May 28, 2024 Halfway Between Kyoto and 2050

Halfway Between Kyoto and 2050: Zero Carbon Is a Highly Unlikely Outcome is published by the Fraser Institute. PDF

My first paper addressing global climate change came out half a century ago when very few people were concerned about such matters (Smil and Milton 1974), and in 1985, when I published a book about the human interference in grand biospheric cycles (Smil 1985), the world’s attention was on acid rain and the Antarctic ozone hole. Other related writings followed (Smil 1989; 1990; 1994) and in 1997 I published another book about the civilization and changing biogeochemical cycles (Smil 1997). Soon afterwards the field of global climate change began to morph. Instead of impartial inquiries into a complex and fascinating scientific subject we got increasingly polarized interpretations (often by instant experts) with extreme positions ranging from denying the very existence of the phenomenon whose understanding goes to the golden age of 19th century physics and chemistry to claiming that we have only ten or so years left before a global catastrophe will end our civilization. Rectification of this counterproductive situation is overdue (Büntgen 2024).

My contributions to that effort have included essential explanations and concise factual summaries in books dealing with global energy and the workings of modern civilization (including Smil 2017 and 2022). This brief report adds to that effort: it is a summary of basic facts not appreciated by those who believe that we can rapidly solve the problem by decarbonizing the global energy supply in mere 27 years.

Most people do not realize that the global retreat from fossil carbon is yet to start as we have been increasing our reliance on it and now burn some 50% more of fossil fuels than we did a quarter century ago. The coming transition is not a matter of straightforward technical substitutions (not at all like the misleadingly cited swap of landlines for mobiles), it will require fundamental changes to most of the ways we now use to energize, organize, and sustain our civilization. And the transition’s scale (currently we extract more than 10 billion tons of fossil carbon a year), global nature (requiring concerted participation of many parties), and complexity (adopting not only new ways to generate electricity or heat houses but also transforming the production of billions of tons of cement and steel and hundreds of millions of tons of plastics and ammonia, and coming up with new prime movers for all modes of transportation) make it an inherently protracted task with very high (but highly uncertain) costs whose course is, to a large extent, unpredictable. Preponderance of facts adds up to a realistic conclusion: eliminating the combustion of all fossil carbon by 2050 is highly unlikely.

Smil, V. and D. Milton. 1974. Carbon dioxide – alternative futures. Atmospheric Environment 8(12):1213-1232.

Smil, V. 1985. Carbon Nitrogen Sulfur: Human Interference in Grand Biospheric Cycles. New York: Plenum Press, xv + 459 pp.

Smil, V. 1989. Global warming and fossil fuels. Energy Studies Review 1:95-105.

Smil, V. 1990. Planetary warming: realities and responses. Population and Development Review 16:1-29.

Smil, V. 1994. China’s greenhouse gas emissions. Global Environmental Change 4:279-286.

Smil, V. 1997. Cycles of Life: Civilization and the Biosphere. New York: Scientific American Library, x + 221 pp.

Smil, V. 2017. Energy and Civilization: A History. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, x+568 pp.

Smil, V. 2022. How the World Really Works. London: Viking. 326 pp.

Büntgen, U. 2024. The importance of distinguishing climate science from climate activism. npj Clim. Action 3, 36.