Reliance on Fossil Fuels—Why Carbon Neutrality Is Pie in the Sky

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Unsettled" by Steven E. Koonin. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Is carbon neutrality a realistic goal? What would it take to get there?

As we look for solutions to climate change, the elimination of carbon emissions seems to be near the top of everyone’s list. However, this is not a practical solution, at least for now. That’s the view of former energy industry scientist Steven E. Koonin.

Read on to learn why Koonin believes we must accept the reality of our reliance on fossil fuels.

Our Reliance on Fossil Fuels

As Koonin notes, one straightforward response to climate change involves eliminating carbon emissions altogether. Indeed, the IPCC claims this response is actually necessary to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement—an international climate accord among 196 nations that aims to keep warming below 2°C by 2100. Koonin, however, argues that eliminating carbon emissions by 2100 is practically impossible because growing energy demands (requiring our further reliance on fossil fuels) preclude such a radical overhaul of the energy system.

(Shortform note: The Paris Agreement is unlikely to meet its main goals. First, the UN’s own climate scientists reported that the Paris Agreement won’t keep global warming below 2°C by 2100, even if all participating countries keep their promises. Moreover, though wealthy members of the Paris Agreement promised to raise $100 billion by 2020 to establish a climate fund for impoverished countries, that goal was also not met.)

To make his argument, Koonin first cites projections that worldwide energy demands will increase by 50% by 2050. Moreover, fossil fuels are still projected to account for 70% of global energy by 2050. Because fossil fuels—which emit CO2 when burned—are expected to play a crucial role in fulfilling these energy needs, Koonin reasons that eliminating CO2 emissions altogether would require transforming the energy system.

(Shortform note: Experts estimate that, at our current rate of clean energy expansion, it would take about 400 years to develop an energy system capable of keeping global warming below 2°C. Given some estimates that we only have until 2030 to avert climate catastrophe, however, overhauling the energy system in 400 years is likely far too late.)

Next, he argues that such an overhaul would require emissions constraints that are enforced worldwide; otherwise, high-emissions activities would relocate to areas that lack these constraints. However, this would require impoverished countries to voluntarily stunt their growth by forswearing much-needed emissions—emissions that could otherwise help address pressing problems like housing, transportation, and water sanitation. 

So, given the degree of self-sacrifice required, Koonin concludes that a globally coordinated effort to eliminate carbon emissions is unlikely to occur. Rather, he claims that fossil fuels will continue to play a pivotal role in meeting our energy needs for the foreseeable future, making the transition to carbon neutrality impossible.

(Shortform note: In False Alarm, Lomborg likewise claims that developing countries are unlikely to switch to clean energy, given the costs to their economies. Consequently, he argues that stimulating economic growth in these countries is itself an important climate policy—for instance, by funding schools that teach marketable skills and opening up markets to international trade.)

Reliance on Fossil Fuels—Why Carbon Neutrality Is Pie in the Sky

———End of Preview———

Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Steven E. Koonin's "Unsettled" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Unsettled summary:

  • That humans are only partially to blame for the warming climate
  • Why the proposed solutions to climate change are unlikely to succeed
  • Alternative responses to climate change and how to improve understanding

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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