The Lowdown Hub

How the World Really Works by Vaclav Smil — what powers our economies

Smil argues that any decline in fossil carbon will be gradual, not sudden or rapid © Loop Images/Universal Images Group

It must be exhausting to be Vaclav Smil. Everywhere the Canadian scientist turns, he encounters the unmoored thinking of influential but deluded windbags. If it isn’t Elon Musk planning to colonise Mars, it’s giddy environmentalists insisting that global warming can be easily fixed or catastrophists predicting a return to the stone age as oil extraction peaks.

The Czech-born Professor Smil has tried to put matters straight in many of the 40-plus books and 500-odd papers he has published in a career spent largely at the University of Manitoba. In the process he has earned praise from Bill Gates (“there is no author whose books I look forward to more”) and David Keith, a Harvard geoengineering expert who calls Smil “a slayer of bullshit”.

Global bullshit production levels have apparently remained high enough for Smil to continue his reality-checking quest in How the World Really Works, a new book his publishers call his magnum opus. “I am neither a pessimist nor an optimist; I am a scientist,” he writes in the introduction, with typically Smilian swagger.

In fact, he is more of a numberist, a polymath with a gift for rigorously crushing complex data into pleasing morsels of information. Exhibit one: a 2011 paper in which he calculated the dry mass of humans on the planet had grown so much that we outweigh wild land mammals by at least a factor of 10.

The new book continues this cheering trend, revealing that the 4.4bn tons of cement that China made in the two years of 2018 and 2019 nearly equalled the 4.56bn tons the US made during the entire 20th century. Yet much of the volume dwells on a topic that has long preoccupied Smil, a distinguished energy scholar: the world’s increasingly fraught use of fossil fuels.

He correctly writes that there is no way of knowing how the world really works without understanding the fundamental importance of energy in human affairs. And he is baffled that modern economics, whose practitioners have more sway over public policy than any others, has paid relatively little attention to the subject. A lack of understanding has led to “proponents of a new green world naively calling for an near-instant shift from abominable, polluting, and finite fossil fuels to superior, green and ever renewable solar electricity”, he writes.

There are, he agrees, enormous opportunities to generate more electricity with solar cells and wind turbines. But in big, populous nations, complete reliance on these renewables cannot be done without huge power-storage systems or extensive grid upgrades to transmit green electricity over vast distances to where it is needed.

And even if this had already happened, electricity generation is not the only source of greenhouse gas pollution. It accounts for a relatively small 18 per cent of final global energy consumption at present (oil and gas make up a large chunk of the rest). This may grow as home heating and other fossil-fuel-guzzling activities are electrified.

But some activities are going to be hard to power electrically, such as long-distance wide-body jet flights. An even larger dilemma is posed by what Smil calls “the four material pillars of modern civilization”: steel, ammonia, cement and plastics. At present, there is no widely available, commercial-scale way of making these materials with electricity alone, no matter how green it is.

Fossil fuels are also of existential importance when it comes to the agrochemicals and synthetic fertilisers used in the global food system. Going back to purely organic farming, Smil writes, would require a much bigger rural workforce. Most of us would have to abandon cities, resettle villages and spend much of our time collecting and spreading animal manure. “I do not foresee the organic green online commentariat embracing these options anytime soon,” says Smil, adding that, even if they did, they would not produce enough food for half the world’s population. In short, any decline in fossil carbon will inevitably be gradual, not sudden or rapid.

In his zeal to make his argument, Smil can over-reach. He puts trucks in the same hard-to-decarbonise category as planes, even though electric trucks are already on the road and manufacturers are planning more models to meet rising customer demand.

He acknowledges that reputable analysts think it will in fact be possible to fully decarbonise steel, cement, aviation and plastic by mid-century — in the book’s footnotes. He overlooks technological advances in decarbonising some materials, especially steel and cement. And his digs at “global jetting” climate conference delegates who “love to travel to scenic destinations with hardly any thought of the dreaded carbon footprint” are gratuitous and grating.

This is a shame, because it detracts from a central argument that is undeniable: for all the vows that countries and companies are making to ditch fossil energy and reach net zero emissions by 2050, progress outside electricity generation has been achingly slow.

Yet the larger problem with the book is that, while it deftly diagnoses many of the obstacles to decarbonisation, it offers far too little in the way of policy remedies. Indeed, political considerations of any sort are curiously absent. For a scholar of Smil’s breadth, this is disappointing.

His deep understanding of the slow pace of past energy transitions may make him overly pessimistic about the prospect of a rapid green shift today. But the current crop of global leaders are offering depressingly little policy action to disprove his analysis any time soon.

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