March 27, 2021

Concerned about Climate Change? Read Vaclav Smil.

Climate change is really complex and the most astute struggle with understanding what governments should do. At the core of the climate change conversation (to me), is energy production to sustain our existence. And, as the standard of living globally increases, this means a gargantuan demand on energy will continue well into the future. Vaclav Smil is perhaps one of only a few authors who seem to truly grasp in detail, the tradeoffs of energy production on a mass scale and human habitation on earth. Smil’s Energy and Civilization paints a vivid account of humanity’s quest to secure reliable, robust energy sources to sustain human civilization. And it is essential reading for those concerned about our future.

Prior to the invention and adoption of internal combustion engines, arduous physical labour by humans and animals were at the epicentre of sustaining civilizations. In Europe, Asia and Africa, the domestication of animals and the creation of pastures significantly helped sustain large human settlements. But new problems arose: as animals too need to be well-fed and rested to undertake a full day’s work. And, large animals doing laborious work will require a lot of feed. In the Americas, water management and the modifications to existing land space (e.g., chinampas and terracing mountainsides) allowed for increased arable land and crop harvesting. But, this required significant amounts of human labour.

Renewable energy will be part of our energy mix of the future. But, there will be tradeoffs.

What is the ‘Black Swan’ of Renewable Energy?

I welcome the rapid innovation in renewable energy. While the costs remain high to adopt wind and solar, government incentives and human innovation can bring these costs down. As with any large-scale adoption of technology, there will be tradeoffs. If a country were to operate solely on wind and solar, what would those tradeoffs be? What don’t we know that can really do us in?

Indigenous communities and land rights can run counter to increased land use. Take for example, the planned solar farm in Mexico’s southern region by Vega Solar. For solar farms to be viable and generate enough energy, a lot of physical land space is required. Approximately 674 hectares partly located on Indigenous land in the Yucatan Peninsula are needed for this specific project. This will include clearing the area of trees and other wild vegetation. Clear-cutting the area would mean removing farms and farmers’ abilities to earn income, potentially increasing the temperature in the region, and alter traditional ways of life important to Indigenous communities.

Or what about large-scale government intervention? Governments may provide substantial sums of money to a small group of companies to establish wind and solar farms on land to capture wind channels and areas with large sun exposure. This is great, right? But what if the energy generated is only a fraction of the cost spent? And what if it happens enough times that governments can only show the amount invested and not the reduction in carbon emission? There is nothing altruistically wrong after all in attempting to reduce carbon emissions. But, a risk is that inefficient projects can happen on a large scale. Multiple times. The effects could manifest in other ways, by reducing our spending on other potential threats, increasing inflation and affecting our local and national economies. And, does this emotive drive we share for action on climate change, blind us to allow governments to act unilaterally? After all, who will “police” the government for funding ineffective renewable energy projects, whose timelines may exceed an elected politician’s mandate?

Limitations.

The limitations of our knowledge exist when we are giddy with the excitement of new technologies to make old, mundane tasks a thing of the past, while not recognizing the significant risks of its large-scale adoption. In my own life, I am astounded at the hard work of my blender to turn frozen fruit into a breakfast smoothie. It’s an everyday engineering feat that would require significant human labour from myself to achieve the same result, albeit with a lot of cursing thrown in. I am also amazed at the speed at which electric vehicles are being adopted with public charging ports. But, if a city’s electricity generation is primarily coal or natural gas, is it truly a zero-emissions vehicle?

These are the questions we must ask. There are no easy answers. But when wrestling with the future of human civilization, the answers are not easy, despite what you might see and hear in the media.

Vaclav Smil articulately understands that in order to look to the future, we must learn from the past. Energy generation will increase dramatically as time goes on. As we have adopted new technologies of animal and human labour, we have not been so keen on understanding the risks in the short, medium and long term. And as a result, we must be eagle-eyed on the new technologies being adopted to consider their costs and efficacy. The future of our civilization demands that we adapt by recognizing our past follies.

Read Vaclav Smil. His work is one of few, which matter most.