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Taming the Climate Is Far Harder Than Getting People to the Moon

Decarbonization is a project with no clear beginning or end

3 min read
Chimneys and cooling towers from a coal fired power station releasing smoke and steam into the atmosphere.
Getty Images

In his 1949 book The Concept of Mind, Gilbert Ryle, an English philosopher, introduced the term “category mistake.” He gave the example of a visitor to the University of Oxford who sees colleges and a splendid library and then asks, “But where is the university?” The category mistake is obvious: A university is an institution, not a collection of buildings.

Today, no category mistake is perhaps more consequential than the all-too-common view of the global energy transition. The error is to think of the transition as the discrete, well-bounded task of replacing carbon fuels by noncarbon alternatives. The apparent urgency of the transition leads to calls for confronting the challenge just as the United States dealt with two earlier ones: winning the nuclear-arms race against Nazi Germany and the space race against the Soviet Union. The Manhattan Project produced an atomic bomb in three years, and Project Apollo put two U.S. citizens on the moon in July 1969, eight years after President Kennedy had announced the goal.

But difficult and costly as those two endeavors were, they affected only small parts of the economy, their costs were relatively modest, and the lives of average citizens were hardly affected. It is just the opposite for the decarbonization of the energy supply.

Ours is an overwhelmingly fossil-fueled civilization, and the size and complexity of our extensive supersystem of fuel extraction, processing, distribution, storage, and conversion means that a complete displacement of it will directly affect every person and every industry, not least the growing of food and the long-distance transport of goods and people. The costs will be stupendous.

Affluent nations would have to devote on the order of 15 to 20 percent of their annual economic product to the task of decarbonizing the economy.

By the time the Manhattan Project ended in 1946, it had cost the country nearly US $2 billion, about $33 billion in today’s money, the total equal to only about 0.3 percent of the 1943-45 gross domestic product. When Project Apollo ended in 1972, it had cost about $26 billion, or $207 billion in today’s money; over 12 years it worked out annually to about 0.2 percent of the country’s 1961-72 GDP.

Of course, nobody can provide a reliable account of the eventual cost of global energy transition because we do not know the ultimate composition of the new primary energy supply. Nor do we know what shares will come from converting natural renewable flows, whether we will use them to produce hydrogen or synthetic fuels, and the extent to which we will rely on nuclear fission (and, as some hope, on fusion) or from other, still unknown options.

A series of cubes made of red blocks where each block is worth 1 billion dollars.Chris Philpot; Sources: CTBTO Preparatory Commission; ScienceDirect; McKinsey Global Institute

But a recent attempt to estimate such costs confirms the magnitude of the category mistake. The McKinsey Global Institute, in a highly conservative estimate, puts the cost at $275 trillion between 2021 and 2050. That is roughly $9.2 trillion a year, compared with the 2021 global economic product of $94 trillion. Such numbers imply an annual expenditure of about 10 percent of today’s world economic product. And because the world’s low-income countries could not carry such burdens, affluent nations would have to devote on the order of 15 to 20 percent of their annual economic product to the task. Such shares are comparable only to the spending that was required to win World War II.

This article appears in the October 2022 print issue as “Decarbonization Is Our Greatest Challenge.”

The Conversation (3)
Jochen Spengler20 Oct, 2022

Well, another misleading and in parts plain false article by Mr. Smil.

- the study specifically says that countries will spend an average of 7.5% of their GDP, with developing countries and oil producing regions spending significantly more. other economies which includes developed nations will spend an average of 5.9%

- the study also mentions that out of the $9.2T per year the world is already spending $5.7T on physical assets and it would require only $3.6T additionally for the green transition

- I would argue that a well planned grid infrastructure can actually save trillions of $. For example my house, on average I use 3kW of power, at 240V that's just over 12amps, a #14AWG extension cord can handle that. But the power company put in a 400A service with 4/0 wires. #14gauge costs 15cent/ft, 4/0 costs ~$7/ft and there are millions of miles of service entrance wires in the world. All I need is a small battery, EV or other storage tech to shave off the peaks. My neighborhood has 20 homes, 4 transformers @100kW each to feed those houses. with local storage, a single 50kW transformer would suffice, the huge 13kV wire running to my area could be much smaller, the 10MW substation up the road, could be 1 MW or less,... you get the point. On top of that I have solar on my roof, essentially making the load from my house 0, in fact the most current my service wire sees is when batteries are full and my 17kW PV array feeds back most of its production. With local storage (not just batteries) and local production (solar, wind, geothermal, biomass, tidal power, small hydro,... whatever works best for that area), the whole electric grid could be downsized to 10% or less of its current design. That MUST be cheaper than what we are doing now and the $5.7T/year we are already spending should be more than enough !

- the study also mentions that 15million jobs would be created, there are health benefits, preservation of natural capital, lower energy costs,... and many other advantages not factored into the $275T.

- what the McKinsey study doesn't mention but the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has studied for years is the subsidies flowing to the carbon (oil, coal,gas) industries. 2015 subsidies worldwide were approx $4.7T, in 2020 $5.9T. a steady 5% increase. Extrapolate to 2050, the world will be spending over $440T in carbon subsidies by then. Why not take some of that to fund the energy transition.

So even if that $275T number were remotely accurate, yes PLEASE let's spend it because it will save us hundreds of trillions of $$ in the end and leave our kids a planet that they can actually live on.

Robert Dickerman15 Nov, 2022

Mark Twain is reputed to have said “There are lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

Mr. Smil’s article confirms the validity of the aphorism.  His article is a perfect example of the third type of lie.

Mr. Smil ignores the fact that the McKinsey & Company’s $9.2 trillion/year number includes $5.7 trillion/year of current spending, much of which would be re-directed to new technology. The increase in spending is only roughly $3.5 trillion/year.  This is a third of the $9.2 trillion/year number that Mr. Smil emphasizes. This is clearly explained in the McKinsey report that Mr. Smil cites.  The same report even states that the required increase in spending might only be $1.0 trillion/year.  This is an order of magnitude less than the number that Mr. Smil emphasizes.

An earlier McKinsey report entitled “Managing the net-zero transition: Actions for Stakeholders” states “It is important not to view the transition as only onerous; the required economic transformation will not only create immediate economic opportunities but also open up the prospect of a fundamentally transformed global economy with lower energy costs and numerous other benefits—for example, improved health outcomes and enhanced conservation of natural capital.”

Obviously, Mr. Smil has chosen to do exactly what McKinsey urged us not to do - that is, to portray the transition as only onerous.

Mr. Smil’s article would be less harmful if rebuttal letters were allowed to appear in the print version of IEEE Spectrum.  Because such letters are not being printed, I worry that some readers may accept his “Numbers Don’t Lie” positions as unimpeachable.  This is not good.

Gerardo Orozco Valdes20 Oct, 2022

It would be good to do the same exercise with the "cost of no decarbonization" and then compare them.

This photograph shows a car with the words “We Drive Solar” on the door, connected to a charging station. A windmill can be seen in the background.

The Dutch city of Utrecht is embracing vehicle-to-grid technology, an example of which is shown here—an EV connected to a bidirectional charger. The historic Rijn en Zon windmill provides a fitting background for this scene.

We Drive Solar

Hundreds of charging stations for electric vehicles dot Utrecht’s urban landscape in the Netherlands like little electric mushrooms. Unlike those you may have grown accustomed to seeing, many of these stations don’t just charge electric cars—they can also send power from vehicle batteries to the local utility grid for use by homes and businesses.

Debates over the feasibility and value of such vehicle-to-grid technology go back decades. Those arguments are not yet settled. But big automakers like Volkswagen, Nissan, and Hyundai have moved to produce the kinds of cars that can use such bidirectional chargers—alongside similar vehicle-to-home technology, whereby your car can power your house, say, during a blackout, as promoted by Ford with its new F-150 Lightning. Given the rapid uptake of electric vehicles, many people are thinking hard about how to make the best use of all that rolling battery power.

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