Over the past year, I have spent a lot of time reading articles and books that purport to tell how we will (or won’t) solve the climate crisis. The latest is “How the World Really Works”, a book by Vaclav Smil. Smil’s book is not entirely about the climate (for example, the chapter on “Understanding Risks” touches only tangentially on the climate), but more than half of it is relevant.
Smil gets a lot of attention because Bill Gates is a fan. Gates is putting billions of dollars into potential climate solutions, and a lot of those investments have been influenced by Smil’s perspective. For that reason alone it is worth knowing what Smil has to say. Additionally, I had seen his latest book (published in early 2022) mentioned several times in articles on the climate crisis (and often, in articles that were dismissive of renewable energy). I knew I had to see what it said.
As it turns out, Smil is an excellent historian of technology. He is also very good at collecting and interpreting data about the energy systems we depend on, the materials that go into them, and the climate. There is a lot of valuable information in this book.
On the other hand, this book is not useful if you are interested in where we are headed. Smil generally takes the point of view that things change very slowly, and the future will be a lot like the present. While that is often the case, I think he is wrong about the future of fossil fuels and renewable energy.
The future of electric vehicles. To take a particularly egregious case, consider how Smil views the likely future of EVs. He thinks there is no likelihood that they will constitute even 25-50% of new cars by 2050, let alone sooner. His argument is based on an analysis of the materials that go into EV batteries.
Smil discusses the lithium, cobalt, nickel, copper, and graphite that go into the lithium-ion batteries in today’s EVs. He shows that these materials would be needed in quantities that are 15-20 times higher than are available today in order to equip even 50% of the 2050 fleet. This degree of growth in supply, he argues, is unrealistic, and he is probably right about that.
Smil also notes: “Obviously, this would require not only a dramatic expansion of lithium, cobalt (a large share of it now coming from Congo’s perilously hand-dug deep shafts and from widespread child labor), and nickel extraction and processing but also an extensive search for new resources.”
Fair enough. I agree that the lithium-ion batteries primarily used today depend on sources that can’t be expanded fast enough to support really rapid growth of the EV market.
But Smil completely ignores the fact that the latest generation of lithium-based batteries (lithium-iron, or LFP batteries) use chemistry that doesn’t involve nickel or cobalt. Instead, they use iron and phosphate, which are abundant. LFP has now been adopted by BYD, China’s enormous EV manufacturer, and it is being used in some Tesla models. The performance of LFP batteries is slightly lower than lithium-ion, but it is fine for most automotive applications.
And a different type of battery, the sodium-ion cell, is just entering commercial production. These batteries offer similar performance to lithium-based batteries, without the fire risk, and they do not contain lithium, cobalt, or nickel. They are expected to enter widespread use over the next two years. They do have a weight disadvantage compared with lithium-based batteries, but that is unimportant for many kinds of EVs.
Surely Smil, who is obviously well-read on issues related to sustainability, must know about these advances. Why, then, does he fail to mention them? Why does he base his analysis extending to 2050 on a type of battery that is already losing market share to competing technologies that don’t have the same supply problems?
There are analogous problems with Smil’s analysis of wind and solar energy.
The good parts. Still, there is much to like about this book. Smil does a fine job of explaining the dependance of our food supply on nitrogen-based fertilizers, for example. He makes a strong case for four industrial products (ammonia, plastic, steel, and cement) as the “four pillars” of industrial society. There is a lot of good information about these industries, and Smil is a good writer. And if you are interested in the history of these industries, you will find his coverage is excellent.
In fact, I would say that Smil is at his best when acting as a historian of technology, and if this book had confined itself to that, it would have been outstanding. But the past isn’t always a good guide to the future. Given today’s rapid rate of change, Smil’s approach shows its limitations when he discusses the coming decades. In addition to his skepticism about EVs, wind, and solar power, he is equally skeptical when it comes to electrification of the “four pillars” industries. And yet, there are huge strides being made in those areas at the moment.
One minor irritation that I experienced at a number of points in reading this book was its total lack of charts, tables, and diagrams. The book is full of numerical data (and there is even an appendix about how to interpret numbers and orders of magnitude), but the numbers are always embedded in descriptive writing. For me, at least, it is a lot easier to understand how fast something is growing by seeing a chart of the growth curve (or at least a data table), rather than reading a description of the growth. But Smil apparently disagrees.
My advice: read this book for its excellent coverage of the past and present state of technology and the climate, but take its ideas about the future with a grain of salt.
For more helpful books about solving the climate crisis, try some of the ones in the list in this previous post.