Vaclav Smil: thoughts on climate, energy, food

Polymath Vaclav Smil was interviewed for Quartz by Ritchie King – a brief but accurate glimpse of Smil’s analytical grasp of some of the most important policy issues. Some favorite excerpts: 

If you ask “what has been the most important invention of the past 100, 150 years?” it’s been the synthesis of ammonia. If we could not synthesize ammonia by taking nitrogen from the air, hydrogen from natural gas and pressing them together in the Haber-Bosch cycle… if we could not do this to make nitrogen fertilizers, we could not grow enough food for about 40% of people. So you are talking about something like three billion people. In existential terms, that is the most important invention.


On the issue of consumption, you’ve been critical of renewable energy. Can you explain why?

I love renewable energy, but not pushing it down somebody’s throat or spending zillions of dollars. Let it develop organically. Like with any new energy form, it will take a while. All these forecasts—20% by 2020, 30% by 2030—that’s not science, that’s voodoo.

If you look at it in planetary terms, it’s out of our hands. In terms of global energy use, the US is still number two, but China is number one. What would be the reason to rush into renewables? Global warming. But, China will burn every bit of coal it can lay its hands on. So whatever you do in the US or Germany, it’s irrelevant because China will wipe it out in a matter of weeks or months.