UK Scientist Doubts Decarbonization by 2050 Is Possible. Thinks Other Unfunded Threats Are More Compelling.

M J Kelly, Electrical Engineering Division Department of Engineering, Universtiy of Cambridge has written “Lessons from Technology Development for Energy and Sustainability” and posted on the  Cambridge Journals on Line.

The following is the Abstract from his posting where he sets up the quandary that faces the organizations wishing to decarbonize the planet by 2050.

There are lessons from recent history of technology introductions which should not be forgotten when considering alternative energy technologies for carbon dioxide emission reductions.

The growth of the ecological footprint of a human population about to increase from 7B now to 9B in 2050 raises serious concerns about how to live both more efficiently and with less permanent impacts on the finite world. One present focus is the future of our climate, where the level of concern has prompted actions across the world in mitigation of the emissions of CO2. An examination of successful and failed introductions of technology over the last 200 years generates several lessons that should be kept in mind as we proceed to 80% decarbonize the world economy by 2050. I will argue that all the actions taken together until now to reduce our emissions of carbon dioxide will not achieve a serious reduction, and in some cases, they will actually make matters worse. In practice, the scale and the different specific engineering challenges of the decarbonization project are without precedent in human history. This means that any new technology introductions need to be able to meet the huge implied capabilities. An altogether more sophisticated public debate is urgently needed on appropriate actions that (i) considers the full range of threats to humanity, and (ii) weighs more carefully both the upsides and downsides of taking any action, and of not taking that action.


M J Kelly discusses this issue at length in his posting and I suggest you read it in its entirety . This posting will look at conclusions and some suggestions Kelly derives when he examined the current  programs to reduce CO2. He’s not optimistic that decarbonization has much of a chance of accomplishing what the greens want. In fact he thinks the money could be spend better on addressing more immediate threats than those posed by the so-call catastrophic global warming. Here he summarizes his thoughts:

It is surely time to review the current direction of the decarbonization project which can be assumed to start in about 1990, the reference point from which carbon dioxide emission reductions are measured. No serious inroads have been made into the lion’s share of energy that is fossil fuel based. Some moves represent total madness. The closure of all but one of the aluminium smelters that used gas-fired electricity in the UK (because of rising electricity costs from the green tariffs that are over and above any global background fossil fuel energy costs) reduces our nation’s carbon dioxide emissions. 62 However, the aluminium is now imported from China where it is made with more primitive coal-based sources of energy, making the global problem of emissions worse! While the UK prides itself in reducing indigenous carbon dioxide emissions by 20% since 1990, the attribution of carbon emissions by end use shows a 20% increase over the same period.

Interestingly, he talks about the UK exporting manufacturing to other nations in order to reduce CO2 emissions.  Then the goods from these nations come back to the UK made in less efficient factories and the attributed CO2 result in an increase in the UK net emissions.     

It is also clear that we must de-risk all energy infrastructure projects over the  next two decades. While the level of uncertainty remains high, the ‘insurance policy’ justification of urgent large-scale intervention is untenable, and we do not pay premiums if we would go bankrupt as a consequence. Certain things we do not insure against, such as a potential future mega-tsunami, 64 or a supervolcano, 65 or indeed a meteor strike, even though there have been over 20 of these since 2000 with the local power of the Hiroshima bomb! 66 Using a significant fraction of the global GDP to possibly capture the benefits of a possibly less troublesome future climate leaves more urgent actions not undertaken.

Two important points remain. The first is that there is no alternative to business as usual carrying on, with one caveat expressed in the following paragraph. Since energy use has a cost, it is normal business practice to minimize energy use, by increasing energy efficiency (see especially the recent improvement in automobile performance), 67 using less resource material and more effective recycling. These drivers have become more intense in recent years, but they were always there for a business trying to remain competitive.

The second is that, over the next two decades, the single place where the greatest impact on carbon dioxide emissions can be achieved is in the area of personal behaviour. Its potential dwarfs that of new technology interventions. Within the EU over the last 40 years there has been a notable change in public attitudes and behaviour in such diverse arenas as drinking and driving, smoking in public confined spaces, and driving without a seatbelt. If society’s attitude to the profligate consumption of any materials and resources including any forms of fuel and electricity was to regard this as deeply antisocial, it has been estimated we could live something like our present standard of living on half the energy consumption we use today in the developed world. 68 This would mean fewer miles travelled, fewer material possessions, shorter supply chains, and less use of the internet. While there is no public appetite to follow this path, the short term technology fix path is no panacea.

Over the last 200 years, fossil fuels have provided the route out of grinding poverty for many people in the world (but still less than half of all people) and Fig. 1 shows that this trend is certain to continue for at least the next 20 years based on the technologies of scale that are available today. A rapid decarbonization is simply impossible over the next 20 years unless the trend of a growing number who succeed to improve their lot is stalled by rich and middle class people downgrading their own standard of living. The current backlash against subsidies for renewable energy systems in the UK, EU and USA is a sign that all is not well with current renewable energy systems in meeting the aspirations of humanity.

Figure 1. (a) The 40% growth of global energy consumption since 1995 and the projected 40% growth until 2035, with most of the growth between 1995 and 2035 being provided by fossil fuels, 21and (b) the cause of this growth is the rise in the number of people living in the middle class as described in the text. 22


Finally, humanity is owed a serious investigation of how we have gone so far with the decarbonization project without a serious challenge in terms of engineering reality. Have the engineers been supine and lacking in courage to challenge the orthodoxy? Or have their warnings been too gentle and dismissed or not heard? Science and politicians can take too much comfort from undoubted engineering successes over the last 200 years. When the sums at stake are on the scale of 1–10% of the world’s GDP, this is a serious business.


*M.J. Kelly (2016). Lessons from technology development for energy and sustainability. MRS Energy & Sustainability, 3, E3 doi:10.1557/mre.2016.3.




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