Market-driven innovation much greener than government ‘net-zero’ mandates

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Appeared in the Hub, April 27, 2023
Market-driven innovation much greener than government ‘net-zero’ mandates

The German government recently delayed a final vote by the European Union to ban the sale of new CO2-emitting cars in 2035. Turns out, despite their zeal to subsidize and mandate the “electrification of everything,” politicians in Europe and elsewhere are proving unable to defeat immutable natural laws.

Among other problems, electric cars have for more than a century been more expensive, less safe and reliable, and more limited in range than vehicles powered by internal combustion or diesel engines. They take much longer to charge, perform poorly in extreme weather, have shorter lifespans and limited cargo space. Their batteries make them typically twice as heavy, resulting in more severe tire use and potentially threatening the integrity of multi-storey parking lots. A considerably larger fleet of electric cars will further require a drastic ramping up of power generation, delivery and charging infrastructures, along with new mining activities on a staggering scale.

According to electric cars supporters, this economic and environmental toll is justified if the electricity can be generated from solar panels and wind turbines. Unfortunately, the sun and the wind have always been unpredictable, intermittent and variable. As Karl Marx acknowledged long ago, wind power had to give way to water and steam power because it was “too inconstant and uncontrollable.” The development of electricity did not solve these fatal flaws. At best they can be hidden through costly additional water, coal and natural gas power generation.

Solar panels and wind turbines also require more than 10 times the quantity of materials (from lithium to rare earth minerals) compared to carbon fuel-based alternatives. They would never exist without massive amounts of carbon fuels in the form of machinery, steel and cement production, composite materials, transport, installation and maintenance (including lubricants). They gobble up 90 to 100 times more land area than natural gas while often dramatically impacting local bird and bat populations. If pursued regardless of costs, the electrification of everything will result in more mining activities than in all previous human history.

Not surprisingly, in light of these realities, consumers in jurisdictions from North America to Europe have seen their energy bills soar while enduring rolling blackouts and energy rationing. Even green energy pioneer Germany had to revert to coal burning.

The pre-ordained failure of government-mandated energy transitions has led some commentators to advocate de-growth and reduced consumption as an alternative. Yet, carbon fuels have improved human life in countless ways, from income per capita to life expectancy. As economist William Stanley Jevons observed more than a century and a half ago, “[w]ith coal almost any feat is possible or easy; without it we are thrown back into the laborious poverty of early times,” adding that coal had saved much forestland by eliminating the demand for fuelwood.

Carbon fuels would soon afterwards deliver an astonishingly wider range of economic and environmental benefits. An American researcher wrote in 1925 that the “object of all fuel research is either to eliminate waste and increase efficiency in the mining, preparation and utilization of fuels, or to convert the raw fuel by treatment or processing into a more convenient or effective form for use with, in many cases, the recovery of valuable by-products for other purposes.” Twenty years later, agricultural economist Karl Brandt observed that trucks, tractors and combines had replaced “millions of horses” while “millions of feed acres [had been] released for food production,” some of which would later revert to forests. The displacement of urban workhorses by trucks and cars also proved beneficial as vermin and flies were endemic in urban stables and, along with excrement and carcasses, were a source of deadly diseases such as typhoid fever, yellow fever, cholera and diphtheria.

Market incentives are inherently compatible with beneficial energy and economic transitions. As engineer and historian of technology Henry Petroski put it, the “form of made things is always subject to change in response to their real or perceived shortcomings, their failures to function properly. This principle governs all invention, innovation, and ingenuity; it is what drives all inventors, innovators, and engineers.” Furthermore, “since nothing is perfect, and, indeed, since even our ideas of perfection are not static, everything is subject to change over time. There can be no such thing as a ‘perfected’ artifact; the future perfect can only be a tense, not a thing.”

Canadian engineer and communist activist Herbert Dyson Carter further observed in 1939 that commercially successful inventions must either save time, lower costs, last longer, do more, work better or sell more easily. Most of these outcomes have environmental benefits.

Spontaneous market processes have always mandated the creation of smaller or less important problems than those that existed before. Unlike the myopic transitions pursued by many politicians and activists, however, such market processes have always factored in a much broader range of trade-offs than those currently discussed. Policymakers should understand how our energy systems came to be before any attempt is made to profoundly reshape them.

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