Commentary: Achieving Net-Zero CO2 Emissions by 2050 (November, 2019)

by John McClaughry

A popular commitment among candidates seeking the Democratic nomination for President is a declaration of the year in which the United States must be made to achieve “net -zero carbon dioxide emissions”.  Joe Biden vowed to get us there by 2050. Andrew Yang bid 2049, and Corey Booker offered 2045. Bernie Sanders’ entry is 71% net-zero by 2030.

It’s generally harmless when politicians make extravagant promises about things they say they can make happen 30 years from now, when most of them (at least Biden and Sanders) will be dead. But let’s overlook that, and examine just what steps the nations of the world would have to take to achieve that global 2050 net-zero target.

Our authority here is Prof. Roger Pielke Jr. of the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research at the University of Colorado. Lest anyone think he is one of those awful “deniers” of climate change beholden to the fossil fuel industry, Pielke himself says “I believe climate change is real and that human emissions of greenhouse gases risk justifying action, including a carbon tax”.

But Prof. Pielke is a hard headed scientist, not easily swayed by propaganda about hurricanes, wildfires, droughts, sea levels, and the like. Indeed, he has been a major target of the climate change emergency industry, for using actual data to show that most of the climate disaster claims one hears from climate change activists are simply unsupportable.

Here’s the case he made in a September 30 column in Forbes. He uses the well regarded BP Statistical Review of World Energy as his data source. That source projects that humanity will combust about 12,000 million tons of oil equivalent (“mtoe”) fossil fuels in 2019.

There are 11, 961 days between next  January 1 and January 1, 2050. To maintain only the current level of energy consumption – and benefit – we’ll need to deploy over 1 mtoe of carbon-free energy, and decommission a like amount of carbon-based energy, each day until 2050.

But the International Energy Agency projects an annual 1.25% annual increase in global energy consumption to 2040. That rate of increase would require about 0.5 mtoe per day to 2050. The total comes to around 1.6 mtoe per day.

The 1400 Mw Turkey Point nuclear plant in Florida generates the equivalent of 1 mtoe per year. So, says Pielke, to achieve net-zero carbon dioxide emissions by 2050, the world would need to deploy three [1400 Mw] Turkey Point nuclear plants every two days, and decommission an equivalent amount of fossil fuel plants every two days, starting tomorrow and continuing to 2050.

For those uncomfortable with using a nuclear plant as a measuring rod, Pielke offers this illustration. “Net-zero carbon dioxide would require the deployment of about 1500 2.5 Mw wind turbines over about 300 square miles, every day [for thirty years]”.

He adds, “of course in this analysis I am just looking at scale, and ignoring the significant complexities of actually deploying these technologies. I am also ignoring the fact that fossil fuels are the basis for many products central to the functioning of the global economy, and eliminating them is not nearly as simple as unplugging one energy source and plugging in another.”

Even if one factors in carbon dioxide sequestration, not yet deployed except in test beds, and radical energy conservation and efficiency measures, it would be hard to get down to even the level of starting up just one Turkey Point reactor a day for thirty years. Nor does Pielke consider the necessity of some sort of reliable backup (natural gas) to keep the electric grid operating when wind and solar generators aren’t generating.

Pielke also runs the numbers for the US alone. “To reach net-zero by 2050, the US would need to deploy one new nuclear power plant worth of carbon free energy about every 6 days, continuing from now to 2050… To attain net-zero by 2030, the US would have to deploy a new nuclear plant about every other day.”

Pielke’s conclusion: “Can we hit net-zero by 2050? The scale of the challenge is huge, but that does not make achieving the goal impossible. What makes achieving the goal impossible is a failure to accurately understand the scale of the challenge and the absence of policy proposals that match that scale.”

When you hear a climate change activist saying “to save the planet we must achieve net-zero carbon dioxide emissions by 2050, ban all fossil fuels, rely on conservation, hydro, wind and solar, and reject any thought of increasing nuclear electricity”, you are hearing foolishness from somebody who doesn’t have a clue.

John McClaughry is vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute (


{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Boganboy November 23, 2019 at 8:28 pm

A pleasure to see a sensible statement of the magnitude of the effort needed to achieve net zero CO2 emissions.

Though I think that what the Greens really want is that everyone (else) should live in medieval poverty.


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