Ireland and the United Kingdom had declared a climate and biodiversity emergency earlier this year. This has caused a frenzy around the world and has rejuvenated interest in ways to mitigate the effects of climate change and bolster the rate of change. The primary cause of climate change is our dependency on hydrocarbon based fuels and the obvious solution is to switch to alternative sources of energy. Energy from renewable sources like solar, wind, nuclear, etc. have been touted as the future of sustainable living. As world leaders and the general public were enthralled by the possibilities of renewable energy, a Canadian professor has sought to underline the limitations of such technology and provides a voice of reason amidst a clamor of unjustified optimism.
Vaclav Smil is a Distinguished Professor Emeritus at University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. He has published 30 interdisciplinary books and more than 500 papers and is an expert in the field of energy and the environment. What sets him apart is his objective approach towards energy and energy transitions which gives unbiased results that is devoid of any ulterior motives or agendas.
Smil was born in Plzeň in current day Czech Republic. His father was a police officer and his mother a bookkeeper. He did his undergraduate education at the Charles University in Prague and completed a doctorate in geography at the Pennsylvania State University. I first heard about this individual when working on a project at college. My topic was the pace of energy transitions and the bulk of the literature with respect to this was cluttered with “could”, “would” and “what ifs”. Smil’s works were one of the few definitive ones on the subjects which lent a holistic and unbiased description. In his own words, “I have never been wrong on these major energy and environmental issues because I have nothing to sell.”
Smil has scorned the works of scientists like Amory Lovins with respect to energy policy and has called for more energy literacy among the general public and policy makers. He has said that, “Everybody uses various forms of commercial energy, so everybody feels (free) to be an expert, politicians above all, all rushing in with their pathetic “solutions” based on a superficial grasp of complexities and (with the) compulsion to cater to the lowest common denominator.” Smil backs up his inferences with data collected from various sources and gives real life examples of his predictions. From Germany’s failed renewables drive (Energiewende) to China’s billion dollar investments on coal power plants, Smil’s view of renewable energy and pace of energy transitions has been spot on.
Individuals like Smil are often portrayed as naysayers and fearmongers but the truth is that they are just simply providing the results of their work without the limitations of political affiliations or personal gain. Realists like Smil need to be included in policymaking in order to ensure sustainable development with reasonable targets that will bear fruitful results as opposed to extravagant claims and predictions that do not have a scientific base.