What would global decarbonization actually cost?

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As those who write frequently on climate policy issues, we are often asked, “What will decarbonization cost?”. Decarbonization is the term used to refer to effectively eliminating emissions of greenhouse gases, usually measured in terms of carbon dioxide equivalent, allegedly to stop human-caused global warming. In practical terms, that means ending use of hydrocarbons (oil, natural gas, and coal), and the energy services provided by them. According to the agreement reached at the United Nations COP25 conference in Paris in 2015, the goal is to achieve decarbonization by 2050.

Looking back less than 200 years, we had a decarbonized society with no coal fired power plants, no natural gas power plants, and the Beverly Hillbillies had not yet discovered oil. It’s easy to see how civilization has benefited from more than 250 leading-edge, hydrocarbon processing licensed refining technologies used by the more than 700 refineries worldwide that service the demands of the eight billion people living on earth with more than 6,000 products made from the oil derivatives manufactured out of raw crude oil at refineries. None of these products were available to society before 1900.

This is all very silly to consider. A better question might be how much life on earth would be lost on the way to eliminating fossil fuels. Certainly, all medical facilities could not function without hundreds of the critical products derived from petroleum. How long would the public be willing to put up with the life their ancestors left behind in the middle of the 19th century, think 1850.

Everyone would begin to look toward life in the poorest area where electric power and continuous clean running water are not available. Like we said the discussion is silly but as an intellectual exercise we will pursue it in a series of articles in the next few weeks here at CFACT.org, your home for some of the most interesting scientific developments.

The short answer to the initial question is of course, “Nobody knows.” And sensible people don’t care knowing it is a pipe dream of the not too smart liberal, progressive, socialist, and communist communities. That lack of knowledge, “nobody knows” is a rather astounding statement, in that 196 governments of the world agreed in principle that they will pursue an objective whose costs are completely unknown. Keep in mind their primary goal has never had much to do with climate or temperature but rather a way to destroy capitalism and create the communist world foreseen over a century ago in Russia’s Bolshevik Revolution.

There have been no engineering studies, no feasibility analyses, no benefit/cost analyses to which one might refer. This, however, has not stopped several western countries from embracing the goal with a religious fervor. That should be a tip off to the impossibility, as religion and politics or business never mix. To come up with even a partial answer in this fictional world we will examine it as an intellectual exercise from different perspectives.

How much have the countries of the world spent so far on measures that are intended to reduce emissions by reducing energy consumption, encouraging substitution to low or zero emission fuels, or promoting the research and development of new emissions-free sources of energy? What have been the costs to consumers? These are relatively easy questions to answer.

Life Without Oil is NOT AS SIMPLE AS YOU MAY THINK as renewable energy is only intermittent electricity from breezes and sunshine as NEITHER wind turbines nor solar panels can manufacture anything for society. Being mandated to live without the products manufactured from crude oil will necessitate lifestyles being mandated back to the horse and buggy days of the 1800’s and could be the greatest threat to civilization’s eight billion residents.

What are the projected costs of future measures out to 2050, is a little more difficult but still an amusing attempt at calculation? A simple way to address this hopeless effort of Decarbonization is to try and calculate the costs to eliminate each ton of carbon dioxide emissions

We hope our efforts here and the next two weeks are an enjoyable read which can only end with an optimistic outlook.

What Complete Decarbonization Means

First things first. Let us establish what full decarbonization – the complete elimination of the use of oil, natural gas, and coal – would mean for life in the countries of the world better yet Life on Earth.

History offers the answers. Before 1800 the earth, our nation and the world had no active carbon derivatives other than our bodies and animals and plants all constructed of carbon by Mother Nature. Essentially none was used to enhance life other than allowing plant food to grow throughout the world and then increased dramatically by human agriculture.

The invention of the steam engine allowed coal to be used to power industrial plants, trains, and ships. The discovery of large oilfields and of ways to produce from them in the late 19th century, followed by the invention of the internal combustion engine to power cars and trucks in the early part of the 20th century, revolutionized the way people and goods moved. The invention around the same time of electricity and of ways to transport and apply electricity for lighting and heating allowed the application of energy to hundreds of new uses, a process that goes on today. Energy made work easier and allowed a massive increase in economic activity (investment, employment, and trade) that improved living standards and expanded people’s choices of what to do and how to spend their time.

Today, about 84% of the energy used in the world comes from fossil fuels.[1] The rest comes from a variety of sources, the most important of which are nuclear energy, hydroelectricity, and traditional biomass (wood and dried animal dung). New renewables, like wind and solar energy, account for about two per cent.

Oil and natural gas are also extremely important sources of feedstock (i.e., building materials) for petroleum and petrochemical products. Without them, we would not have access to hundreds of products that most people consider either essential or highly valuable for modern life. The examples are almost endless but allow us to cite a few that young people in the richer countries might miss if they were gone – televisions, cell phones, computers, most clothes and footwear, refrigerators, air conditioners, hand lotion and cosmetics, antiseptics, deodorant, purses, panty hose, eyeglasses, luggage, and credit cards. There would be no plastic products to supply a huge range of things varying from water pipes to ice cube trays. Life as we know it would have much less variety.

Neither wind turbines nor solar panels can manufacture anything for society

What would ending oil consumption mean? Well, the largest energy consuming sector is transportation, where oil-fueled vehicles and other modes of transport constitute about 97% of consumption.

Without fossil fuels Air Force One would be grounded along with all sections of the Military.

People like to hope that electric cars will catch on, but up to now, they constitute only 3% of new car sales, even with government subsidies of up to $7,500 per vehicle. Would we really be able to eliminate all internal combustion light duty vehicles regardless of cost? Would people be glad to go everywhere by foot, bicycle, or (if you were lucky) by bus at all times and in all weather conditions? The fastest growing source of transportation emissions is commercial trucks. Electric-powered trucks are barely on the horizon. How would we move products around if we eliminated the trucks? The most emissions-intensive mode of transportation is aviation. There simply are no technologies available or on the horizon that would fuel aircraft or marine vessels in the absence of oil products (unless marine shipping reverted to the use of sail). The long-distance transportation of freight and people would be severely limited, with resulting effects on global trade and tourism.

All the parts of vehicles, wind turbines, and solar panels are made with the oil derivatives manufactured from crude oil. Eliminating crude oil would eliminate vehicles, wind turbines, and solar panels

Everything we have said in Part 1 of this three-part series on the idiocy of decarbonizing the world would be intuitively obvious to the least knowledgeable among us. Do they ignore it, do they know it’s an exercise in futility and stupidity? How has this project actually become mainstream? We will explore this next week here at CFACT.org.

Note: Robert Lyman is an economist who served in the Canadian government for 38 years

Note: Ron Stein contributed to this article.

[1] British Petroleum Statistical Review of World Energy 2021

Authors

  • Robert Lyman
  • Robert Lyman is an economist with 37 years of service to the Canadian government.

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August 15, 2022