What Does “Net Zero” Greenhouse Gas Emissions Mean?
Several western governments have committed their countries to have “net zero” greenhouse gas emissions in the future. The deadline for meeting this arbitrary target is often the year 2050, but other target years have been used. The term is sometimes applied to the emissions from only electricity generation and sometimes to emissions from all parts of the economy. “Decarbonizing” an entire economy would mean virtually eliminating the use of all oil, natural gas and coal used to provide energy services like heat, light, motive power, and all the thousands of uses of electricity. Where these fuels continue to be used, the resulting emissions would theoretically be “netted out” through purchasing various “offsets” bought from low-emission sources elsewhere. In some cases, countries envisage the building of projects that involve the capture and geological storage of carbon dioxide or projects that withdraw carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. This is all preposterous. It can not happen , it will not happen but along the way the desire of the anti-progress leftists is to embarrass unknowing people into doing something they wrongly believe to be beneficial. I will explain in this essay why achieving net zero for an entire economy would face insuperable technical and cost barriers, and demand unacceptable political changes for democratic societies placing them back to life at least 150 years ago.
According to the British Petroleum Statistical Review of World Energy 2020, 84% of the primary energy needs of the world are now met by oil, natural gas and coal.1 These energy sources have the combined advantages of having high levels of energy density by volume and being affordable, accessible, and easy to transport and store. This is why they have been the basis of economic prosperity since the beginning of the industrial revolution and especially since the early 20th century. Most of the 16% of the world’s energy needs not supplied by fossil fuels are met by nuclear and hydroelectric energy sources. Five per cent are met by so-called ‘renewable’ energy of which 3% is from biomass and 2% from wind and solar energy. Net zero, as defined by its proponents, involves no expansion of nuclear energy, but instead increasing the uses of wind, solar and biomass energy alone to replace the 84% of energy supplied by oil, natural gas and coal. They claim they can do this in less than 30 years. Sensible people should be laughing hysterically.
THE FALSE HOPE OF FUTURE TECHNOLOGY ADVANCES
Technologies develop through a series of stages that start with initial research and the discovery of some basic science and a means of applying it in practice. Then it must be tested and demonstrated, usually to potential investors interested in commercial applications. This is followed by marketing to determine the viability of widespread commercialization based upon consumer acceptance. Each of these steps involve risks, There is no certainty that a new idea, once proven in the laboratory, will be successfully applied and marketed given the competition from other ideas in the marketplace. At least monthly one reads of a new break through for some technology or other. All are reported from a laboratory experiment which more often than not can never be brought to commercial scale. Governments often try to “pick winners” by supporting their favorites with taxpayer funds. There is a long history of government failures especially in the solar industry and early electric automobile where billions of your taxes were flushed down a rabbit hole of corporate welfare.2
The following are examples of technologies that would be needed to meet the “net zero” goals, that do not presently exist.
- Cellulosic ethanol as vehicle fuels3
- Electrification of long-distance trucks (“semis”)
- Electrification of commercial aircraft4
- Grid-scale electricity storage in batteries5
- Hydrogen produced from renewables6
- Large-scale tidal power7
- Production of petrochemical products without hydrocarbon feedstocks
- Recovery of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere8
No one can predict when, or even if, the technologies listed above will ever reach commercial/economical viability, let alone wide-scale acceptance.
The proponents of net zero policies ` pay little attention to the economic costs of reducing emissions or of foregoing the benefits of continued reliance on the use of affordable readily available energy sources. Surprisingly, we have no idea of either the present costs or the likely future costs, only that they will be very high. The most comprehensive list of programs needed to be implemented in Canada by their federal and provincial governments is published in the their federal government’s biennial report to the United Nations.9 That report, however, offers only a short description of the measures and an estimate of how much they will all reduce emissions by 2030. It does not include the costs of the measures, any evidence as to their cost-effectiveness or any indication of the degree of duplication and overlap among them. The result is that all we have is anecdotal evidence about the costs of the measures drawn from a wide range of sources.
We can illustrate some of the costs that have already been incurred in Canada, even though Canadians have only experienced a small portion of them that would be required to reach net zero:
- Costs to taxpayers of over 300 existing federal and provincial government programs to reduce emissions, including contributions for mass transit infrastructure – never officially costed, but at least $10 billion per year
- Costs to consumers of carbon dioxide taxes – $6.6 billion in 2021-2022, rising to at least $28 billion per year 2030, and more after that
- Costs of ratepayer subsidies to renewable energy for power generation – not costed across Canada, but $4 billion per year in Ontario10 and due to rise sharply in Alberta and Saskatchewan
- Cost of pipeline restrictions on market access for Canadian oil producers – $14 billion11
- Cost of energy and mining projects cancelled due directly and indirectly to climate policies – $196 billion over the 2014 to 2019 period12
- Cost of foregone investment in Canadian hydrocarbons industry due to climate policy – no authoritative estimate, but probably in range of $100 billion per year
The above figures are almost certainly conservative. Canada is on the same path in terms of climate policy measures as the European Union (EU), but not so far along. The cost of EU climate policies is now more than two percent of the EU’s economy, or about US $400 billion per year; indeed, about 20% of the EU budget is now being spent on climate policies.13
The combined effect of increasing carbon dioxide taxes, the Clean Fuel Standard, and various emissions ceilings and credit trading programs are high and escalating over time. Past studies by several economic think tanks have pointed out that these costs will increasingly expose firms operating in the emissions-intensive and trade-exposed sectors to competitive pressures that will undermine their viability and lead many to close and/or move their operations to other jurisdictions.14 The industries most likely to be affected are in petroleum, petrochemicals, mining, metal refining and fabrication, cement, steel, pulp and paper, and vehicle and parts manufacture. In other words, climate policies threaten to accelerate the deindustrialization of the Canadian economy and eliminate our most productive and economically viable resource industries, imposing great harm on the regions now dependent on them.
Do Americans and others around the world want to emulate the destructive path being planned for Canada? We hope not, and perhaps this first of a three part series will open the eyes of some influencers elsewhere .
13 Bjorn Lomborg, False Alarm, Hatchette Book Group, Inc. New York, 2020
July 12, 2021