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Climate Targets Are Built on Magical Thinking, Not Reality

September 23, 2021

Climate Change Weekly #412

Newspapers and television news outlets around the world recently published high-profile stories reporting the United Nations (U.N.) says nations are failing to meet their Paris climate change emission reduction commitments. The U.N. says countries are falling farther behind every year, putting the world on a “catastrophic” path to 2.7℃ warming. Outlets such as Al Jazeera, the BBC, France 24, The New York Times, Reuters, and The Washington Post heralded the news.

“We have reached a tipping point on the need for climate action,” said U.N. Secretary General António Guterres in a video message accompanying the release of the U.N.’s assessment.

Leaving aside the false, alarmist rhetoric that the world faces a human-induced climate apocalypse, the fact that countries around the world are failing to meet their Paris commitments is old news to readers of Climate Change Weekly. I’ve repeatedly covered this fact, and I predicted the pact would fail to prevent growing emissions way back in 2015, even before the ink was dry on the agreement.

Three critical factors ensured the Paris agreement would fail to halt climate change: (1) humans don’t control the climate and have no feasible way to prevent climate change; (2) politics ensured the agreement was flawed from the outset, with the commitments being unenforceable and in no way commensurate with the reductions needed to affect future temperature increases substantially (even if humans are causing rising temperatures in the first place); and (3) physics, simple physics.

Today I’m not going to address the first point at all, and I will discuss the second only briefly. Most of this essay focuses on the third point.

The need for consensus and comity ensured the Paris agreement would fail from the start. The agreement exempted the largest source of emissions: developing countries, with China being far and away in the lead. This is just one of the myriad factors that guaranteed Paris would fail. Its aspirations were beyond its reach.

If climate alarm is supposed to be based on science, however, the ignoring of physics is the most glaring weakness of the Paris climate agreement.

A Forbes article by Roger Pielke Jr., Ph.D., provides useful background information on the scale of the energy transition the world and the United States would have to undergo to reach net-zero by 2050. Citing the BP Statistical Review of World Energy in 2019, Pielke noted the world consumed 11,743 million tons of oil equivalent (Mtoe) coal, natural gas, and oil in 2018, resulting in 33.7 billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions. Therefore, to reach net-zero by 2050 the world would have to replace approximately 12,000 Mtoe of fossil-fuel use, just to meet current energy demands, not accounting for increases needed to accommodate expected economic growth, starting when Pielke wrote in 2019. The International Energy Agency estimated global energy use would grow by about 1.25 percent per year through 2040 at least.

“Another useful number to know is that there are 11,051 days left until January 1, 2050,” wrote Pielke. “To achieve net-zero carbon dioxide emissions globally by 2050 thus requires the deployment [of more than] >1 mtoe of carbon-free energy consumption (~12,000 mtoe/11,051 days) every day, starting tomorrow and continuing for the next 30+ years.”

Achieving net-zero also requires the corresponding decommissioning of more than 1 Mtoe of energy consumption from fossil fuels every single day, beginning back in 2019.

The transition to alternative energy sources from fossil fuels demanded the equivalent of the opening of three new large nuclear power plants (nuclear being the lowest-emitting source of electric power generation in lifecycle terms) every two days, starting in 2019, to achieve net-zero carbon dioxide emissions by 2050. Alternatively, since nuclear is largely off the table because environmental socialists object to it, people would have to erect approximately 1,500 (2.5 megawatt) wind turbines, across about 300 square miles of land, every day, beginning back on September 30, 2019 when Pielke wrote his article, and continuing to 2050, to meet the net-zero goal while providing the amount of energy used worldwide in 2018. That too, does not include any growth in energy use to accommodate economic growth.

At this point I should note the world has missed each of these targets. We have not retired 1 Mtoe of fossil fuel energy consumption each day since September 2019. Even with the economic shutdown imposed by various governments in response to Covid-19, fossil fuel energy consumption has grown since 2019. Nor have we brought on 1 Mtoe of non-emitting energy production each day. To set out on the path to net-zero by 2050 starting today, we would have to retire more than 1 Mtoe of fossil fuel energy and begin operating at full capacity the equivalent amount of non-emitting energy each day until 2050. Every day we don’t replace 1 Mtoe of carbon-dioxide-emitting with non-emitting energy means an even greater amount of shifting is necessary each day going forward.

To be fair, net-zero is not the target actually set in the Paris agreement, but it is a larger goal, and Paris participants were expected to set new, stricter targets every few years to reach it. Tellingly, the U.N. reports the signatory nations aren’t even hitting their interim targets, much less exceeding them as would be necessary to reach net-zero. The reality of energy use suggests they will never make it.

In 2019, Mark Mills, a senior fellow with the Manhattan Institute and a faculty fellow at Northwestern University’s McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science, wrote a brilliant analysis of what it would take to reach net-zero carbon dioxide emissions from energy use by 2050. In “The ‘New Energy Economy:’ An Exercise in Magical Thinking,” Mills demonstrates ending the use of fossil fuels prematurely is physically difficult if not impossible.

Mills’ paper discusses energy facts ignored by those who negotiated the Paris agreement and those pushing the even stricter target of net-zero. Here are just a few key facts to consider, from Mills:

  • When the world’s four billion poor people increase energy use to just one-third of Europe’s per-capita level, global demand will rise by an amount equal to twice America’s total consumption.
  • A 100-times growth in the number of electric vehicles to 400 million on the roads by 2040 would displace just 5 percent of global oil demand.
  • Renewable energy would have to expand 90-fold to replace global hydrocarbons in two decades. It took a half-century for global petroleum production to expand “only” 10-fold.
  • Efficiency increases energy demand by making products and services cheaper. For example, since 1995, aviation fuel use per passenger-mile is down 70 percent though air traffic rose more than 10-fold, and global aviation fuel use thus rose more than 50 percent. Energy used per byte is down about 10,000-fold, but global data traffic rose about a million-fold, and global electricity used for computing soared.
  • For security and reliability, an average of two months of national demand for hydrocarbons is in storage at any time. Today, barely two hours of national electricity demand can be stored in all utility-scale batteries plus all the batteries in one million electric cars in the United States.
  • To make enough batteries to store two days’ worth of U.S. electricity demand would require 1,000 years of production by Tesla’s Gigafactory (currently the world’s biggest battery factory).
  • The physics-based limit for solar cells (the Shockley-Queisser limit) is a max conversion of about 33 percent of photons into electrons; commercial cells today are at 26 percent.
  • Physics limits wind turbines (the Betz limit) to a max capture of 60 percent of the potential energy in moving air; commercial turbines now achieve 45 percent.

These last two points are important because it means the world is quickly reaching the limits of the energy yield gains that can be had from improvements in wind turbines and solar cells.

Leave aside any political posturing and virtue signaling. Ignore the fact that most politicians have repeatedly shown a lack of political will to stay the course on policies imposing even modest energy price increases aimed at forcing people to use less fossil fuel to meet their Paris commitments. (For example, the French and Chilean governments backed down in the face of riots in the streets in response to modest gasoline price increases.) The truth is, even sincere intentions to reduce emissions sharply by 2050, much less reach net-zero, are bound to fail. The simple reality of how much energy the world demands daily and will demand in the future, and what it takes to produce that energy, indicates we “can’t get there from here,” as the rock band R.E.M. once sang.

—    H. Sterling Burnett

SOURCES: Climate Change Weekly; Climate Change Agreement; Manhattan Institute; Forbes; The Heartland Institute




China says cooperation with the United States on climate change will require us to abandon our longstanding commitments to human rights in China, Hong Kong, and Tibet, and the right of the people of Taiwan to self-determination. It will also require the United States to forego protection of its intellectual property rights and commercial interests.

In a recent meeting between Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and U.S. climate envoy John Kerry, Yi reiterated a set of conditions the Chinese government had delivered to U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman in July, which the United States will have to meet if we want the Chinese government’s cooperation on climate change.

“China-U.S. climate cooperation cannot be separated from the wider environment of the Sino-U.S. relations,” said a statement from China’s foreign ministry.

In particular, Yi stressed the U.S. government must quit criticizing China’s treatment of minorities, the people of Hong Kong and Tibet, and its militarization of the strait between mainland China, Japan, and Taiwan. The Biden administration must also refrain from publicly criticizing or using regulations to interfere with China’s foreign affairs and commercial and trade policies.

The China Global Television Network, an English-language cable TV news service under the control of the Propaganda Department of the Chinese Communist Party, reported in July China’s three bottom lines are as follows:

The U.S. must not challenge, slander or even attempt to subvert the path and system of socialism with Chinese characteristics …. Secondly, the U.S. must not attempt to obstruct or interrupt China’s development process, …  urging the U.S. to remove all unilateral sanctions, high tariffs, long-arm jurisdiction and technology blockade it has imposed on China as soon as possible; China’s third demand is that the U.S. must not infringe upon China’s state sovereignty or damage China’s territorial integrity, … referring to issues surrounding Xinjiang, Tibet, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. These issues have never been about “human rights” or “democracy,” but concerning “Xinjiang independence,” “Tibet independence.” and "Hong Kong independence.”

All the Biden administration has to do to secure some as yet unspecified “cooperation” with China on climate change is for the United States to sell out its competitive economic advantage and its longstanding positions on human rights. Based on Kerry’s past actions and statements, one fears the administration might count this as a small price to pay to get some modest, unenforceable emission reduction commitments.

SOURCES: Epoch Times; Climate change dispatch; China Global Television Network


Multiple recent studies indicate subsurface volcanic activity or geothermal heat, not climate change, is to blame for any melting of glaciers in Antarctica. Recent research further shows almost all of Antarctica has cooled over the past four decades.

A study published in the journal Atmosphere compared two datasets from the European Center for Medium Range Weather Forecasts (ECMRWF) and temperatures recorded at 41 weather stations in Antarctica.

The ECMRWF datasets show “East Antarctica, which covers two-thirds of the South Pole, has cooled a whopping 2.8°C over the past four decades,” reports Pierre L. Gosselin at No Tricks Zone.

Even West Antarctica has cooled, by 1.6℃. The only portion of Antarctica that has warmed, and that by a barely measurable amount, is the Antarctic Peninsula, the area of the continent most directly affected by sea surface temperatures and natural shifts in Southern Ocean currents.

When the five Chinese researchers contributing to the study compared measured temperatures from 41 ground-based measuring stations on the Antarctic continent to the ECMRWF datasets, they found they were largely consistent. The ECMRWF datasets showed East Antarctica had cooled by approximately 0.70°C per decade and West Antarctica had cooled by 0.42°C per decade. The Antarctic Peninsula has warmed by about 0.18 degrees per decade over the past 40 years.

The cooling has been accompanied by a net glacial advance on some of Antarctica. Where landlocked coastal glaciers are melting in Antarctica, research shows it is due to subsurface hotspots: isolated areas of substantial geothermal activity and venting which are melting the Pine Island and Thwaites Glaciers from below. Accounting for the melting from these two sets of Antarctic glaciers, Antarctica as a whole contributed just 0.76 of a centimeter to sea level rise in 1992-2017, or 0.3 of a millimeter per year, far less than is simulated by various climate models.

SOURCE: Climate Change Dispatch; Climate Change Dispatch; Science Advances; Atmosphere; Nature Communications


New research published in the journal Earth and Science shows many glaciers on Greenland have patterns of expansion and decline that have not historically tracked changes in ambient temperature.

Whereas climate model simulations project Greenland glaciers as uniformly melting or declining in response to modestly rising global average temperatures, evidence of past glacial expansion, persistence, and retreat from Greenland indicates such an outcome is not a foregone conclusion.

Based on a variety of types of observational data, this research shows many glaciers have remained stable at peak ice mass even when there are significant changes in the surrounding climate. These same glaciers and those nearby have historically retreated or expanded without any forcing from the climate, meaning the climate conditions have remained stable for decades even as the glacial peaks expanded or declined.

It seems for these glaciers, local conditions and topography play a greater role than climate change in glacial persistence, expansion, and retreat. As a result, it is difficult to project how the Greenland glaciers will respond to climate change. The study’s authors conclude past behavior suggests “one of two very different futures: one in which the glacier continues to persist without losing mass …, and another where retreat occurs suddenly without a concurrent change in climate and leads to a significant acceleration in mass loss.”

In either case, climate change seems not to be the forcing mechanism driving glacier behavior.

SOURCE: Earth and Science Open Archive

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Climate Change
H. Sterling Burnett, Ph.D., is a Heartland senior fellow on environmental policy and the managing editor of Environment & Climate News.
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