When It Comes to Climate Change, Keep Calm and Carry On

We won’t achieve the end of fossil fuels by 2050. And that’s not a crisis.

Climatologists worldwide have been warning about anthropomorphic global warming because of fossil fuel use since the early 1950s, and 70 years later, there is a general consensus that humanity must stop burning fossil fuels as an energy source by 2050 to keep temperature rise within safe limits, currently estimated at about 2° C. 

Projections for global energy demand, however, suggest that this target is impossible to achieve. India and China especially, with one-third of the world’s population, lack the technical means and economic incentive to replace fossil fuels in that timeframe. 

As a result, alternate engineering strategies are going to be necessary to cope with rising global temperatures by the middle of the century, says Jim Anderton. 

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Now we know the entire world has gotten behind the primary message of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, namely that planetary warming caused by human activity, mainly fossil fuel combustion, must be kept to about 2°C, or the planet is in big, big trouble. The timeline over which this reduction must take place has been the subject of a lot of debate, with the most pessimistic estimates being as little as eight years. 

But a common figure, and a nice round target, is 2050, at which point the planet ideally would no longer be burning fossil fuels of any kind. Some sources are talking about 2030 as the time frame in which something like half of current fossil fuel use must end. 2030 is eight short years from now. 

According to the International Energy Agency’s World Energy Outlook, global demand for fossil fuels could peak by 2025 if all the world’s current climate pledges are fully met. But even then, oil demand would still remain at three quarters of current levels by 2050, meaning climate targets will be missed by a wide margin. Why? 

India and China alone account for about one-third of the world’s population, and neither of those nations are anywhere close to reaching the stage of nationwide economic development necessary to transition from fossil fuels to high technology energy sources. And even if the technology existed, the cost and social disruption caused by the transition would be intolerable.  

And after the West has enjoyed 200 years of industrial development based on fossil fuel consumption, it is understandable that they demand the right to the same benefits of an energy-intensive society that we enjoyed. But the math is clear. Even if the Western world completely meets all Paris Accords climate targets, it simply will not be enough. There is no existing technology which can be widely deployed between now and 2030 that can make a difference. Even if the raw materials were available, there simply won’t be enough batteries, or enough electric cars, or enough wind turbines, or enough solar panels, or nuclear reactors.  It isn’t going to happen. 

Now, environmentalists don’t want to hear this, and are still pushing hard for a major shift in fossil fuel usage in Europe and North America. Which is a good thing, since diversification of a nation’s energy sources is good for a country’s economy and national security. But any notion that we’re going to avoid CO2 levels that are currently believed to create a temperature rise of 2° C by 2050 is simply unrealistic. 

So, what do we do? 

To me, we have a couple of options. One is to start engineering infrastructure to cope with the effects of that two degree rise in temperature. Another is to think about large-scale engineering projects that can reduce the energy flux of solar radiation to balance the rising temperature. But even if we do nothing, the reality is that the planet is not going to die, and we will adapt. 

It may take until 2070 or 2080 to completely eliminate fossil fuel use. So be it. Internal combustion engines became commercially available in the 1890s, but the last horses left American city streets in the 1950s. The change will happen. 

We will move as fast as is reasonably possible, and we will engineer solutions. But panic is counterproductive and distorts sensible, engineering-based decision making. We can have an orderly shift to alternate energy and keep strong economies at the same time, but only if we keep calm, and carry-on.  

Written by

James Anderton

Jim Anderton is the Director of Content for ENGINEERING.com. Mr. Anderton was formerly editor of Canadian Metalworking Magazine and has contributed to a wide range of print and on-line publications, including Design Engineering, Canadian Plastics, Service Station and Garage Management, Autovision, and the National Post. He also brings prior industry experience in quality and part design for a Tier One automotive supplier.