The transition to a zero carbon economy often appears driven by an array of competing strategies ranging from carbon taxes, to ending fossil fuel production, to a complete overhaul of the economic system. However, all such strategies are in reference to a straightforward, underlying principle: ending greenhouse gas pollution and cleaning it up. In practice, this entails replacing fossil fuel based energy systems and the removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
About 75 percent of global greenhouse gas pollution – the cause of climate change – is produced by the world’s inventory of coal-fired electricity plants, gasoline powered automobiles, jet and piston-powered aircraft, fossil fuel-powered cement plants and steel mills, gas and oil furnaces, gas stoves, and gas-powered hand tools. When we replace the fossil fuel-burning energy conversion devices that power these technologies, we will stop most global greenhouse gas pollution.
Progress is being made in that direction. For example, the automotive industry is beginning to replace internal combustion engines with electric motors in the world’s fleet of about a billion motor vehicles. Grid operators worldwide will eventually retire several thousand coal, oil or natural gas-fired steam turbines that drive electricity generators. Wind turbines, solar arrays, geothermal plants, or fourth generation nuclear reactors will take their place. Electric chainsaws are now available at your local hardware store.
In short, the world economy is endeavoring to replace energy conversion devices that emit carbon dioxide pollution with energy conversion devices that do not. Complex infrastructure, transmission systems, and processes built around all such devices are added, replaced or modified accordingly. Your new car will look much as always, but the drive train will be electric.
Energy transitions have happened before. In the last century, internal combustion engines replaced horses, and diesel-electric locomotives replaced coal-fired steam engines. Such transitions were spontaneous and occurred at their own pace with little or no social disruption, and were usually confined to one economic sector.
The 21st Century rendition of energy transition is different to the extent that it reaches into all energy-intensive sectors in all industrial economies. At the same time, it aims specifically to replace the fossil fuel-based devices that powered the rapid development of the modern world.
There is, of course, a time element involved, a phase-out/phase-in process. This requires careful management of energy systems so there is energy available to effectively 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, cleaning up carbon dioxide pollution is equally important. A number of technologies are in the works for “negative emissions” – that is, ways to remove 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 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. The role of bureaucrats and elected officials is to work with these private sector entities and foster industrial initiative, innovation and market diffusion of their zero-carbon energy devices and systems.
Governments that design 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 already 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 could require the kind of direct control that occurred during mobilization at the outset of two world wars.
Whatever happens, sustained and clear-headed cooperation among government, the people and the private sector is essential.