The 27th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP27) is currently underway in Egypt. With American visionaries such as Nancy Pelosi, Al Gore, and John Kerry featured speakers, how could anything go wrong?
Once again, it is frustrating to hear politicians and activists advocating astoundingly wasteful, mostly ineffective, and sometimes destructive "green" policies and programs. Thereby, we lose the opportunity to fund initiatives that could make a difference, as resources are squandered on you-can't-get-there-from-here virtue-signaling.
Unlike most other greenhouse gases (GHGs), once emitted, carbon dioxide (CO2) remains in the atmosphere for 300-1,000 years, because the sun does not break down CO2 as it does more complex molecules. The concentration of the gas in the atmosphere thus steadily increases because emissions are greater now than what is finally dissipating from the pre-industrial periods. By cherry picking arguments or models or citing predictions that did or did not come to pass, we can debate endlessly the impact of the accumulation of CO2 on today's climate, but it is undeniable that humans are a major contributor to the buildup. That leaves us with two feasible options to slow the accumulation: limiting emissions or capturing and sequestering the gas (more on that later).
It is irrelevant where the CO2 originates, because there is plenty of time for it to disperse widely. The U.S. emits about 13% and the European Union about 7% of the world's total – and overall, "the West" accounts for 25% – so any globally effective mitigation policies must be economically sensible for the other 75%. Until such measures are found, we are fighting a losing battle. A September Wall Street Journal editorial put it succinctly:
Anything the U.S. does to reduce emissions won't matter much to global temperatures. U.S. cuts will be swamped by the increases in India, Africa and especially China. Look no further than China's boom in new coal-fired electricity.
Focusing self-destructive restrictions and initiatives only on the West is, therefore, an exercise in masochism and undermining its nations' geopolitical security, by depriving them of plentiful energy and economic prosperity.
The Fallacy Of Electric Vehicles
Arguably, the most futile and ill-advised diversion of resources aimed at reducing emissions is subsidies for electric vehicles (EVs) and attempts to regulate fossil fuel-powered vehicles out of existence. But that hasn't prevented California Gov. Gavin Newsom from trying to drive this pipe dream – specifically, a ban on sales of gasoline-powered cars, beginning in 2035 and a recent trial balloon of banning sales of diesel trucks by 2040 – to the White House in 2024.
Examining the fine print, the EV hoax is exposed. At the macro level, transportation in the U.S. is responsible for 27% of its 13% share of global CO2 emissions. Passenger vehicles comprise about 57% of that, so shifting to consumer EVs in the U.S. would address only 2% of global emissions (or about 3.8% if the entire West did the same). Even assuming some adoption in the rest of the world despite comparatively less economic prosperity, the EV push would take decades for even minimal potential benefit.
We say potential, because the benefit cannot, in fact, be realized at all. According to Kelly Blue Book, the average car is driven 12,724 miles per year. EVs are probably driven less (they are as often as not a second vehicle), so 10,000 miles would be a reasonable, if high, estimate. Thirty KwH per 100 miles is a typical level of power consumption, so an EV would use around 3 MwH (megawatt hours, equal to 1,000 KwH) per year. Over the average seven-year lifespan of an EV battery, consumption would, therefore, total around 20 MwH.
The most efficient fossil fuel source of electricity is natural gas, which emits about 900 pounds of CO2 per MwH, per the EPA. So, in round numbers, an EV over its typical seven-year battery lifetime would be responsible for 18,000 pounds, or nine tons of CO2, if the battery were charged with electricity from a gas-fired plant.
Adding that to the average emissions of 20 tons of CO2 per battery manufactured, the total is about the same as what the average gasoline car emits in seven years (4.6 tons per year, according to the EPA). If the power is provided by coal plants (which emit more than twice as much CO2 as gas-fired ones), a gasoline-powered car is responsible for fewer emissions than an EV.
Commercial vehicles vary greatly in size and usage characteristics, so data are not readily available on their driving profiles. However, since they are typically carrying heavier loads, they would consume more power if electric-powered, and more gasoline if gasoline-powered. There is nothing to suggest that the comparison would be dramatically different from passenger vehicles one way or the other.
There are other significant issues and obstacles – the vast cost of implementing a universally available infrastructure for charging; the emissions from recycling batteries; the myriad limitations of the supply of lithium and rare earth elements needed for batteries (mostly from unfriendly nations), the escalating costs of expanding their supply, and the other pollution or environmental destruction generated in their mining.
These escalating and uncertain costs of producing an EV due to material constraints and the enormous cost of creating universal charging infrastructure are commonly ignored by the EV Pollyannas. And this does not even include the productivity loss and supply chain disruptions from long-haul truckers wasting a large percentage of time recharging on the road, and the consequent required increase in the number of long-haul trucks on the road. Additionally, EV production requires fewer workers than traditional vehicles, which implies significant job losses during a transition.
Very simply, the government should stop wasting billions – or, potentially, trillions -– of dollars on subsidies for EVs, and let people who can afford them at their actual cost make the purchase decision. We must acknowledge that EVs will have no material effect on CO2 emissions, unless and until less resource-intensive battery technologies emerge and most electricity for charging comes from nuclear energy. (See below.)
Do We Even Have Enough Electrical Generating Capacity For EVs?
The quantity of electricity needed for charging an all-electric fleet would be huge. Total miles driven in the U.S. are 3.2 trillion per year. At 30 KwH per 100 miles, the 1.3 trillion miles accounted for by passenger vehicles would require generating about 400 billion KwH. Assuming, conservatively, that heavier commercial EVs would use 40 KwH per 100 miles, their 1.9 trillion miles would require generating an additional 750 billion KwH (and it may be far higher due to cargo weight issues).
Therefore, if all vehicles were electric, the needed 1.15 trillion KwH (1.3 trillion plus 750 billion) would amount to an additional 25% demand on today's total of 4.12 trillion KwH generated in the U.S. from all sources.
How much would it cost to upgrade all the generators, transmission facilities, local transformers (of which there are many millions), plus installing universal charging facilities in cities? Would we be willing to dig up almost every street? Imagine the size and scope of highway charging areas for both trucks and cars; they must be immensely larger than filling stations because every vehicle occupies space for far longer. There is no reliable estimate of these costs, but it could run into trillions of dollars and face all kinds of implementation, land ownership, and permitting hurdles.
The alluring answer to the generation challenge of EVs is renewables. Solar sounds great for along the roads, but that compounds the land use challenge immeasurably due to its spatial inefficiency. But most EVs will be charged at night and cost-effective energy storage from daytime solar panels is still mostly a hope and a prayer. A typical wind turbine would generate 843,000 KwH per month, half of which is, statistically, at night, which would power the driving of about 1 million miles, or 12 million per year. That would imply adding 100,000 wind turbines to generate the required 1.15 trillion KwH, more than doubling the current installed base of 70,000 turbines. That's millions of acres, billions of tons of material, emissions from obtaining those materials, and significant costs for eventual decommissioning.
Thus, not only are the emissions benefits of EVs minimal, but supplying charging power and facilities make large-scale adoption highly problematic, if not unachievable. The EV obsession can only be explained by politicians' cynical pandering to an uninformed public and those who would benefit economically from this tilting at windmills.
The Limitations Of Renewables
Even without an extensive push for EVs, renewable sources make sense only up to a point. Hydropower is clearly a clean natural source (in the absence of drought in places where low reservoirs interrupt electricity generation). But nature's topography severely limits the availability of new projects. Reliance on intermittent sources of power is problematic when taken too far. Once wind and solar exceed about 30% of total power (as in Texas, California, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere), a Hobson's choice arises: It becomes necessary to subsidize the non-operation of power plants for backup capacity, or else the intermittency starts to have significant impact on industry and the public. Either way, the costs of energy will rise sharply due to scarcity or subsidy, and economic growth and societal prosperity will be threatened, especially in poorer countries that cannot absorb a price shock.
This is not theoretical, as we are seeing the effect of insufficient backup in Europe, which is on the brink of an energy-starved winter. Even the capped gas costs for heating in the U.K. will rise nearly fourfold and consume a huge portion of disposable income, bankrupt businesses, drain government coffers, and starve the consumer economy, all because its renewables (40% of total power) no longer have the backup of Russian gas, and domestic backup is woefully insufficient. Germany is confronting a similar challenge, forcing it to delay the shutting down of two of its three remaining nuclear plants, but still facing spiking, punishing energy costs.
As illustrated by events in California and Texas, the U.S. is not immune to the effects of overreliance on intermittent power sources. Texas relies on wind, solar, and nuclear for 38% of its power (nuclear is a small portion). The West Texas winter freeze of 2021 was an ominous warning, given that, statistically, cold kills four times as many people as heat. And the impact of unreliability on industry is only beginning to be felt. California produces 25% from wind and solar, and it also imports 20% of its total electricity to supplement and backup its grid, yet it still suffers from periodic shortages.
The last few months have offered several additional vivid examples of what life with unreliable, inadequate renewable energy sources will be like. During a Texas heat wave in July, Tesla asked its customers to avoid charging their cars at peak times, and in August, a heat wave in China created havoc for drivers. Finally, during a September week of record-setting high temperatures in California, the state asked electric vehicle owners to limit when they plugged in to charge – ironically, shortly after approving a radical plan to ban the sale of new gasoline cars.
And we have not even addressed the costs, emissions, pollution, spatial challenges (land use), and effects on electrical grids of implementing wind and solar. Finally, we have yet to see the profound societal and economic impacts of sustained, extensive increases in energy prices.
But the climate zealots are unfazed, believing renewables are our ultimate salvation. The virtue-signaling and wishful thinking continue, much to society's detriment.
Other Options For Reducing Emissions
If renewables have limits and EVs are not the answer to reducing emissions, what is the solution? One obvious approach is to redirect some of the resources wasted on subsidizing them into research to increase the efficiency of all energy-consuming devices. That includes cars, appliances, refrigeration, industrial equipment, and so on. One need only observe the open freezers in a supermarket to see some low-hanging fruit, and intensive research and development is likely to pay significant emissions dividends.
Another (perhaps hard-to-swallow) approach is to accept that natural gas is the cleanest fossil fuel source and repurpose money for EVs and renewables to fracking and building pipelines. It is also possible to convert or build coal- and oil-based, electricity-generating facilities and to locate new gas plants as close as possible to the users of energy to prevent transmission losses.
Often overlooked is the enormous amount of CO2 emitted by tankers moving oil and liquified natural gas (LNG) around the globe. One source estimates that oil tankers emit 1.12 billion metric tons of CO2 per year. This is greater than the emissions from all global air travel, and the equivalent of 280 million gasoline-powered cars. Data on LNG shipping is harder to come by, but another study suggests it is one-quarter of all shipping emissions, so somewhere on the order of 300 million metric tons, or the equivalent of another 70 million gasoline vehicles.
By contrast, pipelines effectively contribute no CO2, and a natural gas power plant emits just under 1 pound per KwH generated (896 pounds per megawatt-hour), which is 40% of the equivalent for coal. Given that oil and coal must be shipped, gas looks even better by comparison. As a relatively short-term and achievable strategy to reduce emissions, why fight so hard to leave this cleaner energy source in the ground? This is a classic case of cutting off one's nose to spite one's face.
That said, the glaringly obvious solution to emissions reduction is clear: nuclear – fission now, hopefully fusion in the future. Sadly, the historical problems of nuclear – a proliferation of one-off designs, fears of disaster from huge installations poorly designed (Chernobyl) or sited (Fukushima), bickering over the handling of waste – have delayed access to new, more economic, and safer nuclear solutions. In an extensive presentation, nuclear engineering professor Jacopo Buongiorno of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, describes a variety of options that are just waiting to be commercialized but are stymied by prejudice, outdated information, and politicians' intransigence.
The possible applications of "new nuclear" are numerous beyond just mega-scale power plants. Nuclear power is dramatically more efficient in terms of land and resource usage compared to renewables and fossil fuels. And, anticipating an obvious objection, a person's lifetime of using exclusively nuclear energy, if that were possible, generates only a few ounces of waste. Even including Chernobyl (an obsolete and poorly designed technology), the human death toll of nuclear is 0.02% of those claimed by coal. And nuclear is very inexpensive to operate.
To get to "new nuclear," there must be a transition from large generating plants to small, assembly-line manufactured units that will standardize installation and operating procedures to bring the facilities into service economically and relatively quickly. These reactors can be small-scale, are typically air-cooled, and designed to eliminate the chance of a meltdown. They can even be installed largely below ground for security. It is also possible to build nuclear "batteries" with 1- to 20-megawatt capacity that can be readily shipped around and returned for refueling at a centralized site every five to 10 years.
There are currently 166 U.S. Navy nuclear-powered vessels (submarines, aircraft carriers, and research ships), some in operation for more than 50 years without a major incident – an obvious counterargument to those who fear nuclear energy. Resistance to nuclear power generation is yet another example of bias and ignorance trumping facts. And cookie-cutter nuclear technology should have economic appeal around the globe, addressing the non-Western 75% of the world and the emissions they produce.
Reclamation And Sequestration
It might also be possible to reverse the accumulation of CO2 by removing some of it from the atmosphere. The same article that discusses natural gas points out that extensive tree planting can make a difference. Counterintuitively, however, this needs to take place in the temperate sections of the globe and not the tropics. For various ecological reasons, rain forests are net consumers of CO2. There are extensive tree-planting efforts underway, but it's unlikely that we can plant enough, fast enough, to do the job alone.
Carbon capture technology has been around for decades and is used to strip carbon out of factory emissions as well as remove carbon that's already in the air, but it's expensive, and until the cost of releasing carbon into the air rises, there's little economic incentive to use it.
But there is also research going on related to carbon capture and sequestration. There are a variety of approaches, including "scrubbing" industrial smokestacks. One example is in Decatur, Illinois, where the food processing giant Archer Daniels Midland Company launched a carbon capture and storage project in 2017. It has the capacity to take 1.1 million tons of carbon per year out of the emissions released by a corn processing factory, and stores that carbon a mile and a half underground. Capturing carbon from the air, as opposed to from a factory smokestack, is called "direct air capture," and there are currently more than a dozen direct air capture plants in Europe, the U.S. and Canada, according to the International Energy Agency. "Carbon removal is expected to play a key role in the transition to a net-zero energy system," the IEA says, but currently it is a very expensive technology.
Carbon removal is expensive, and in order for it to be used extensively and have a substantial effect, it will need to be made economically feasible, perhaps by resources redirected from EV subsidies and the overbuilding of wind and solar.
Other scientists promote "climate engineering" to reduce the impact of changes in our atmosphere, such as seeding the upper atmosphere with reflective microspheres. The effectiveness and advisability of these approaches are far beyond the scope of this article.
Based on the available data, the only viable sustainable path to emissions reduction is a combination of transition to natural gas in the short term and a renewed and aggressive push for nuclear power in the longer term. Investments by government in EVs should cease entirely. We must recognize the economic peril of pushing wind and solar to the point where we require parallel power grids for reliability and cease subsidies as regions reach those points. Government investment should be focused primarily on natural gas and nuclear, and on CO2 capture and sequestration technologies that offer the promise of being economic and feasible.
It is past time to end the counterproductive virtue-signaling that plays to and encourages ignorant preconceptions, and the wasteful spending that costs American society dearly, especially in the long term. Our resources must go toward what will truly address climate change rather than what enhances political performance art. If our leaders are unwilling, we need new ones who are scientifically savvy, realistic, and honest. And courageous enough to speak inconvenient truths.
Andrew I. Fillat spent his career in technology venture capital and information technology companies. He is also the co-inventor of relational databases. Henry I. Miller is a physician and molecular biologist. He was a consulting professor at Stanford University's Institute for International Studies and a fellow at the Hoover Institution. They were undergraduates together at M.I.T.