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. https://doi.org/10.1038/s44168-024-00126-0

May 3, 2024 Reading How the World Really Works

Sometimes my readers send me photos of my books displayed in bookstores in London, Tokyo, New York or Prague, and I take these sightings as expected signs of globalization. But here is something beyond expectation: a video clip of Siebe Vanhee  –an accomplished big wall climber — Siebe Vanhee (thenorthface.co.uk) –- reading How the World Really Works while stuck for days in a portaledge hanging on a mountain wall: Siebe Vanhee – El Vikingo | The advantage of being stuck in a portaledge 700m of the ground… At home I can never do this, reading 4 books in 9 days! We have been… | Instagram

Thanks to Tony Morley for coming across the clip!

April 22, 2024 The WEC Energy Systems Luminary Award

During its 100th year the World Energy Conference held in Rotterdam awarded me The Energy Systems Luminary Award “for significant thought leadership in recognition of significant contributions to advancing energy literacy. Professor Smil’s achievements in effectively bridging the gap between complex energy concepts and public understanding have fostered a more informed and conscious modern world energy society.”

April 1, 2024 New translations

The latest translations of my books include Grand Transitions in Hungarian; How the World Really Works in Hungarian, Polish, Portuguese and Russian; Invention and Innovation in Italian; Numbers Don’t Lie in German, Lithuanian and Polish; and Size in Czech and Slovak.

Bill Gates makes his reading recommendations for holidays and Invention and Innovation is one of the three featured books

There is one writer whose books I’ve reviewed on Gates Notes more than anyone else: Vaclav Smil. I’ve read all of his 44 books, which cover everything from the role of energy in human life to changes in the Japanese diet. I find his perspective to be super valuable. Although sometimes he’s too pessimistic about the upside of new technologies, he’s almost always right—and informative—when it comes to the complexities of deploying those technologies in the real world.

In his newest book, Invention and Innovation: A Brief History of Hype and Failure, Smil looks skeptically at the notion that we’re living in an unrivaled era of innovation. Based on his analysis of fields including agriculture, transportation, and pharmaceuticals, he concludes that our current era is not nearly as innovative as we think. In fact, he says, it shows “unmistakable signs of technical stagnation and slowing advances.”

This conclusion feels especially counterintuitive at a time when artificial intelligence and deep learning are advancing so fast. But to Smil, AI researchers only have managed “to deploy some fairly rudimentary analytical techniques to uncover patterns and pathways that are not so readily discernible by our senses” and produced “impressive achievements on some relatively easy tasks.”

Smil believes there was only one real period of explosive innovation in the past 150 years: 1867-1914. During those years, inventors created internal combustion engines, electric lights, the telephone, inexpensive methods of producing steel, aluminum smelting, plastics, and the first electronic devices. Humanity also gained revolutionary insights in the fields of infectious disease, medicine, agriculture, and nutrition. 

Smil argues that the ensuing years have been lackluster, with far more “breakthroughs that are not” than important inventions that achieve scale and stick in the marketplace. One of his iconic examples of a false breakthrough is leaded gasoline, which helped internal combustion engines operate much more smoothly but produced devastating cognitive declines and millions of premature deaths.

One thing that I agree with him about is how the exponential growth in computing power over the past several decades has given people a false idea about growth and innovation in other areas. Smil acknowledges “the much-admired post-1970 ascent of electronic architecture and performance,” but he concludes that this growth “has no counterpart in … other aspects of our lives.” It’s misguided to assume that anything else will grow as fast as computing power has.

On the other hand, I think Smil underestimates accomplishments in AI. The past two years of AI improvement, particularly large language models, have surprised all of us. In fact, we’re starting to see early signs that machines can produce human-like reasoning—moving beyond just producing answers to questions they were programmed to solve. AI is going to become smart, not just fast. When it achieves what researchers call “artificial general intelligence,” that will give humanity incredible new tools for problem solving in almost every domain, from curing disease to personalizing education to developing new sources of clean energy. And as I wrote earlier this year, we will have to develop strict guidelines and protocols to curtail negative outcomes.

Smil also neglects to account for the convergence of new technologies. In the work I do with the Gates Foundation and Breakthrough Energy, I have a great vantage point for observing innovation driven not just by advances in one area (AI, for example) but by the compounding effectsof many different technologies advancing at the same time, like digital simulations, storage capacity, mobile communications, and domain-specific tools such as gene sequencing.

Smil is also pessimistic about many green technologies, including some approaches that I’m investing in. For example, he describes sodium-cooled nuclear fission reactors as pie in the sky. And yet in May I walked on the ground that will soon be broken for just such a reactor. Thanks to advances in digital simulation as well as ample risk capital, TerraPower has designed a sodium-cooled reactor that could be delivering power to the grid by 2030. Even if it takes longer to get running, I’m optimistic that sodium-cooled reactors are not just technically possible but will also prove to be economically viable, safe, and helpful for achieving net-zero carbon emissions.

Every Smil book that I own is marked up with lots of notes that I take while reading. Invention and Innovation is no exception. Even when I disagree with him, I learn a lot from him. Smil is not the sunniest person I know, but he always strengthens my thinking.

Invention and Innovation, by Vaclav Smil. Are we living in the most innovative era of human history? A lot of people would say so, but Smil argues otherwise. In fact, he writes, the current era shows “unmistakable signs of technical stagnation and slowing advances.” I don’t agree, but that’s not surprising—having read all 44 of his books and spoken with him several times, I know he’s not as optimistic as I am about the prospects of innovation. But even though we don’t see the future the same way, nobody is better than Smil at explaining the past. If you want to know how human ingenuity brought us to this moment in time, I highly recommend Invention and Innovation.

See: Is this really an unrivaled era of innovation? | Bill Gates (gatesnotes.com)

November 10, 2023 New translations

By the end of 2023 my books have been translated into 35 languages. Here are some of the latest additions. How the World Really Works has been published in Chinese, Czech, Greek, Korean, Slovak, Slovenian, Spanish and Ukrainian translations. Energy and Civilization came out in Turkish, Growth and Grand Transitions in Czech, Size in Dutch, and Invention and Innovation in German.

Materials and Dematerialization

World-renowned scientist Vaclav Smil examines a critical topic in the research and policy domain of sustainable resource use

Over the course of time, the modern world has become dependent on unprecedented flows of materials. Now even the most efficient production processes and the highest practical rates of recycling may not be enough to result in dematerialization rates that would be high enough to negate the rising demand for materials generated by continuing population growth and rising standards of living.

Materials and Dematerialization considers the principal materials used throughout history, from wood and stone, through to metals, alloys, plastics and silicon, describing their extraction and production as well as their dominant applications. The evolving productivities of material extraction, processing, synthesis, finishing and distribution, and the energy costs and environmental impact of rising material consumption are examined in detail, along with the relationship between socio-economic development and resource use, including major technological and innovation aspects. The book concludes with an outlook for the future, discussing the prospects for dematerialization, potential constraints on materials, and an updated appraisal of material requirements and prospects during the coming decades.

Building on the success of his 2013 book, Vaclav Smil has thoroughly revised this landmark text to highlight advances that have taken place over the last decade, including a thorough review of statistics and references to 2022. This updated edition also includes new content to explicitly address material for global energy transition and for securing food for a still growing global population.

Praise for the 1st edition

“Vaclav Smil keeps turning out amazing books. Making the Modern World, I just finished, and it’s pretty fantastic.” (Interview with Bill Gates, January 2014)

June 26, 2023 John Wiley published Materials and Dematerialization

John Wiley published Materials and Dematerialization. The book considers the principal materials used throughout history, from wood and stone, through to metals, alloys, plastics and silicon, describing their extraction and production as well as their dominant applications. The evolving productivities of material extraction, processing, synthesis, finishing and distribution, and the energy costs and environmental impact of rising material consumption are examined in detail, along with the relationship between socio-economic development and resource use, including major technological and innovation aspects. Materials and Dematerialization concludes with an outlook for the future, discussing the prospects for dematerialization, potential constraints on materials, and an updated appraisal of material requirements and prospects during the coming decades.

June 15, 2023 Reanalysis of all growth curves from Growth

Posted on June 15, 2023 2023 by Vaclav Smil

In early 2023 Liam Shaw, a computational biologist in the Department of Biology at Oxford University, proposed to make a statistical reanalysis of all growth figures published originally in my book Growth: From Microorganisms to Megacities. I welcomed his suggestion, shared the original data and on June 15, 2023 Liam posted the results for 80 curves on github: https://github.com/liampshaw/Smil-Growth-2019

and they are also archived permanently on Zenodo: https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.8043245

Here are six examples of posted growth curves ranging from bacteria to national GDP growth: growth of Escherichia coli, US wheat yields, maximum steam turbine capacities, capacities of commercial airplanes, total number of Internet hosts, and Japan’s GDP growth.                                            

Size: How it Explains the World

‘There is no author whose books I look forward to more’ Bill Gates

The New York Times bestselling author returns with a mind-opening exploration of how size defines life on Earth.

Explaining the key processes shaping size in nature, society and technology, Smil busts myths around proportions – from bodies to paintings and the so-called golden ratio – tells us what Jonathan Swift got wrong in Gulliver’s Travels – the giant Brobdingnagian’s legs would buckle under their enormous weight – and dives headfirst into the most contentious issue in ergonomics: the size of aeroplane seats.

It is no exaggeration to say this fascinating and wide-ranging tour de force will change the way you look at absolutely everything.