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Net Zero by 2050: Three Questions
As the climate crisis becomes ever worse we are subject to a non-stop stream of web pages, blog posts, social media pages and news articles to do with alternative ‘green’ energy sources. Biofuels, solar, wind, hydrogen, ammonia, nuclear, hydroelectric, geothermal top the list — each has its proponents and detractors.
The long/medium-term goal is often to reach ‘Net Zero by 2050’, i.e., to achieve net zero emissions of greenhouse gases, particularly carbon dioxide, just one generation from now. (The word ‘net’ allows for the impact of carbon capture and sequestration technologies.) None of the alternative energy sources just listed seems to be the winner. Maybe this is because none of them, either on their own or in combination with other ‘green’ technologies, can help us actually achieve the net zero goal.
Jordan Peterson once said,
When writing a book you should have a real question you don’t know the answer to, and then you should be reading and writing and studying like mad to see if you can grapple with the problem and come to some solution. You should walk the reader through your process of thinking so that they can come to a conclusion (not necessarily yours) and at least track what you’re doing.
If we replace the word ‘book’ with ‘publication’ then his advice is something that those who write about alternative energy sources needs to consider.
With this thought in mind, we suggest that there are at least three questions that, to use Jordan’s phrase, ‘we don’t know the answer to’. They are:
Are there realistic substitutes for oil and the other fossil fuels?
Are climate responses evaluated within a systems and project management context?
Can commercial businesses/market forces provide effective leadership?
Each of these questions calls for a book-length response, and there are many more equally pressing questions. For example, ‘Is geoengineering realistic, or will it be a planet-wide demonstration of the Law of Unintended Consequences?’ is another sensible question that we could ask.
The responses to questions such as these generates a second tier of questions. For example, ‘If there is not, in fact, a realistic substitute for oil, then what happens to the airline industry?’
But, in the background there is an even more pressing question.
The industrial revolution started about 300 years ago. That profound change in the way we live was fueled (literally) by coal, oil and natural gas. We are now talking about completely switching to alternative energy sources by the year 2050, just 30 years from now. Is such a goal even close to being realistic?
In order to frame a discussion to do with this question it is useful to consider the following sketch. It shows anthropogenic (human) emissions of carbon dioxide in gigatons (billions of metric tons) since the year 1950.
Even a casual inspection of this chart tells us that,
Our annual emissions of CO2 (carbon dioxide) have increased from 6 nearly 40 megatons. This has been a straight line increase, with remarkably little scatter. Not even COVID-19 made a significant difference.
This inexorable increase has occurred in spite of all the books that have been written, conferences that have been held, sermons preached, exciting technological breakthroughs that have been announced, and learned reports that have been published.
The rapid growth in solar and wind energy has not dented this curve. (Actually, they have supplemented, not replaced, our continued use of fossil fuels.)
If we are to reach ‘Net Zero by 2050’ then we will have to reduce our use of fossil fuels at an unprecedented rate, as shown by the red dashed line. (Climate capture and sequestration technology may help, but it is still mostly in the research/pilot plant phase.)
None of this is easy.
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