Considering the huge challenges of transitioning to a low-carbon economy will take your breath away

Mayors from around the world gathered at the Vatican this week to talk about climate change and the political will needed to decarbonize the global economy as soon as possible. But is it just political will that’s lacking?

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Pope Francis released an encyclical calling for drastic measures to combat climate change.

One hears the argument all the time. That if politicians just had the backbone to tackle Big Oil and King Coal, humankind could decarbonize tomorrow. Well, next week at the latest.

This view was echoed by the mayors, who were gathered for a two-day climate conference to keep the pressure on world leaders ahead of the Paris negotiations in December and to promote Pope Francis’ environmental encyclical, which denounced the fossil fuel-based world economy that supposedly exploits the poor and destroys the Earth.

“The Paris summit is just months away,” said New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio. “We need to see it as the finish line of a sprint, and take every local action we can in the coming months to maximize the chance that our national governments will act boldly.”

“Climate negotiators must dare to push boundaries and exclude fossil fuels as an option and reward solutions that are long-term sustainable and renewable,” echoed Stockholm Mayor Karin Wanngaard.

Bold action, you say? Well, then, what might bold action look like?

Ah, there’s the rub. The mayors, like most climate change activists, don’t really know. They think it should include renewable energy and “exclude” fossil fuels, but beyond those breathlessly broad hopes – you can’t really call them fully formed ideas – they really have no strategies or tactics or plans on how to make their dream a reality.

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Tony Chammany, the mayor of Kochi, India.

Only one mayor seemed to have his feet on the ground. Tony Chammany, the mayor of Kochi, a city of 600,000 on the southwest coast of India, called decarbonizing a “herculean task for us as city administrators.”

Herculean, indeed. The task of transitioning the global economy from fossil fuels to less-carbon intense fuels is such a mind-boggling big job fraught with so many obstacles and constraints that thinking we might accomplish it in a few decades is ludicrous. Doing it by 2100, as the G7 countries have committed to, is extremely ambitious and likely unattainable.

Consider for a moment the enormous scale of the issue. For sake of argument, let’s divide fossil fuels into two categories: coal for generating electricity and petroleum for powering transportation.

As I argued in a column last week, despite the United States closing 200 of its 500-plus coal-fired power plants, demand for coal is set to rise to 9 billion tonnes from 7.8 billion by 2020. Yes, China is growing its renewable energy sector and moderating its appetite for coal, which actually declined by 3.5 per cent in 2014, but the world’s factory also projected that its carbon emissions would rise by more than one-third from current levels and peak in 2030, according to the US Energy Information Administration.

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Fossil fuels and renewable energy will co-exist for decades.

But the world will soon turn its attention to the developing nations coming along behind China, especially India, whose prime minister has said in no uncertain terms his country intends to follow the Chinese model of sacrificing the environment for economic growth. “Our emissions will grow because we are not developed and we have a right, every person on this Earth has a right, to develop,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi has said.

Modi’s comment is a shot across the bow of Pope Francis, who argued in his encyclical that humans have become too reliant on technology, raping the Earth’s resources, and condemning many to poverty. Modi flips that argument on its head, suggesting that economic development, jobs, and higher incomes are a higher moral imperative than decarbonization. His government is also embracing renewable energy, part of the “all of the above” energy strategy popular today, but Modi is very clear that India will not be swayed from its development over climate change strategy.

If you’re looking for political will, Modi has plenty.

No surprise, then, that BP forecasts global coal consumption to rise by an average of 0.8 per cent annually until 2035. Small wonder, given that there are approximately 2,300 coal-fired power stations worldwide, according to the World Coal Association, and both China and India alone plan to add hundreds more in the next decade, many of them using old, polluting designs.

It is hard to imagine a scenario in which coal is not the major fuel for power generation in this century.

Now, let’s talk about transportation.

There are approximately 1 billion cars and light trucks on the planet and that number will rise to 2 billion by 2050, according to the IEA, mostly reflecting economic growth in Asia.

The United States along has over 300 million of them. Americans own 803 vehicles per 1,000 citizens, one of the highest rates in the world. China is only 113 per 1,000 and India is lower still at 18.

As those countries grow richer, their citizens will want to buy cars. It’s not hard to imagine why BP is forecasting global oil consumption to rise from its current level of 90 million b/d to 109 million b/d by 2035. All of the growth is expected to come from China, India and the Middle East.

Eco-activists talk about replacing the global auto fleet with electric vehicles, which we are assured will soon have better batteries and lower price tags. This is highly unlikely, but let’s indulge them for argument’s sake.

How long will it take to gear up EV production and infrastructure, then replace the internal combustion fleet? Sixty million new cars are sold each year, which means if the global fleet is 2 billion, it would take 35 years or so under the most ideal conditions.

And how would all the electricity be produced for those shiny new EVs? Would the world need more coal power plants to fuel electric vehicles?

Would they be powered by micro-solar generation? Highly unlikely given how inefficient rooftop solar power is, but try anyway to imagine the “herculean” task – capital, labour, and time required – of installing all those PV panels.

Imagine the amount of money this will require – the IEA estimated the global energy economy will require $48 trillion in capital between now and 2035 under the existing scenario, never mind a more aggressive decarbonizing strategy.

Imagine how many corollary technologies must be developed and perfected for the world to decarbonize – smart power grids, high energy density storage batteries, more efficient PV panels,, etc.

Imagine all the political, policy, social, cultural, and economic constraints to the transition to a low-carbon economy that must be overcome.

If we consider all of these obstacles, political will is the least of the barriers to decarbonizing. Somebody tell the Pope, please.