I am, but he’s one of the most influential energy and environment thinkers out there, a Cezch-born polymath based at the University of Manitoba who tutors the likes of Bill Gates on power and climate change. He’s also, as Justin Gillis of the New York Times wrote today, a notorious curmudgeon, highly skeptical of the ability of human beings to rapidly change the fossil fuel-dominated energy system and generally dismissive of critics. Maybe the attitude comes from living in Winnipeg—sorry, Manitobans.

Smil has a new essay out in the American Scientist that quickly digests the global energy system and sketches out just how difficult it will be for us to shift to a low-carbon economy anywhere near as rapidly as environmentalists demand. It’s worth reading the full essay here, but suffice it to say that Smil—though he believes that the world will eventually be powered by renewables—thinks the shift will take decades, if not longer, for simple physical reasons:

Displacing even just a third of today’s fossil fuel consumption by renewable energy conversions will be an immensely challenging task; how far it has to go is attested by the most recent shares claimed by modern biofuels and by wind and photovoltaic electricity generation. In 2010 ethanol and biodiesel supplied only about 0.5 percent of the world’s primary energy, wind generated about 2 percent of global electricity and photovoltaics (PV) produced less than 0.05 percent. Contrast this with assorted mandated or wished-for targets: 18 percent of Germany’s total energy and 35 percent of electricity from renewable flows by 2020, 10 percent of U.S. electricity from PV by 2025 and 30 percent from wind by 2030 and 15 percent, perhaps even 20 percent, of China’s energy from renewables by 2020.

OK, so we’ll keep our lovely fossil fuels and just capture and sequester the carbon beneath the ground, and ensure it never escapes to warm the atmosphere. Except Smil says that’s even more absurd, pointing out just how massive any truly global carbon sequestering infrastructure would have to be:

In order to sequester just a fifth of current CO2 emissions we would have to create an entirely new worldwide absorption-gathering-compression-transportation- storage industry whose annual throughput would have to be about 70 percent larger than the annual volume now handled by the global crude oil industry whose immense infrastructure of wells, pipelines, compressor stations and storages took generations to build.

Basically, keep reading Smil on energy and you’ll want to switch to something slightly more optimistic—like Paul Krugman on Republican budget plans—just to lighten the load. But inside the gloom, Smil makes a few points that should be required reading for all American deficit hawks, whatever the party. Simply put, Americans—and Canadians, as it turns out—waste far, far too much energy, which only makes the “energy crisis” needlessly worse:

The United States and Canada are the only two major economies whose average annual per capita energy use surpasses 300 gigajoules (an equivalent of nearly 8 tonnes, or more than 50 barrels, of crude oil). This is twice the average in the richest European Union (E.U.) economies (as well as in Japan)—but, obviously, Pittsburghers or Angelenos are not twice as rich, twice as healthy, twice as educated, twice as secure or twice as happy as inhabitants of Bordeaux or Berlin.

Smil knocks down the arguments, one by one, that there’s something unique about America that requires us to use all this energy. We have a vision of America as a vast, wide-open country, but the truth is many of us live in a fairly small part of the nation. He notes that the Boston-Washington megalopolis has more than 50 million people with an average population density of about 576 per sq. mile, with nearly a dozen big cities along a narrow 1,120-mile coastal corridor. Yet while France—which has 65 million people with a national density of only 192 people per sq mile—has put together an effective high-speed rail network, the U.S. has obviously failed even in the Northeast (and the budget compromise further cuts funding for high-speed rail). Smil wonders:

Apparently, Americans prefer painful trips to airports, TSA searches and delayed shuttle flights to going from downtown to downtown at 300 kilometers per hour.

That’s an energy diss—or would be, if most of us had any idea how fast 300 kilometers an hour is.

But Smil’s point should be taken. If we’re serious about the energy and climate crisis—and serious about just how difficult it will be to solve—we need to be as ruthless about cutting energy waste as our politicians are supposedly being about cutting spending. (And those energy cuts will have to come from us—as Smil argues, in a world where energy poverty is a serious problem, most people globally need to use more power, not less.) That will mean supporting meaningful fuel efficiency standards, along with other regulations to promote the wise use of energy—even if it conflicts with certain senators’ Ayn Randian fantasies. Energy efficiency won’t get the job done alone—but if we’re going to be serious about this problem, it’s where we need to start. And as all the pundits are reminding us, it’s all about seriousness now.