• The green power path to net zero is falling short
  • But there are other ways…
  • Prepare for the crackdown

With solar power, carbon capture storage (CCS), electric vehicles (EVs), carbon offsets, energy storage and business investment in green projects all joining wind power’s plunge in the mainstream media, net zero looks to be in real difficulty.

The good news is that we might not need to give up on saving the planet just yet. There may be another way to reach net zero after all.

You see, there are two ways to radically cut your emissions. One is to produce a lot of electricity in an emissions-free way and electrify what currently emits a lot of carbon. The combination of renewables and EVs is an obvious example of this.

Combined with a bit of CCS and other types of offsets to cover what we’re unable to make emissions-free, we might’ve been able to reach net zero this way… theoretically anyway. But everything that makes up that strategy seems to be what’s failing so badly lately.

Yet the other way works just as well. You simply stop doing the things that are causing all those emissions in the first place. You can chip away at your lifestyle so that it fits into whatever box a net zero-compliant energy system and economy can actually provide.

I mean, who needs food, shelter or warmth? Who really wants to see their relatives on the other side of town without paying a fine for the privilege of crossing into another 15-minute zone once too often that month?

We’re trying to save the planet here, people!

To be frank, even I’m surprised at how badly the net zero campaign is going. If you had made a list of flagship projects needed to make net zero at least look plausible in the short run, they’ve all turned into posters for those seeking to destroy the planet with carbon dioxide instead.

I had hoped for a bit more of a net zero bubble, especially in the commodities that are in impossibly short supply. A proper attempt to reach net zero would’ve sent the likes of copper soaring, for example. There simply aren’t enough to reach net zero.

The fact that this hasn’t been happening was a big hint about just how plausible markets considered net zero to be all along. And now the rest of the financial markets, companies and the media are catching on too.

Now the collapse is happening so fast that the choice presented in my new book is approaching us. That book suggests the inevitable failure of net zero, for a long list of reasons, will present us with two options.

We can either transition right back to fossil fuels, as many big energy companies already are, or we can engage in the demand management that conspiracy theorists have been agitating about.

Except it’s not just the conspiracy theorists, of course. Some of those who believe climate change to be an existential threat, but who also understand the impossible economics of net zero, have since admitted what a plausible net zero world would actually look like.

The most scientific and considered of those is energy systems researcher Simon Michaux. The most entertaining, blunt and understatedly theatrical is economist Steve Keen.

Either way, it’s going to be a tough sell, politically, to impose a dramatically lower standard of living.

But such isolated examples of individual experts who have studied these questions probably don’t impress you. You no doubt prefer to place your trust in The ScienceTM – an academic consensus funded by a government grant. In which case, the UK FIRES group has conveniently got us covered.

As its website puts it, “UK FIRES stands for placing Resource Efficiency at the heart of the UK’s Future Industrial Strategy.” The website also states that:

UK FIRES is a 5-year research programme funded by £5m of UKRI support and the subscriptions of an active and growing industrial consortium. With academics from six universities spanning from materials engineering through data science to economics, corporate strategy and policy and an industry consortium spanning from mining through construction and manufacturing to final goods.

UK FIRES asks how we might actually reach net zero and its research results have been… awkward.

In 2019, the group pondered the question of what “absolute zero” would look like. This is distinguished from net zero by one simple assumption: what if we can’t find a viable and cost-efficient way to capture carbon emissions on a vast scale?

In other words, what if we can’t offset those activities that will emit carbon even in 2050? Then net zero requires we stop doing them altogether – much the same premise we began today’s edition with.

Now the assumption is a tough one. We don’t know what technological advances are coming down the… er… pipeline. But we do know a fair bit about how to make some good guestimates, according to UK FIRES anyway. And so we can ponder a world where net zero really means absolute zero:

  • No air travel, as all airports close
  • No shipping of goods – everything moves by rail
  • Beef and lamb “phased out”.

Not to mention the conversion of everything into our economy into a net zero emission constraint, which means doing significantly more with significantly less somehow.

By the way, early in 2023, the UK FIRES group gave an update on how the energy transition is going. This chart shows how its 2019 forecast for green energy, which was lambasted as too pessimistic, ended up being too optimistic:

Source: UK FIRES

And this is before renewables’ nightmarish 2023 data, of course. In fact, the rate at which the UK would now have to build out renewables in order to meet net zero commitments by providing green power is now… a joke.

The shortfall in green energy is what is bringing the “other options” to the table.

As the Financial Times helpfully pointed out in its ”Net zero won’t change the way we live” video, which was of course part of the “Free Lunch on Film” series, “Decarbonisation must logically happen in one of three ways: we can shrink the world’s population, we can limit and reduce incomes, or we can lower the amount of CO2 emitted for each dollar of GDP.”

If renewables are unable to deliver on the latter, where does that leave us?

So, for those of you celebrating the failure of green energy and its dependents, be careful what you wish for. You may want to run the great carbon experiment to see whether The ScienceTM is correct or not. And it looks like we will. However, the more net zero fails, the more demand management policies will be put into place to try and make up for the loss.

At some point, something will have to give. But what?

Nuclear seems the best bet – the most politically plausible one too. Plus it offers the optimal investment opportunity in all this net-zero madness. According to Bank of America research, it’s even the cheapest once you consider the costs to the energy system as a whole.

But that could take decades to come to fruition, leaving us without enough power in the meantime.

Until next time,

Nick Hubble
Editor, Fortune & Freedom