• Ian Sutton

Reality Check

Updated: Nov 3, 2021


President Biden showing his concern to do with the urgency of climate change.
President Biden at a Town Hall Meeting

The post, Existential Threat, discussed the statements made by President Biden at a Town Hall meeting in October 2021. His words showed that he appreciates the seriousness of climate change. However, the lack of urgent follow-up indicates that he is treating climate change as being just one problem among many — not actually an existential challenge. The lack of interest in the reporting of the event showed reflected the lack of a sense of urgency.


We see the same lack of commitment and urgency in a comment that followed his “existential threat” remark.

I’m presenting a commitment to the world that we will, in fact, get to net-zero emissions on electric power by 2035 and net-zero emissions across the board by 2050 or before. But we have to do so much between now and 2030 to demonstrate what we’re going to — that we’re going to do.

The implications of this statement are enormous. In order to achieve either of these goals our society will have to go through a radical, wholesale restructuring. How this might be done is the theme of many detailed papers, books and web sites. (Our posts — Too Late and Later and Later — describe the challenges that we face if we are to implement Net Zero programs.)


Three Examples

Let’s consider just the ‘net-zero emissions on electric power by 2035’ statement. Here are three concerns that make it such a challenge. (There are many more — these are just representative of the engineering and project management challenges that need to be considered.)

  1. Renewables

  2. Nuclear

  3. Carbon capture

Each of these topics deserves a lengthy discussion in its own right, but we can hit a few highlights.


Renewables

At the heart of the net zero emissions goal lies a rapid switch from fossil fuels (coal, oil and natural gas) to renewables: mostly wind and solar. Yet, in the post The Renewable Energy Paradox we note that:

  • Renewables are growing faster than other sources of energy.

  • Yet the fraction of energy provided by renewals is declining.

In other words, we are actually losing ground in the effort to achieve the net-zero by 2035 emissions target when it comes to renewable sources of energy. This does not mean that we stop installing them, but our present trajectory takes us nowhere close the President’s goal.


A second issue to do with renewables is that they are not ‘dispatchable’, i.e., they do not provide power when needed. Therefore they have to be backed up with fossil fuel facilities to iron out the peaks and valleys. Or else, some means of storing energy that is not extremely expensive has to be found. Time is pressing.


Nuclear

Nuclear power comes with its own well-known set of issues and difficulties. Nevertheless, many analysts believe that it is an important part of the energy picture and that more nuclear power plants should be built. Yet, we are currently actually reducing the number of nuclear power plants in the United States. Moreover, the lead time for any new facility is going to be at least ten years. Given that we are already almost in the year 2022, the reality is that nuclear power will not do much toward meeting the President’s 2035 goal.


Carbon Capture

We are not going to achieve net zero targets without the widespread use of carbon capture and sequestration (CC&S) technology. This technology is still in its infancy; it is also expensive and does not generate any revenue. Yet, if it is to have a significant impact, an enormous (that word again) investment will have to be made very quickly.


Commitment

This post and the earlier Existential Threat, highlight two of the fundamental challenges that we face with regard to our response to climate change.


The first of these challenges is that leaders such as President Biden seem to understand the seriousness of climate change and the impact that it is going to have. However, their response is lukewarm, at best. They seem to assume that technology will allow us to make a transition to a “green economy” without making any sacrifices. Yet, there is no way that we can achieve net zero goals within less than three decades without calling for a substantial reduction in energy use.


The second challenge is to do with commitment. Achieving Net Zero goals requires a total commitment by everyone: individuals, government agencies and companies, large and small. There are no signs that any country is close to making that all out effort.


Individual and Community Response

Meeting Net Zero goals requires governments and large organizations to urgently commit to climate change action. But, as we have seen, it appears unlikely that they will act decisively. Therefore, individuals and small organizations will have lead the way — they will also have to develop, implement and manage their own Net Zero programs in parallel with government efforts.


Real change always comes from people acting out their beliefs and commitments, not from a top-down hierarchy. But the challenge is formidable, as we see in the post Church of England: Carbon Neutral by 2030.