The prevailing narrative regarding climate change holds that the international community can avoid social, economic and environmental disaster by becoming carbon neutral as quickly as possible. This can be achieved with an array of measures such as carbon taxes, phasing out fossil fuel production, planting trees, and using public transit. Some measures, such as overhauling capitalism, may be appropriate but improbable in the near term. Taken together, such measures can seem to go in different directions and express certain ideological biases. But it can also be said that they have a two-part principle in common. One, stop greenhouse gas pollution and two, clean it up. In basic practical terms, this entails replacing fossil fuel-based energy systems and removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
The prospect of replacing fossil fuel-based energy systems can appear daunting because these systems are ubiquitous and embedded. They represent decades of investment and committment. They comprise the world’s inventory of coal-fired electricity plants, petroleum-powered automobiles, aircraft, ships and locomotives, fossil fuel-powered cement plants and steel mills, gas and oil furnaces, gas stoves, and gas-powered hand tools. Together they produce about 75 percent of global greenhouse gas pollution. When we replace the thermal energy conversion devices that power these technologies we will have accomplished an enormous technical task. And we will have stopped most global greenhouse gas pollution.
Progress is being made in that direction. For example, the automotive industry is replacing internal combustion engines with electric motors in the world’s fleet of about a billion motor vehicles. Grid operators worldwide are aiming to retire several thousand coal, oil or natural gas-fired steam turbines that drive electricity generators. Wind turbines, solar arrays, geothermal plants and possibly fourth generation nuclear reactors will take their place. Hardware stores are selling electric chain saws.
In short, there is a global effort to replace energy conversion devices that emit carbon dioxide pollution with energy conversion devices that do not. Simple enough. Complexity enters the picture as these new devices are integrated with existing infrastructure. Turns out that your new car will look much as always, but the drive train will be electric. Your kettle will boil on electricity generated by wind turbines.
Energy transitions have happened before. In the last century, internal combustion engines replaced horses, and diesel-electric locomotives replaced coal-fired steam engines. France transitioned to nuclear-powered electricity generation. These events were spontaneous and occurred at their own pace with little or no economic disruption. They were comparatively limited in scope, occurring in one specific sector such as transportation, or carried out in one jurisdiction.
In contrast, 21st Century energy transition is global. It reaches into all energy-intensive sectors of the world economy. At the same time it intends to replace the energy devices that powered the development of the comfortable and convenient world we know.
Like all transitions, though, there is a time lag involved, a phase-out/phase-in process. This requires careful management of energy systems so the economy continues to function and there is energy to carry out transition. Energy supplies must be maintained for the outgoing system as well as the incoming system. For a while, pipelines will coexist with EV charging stations.
While energy transition aims to stop carbon dioxide pollution, it is clearly necessary to clean up carbon dioxide pollution – invisible, odorless and difficult to isolate as it may be. Not a problem, as it turns out. A number of technologies are in the works for “negative emissions” – in other words removing accumulated CO2 directly from the air. One of them, a direct air capture venture in Canada, is at the industrial scale up stage. Another, the STEP process, appears capable of capturing and disposing of carbon dioxide at the volume and speed necessary to prevent catastrophic warming of the atmosphere.
The role of government
It is important to remember that such developments are formulated in laboratories, board rooms and factories as much as in the chambers of government. Automobile manufacturers build electric propulsion systems. Electric utilities build wind and solar farms. Progressive government act as facilitators. They manage the so-called climate crisis by supporting industrial initiative, innovation and market diffusion of zero-carbon energy devices and systems.
Governments that enact policy to support energy transition and carbon dioxide removal can be confident they are on track. China, the UK and a few other jurisdictions have recently set dates for phasing out internal combustion engines in automobiles. The state of Oregon changed public utility regulations to allow the sale of electricity at roadside EV charging stations. Government grants have helped demonstrate and scale up atmospheric carbon dioxide removal in several jurisdictions.
If industry doesn’t take the hint, governments may have to go further. Phasing in zero-carbon energy conversion devices at the maximum possible speed may require the kind of direct control that mobilized human and industrial resources to fight two world wars.
Whatever happens, sustained and clear-headed cooperation among governments, people and the private sector is essential.