Halfway between Kyoto and ‘Net Zero by 2050’ , how are we doing?

By Brad Hayes


Giving credit where credit is due right up front – this article is based largely on a recent report by University of Manitoba Emeritus Professor and energy guru Vaclav Smil – “Halfway between Kyoto and 2050: Zero Carbon is a Highly Unlikely Outcome”, published by Canada’s Fraser Institute.

Some people use the term “guru” lightly, but I do not; Professor Smil has spent a long and illustrious academic career researching and writing about energy and material realities of the world around us. He created titles on my bookshelf including Grand Transitions, Numbers Don’t Lie, Size – How it Explains the World, and How the World Really Works.

He has documented incredible amounts of hard scientific, financial, and societal data, and interpreted them to explain in a logical manner how the world really works. Smil’s readers have learned about how many materials and how much energy humanity actually requires in order to survive, and how these might change in a world of many financial and material constraints.

The Kyoto Protocol and Net Zero by 2050

The year 2024 is roughly the halfway point between the 1997 signing of the Kyoto Protocol – an international agreement to reduce the level of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions produced by humanity – and the year 2050, by which time some governments and organizations have pledged to reduce GHG emissions to net zero, as described by the International Energy Agency – Net Zero by 2050; A Roadmap for the Global Energy Sector.

So how is that going – have we progressed in reducing emissions toward the 2050 net-zero target? Not really, according to these graphs from the Energy Institute’s 2023 Statistical Review of World Energy (Figures 1, 2 - see next page). Smil’s take on the data:

“The conclusion is unequivocal: by 2023, after a quarter-century of targeted energy transition, there has been no absolute global decarbonization of energy supply.

Just the opposite. In that quarter-century, the world has substantially increased its dependence on fossil carbon.”

“… the total atmospheric burden of CO2 rose from 2.85 trillion tons in 1997 to 3.27 trillion tons in 2022, corresponding to the increase of the mean Mauna Loa concentration [where atmospheric CO2 content is measured] from 364 ppm to nearly 420 parts per million (up by more than 15%).”

Note in Figure 2 that GHG emissions have risen in every year since 2008, except in the economic downturn of 2009 and during COVID (also visible in Figure 1).

And while North American and European emissions have declined, at least in relative terms, growth from the emerging economies of Asia have more than compensated, while emissions growth from energy-poor Africa has yet to take off. To sum up: since many nations “committed” to reduce GHG emissions at Kyoto in 1997, global fossil fuel consumption has risen by 55%, and emissions have risen almost every year to new highs. Is that anywhere near the route to net zero? Obviously not, but many continue to contend that we can do it.

How could someone still be a net-zero-by-2050 believer? By refusing to address fundamental realities, which brings us to the next part of Smil’s report.

Realities versus wishful thinking

This section resonates strongly with me. Stark realities that net-zero proponents do not address:

  • “The scale of today’s energy transition requires approximately 700 exajoules of new non-carbon energies by 2050, which needs about 38,000 projects the size of Canada’s Site C” (new hydro dam). Considering that Site C has taken over 10 years and $15 billion to build, that is an unrealistic number of projects and money.
  • “The energy transition imposes unprecedented demands for minerals including copper and lithium, which require substantial time to locate and develop mines.” In fact, some of these demands realistically cannot be met using current technologies, as I have written: Critical minerals to play major role in emerging technologies
  • “A significant part of emissions declines in many affluent countries has been due to their deindustrialization, to transferring some of the carbon-intensive industries abroad, above all to China.”In other words, industry is fleeing nations such as Germany, where energy prices have been driven up by green energy policies and arbitrary emissions targets – Germany’s days as an Industrial Superpower are Coming to an End. We see the same happening in resource-rich Canada as federal actions (and inactions) over the past few years hobble energy resource infrastructure.
  • “Long-term global energy forecasts offering numbers for overall demand or supply and for shares contributed by particular sources or conversions are beyond our capability: the system is too complex and too open to unforeseen but profound perturbations for such specificity.” That’s why credible forecasters produce multiple scenarios based on varying assumptions. Net-zeroby-2050 forecasts are invariably built on unrealistic assumptions about technology and human behaviours.
  • “Modern forecasting in general and the anticipation of energy advances in particular have an unmistakable tendency toward excessive optimism, exaggeration and outright hype. … Belief in near-miraculous tomorrows never goes away. Even now we can read declarations claiming that the world can rely solely on wind and PV by 2030 [Joint declaration of the global 100% renewable energy strategy group, which relies on the work of Mark Jacobson’s group at Stanford, which I’ve discussed in past articles]. … We should devote our efforts to charting realistic futures that consider our technical capabilities, our material supplies, our economic possibilities, and our social necessities – and then devise practical ways to achieve them.” Indeed!
  • And one of my favourites that never seems to get much discussion: “While global co-operation is essential to achieve decarbonization, major emitters such as the United States, China and Russia have conflicting interests.” For example, why would Russia be interested in decarbonizing world energy supply while they are paying for their war in Ukraine by exporting oil and gas? There is no event or string of events that will happen to suddenly convince a majority of the world’s eight billion people to abruptly put all their other priorities aside in order to focus on GHG emissions.

Closing thoughts

Smil concludes his analysis by saying: “We should not underestimate the concatenation of challenges presented by practical engineering, material, organizational, social, political and environmental requirements of the unfolding transition to a fossil carbon-free world. When we do assess these challenges realistically, we must conclude that the world free of fossil carbon by 2050 is highly unlikely.”

Smil speaks in measured, scientific terms. My conclusion, reinforced by Smil’s report, is stated more colloquially: humanity will continue to rely heavily on fossil fuels as essential components of energy and industrial systems for decades to come. There are no credible, reasonable scenarios leading to net-zero GHG emissions by 2050. That is no surprise, because the net-zero target is arbitrary, and has never been backed by any coherent plan to achieve it.

We are indeed halfway between Kyoto and 2050 in years, but net-zero emissions remains an aspirational goal for the far distant future