To produce the power needed to phase out fossil fuels by 2050, the world would have to build one new 1.5-gigawatt nuclear plant every day for the next 30 years.
Judging from the headlines, Canada and the world are on track to ratchet up renewable energy and begin the rapid scale-down and ultimate phase-out of fossil fuels. Most energy analysts consider the fossil-fuel phase-out to be a scientific, economic and political fantasy, akin to levitation and time travel, but the movement keeps making news.
Governments everywhere — from Canada to the United Kingdom to states in Australia — are declaring climate emergencies and committing to variations on zero emissions. The international organization promoting emergency declarations claims “a fast transition to zero emissions is possible.”
Canada’s Green Party, said to be gaining ground, has a new platform plan, headlined “Mission: Possible,” to eliminate fossil fuels by 2050. A proposed Green New Deal in America aims to eliminate fossil fuels from the U.S. power grid by 2030 and phase gasoline out of the transportation sector.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh says Canada’s oil industry is on its way out: “It’s the direction the world is headed.” The newly announced Liberal and Conservative programs are leaning in the zero-carbon direction, although less explicitly.
The magnitude of the implied decarbonization effort takes us beyond the possible and into the world of junk science fiction
So what are the carbon zeroists talking about? Aside from massive amounts of government intervention — almost a total takeover of the economy — the practicality of it all looks a bit impossible, to put it mildly. As the graph below suggests, the required technological and economic change could be a little overwhelming.
The general scale of the operation is hinted at by Climate Mobilization, an organization promoting climate emergency declarations: “Only WWII-scale Climate Mobilization can protect humanity and the natural world.”
In keeping with the analogy, here are some indicators of the magnitude of the coming Green World War III.
In Canada, for example, Vancouver energy consultant Aldyen Donnelly calculated that to achieve the “deep decarbonization” Canada is aiming for will require massive expansions of non-fossil fuel sources of energy.
To produce the electric power needed to offset the lost fossil fuel energy, Canada would have to build 2.5 hydro power dams the size of British Columbia’s $13-billion Site C project somewhere in the country “every year for the foreseeable future” leading up to the proposed 2050 carbon reduction targets. The geographic and cost obstacles send that prospect into the realm of the impossible.
On a global basis, the magnitude of the implied decarbonization effort illustrated in the graph takes us beyond the possible and into the world of junk science fiction. In 2018, world consumption of fossil fuels rose to 11,865 million tonnes of oil equivalent (mtoe). To get that down to near zero by 2050 as proposed by the zeroists would require a lot of alternative energy sources.
University of Colorado scientist Roger Pielke Jr. did some of the rough numbers. “There are 11,161 days until 2050. Getting to net zero by 2050 requires replacing one mtoe of fossil fuel consumption every day starting now.” On a global basis, such a transition would require building the equivalent of one new 1.5-gigawatt nuclear plant every day for the next 30 years.
If not nuclear, then maybe solar? According to a U.S. government site, it takes about three million solar panels to produce one gigawatt of energy, which means that by 2050 the world will need 3,000,000 X 11,865 solar panels to offset fossil fuels. The wind alternative would require about 430 new wind turbines each of the 11,865 days leading to 2050.