Sheesh, what’s with all the drama? The news is full of bad-news stories about doom and gloom; can’t everyone see we just need to roll up our sleeves and get to work? Most of this stuff isn’t even all that hard!
We can solve the world’s obesity/health problem in a matter of months. Start by closing all fast food chains immediately. Ban all kinds of fattening food like chocolate, or anything deep fried. Ration sugar. Coke and slurpees and ice cream and pie – all illegal.
We can solve the world’s drug problems. It’s not that hard; it’ll just cost a few bucks. Spatially, we know where most drug problems occur. It’s not in the middle of a wheat field or a forest or a mountain or the Sahara desert. The actual problem zones are not that big as a percentage of the world’s surface. So for those regions, we will train an army of, I don’t know, say 20 million soldiers – a tiny fraction of the world’s population. We’ll place them on a grid at a rate of let’s say 11 people per acre or for high rise buildings at a rate of 1 per 19 cubic metres (preliminary estimate) in all trouble zones. They will be equipped with tasers and guns and stun grenades, and smiley face stickers so that the children aren’t too frightened
We can solve the world’s dating problems, good lord how hard can it be? It’s just data scraping and machine learning. You say you like Thai food and travel and quiet afternoons on a cool fall day with a fuzzy sweater and a good book and social events with friends? Hey, possibly there is someone else in the world with the same wild and wacky outlook on life, just need to get y’all catalogued and cross referenced and your new tailored mate will be waiting for you in your favourite first-date spot within the next two weeks at a time that doesn’t annoy you. AI will solve it all!
We can solve the world’s emissions problems by September. Immediately ban all flights except those for medical emergencies. All cruise ships will be abandoned immediately or, ok, as soon as they get back to home base if we can afford the delay. Shut down tourist resorts; everyone has to travel to get there, ergo they are a huge part of the problem. You want travel? Walk outside and turn left. Or right, it’s up to you. Keep going until you’re had your fill, then turn around.
If you don’t like the sound of those ideas, hey, there are other ways. Here’s another way to ‘save the environment’, one that will be far less disruptive and will be far more pleasant. What’s the world’s average unemployment rate? Let’s call it six percent. Six percent of eight billion people = 480 million people. Order 480 million shovels from Amazon and a hundred seedlings apiece, boom: 48 billion new trees, unemployment solved, climate saved. Next!
OK, fine. Those are all moronic ideas. Well, not so much moronic as just wildly impractical, or run counter to human necessities, or are solutions that citizens simply won’t stand for. And the main point of outlining such wild scenarios isn’t to be a smartass (that’s a secondary objective).
The point of such a weird and silly catalogue is to highlight that, from a high level, huge problems are easily solved – in theory. Some sound easy if we just throw money at them, or just try a little harder.
I can recall personal examples of where I learned these follies first hand. In university, in business school, one of my favourite courses was organizational behaviour. I found it fascinating how the professor could outline logical processes and programs that would vastly improve a business’s functioning.
Like most grads, I was eager to put these practices into work at my first job out of university, at a big company. Some corporate deficiencies were obvious; I recognized them from class! But implementation? Wow did the veteran employees laugh at the suggestions. “Thanks college boy, we’d never have thought of that.” The real world has problems with budget realities, with ingrained habits/behaviours, with personal issues and personnel issues. Irrational circumstances can exist in a prolonged state simply because someone in a position of power likes it that way. And that is ultimately what one learns as they get far enough away from university: positions of power dictate everything.
Currently, however, in the energy transition realm, human optimism, or the prevailing wisdom that we ‘have to’ transition energy sources, overrides realists. Those in the positions of power want to adopt the ideas of the theorists, because they view it as an existential necessity to change course radically – that is what an ‘emergency’ dictates.
Consider the following three climate plans, each of which forms the backbone of at least one major government initiative, thought process, or plan. They all have major institutional pedigrees or standing: one from one of the US’s most senior politicians who very nearly led the Democratic party; one from a Stanford University engineering professor; and one espoused by the hallowed news source Bloomberg. All have substantial academic support, backing, and seal of approval.
Here’s a plan from Bernie Sanders, which has garnered much support in the US under the Green New Deal banner. It’s from way back in 2019: a $16.3 trillion plan to eliminate fossil fuel use in the US by 2050 with the standard formula: new wind, solar, and geothermal power sources across the country. The total includes a, hmm, well it’s kind of paltry in comparison, $200 billion transfer to poor nations to help them fight the good fight. Sanders announced this will be good business to boot, it will ‘pay for itself’ within 15 years. Hey, it’ll even create an estimated 20 million jobs!
Oops, sorry, that’s way out of date. Bernie was way off! Here’s one from a prominent Stanford professor: again with the wind and solar, but this one’s global and has a price tag of… $62 trillion. Quit your whining, it’s a bargain, the prof says – this one pays for itself in 6 years! And would create 28 million jobs around the world. Kind of a pathetic jobs total though; Sanders’ plan would cost about $815,000 per job, the Stanford model about $2.2 million.
Rats, there I go again, that plan is from 2022, way out of date already. Just a few weeks ago, Bloomberg came up with the latest thinking, which puts the tab for zeroing out the world’s carbon emissions by 2050 – same fight, same renewables recipe – at…$200 trillion. And, Bloomberg notes enthusiastically, that’s a bargain!
Your head should be spinning as you try to think about what $200 trillion actually is, in terms of spending power, but put those thoughts aside for a minute.
They’ll break your head anyway. For now, focus on the following realities that should be pertinent.
The Geological Survey of Finland has calculated that there won’t be enough minerals in known reserves to complete the energy transition as hoped by 2050. So resource wise, it’s kind of a nonstarter anyway. But even if you poo-poo that position, as climate hawks do, consider that, per the International Energy Agency, it has historically taken 17 years for a new mine to come into production, a number that is sure to grow as regulations tighten in much of the world. Consider that that same IEA report estimates that “the energy sector’s overall needs for critical minerals could increase by as much as six times by 2040.”
Consider that the above total energy transition scenarios contemplate a complete transition to renewable energy, which means rebuilding almost everything in the energy world. For the sake of argument, let’s assume that there are enough raw materials in the world to construct all the infrastructure required for an energy transition, as inconceivable as that might be (think of replacing all hydrocarbon based industries/processes/infrastructure – the fuel that supplies more than 80 percent of global energy).
Then consider this study of major industrial projects over the past 100 years, a study covering 16,000 major projects in 136 countries, and the resulting mind-blowing statistics:
- 91 percent of major projects go over budget by a mean cost overrun of 62 percent
- Less than 1 percent are achieved on time and on schedule and deliver the benefits expected
Here’s a concrete example that drives the point home rather bluntly. It is one from the bundle of initiatives critical to reducing hydrocarbon consumption in a meaningful way. California proposed a high speed rail link between LA and San Francisco in 2008 at a then-estimated cost of $33 billion, with an in-service date of 2020. A recent cost estimate is $105 billion, due to “slow land purchases, delays in environmental documents, employee turnover and litigation over the last 14 years” that has extended the in-service date to “unknown”.
And it’s actually far worse than that: the $105 billion estimate, the most current, was made in 2019 based on data known at the time – meaning that a current estimate would have to be adjusted upwards by some unknown but surely significant amount, due to the supply chain madness/shortages/financing costs that have risen substantially since.
The US Green New Deal envisioned building high speed rail lines throughout all major population centres in the US. Tell us again about a 15-year payback, when the very first example has no completion date in site and a current cost estimate somewhere in excess of three times the original.
If you’re still paying attention after the unfortunate blast of statistics, consider California’s experience in conjunction with the professors’ plans to rewire the entire world, in conjunction with their cost estimates, in conjunction with their ludicrous timelines, and with their truly daft estimates of payback periods. Paid out within 6 years! 15 years! Whatever! The model, the model! Peer reviewed by the same people that build and use these wingnut calculators! Publish! Or perish! Above all, do not bite the hand that feeds!
In future elections, you will be faced with waves of candidates who will promise you all sorts of things. Many will rip pages from these playbooks, and promise you the moon. It’s easy to fall for them; ask the average citizen if they would rather get all their power from the wind and the sun or from dirty old oil, as if it’s just a simple choice, they will of course choose the former. Who wouldn’t? And proponents of the former will be happy to brandish studies from professors laying out how simple and cost effective this all really is.
The vision will be just like every other theory that over-simplistically solves a world problem. Don’t buy it. There are no shortcuts.
If all goes well, we will begin to value natural habitat far more than we do currrently, and act to protect it. We will reduce emissions in significant ways, using methods and techniques that recognize the reality that global citizens want a certain standard of living and will fight to the end to get it. We will integrate exciting new technological developments at a pace the system can allow, at a cost citizens can bear. Or we won’t do it at all.
Pay attention to global developments; pay attention to how billions are now voting for energy security above all; pay attention to cold hard reality.
Stay well clear of adults promising you things that are too good to be true.
Terry Etam is a columnist with the BOE Report, a leading energy industry newsletter based in Calgary. He is the author of The End of Fossil Fuel Insanity. You can watch his Policy on the Frontier session from May 5, 2022 here. First published here.
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