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Halfway Between Kyoto and 2050: Zero Carbon Is a Highly Unlikely Outcome

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From the Fraser Institute

By Vaclav Smil

The global goal to achieve “net-zero” carbon emissions by 2050 is impractical and unrealistic, finds a new study published today by the Fraser Institute, an independent, non-partisan Canadian public policy think-tank.

“The plan to eliminate fossil fuels and achieve a net-zero economy faces formidable economic, political and practical challenges,” said Vaclav Smil, professor emeritus at the University of Manitoba and author of Halfway Between Kyoto and 2050: Zero Carbon Is a Highly Unlikely Outcome.

Canada is now also committed to this goal. In 2021, the federal government passed legislation mandating that the country will achieve “net-zero” emissions—that is, will either emit no greenhouse gas emissions or offset its emissions through other activities (e.g. tree planting)—by 2050.

Yet, despite international agreements and significant spending and regulations by governments worldwide, global dependence on fossil fuels has steadily increased over the past three decades. By 2023, global fossil fuel consumption was 55 per cent higher than in 1997 (when the Kyoto Protocol was adopted). And the share of fossil fuels in global energy consumption has only slightly decreased, dropping from 86 per cent in 1997 to 82 per cent in 2022 (the latest year of complete production data).

Widespread adoption of electric vehicles—also a key component of Ottawa’s net-zero plan—by 2040 will require more than 40 times more lithium and up to 25 times more cobalt, nickel and graphite worldwide (compared to 2020 levels). There are serious questions about the ability to achieve such increases in mineral and metal production.

Although the eventual cost of global decarbonization cannot be reliably quantified, achieving zero carbon by 2050 would require spending substantially higher than for any previous long-term peacetime commitments. Moreover, high-income countries (including Canada) are also expected to finance new energy infrastructure in low-income economies, further raising their decarbonization burdens.

Finally, achieving net-zero requires extensive and sustained global cooperation among countries—including China and India—that have varied levels of commitment to decarbonization.

“Policymakers must face reality—while ending our reliance on fossil fuels may be a desirable long-term goal, it cannot be accomplished quickly or inexpensively,” said Elmira Aliakbari, director of natural resource studies at the Fraser Institute.

Summary

  • This essay evaluates past carbon emission reduction and the feasibility of eliminating fossil fuels to achieve net-zero carbon by 2050.
  • Despite international agreements, government spending and regulations, and technological advancements, global fossil fuel consumption surged by 55 percent between 1997 and 2023. And the share of fossil fuels in global energy consumption has only decreased from nearly 86 percent in 1997 to approximately 82 percent in 2022.
  • The first global energy transition, from traditional biomass fuels such as wood and charcoal to fossil fuels, started more than two centuries ago and unfolded gradually. That transition remains incomplete, as billions of people still rely on traditional biomass energies for cooking and heating.
  • The scale of today’s energy transition requires approximately 700 exajoules of new non-carbon energies by 2050, which needs about 38,000 projects the size of BC’s Site C or 39,000 equivalents of Muskrat Falls.
  • Converting energy-intensive processes (e.g., iron smelting, cement, and plastics) to non-fossil alternatives requires solutions not yet available for largescale use.
  • The energy transition imposes unprecedented demands for minerals including copper and lithium, which require substantial time to locate and develop mines.
  • To achieve net-zero carbon, affluent countries will incur costs of at least 20 percent of their annual GDP.
  • While global cooperation is essential to achieve decarbonization by 2050, major emitters such as the United States, China, and Russia have conflicting interests.
  • To eliminate carbon emissions by 2050, governments face unprecedented technical, economic and political challenges, making rapid and inexpensive transition impossible.

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Agriculture

The Netherlands Reverses Host of Climate Policies

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From Heartland Daily News

Agriculture-focused polices the new government is reversing include the previous government’s forced buyout and retirement of farms to cut fertilizer use and associated nitrogen emissions

The Netherlands recently elected a new right-of-center government which is downplaying climate alarm and European Union (EU)-driven climate policies that harm the country’s residents and agricultural producers.

“Geert Wilders, a prominent figure in Dutch politics, has led a coalition that marks a decisive shift in the Netherlands’ approach to climate policy. Wilders, often dubbed the “Dutch Trump,” formed a new government that includes the Farmer-Citizen Movement (BBB),” writes Charles Rotter at Watts Up With That. Rotter quotes a report in The Telegraph on the political right’s rise in the Netherlands and what it means for climate policy:

The Netherlands will tear up rules forcing homeowners to buy heat pumps as part of a war on net zero by Geert Wilders and the Dutch farmers’ party. Six months after his shock election victory, Mr. Wilders this week struck an agreement to usher in a Right-wing coalition government of four parties. “We are writing history,” he said as he announced the program for the new government.

Among the EU-endorsed climate policies Wilders’ coalition government is rescinding is the heat pump mandate, which would have forced homeowners to switch to expensive, inefficient hybrid heat pumps  from traditional air conditioning and heating systems.

The EU had established a goal of installing a minimum of 10 million new heat pumps by 2027 as part of its 2050 net-zero ambition, a plan the previous Dutch government had endorsed and imposed. As The Telegraph reported, the Dutch government’s heat pump mandate was intended to drive “down Dutch household use of natural gas for heating, which is the largest source of its gas consumption, equivalent to about 30 percent in total.”

Commending the new coalition government’s reversal, Caroline van der Plas, leader of the BBB,  cheerfully said, “Thanks to BBB’s efforts, the mandatory heat pump will be abolished.”

Agriculture-focused polices the new government is reversing include the previous government’s forced buyout and retirement of farms to cut fertilizer use and associated nitrogen emissions. In its place, the new government will establish a series of voluntary incentives to reduce emissions and offer interested farmers voluntary buyouts to end production.

Wilders government is also set to end subsidies for electric vehicles by 2025, which, as Rotter notes, is “a departure from the EU’s blanket approach to climate policy. These subsidies have been criticized for benefiting the wealthy who can afford electric vehicles while doing little to address broader environmental issues.”

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Energy

Why we should be skeptical of the hydrogen economy

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From the Frontier Centre for Public Policy

By Hügo Krüger and Ian Madsen

Hydrogen has a low energy density by volume, compared to well-established and practical fuels such as gasoline, diesel, and natural gas. It also has a low ignition point and is three times as explosive as natural gas, which could be either positive or negative.

At first glance, using highly variable, intermittent, inexpensive renewable energy to produce hydrogen for energy supply stabilization seems logical. However, renewable energy is not always readily available. The concept of hydrogen as a ‘buffer,’ akin to a battery, to ensure consistent renewable power is more complex than it appears.

Upon further examination, the idea is impractical and expensive for several reasons. Among them, hydrogen has a low energy density by volume, compared to well-established and practical fuels such as gasoline, diesel, and natural gas. It also has a low ignition point and is three times as explosive as natural gas, which could be either positive or negative, depending on its use.

Contrary to claims, renewable energy is neither inexpensive nor environmentally benign. Storing hydrogen in a natural gaseous state requires massive, costly storage vessels. Electrolyzing is expensive and will likely remain that way. Similarly, the cost of producing hydrogen is higher than that of deriving it from natural gas, which produces carbon dioxide, which is unwanted. There are some other techniques, such as pressure, heat, and radiolysis from radiation emitted from nuclear reactors, that are feasible, perhaps in combination. Small ‘micro nuclear reactors’ may drive down these costs. Atomic reactors are already used in U.S. Navy aircraft carriers to produce aviation and diesel synthetic fuel.

There are also a series of impractical issues. Existing pipeline infrastructure cannot transport pure hydrogen due to hydrogen embrittlement, and hydrogen cannot easily be used as a transportation fuel. A new Teflon-coated pipeline and distribution system parallel to the existing natural gas network would have to be built, costing hundreds of billions of dollars in North America alone.

While the idea of synthetic fuels using hydrogen may seem more feasible, it would likely be limited to a ‘niche role,’ potentially in natural gas-deficient nations. However, this would still necessitate significant investment. Ultimately, diverting funds to this ‘hydrogen economy’ could be a misallocation of capital from other, potentially more viable, areas.

Download the full report in PDF format here. (16 pages)

Hügo Krüger is a YouTube podcaster, writer, and civil nuclear engineer who has worked on a variety of energy related infrastructure projects ranging from Nuclear Power, LNG and Renewable Technologies. He holds a Master’s in Nuclear Civil Engineering from École Spéciale des Travaux Publics, du bâtiment et de l’industrie, Paris and a bachelor’s from the University of Pretoria.

Ian Madsen, BA (Economics, University of Alberta), MBA (Finance, University of Toronto), holds the Chartered Financial Analyst designation. He was an investment portfolio manager; owned his own investment counselling firm; published an investment newsletter; founded the professional society now known as CFA Saskatchewan in 1986; and was a director of an investment research operation in India. Since 2016, he has been the Senior Policy Analyst at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, performing valuation analyses on federal and provincial Crown corporations in Canada, and also written numerous policy analyses. He lives in Surrey, British Columbia with his family.

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