Citizen Action Monitor

Myth #19: Nate Hagens dismisses the insistence we can achieve Net Zero!! (by 2050 or any date)

“When people use the term “Net Zero” it’s mostly shorthand for maintaining economic growth while doing some magical technological salvation in the future.” —

No 2754 by fw, July 2, 2021 —

“There is an increasingly popular theme in climate change media called “Net Zero emissions.” The idea that by 2050 – or any date – we can both swap out our fossil fuel energy base for renewables, and, additionally, use complicated and yet-to-be developed technology to remove carbon from the atmosphere – together resulting in humanity reducing the current emissions of our 17 terawatt economic system to zero, in less that 3 decades…. The waste from our current population and consumption levels is a dire problem. But thinking we can continue to consume at anything close to today’s levels, and magically whisk away the waste products from a carbon-based economic system, is a myth. In a 17 terawatt economy, 80% powered by fossil fuels, Net Zero emissions is biophysically delusional; however, accepting this biophysical reality will [also] be politically delusional, so maybe we can meet in the middle.”Nate Hagens, from his Myth #19

My transcript of this repost focuses on Nate’s concise 5-minute review of the evidence that effectively refutes Myth #19: “We can achieve Net Zero (by 2050 or any date!!” Myth #19 is one of 33 myths Nate delivered in his May 21st Earth Day talk titled, Earth and Humanity: Myth and Reality. The beauty of his 2hr, 52min long, information-rich Earth Day talk is that it is more of an indexed reference tool for recurrent consultation than a lecture meant to be assimilated in one sitting.

At the bottom of this post is a complete time-stamped list of the titles of all of Hagens’ 33 myths, plus his opening Introduction and closing Interventions (and Wild Ideas). The myths can be watched in any order — but, as Hagens mentions, the order decided on seems logical.

Briefly, Nate Hagens is a systems synthesist and well-known speaker on the big-picture issues facing human society. Before becoming a professor of an Honors seminar at the University of Minnesota, Nate was President of Sanctuary Asset Management and a Vice President at the investment firms Salomon Brothers and Lehman Brothers. He has a Masters Degree in Finance with Honors from the University of Chicago and a PhD in Natural Resources from the University of Vermont.

The video segment of Myth #19, embedded in the repost below, starts at the 55:01-minute mark. (Although segment #19 ends at 59:54-minutes, the video will continue to play until it is stopped manually.)  For those who would prefer to watch Nate’s address on You Tube, without the transcript, click on the following linked title, which is also set to begin at the 55:01-minute mark.

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MYTH #19: We can achieve Net Zero!! (by 2050 or any date) by Nate Hagens, Energy and Our Future / You Tube, May 16, 2021

TRANSCRIPT: Myth #19 (Starts at 55:01, Ends at 59:54)

[Note: For purposes of clarity, in my transcript I have numbered Nate’s 7 rebuttals of the Net Zero claims.]

There is an increasingly popular theme in climate change media called “Net Zero emissions.” The idea that by 2050 – or any date – we can both swap out our fossil fuel energy base for renewables, and, additionally, use complicated and yet-to-be developed technology to remove carbon from the atmosphere – together resulting in humanity reducing the current emissions of our 17 terawatt economic system to zero, in less that 3 decades…

[1] Okay. First there’s the physical enormity and cost of the task. The carbon in coal is found in essentially pure concentrations, tens of feet thick, and can literally be picked up. The carbon and atmospheric CO2 is diluted into parts-per-million [ppm] concentrations making it significantly harder to pick up. When carbon is burned it binds with oxygen molecules and becomes 3.7 times bigger – and it turns into gas, which is a thousand times the previous volume.

From a biophysical perspective, the concept that we could somehow ever build a parallel system that captures, processes, and sequesters the resultant CO2 should be rejected at first glance. It’s like a gold miner looking at all the gold present in the oceans and monetizing via an IPO [initial public offering].

[2] Next point. Cutting down all the forest to then regrow the forest is, for the most part, “carbon laundering”, and a large energy and environmental cost. This will be even more the case as we increasingly turn to forests – old sunlight – to replace the declining ancient sunlight in the fossils we use for fuel.

[3] Third. Eight percent of all global greenhouse gas emissions in 2020 were from high-heat smelting of iron, steel, and non-ferrous metals. That is fully half of all the emissions from the entire global transportation sector. It is difficult to imagine how these emissions from producing metals will decrease in a world of more electric vehicles, solar panels, wind turbines, and batteries, which critically require lots of the iron, copper, cobalt, nickel, silicon, lithium and rare earths.

[4] It should be noted that for 50 years or so we’ve heard many proclamations about renewable energy displacing fossil energy, but as of 2020, wind and solar despite rapid growth are only around 5% of global primary energy consumption. And all renewables are [at best] around 18 %.

[5] This relates to another key point. We have to keep in mind that our amazing civilization today is a product of “energy surplus”; however, as we allocate more and more of our energy to build low-carbon infrastructure, this energy has to be removed from other parts of society like libraries or hospitals or schools, or racetracks. We might then, one day, have an economy twice the size of today’s, but 45% of the physical inputs will go into generating energy. And 45% of it will be spent on sequestering waste products, which leaves only10% for food, education, health care, Xboxes or other pursuits.

Will we still want to measure our cultural success by the growth of our economy? At that point we would have turned the human economy into part Mordor*, part ginormous [gargantuan] cleaning machine, thus missing entirely the true goal of human and ecological wellbeing. Note: While that would be bad, it wouldn’t be as bad as [being] without the cleaning machines. [*Mordor — J. R. R. Tolkien’s fictional world of Middle-earth].

[6] Lastly, perhaps the biggest problem with the Net Zero myth is when people use the term “Net Zero” it’s mostly shorthand for “Maintaining economic growth while imagining doing some magical technological salvation in the future. It is an inter-temporal sleight-of-hand that effectively is saying “Burn now / Pay later” And ignores any need for cultural change.

Repeatedly kicking the can has consequences, which probably means when Net Zero fails we’ll move directly to geo-engineering, spraying sulphuric acid into the atmosphere, and many other clever but not wise schemes.

[7] The waste from our current population and consumption levels is a dire problem. But thinking we can continue to consume at anything close to today’s levels, and magically whisk away the waste products from a carbon-based economic system, is a myth. In a 17 terawatt economy, 80% powered by fossil fuels, Net Zero emissions is biophysically delusional; however, accepting this biophysical reality will [also] be politically delusional, so maybe we can meet in the middle.

59:54 — End of Myth #19

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LIST OF THE 33 MYTHS (plus opening introduction, Interventions (and Wild Ideas and Closing thoughts)

Nate notes that the myths themselves are listed in reverse numerical order from #33 down to #1, while the time markers are in chronological order from beginning to end, which facilitates their quick and easy location on the video. The myths can be watched in any order, but the order they’re in made the most sense to Hagens. To go directly to the beginning of any numbered myth or to the opening Introduction and closing Interventions and Wild Ideas, just click on the hyperlinked time stamp in front of the term “Myth” .

Time stamps: //   0:04 Introduction //   2:20 Myth #33: The Experts Have ALL the Answers //   4:16 Myth #32: Humans Are Separate From Nature //   6:45 Myth #31: Humans Are Mostly Selfish //   12:17 — Myth #30: More Is Better  //  18:12 Myth #29: “Someday I’ll Have enough” //   21:18 Myth #28: We Care About the Future //   23:38 Myth #27: Everyone Has Their Own Truth //   26:37 Myth #26: Truth Matters //   29:31 Myth #25: Energy Is Merely a Commodity //   34:28 Myth #24: The American Dream is Based on Hard Work and Cleverness //   36:05 Myth #23: Oil: The USA Will Be the Next Saudi Arabia //    41:46 Myth #22: We Can Always Get More Resources if We Have More Money //   44:42 Myth #21: Renewables Can Power THIS Civilization //   50:55 Myth #20: In the future we won’t need oil due to Peak Demand!! //   55:01 Myth #19: We Can Achieve Net Zero!! (by 2050 or any date) //   59:54 Myth #18: As Earth runs out of resources, We’ll Colonize Outer Space!! //   1:02:26 Myth #17: Growth Is Forever //   1:05:04 Myth #16: GDP Is the Right Goal for Society //   1:10:56 Myth #15: Overpopulation Is the Main Driver //   1:15:21 Myth #14: Technology Will Solve It //    1:21:16 Myth #13: The Environment Is Part of the Economy //   1:24:04 Myth #12: The Natural World Is Ours //   1:27:03 Myth #11: Climate Change Is the Core Problem //   1:32:44 Myth #10: Billionaires and Politicians Are in Charge //   1:38:56 Myth #9: Financial Markets Give Us the Right Signals for the Future //   1:43:22 Myth #8: Stimulus Is Permanent //   1:48:37 Myth #7: We Need to Crash the System to Get a Fresh Start //   1:52:43 Myth #6: The Use of Nuclear Weapons Is Unthinkable //    1:57:03 Myth #5: Fossil Fuel Companies Are at Fault //    2:03:01 Myth #4: Capitalism Is to Blame //    2:07:54 Myth #3: Humans Are Bad //   2:11:37 Myth #2: We Face a Shortage of Energy //    2:14:17 Myth #1: We Are Doomed //    2:19:56 Interventions (and Wild Ideas)

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