Smil - natural gas
Kateryna Babaieva / PEXELS

The headline doesn’t really rhyme, because Professor Smil’s last name is pronounced “smill” to rhyme with “will.”  But getting real is what Vaclav Smil does in his latest book, How the World Really Works.

And the reality that he presents, with incontrovertible evidence in the form of wide-ranging statistics and little-known but vital processes and connections among global economic flows, show that the highly-touted future of a fossil-fuel-less economy in ten or even thirty years is a pipe dream.

Not that it shouldn’t happen — Smil tries to avoid the familiar political grandstanding beloved by both sides of the climate-change issue, with fairly good success.  What he excels in is showing in great but fascinating detail how essential but little-known industries such as ammonia synthesis play critical roles in sustaining the eight billion or so people on the planet, and that realising a global zero-carbon economy any time soon would cause mass starvation.

Avid academic

Who is Vaclav Smil? In reading his columns in the professional journal IEEE Spectrum, I wondered that myself while admiring his unorthodox but always fact-based take on various technical issues of the day. He recently retired from a distinguished professorship in the Faculty of Environment at the University of Manitoba.

He is the only academic I have come across recently who can lay some claim to being a Renaissance man, having published in areas as disparate as population demographics and energy policy. In whatever field he chooses to write about, however, he likes to start from the facts.

For example, if you were asked what are the four material pillars of modern civilisation, what would you say? Silicon, because it’s used in virtually all computers and information technology? Glass, because it forms the material backbone of the Internet? Smil would disagree.

His choices for the four pillars are steel, concrete, plastics, and — the oddest member — ammonia.  Why ammonia?  Because ammonia synthesised from nitrogen in the air and natural gas is the source of the vast majority of chemical fertilisers used throughout the world.

Essential building blocks

German chemist Fritz Haber figured out how to do that by 1911, and the Haber process still provides most of the world’s supply of nitrogen fertiliser, without which you get things like the recent collapse of Sri Lanka, which was caused largely by an out-of-touch government ordering all the nation’s farms to switch immediately to non-chemical-fertiliser farming.  But the Haber process needs hydrogen, which comes from natural gas.

Plastics, the second pillar of modern society, are made mostly from petrochemicals or sometimes what used to be called “coal-tar derivatives.”  Either way, they come from fossil fuels.

Concrete, without which we couldn’t build most of the large-scale built infrastructure we have, is made with Portland cement, which in turn has to be manufactured with large amounts of coal, or sometimes natural gas. Anyway, you need fossil fuels to make cement.

And steel is made in blast furnaces fired with coke, which is derived from coal.

Besides these four pillars, which have to remain in place if the six billion or so people who live less-than-average-income lives hope to improve their lot, all aeroplanes and nearly all ships burn fossil fuels. Battery-powered planes or ships to carry even a small fraction of the vital international trade on which modern society depends will not be available for many decades, if ever.

So for the foreseeable future, we are stuck with using fossil fuels for a wide variety of essential processes and products without which most of us would have to crawl away somewhere and die of starvation. 


So what do we do, just give up on fighting climate change and get used to wearing bathing suits in the winter?  No, Smil says there are some practical things we can do.  Conservation is a big one.  A surprisingly large fraction, on the order of 40%, of food worldwide is simply wasted — spoiled somewhere along the transportation chain, or simply not used before it goes bad. 

And there are tons of opportunities to conserve energy around the world, starting with displacing coal-fired plants (which China is still building like there’s no tomorrow) with natural-gas-fired ones, going to smaller cars rather than SUVs and electrics where possible, and building more solar and wind-generation facilities.

But here is Smil reacting to claims that we could decarbonise at least 80 percent of the global energy supply by 2030:

“Alas, a close reading reveals that these magic prescriptions give no explanation for how the four material pillars of modern civilization… will be produced solely with renewable electricity, nor do they convincingly explain how flying, shipping, and trucking (to which we owe our modern economic globalization) could become 80 percent carbon-free by 2030; they merely assert that it could be so.”

Smil’s book is full of cold-shower moments like that, but he is also refreshingly free of the tendentious us-versus-them tone that dominates most public pronouncements on these matters by politicians and other leaders.

Real leadership required

He does not deny that global warming, or climate change, is happening. In fact, he shows how the essentials of the connection between carbon dioxide content in the atmosphere and global temperature were worked out over a century ago, long before it became a contentious political issue.

When he sees global leaders convening an endless series of summits and proclaiming unrealistic and unreachable goals while letting things just go on as usual, he gets irritated that no one is working toward a more systematic and engineering-driven approach to the problem. 

What is needed, and what is so often lacking, is the wisdom to choose the right path, or combination of paths, and the courage to put the decisions into action.  That is the real problem Smil portrays in his book:  the fact that a truly global issue — climate change — will have to have a truly global solution.  And we haven’t figured out how to do that yet.

This article has been reposted with permission from the Engineering Ethics Blog.

Karl D. Stephan received the B. S. in Engineering from the California Institute of Technology in 1976. Following a year of graduate study at Cornell, he received the Master of Engineering degree in 1977...