Let’s take a look into the future.
Perhaps one day we’ll be driving flying cars, or traveling in the Hyperloop, a train that races through a tube at 1,200 kilometers per hour (745 mph).
Or will we be living in the age of decarbonization by the end of the century?
There’s a key difference among these three visions. To some extent, the concepts of flying cars and the Hyperloop have been around for decades, and now they could become reality, thanks to the painstaking efforts of engineers.
Decarbonization, on the other hand, is currently nothing more than a political decision made at the G7 summit in Elmau. We’re still at the starting line when it comes to implementation, and we have no way of knowing which challenges we have yet to face as we progress in that direction.
Metals are an indispensable component of forward-looking technologies, and they will enable us to confront the challenges of climate change.
Despite the Energiewende, Germany’s shift away from nuclear power and toward renewable energy, fossil-fuel resources still account for 80 percent of our energy use.
At a gargantuan cost of more than €450 billion ($495 billion), Germany has managed to increase the share of renewable energy in power production to 27 percent. But this still amounts to only 6 percent relative to our primary energy consumption.
Automobiles consume significantly less fuel today than they did 20 or 30 years ago, but almost all cars operate with gasoline. Residential heating systems have become more efficient, but they are still operated with oil or natural gas in three out of four cases.
The metal industry makes it possible to build wind turbines through the use of copper, and to produce lighter and more fuel-efficient vehicles with aluminum. Metals are an indispensable component of forward-looking technologies, and they will enable us to confront the challenges of climate change.
But CO2 is automatically generated in the production of these basic commodities.
Decarbonization would mean doing without the process, and without metal as a basic commodity.
Can you imagine a future without metals? There would be no transportation and no means of conducting electricity, and mobile phones would be inoperable.
To process metals, a minimum amount of energy is needed for heat treatment and shaping, energy that usually requires electricity and natural gas today.
A theoretical alternative would be to convert all use of energy into electricity.
However, if we only used electricity in Germany to heat homes and buildings, drive vehicles and manufacture products, power consumption would double. There is currently no solution to the question of how renewable energy could provide this much electricity.
There is already some talk of gradual deindustrialization today, and decarbonization threatens to accelerate this process. At the G7, political scientists turned into futurologists.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
As sociologist Max Weber concluded, “man would not have attained the possible unless time and again he had reached out for the impossible.” But in doing so we should not ignore reality, nor should we lose sight of what is feasible.