The human cost of Net Zero

The war on fossil fuels is far more dangerous than climate change.

Article by Ralph Schoellhammer.


The truth is that our societies are still massively dependent on fossil fuels. For all the talk of the advances made in renewable energy, the proportion of our electricity production reliant on fossil fuels has barely changed over the past 40 years. In that time, only nuclear power has declined as a source of electricity.

None of this is to say that an energy transition is impossible. A target of Net Zero by 2050 could well be met. But the rapid abandonment of fossil fuels that this demands would inflict misery and hardship on billions of people.

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Canadian political scientist Vaclav Smil lists cement, steel, plastics and ammonia as the four ingredients that make the modern world possible. For example, modern healthcare systems need enormous amounts of plastic (for everything from flexible tubes to sterile packing), making it yet another crucial ingredient in the wellbeing of humanity. And without steel and cement, nothing could be built – no roads, no houses, no harbours, no airports. Plastics, steel and cement also require fossil fuels for their production.

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Industrialisation transforms societies. The industrialisation of agriculture, for example, enables higher outputs with less labour, freeing humans for other endeavours. In the US, the labour needed to produce a kilogram of grain fell by 98 per cent between 1800 and 2020. The share of the population working in agriculture fell by a similar margin during that period. Not every country will have to follow this development path exactly – coal, for example, could be replaced by gas and nuclear. But what is certain is that no country will be able to industrialise and develop without fossil fuels.

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The talk of leaving fossil fuels behind is not based in reality. It’s fuelled instead by a mixture of apocalypticism, hypocrisy and sheer wishful thinking. In the future, perhaps we will be able to power hospitals using kinetic energy. But right now, the costs of abandoning fossil fuels will likely do far more harm than climate change itself.