A review of No Miracles Needed
Also published on Resilience
Mark Jacobson’s new book, greeted with hosannas by some leading environmentalists, is full of good ideas – but the whole is less than the sum of its parts.
The book is No Miracles Needed: How Today’s Technology Can Save Our Climate and Clean Our Air (Cambridge University Press, Feb 2023).
Jacobson’s argument is both simple and sweeping: We can transition our entire global economy to renewable energy sources, using existing technologies, fast enough to reduce annual carbon dioxide emissions at least 80% by 2030, and 100% by 2050. Furthermore, we can do all this while avoiding any major economic disruption such as a drop in annual GDP growth, a rise in unemployment, or any drop in creature comforts. But wait – there’s more! In so doing, we will also completely eliminate pollution.
Just don’t tell Jacobson that this future sounds miraculous.
The energy transition technologies we need – based on Wind, Water and Solar power, abbreviated to WWS – are already commercially available, Jacobson insists. He contrasts the technologies he favors with “miracle technologies” such as geoengineering, Carbon Capture Storage and Utilization (CCUS), or Direct Air Capture of carbon dioxide (DAC). These latter technologies, he argues, are unneeded, unproven, expensive, and will take far too long to implement at scale; we shouldn’t waste our time on such schemes.
The final chapter helps to understand both the hits and misses of the previous chapters. In “My Journey”, a teenage Jacobson visits the smog-cloaked cities of southern California and quickly becomes aware of the damaging health effects of air pollution:
“I decided then and there, that when I grew up, I wanted to understand and try to solve this avoidable air pollution problem, which affects so many people. I knew what I wanted to do for my career.” (No Miracles Needed, page 342)
His early academic work focused on the damages of air pollution to human health. Over time, he realized that the problem of global warming emissions was closely related. The increasingly sophisticated computer models he developed were designed to elucidate the interplay between greenhouse gas emissions, and the particulate emissions from combustion that cause so much sickness and death.
These modeling efforts won increasing recognition and attracted a range of expert collaborators. Over the past 20 years, Jacobson’s work moved beyond academia into political advocacy. “My Journey” describes the growth of an organization capable of developing detailed energy transition plans for presentation to US governors, senators, and CEOs of major tech companies. Eventually that led to Jacobson’s publication of transition road maps for states, countries, and the globe – road maps that have been widely praised and widely criticized.
In my reading, Jacobson’s personal journey casts light on key features of No Miracles Needed in two ways. First, there is a singular focus on air pollution, to the omission or dismissal of other types of pollution. Second, it’s not likely Jacobson would have received repeat audiences with leading politicians and business people if he challenged the mainstream orthodox view that GDP can and must continue to grow.
Jacobson’s road map, then, is based on the assumption that all consumer products and services will continue to be produced in steadily growing quantities – but they’ll all be WWS based.
Does he prove that a rapid transition is a realistic scenario? Not in this book.
Hits and misses
Jacobson gives us brief but marvelously lucid descriptions of many WWS generating technologies, plus storage technologies that will smooth the intermittent supply of wind- and sun-based energy. He also goes into considerable detail about the chemistry of solar panels, the physics of electricity generation, and the amount of energy loss associated with each type of storage and transmission.
These sections are aimed at a lay readership and they succeed admirably. There is more background detail, however, than is needed to explain the book’s central thesis.
The transition road map, on the other hand, is not explained in much detail. There are many references to scientific papers in which he outlines his road maps. A reader of No Miracles Needed can take Jacobson’s word that the model is a suitable representation, or you can find and read Jacobson’s articles in academic journals – but you don’t get the needed details in this book.
Jacobson explains why, at the level of a device such as a car or a heat pump, electric energy is far more efficient in producing motion or heat than is an internal combustion engine or a gas furnace. Less convincingly, he argues that electric technologies are far more energy-efficient than combustion for the production of industrial heat – while nevertheless conceding that some WWS technologies needed for industrial heat are, at best, in prototype stages.
Yet Jacobson expresses serene confidence that hard-to-electrify technologies, including some industrial processes and long-haul aviation, will be successfully transitioning to WWS processes – perhaps including green hydrogen fuel cells, but not hydrogen combustion – by 2035.
The confidence in complex global projections is often jarring. For example, Jacobson tells us repeatedly that the fully WWS energy system of 2050 “reduces end-use energy requirements by 56.4 percent” (page 271, 275).1 The expressed precision notwithstanding, nobody yet knows the precise mix of storage types, generation types, and transmission types, which have various degrees of energy efficiency, that will constitute a future WWS global system. What we should take from Jacobson’s statements is that, based on the subset of factors and assumptions – from an almost infinitely complex global energy ecosystem – which Jacobson has included in his model, the calculated outcome is a 56% end-use energy reduction.
Also jarring is the almost total disregard of any type of pollution other than that which comes from fossil fuel combustion. Jacobson does briefly mention the particles that grind off the tires of all vehicles, including typically heavier EVs. But rather than concede that these particles are toxic and can harm human and ecosystem health, he merely notes that the relatively large particles “do not penetrate so deep into people’s lungs as combustion particles do.” (page 49)
He claims, without elaboration, that “Environmental damage due to lithium mining can be averted almost entirely.” (page 64) Near the end of the book, he states that “In a 2050 100 percent WWS world, WWS energy private costs equal WWS energy social costs because WWS eliminates all health and climate costs associated with energy.” (page 311; emphasis mine)
In a culture which holds continual economic growth to be sacred, it would be convenient to believe that business-as-usual can continue through 2050, with the only change required being a switch to WWS energy.
Imagine, then, that climate-changing emissions were the only critical flaw in the global economic system. Given that assumption, is Jacobson’s timetable for transition plausible?
No. First, Jacobson proposes that “by 2022”, no new power plants be built that use coal, methane, oil or biomass combustion; and that all new appliances for heating, drying and cooking in the residential and commercial sectors “should be powered by electricity, direct heat, and/or district heating.” (page 319) That deadline has passed, and products that rely on combustion continue to be made and sold. It is a mystery why Jacobson or his editors would retain a 2022 transition deadline in a book slated for publication in 2023.
Other sections of the timeline also strain credulity. “By 2023”, the timeline says, all new vehicles in the following categories should be either electric or hydrogen fuel-cell: rail locomotives, buses, nonroad vehicles for construction and agriculture, and light-duty on-road vehicles. This is now possible only in a purely theoretical sense. Batteries adequate for powering heavy-duty locomotives and tractors are not yet in production. Even if they were in production, and that production could be scaled up within a year, the charging infrastructure needed to quickly recharge massive tractor batteries could not be installed, almost overnight, at large farms or remote construction sites around the world.
While electric cars, pick-ups and vans now roll off assembly lines, the global auto industry is not even close to being ready to switch the entire product lineup to EV only. Unless, of course, they were to cut back auto production by 75% or more until production of EV motors, batteries, and charging equipment can scale up. Whether you think that’s a frightening prospect or a great idea, a drastic shrinkage in the auto industry would be a dramatic departure from a business-as-usual scenario.
What’s the harm, though, if Jacobson’s ambitious timeline is merely pushed back by two or three years?
If we were having this discussion in 2000 or 2010, pushing back the timeline by a few years would not be as consequential. But as Jacobson explains effectively in his outline of the climate crisis, we now need both drastic and immediate actions to keep cumulative carbon emissions low enough to avoid global climate catastrophe. His timeline is constructed with the goal of reducing carbon emissions by 80% by 2030, not because those are nice round figures, but because he (and many others) calculate that reductions of that scale and rapidity are truly needed. Even one or two more years of emissions at current rates may make the 1.5°C warming limit an impossible dream.
The picture is further complicated by a factor Jacobson mentions only in passing. He writes,
“During the transition, fossil fuels, bioenergy, and existing WWS technologies are needed to produce the new WWS infrastructure. … [A]s the fraction of WWS energy increases, conventional energy generation used to produce WWS infrastructure decreases, ultimately to zero. … In sum, the time-dependent transition to WWS infrastructure may result in a temporary increase in emissions before such emissions are eliminated.” (page 321; emphasis mine)
Others have explained this “temporary increase in emissions” at greater length. Assuming, as Jacobson does, that a “business-as-usual” economy keeps growing, the vast majority of goods and services will continue, in the short term, to be produced and/or operated using fossil fuels. If we embark on an intensive, global-scale, rapid build-out of WWS infrastructures at the same time, a substantial increment in fossil fuels will be needed to power all the additional mines, smelters, factories, container ships, trucks and cranes which build and install the myriad elements of a new energy infrastructure. If all goes well, that new energy infrastructure will eventually be large enough to power its own further growth, as well as to power production of all other goods and services that now rely on fossil energy.
Unless we accept a substantial decrease in non-transition-related industrial activity, however, the road that takes us to a full WWS destination must route us through a period of increased fossil fuel use and increased greenhouse gas emissions.
It would be great if Jacobson modeled this increase to give us some guidance how big this emissions bump might be, how long it might last, and therefore how important it might be to cumulative atmospheric carbon concentrations. There is no suggestion in this book that he has done that modeling. What should be clear, however, is that any bump in emissions at this late date increases the danger of moving past a climate tipping point – and this danger increases dramatically with every passing year.
1In a tl;dr version of No Miracles Needed published recently in The Guardian, Jacobson says “Worldwide, in fact, the energy that people use goes down by over 56% with a WWS system.” (“‘No miracles needed’: Prof Mark Jacobson on how wind, sun and water can power the world”, 23 January 2023)
Photo at top of page by Romain Guy, 2009; public domain, CC0 1.0 license, via Flickr.