As participants capped day one of the Equinox Summit with their initial assessments of various low-carbon technologies, one of the energy field’s great thinkers and most notable skeptics offered a chilling talk that helped crystallize the scale of the problem ahead.
In what felt more like a spontaneous stand-up routine at a wonky night club, Vaclav Smil, a professor at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, sought to systematically knock down common beliefs, hopes and assumptions about how humanity came to be where it is and what comes next in terms of energy. A professor at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Smil countered peak everything with a lesson in economics (prices will drive change long before resources run dry) and poked fun at a long – and ongoing – series of clean energy movements (for more on that, see his recent piece in the American Scientist, pdf here).
The problem is that fossil fuels are both cheap and densely packed with energy, and humans have built their entire society around them. More than just fuelling stoves and light bulbs, fossil fuels are built into the food that we eat and the clothes that we wear. And it’s not always obvious how things add up. Cell phones might fit in a pocket, Smil says, but in terms of the energy that went into them they are equal to a quarter of a car due to mining and processing of special materials.
“We are fundamentally a fossil fuel civilization,” Smil says. And while change is both necessary and inevitable, he says it won’t come easy, cheaply or quickly. “It will take generations.”
Smil says countries like Canada and the United States in particular would be wise to start by simply using less energy. And if the goal is to really inspire that kind of ethos, then double, triple or even quadruple the price of energy. All things considered, he says, energy is so cheap as to inspire carelessness.
Although few would dispute his general command of the facts, many see his views as overly pessimistic and even fatalistic. During a panel discussion later in the evening Smil’s gloomy prognostications would even inspire a brief one-armed embrace from Marlo Raynolds, a senior advisor and former head of the Alberta-based Pembina Institute. “You need a hug,” Raynolds said.
Smil’s talk coincided with a summary meeting during which summit participants reported back from an initial series of group discussions regarding wind, solar, nuclear, geothermal and hydrogen fuel. Although nobody claimed the climate challenge will be easy to overcome, the first day’s discussions were decidedly more optimistic as thinkers young and old looked for opportunities to hasten progress. Keep an eye out for the initial recommendations on Thursday.