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All is not as it seems

The pandemic will not accelerate the global energy transition. Economies still need traditional energy sources.

by Vaclav Smil
16 December 2020
15 min read
by Vaclav Smil
16 December 2020
15 min read

This article is taken from World Energy (WE) number 47 – The world to come

I have no illusions about the depth of historical perspectives in a world whose attention span has become circumscribed by tweets. But even so, I did not expect that the still unfolding pandemic will be perceived, almost universally, in such an ahistorical fashion, with the only relatively common references made to the 1918 pandemic (due to its record mortality).

Comparisons with past pandemics

Exclusion of the 2009 pandemic can be explained by its short duration and limited impact, but that was not the case with its two most notable predecessors, the pandemic of 1968 -1969 (caused by the H3N2 virus that began to spread in July 1968 in China) and the pandemic of 1957-1958 (caused by the H2N2 virus, also originating in China). As comparisons with 2020 SARS – CoV - 2 show, both of these pandemics were protracted and serious events and their impact and aftermath should be considered when appraising COVID-19. Even when using the conservative estimates of the total excess deaths caused by the viruses (1.5 million for the 1957 and 1.1 million for the 1968 event), the implied mortalities were, respectively, 52 and 30/100,000. This means that COVID-19 would have to cause as many as four million and no fewer than 2.3 million deaths in order to match the toll of those two events. But COVID’s deaths reached 600,000 on July 17, 2020 and hence even their tripling would still leave this pandemic well short of the less virulent event of 1968-1969 and more than 50 percent below the 1957-1958 mortality. And yet, in a profound contrast to 2020, there was no worldwide lockdown of economies either in 1957 or in 1968, schools remained opened (with some localized declines in attendance), theater performances and sporting events were not cancelled (the Olympic Games were held in Mexico in October 1969), and expansion of global travel continued unabated. Reviews of economic and travel statistics for 1957 or 1968 do not reveal any notable declines followed by difficult recoveries. During the late 1950s, World Economic Surveys, published annually by the United Nations (every issue about 300 pages long), do not contain a single reference to pandemic, virus or influenza. In 1957, while Europe experienced significantly higher excess mortality than the US, GDP kept on increasing in all of the continent’s major economies. A decade later, the World Bank’s database shows the global economy growing by about 6.3 percent in 1968, higher than in both 1967 and 1969. The world’s airlines showed continued increase in annual passenger-kilometers both in 1957 - 1958 and in 1968-1969, and, moreover, 1958 had marked the beginning of jet-powered flight between North America and Europe and the first wide-body jet, Boeing 474, flew for the first time in 1969. And global energy consumption kept rising, up by 3.6 percent in 1957, by 5.4 percent in 1958, by 6 percent in 1968 and by nearly 7 percent in 1969. Clearly, the world’s economic growth and energy demand continued without any notable disruptions, global connectivity was intensifying rather than declining, and neither pandemic marked any departure from established growth patterns. Countries did not need any reopening and any return to normal as lives and economic activities coexisted with temporarily excessive mortality. In contrast, SARS – CoV - 2, the virus responsible for COVID-19, brought not only mortalities clearly in excess of expectations but led to the great global shutdown (economic lockdowns, school closures, bans on gatherings and drastic reductions in travel frequency). And this has not been the only distinction when comparing the unfolding pandemic with its two predecessors during the second half of the 20th century.


No warning signs of impending changes

We are now told that this prolonged and costly misfortune that has, inevitably, reduced global energy consumption represents a welcome opportunity and that it should be used as a providential point of departure for accelerated transition to non-carbon energy supply. A temporary 17 percent drop in CO2 emissions has been seen by some as something to celebrate and to be turned into a permanent trend leading to complete decarbonization in just three decades. That logic eludes me: should not a drop that has deprived hundreds of millions of people of their earnings, imperiled the stability of the global energy and food supply, disrupted manufacturing and put many services (retailing, eating out, tourism) on a perilous trajectory toward permanently reduced employment be reversed as rapidly as possible to resume normal lives? In any case, even a slight familiarity with the imperatives of modern energy use would have dictated a bit of prudence before seeing a significant temporary drop of energy use as a harbinger of imminent changes. Waiting for just a few weeks would have shown that the energy consumption declines that were forced by economic lockdowns and by shutdowns of transportation can be reversed fairly rapidly. Crude oil demand in China, the first country into the pandemic and the first one out of it, rebounded to pre-COVID-19 levels before the end of May 2020, when nearly 120 very large crude carriers, possibly the largest-ever procession of supertankers traveling to the world’s largest oil importer at one time, brought cheap crude to China’s expanding economy. US diesel fuel and motor gasoline consumption data are also examples of rapid recovery. In February 2020 gasoline sales were 2.3 percent higher than in February 2019, in April they declined by 36.5 percent compared to a year earlier—but by the end of June they were less than 10 percent below the June 2019 level and at that time diesel fuel consumption was less than 3 percent below the demand during the last week of June 2019. These are just two of many examples showing that the latest pandemic will not accelerate any shift of the global energy use onto a new trajectory. Most imminently, it could not do anything of the kind because simply having more solar or wind-generated electricity would be of no use to deliver billions of pieces of personal protective equipment for hospitals (done since March 2020 by unprecedented frequency of intercontinental cargo flights) and to transport food from fields and slaughter houses to housebound populations. Only aviation kerosene, diesel fuel and gasoline could have done that, and this dominance will not (the scale makes it obvious that it cannot) disappear in a matter of years. But, as some have argued, that should change in coming months and years as the economic recovery is deliberately tilted toward accelerated embrace of renewable energies. The International Energy Agency’s (IEA) latest Energy Technology Perspectives (published in June 2020) presents yet another sustainable development scenario (how many of those smoothly declining curves have we seen during the past decade?) that sees major carbon emission reductions coming from the accelerated electrification of heating and transportation and from large-scale production of lowcarbon hydrogen and hydrogen-derived fuels, but the IEA admits that such transformations face many challenges before becoming commercially viable. I would qualify and stress the enormity and the unprecedented nature of these challenges. To give just one example and leave out hydrogen, the ideal fuel whose near-term mass-scale commercial embrace remains as elusive as ever, the sustainable recovery plan would boost spending on the grids which would receive a third of the proposed USD1 trillion in three years. But new high voltage lines are perhaps the least likely candidate for any sudden massive investment as their planning and permitting periods are long and countries repeatedly fall behind in their plans to extend transmission grids. Germany has seen years of delays in the construction of north-south transmission links that are essential for the further progress of its energy transition. Without new long-distance high-voltage direct current (HVDC) links it will be impossible to take full advantage of America’s enormous potential for renewable electricity generation. The Great Plains are the country’s windiest and the Southwest its sunniest region, while the major load centers are hundreds and thousands of kilometers away. Clean Line Energy, the company that planned to develop five large US transmission projects, folded in 2019, and the Plains & Eastern Clean Line that was to become the backbone of a new US grid by 2020 (its environmental impact statement was already completed in 2014) lost the participation of the US Department of Energy in the project, which may not be built even by 2030.


Emissions must be cut, regardless of climate change

As for the commitment to finance such accelerated transformations, the latest (five-day) round of the EU’s obligatory Brussels wrangling produced new fiscal stimulus that may be “pivotal” and “unprecedented” (what else are its exhausted architects supposed to say?)—but that, as Reuters immediately reported, came at the cost of cuts to proposed investment in climate-friendly funds. But making the rich world’s energy use less carbon-intensive is a goal that we should be pursuing even if there were no problem with global warming, mainly because it still remains excessively wasteful and systemically irrational. What is the rationale of producing biofuels (whose carbon intensity is only marginally lower than that of gasoline) and then using them in monstrous SUVs? What is the point of a two-ton Jeep Cherokee (one of the best-selling vehicles in the US) driven by a 60-kg woman on her shopping errands? Do we need fresh greenhouse tomatoes in January (at 50 times the energy cost of a summer field crop) and what is the energy return on airlifting green beans (91 percent water content) from Kenya to the EU during winter? These excesses and irrationalities of the rich world’s energy use should not have been introduced in the first place. There was nothing inevitable about displacing sedans by SUVs and there is nothing existentially imperative about not getting vitamin C from fresh tomatoes in January. And why have we not adopted one of the easiest efficiency measures—to have all cold-climate construction with superinsulation and triple windows—decades ago? Mass-scale elimination (or at least substantial moderation) of such waste should go some way toward making the rich world’s energy use more rational and less carbon-intensive. In that sense, the latest IEA perspectives are correct that the single largest gain can come from higher efficiencies. But there is another world at the opposite end of the quality-of-life continuum descending from affluent countries. In 2020 half of humanity lives in countries with an annual per capita primary energy supply of less than 50 gigajoules (GJ) and 40 percent of the world’s population (3.1 billion people) have access to less than 25 GJ a year per capita, the rate achieved in both Germany and France by 1860. In order to approach the threshold of a dignified standard of living, those three billion people need to at least double or triple their per capita energy use, and while they need to multiply the electricity supply they need, above all, to produce more food and build their essential infrastructures. These tasks are impossible without the massively increased synthesis of nitrogenous fertilizers (average applications in sub-Saharan Africa are less than a quarter of the EU level), production of primary steel (the EU’s per capita consumption of finished steel is more than ten times the African mean) and cement (the EU’s per capita supply is more than six times that of African nations) required for buildings, dams, transportation infrastructure, industrial production and electricity transmission. All of these outputs depend on large-scale inputs of fossil fuels—natural gas for Haber-Bosch ammonia synthesis; coke for blast furnace iron or natural gas for direct iron reduction; various liquid and solid fuels for cement production)—and none of these industries has at its disposal any non-carbon alternatives that could be deployed immediately and on the requisite scales to produce the tens to hundreds of millions tons of products that the modernizing countries will require every year. China’s post-1990 rise has not been based on wind and solar but on fossil carbon: in order to bring its 1.4 billion people from about 25 GJ/capita in 1990 to about 100 GJ/capita in 2019, the country had to increase its coal use nearly fourfold, its crude oil consumption nearly ten-fold and its natural gas combustion nearly 20-fold and these gains resulted in more than quadrupling China’s carbon emission increase from 2.3 to 9.8 Gt/year. And that was for the current population of 1.4 billion which means that even if the 3.1 billion people in today’s low-energy countries were to do only half of what China has done their combined demand for fossil carbon would surpass that of post1990 China!


Feasibility, not wishful thinking, is what matters for the future

Wishful thinking is never the best guide to any effective public policy, especially not in matters that concern the very fundamentals of modern civilization. Carbon-free energy supply might be highly desirable— but those who claim that we can completely transform the global energy system in two or three decades must do better than present just another hypothetical smooth-curve scenario driven by arbitrarily placed targets for years ending in five and zero. They must first convincingly explain how they would eliminate the rich world’s dependence on fossil fuels (now 80 percent of their primary energy supply) by 2050 and, even more importantly, they have to demonstrate how they would elevate (even just to half of today’s Chinese level) the living standards of the poor half of humanity without fossil carbon.

The author: Vaclav Smil

He is Distinguished Professor Emeritus in the Faculty of Environment at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada. He has published 40 books, taking an interdisciplinary approach to energy, environmental and population change, and technology. He is a member of the Royal Society of Canada and the Order of Canada. In 2015 he received the OPEC award for research.