Vaclav Smil Calls Bullshit on Net Zero


In a 2019 interview, Vaclav Smil described himself as “just an old-fashioned scientist describing the world and the lay of the land as it is. That’s all there is to it. It’s not good enough just to say life is better or the trains are faster. You have to bring in the numbers.” (Emphasis added.)

Smil has been bringing the numbers for a long time.

A polymath who has written about 50 books, Smil has gained renown for his unflinching analysis of the world in which we live. I own a dozen of his books. My favorite is Creating the Twentieth Century. His influence on my work has been profound. Along with Jesse Ausubel, Smil made me understand the importance of power density, which has become a mainstay of my writing and analysis. (Smil wrote a book on the subject, aptly titled: Power Density: A Key to Understanding Energy Sources and Uses, published in 2015.)

Smil has also gained fame for his dismissive attitude toward the media. He gives very few interviews. And the few he allows are done almost exclusively by email. I know this myself. In 2022, he declined my invitation to come on the Power Hungry Podcast, saying:

I get constant invites for podcasts and video appearances, but accepting one or two would invite a flood, and if I preferred doing that I could have turned myself into a TV talking head (a medium I detest even more than the Net). Privacy is a great value, utterly incomprehensible in Kardashianized America, but I remain an old-fashioned European: one attribute of that is that (contrary to my son's advice: just delete!) I feel obliged to answer all e-mails I get and to explain why I do or do not do something. As I always say, there is surely no shortage of people in America who want to hear themselves talking or displaying themselves on TV.

From there, our email conversation focused on bird feeders and how to defeat squirrels. I haven’t been in touch with him since.

I provide that preamble because it’s essential to put Smil into context. He’s the anti-Kardashian. He is also a slayer of the bullshit about energy and power that has become accepted wisdom in media, academia, and among politicians and policymakers.

The notion of net zero is among the most pungent examples of that caca de toro. In 2021, the Biden Administration released a “long-term strategy” that it claimed would allow the U.S. to reach “its ultimate goal of net-zero emissions no later than 2050.” It continued, saying achieving net zero “will keep a 1.5°C limit on global temperature rise within reach and prevent unacceptable climate change impacts and risks.” In addition, 21 states and about 100 U.S. cities have declared that they will achieve either net zero, or 80% reductions in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. The total population of those 21 states is about 187 million people.

Read the rest of this piece at Robert Bryce Substack.

Robert Bryce is a Texas-based author, journalist, film producer, and podcaster. His articles have appeared in a myriad of publications including the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Forbes, Time, Austin Chronicle, and Sydney Morning Herald.

Photo: Graphic from Smil’s new report, written for Canada’s Fraser Institute, titled “Halfway Between Kyoto and 2050: Net Zero Carbon Is a Highly Unlikely Outcome.”