Eliminating greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 is virtually impossible. Pivoting even by 2090 is optimistic
The United States Congress will soon debate a non-binding resolution introduced by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Senator Ed Markey (D-Mass.) expressing the sentiment that Congress should adopt a so-called Green New Deal. A central part of this new deal is the proposal that the U.S. eliminate greenhouse gas emissions from the burning of fossil fuels such as coal, oil and natural gas by 2030. As fossil fuels now account for 80 per cent of American energy consumption, the Green New Deal would entail a profound and rapid “decarbonization,” or transformation of the energy economy to alternative fuels.
In a report published this week by the U.K Global Warming Policy Foundation, I describe the problems that governments would have to address if they seriously were to attempt to manage a transition such as that proposed in the Green New Deal.
Historically, the availability and use of energy sources was determined largely by geography and technology. The changes over time followed a pattern in which diffuse energy sources, such as wood, that needed large areas of land to produce, were replaced by denser ones, such as oil and natural gas. The choice as to which new technology to adopt was made in energy markets; generally, the technologies and fuels that offered more advantages in terms of cost, performance and reliability won out. Past transitions were slow, painstaking and difficult to predict.
There has been much recent academic research on the timescales involved. Professor Vaclav Smil of the University of Manitoba is a leading authority in the field and suggests that a timeframe of 50 to 70 years or longer is normal. This is because there is substantial inertia built into economies. Important capital goods and infrastructure have long economic lives; cars may average lives of only 10 years, but the average lives of other assets can be much longer — 30 years for locomotives, 35 to 80 years for electricity-generating plants, and 50 to 100 years for bridges and dams. Typically, hundreds of billions if not trillions of dollars of society’s capital are invested in these assets. Replacing them because a new technology arrives would impose enormous costs, which would be even higher to the degree that the technology is immature or unproven.
The likely high cost of decarbonization has been amply demonstrated in the case of renewable energy. In Germany, the costs of transition from coal and nuclear energy to wind and solar plants has already exceeded $1 trillion, with so far only modest reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.
Those who foresee rapid decarbonization assume that all economic sectors and services can be electrified and that electricity can be delivered by intermittent renewable energy sources. Yet today, the technologies needed to make this feasible, especially affordable grid-scale electricity storage, do not exist. This is especially so in transportation, where the high energy density of oil products makes them the ideal source of motive power. Decarbonization involves reversing the historic transition from less dense to more dense energy sources, and thus major changes in the land requirements for energy production.
At the core of the policy thrust for rapid decarbonization is the view that people cannot be relied upon freely to make the right decisions as to which fuels to buy and sell and that governments must adopt policies and regulations to force the pace of change. Successful planning decisions concerning future energy supplies would depend on governments being able to judge future energy market conditions and prices in a rapidly evolving and highly competitive world. The question is whether governments have the information needed to make good decisions about which products, services and technologies are the right ones. The history of government economic regulation, industrial planning and ultimately central planning of the economy has generally been one of failure far more often than success.
• Robert Lyman, a former director general of environmental affairs at Transport Canada, is an energy policy consultant based in Ottawa.