Why running out of oil could make climate change worse
Posted on Tuesday, March 27th, 2007

By David Strahan. Published at the BBC’s Green Room, 30 March 2007.

It is becoming increasingly clear that global oil production will soon go into terminal decline with potentially devastating economic consequences. Although the idea of ‘peak oil’ has traditionally been ridiculed by the industry, now even some of the world’s most senior oilmen concede the case. Last year Thierry Desmarest, chairman of Total, the world’s fourth largest oil company, declared that production would peak by around 2020 and urged governments to find ways to suppress oil demand growth and put off the witching hour. Other forecasters are convinced the peak date is even closer.   But many environmentalists continue to resist the idea. Some seem to suspect that anybody who argues that oil production is set to fall must be a closet climate change denier with a secret agenda. Others, like Stephen Tindale of Greenpeace, instinctively distrust forecasts of an imminent peak, but wish fervently that it would come soon: “let’s hope that the oil does run out”, he told me, “and that the world has to develop alternatives to oil seriously quickly, and from a climate point of view that would be an excellent outcome.” Neither position could be more wrong.  

Peak oil cannot solve climate change because it is mathematically impossible. Although oil is the biggest single source of energy related greenhouse gases, coal and gas combined are bigger still, and the expected growth in their emissions would overwhelm any reduction from oil. As I demonstrate in The Last Oil Shock using the International Energy Agency’s ‘business-as-usual’ forecast, even if oil production peaks in 2010 and immediately starts to fall at 3% a year, total emissions would still rise by 25% to 32 billion tonnes in 2030 – by which time we need to be well on the way to at least a 60% cut. So it is quite possible to ‘run out of oil’ and pollute the planet to destruction simultaneously.  

In fact peak oil could even make emissions worse if it drives us to exploit the wrong kinds of fuel. Burning rainforest and peatlands to create palm oil plantations for biofuels releases vast amounts of CO2, and has already turned Indonesia into the world’s third biggest emitter after America and China. Synthetic transport fuels made from natural gas using the Fischer-Tropsch  process emit even more carbon on a well-to-wheels basis than conventional crude. When the feedstock is coal the emissions double. None of these alternatives are likely to fill the gap left by conventional crude – at least not in time – but because they are so much more carbon intensive, it is quite easy to conjure scenarios in which we still suffer fuel shortage while emitting even more CO2 than in the current business-as-usual forecast – the worst of all possible worlds.

Although these fuels are likely to prove inadequate, we may be driven to use them because cleaner alternatives are even more so, for a variety of reasons. Biofuels can be produced sustainably and with a real CO2 reductions, but in the industrialised world there simply isn’t the land. In the developing world however there are vast swathes of land which could be put to sugar cane in a sustainable fashion – according to researchers at Imperial College – but the scale of the task of replacing crude oil would still be monumental. I calculate that to substitute the fuel lost through a post peak oil production decline rate of 3% would mean planting about 200,000km2 – equivalent to the land area of Cuba, Sri Lanka and Papua New Guinea – every year.  Alternatively, if we decided to run Britain’s road transport system on cleanly produced hydrogen – electrolysing water using non-CO2 emitting forms of generation – our options would be: 67 Sizewell B nuclear power stations; a solar array covering every inch of Norfolk and Derbyshire combined; or a wind farm bigger than the entire south west region of England.  

When oil production starts to fall the economic impacts could well be devastating. Soaring crude prices could tip the world into a depression deeper than the 1930s, and collapsing stock markets cripple our ability to finance the expensive clean energy infrastructure we need. As the unemployment lines grow, the political will to tackle climate change may be sapped by the need to keep the lights burning as cheaply as possible.    

Many environmentalists seem to dismiss or ignore peak oil because they simply cannot see it as significant when compared to climate change. But this is to miss the point. Oil depletion is deadly serious in its own right, but it also has the capacity both to worsen emissions and destroy the wealth needed to fight global warming.  For this reason – among others – it too has the power to destroy our civilization.

4 Comments on “Why running out of oil could make climate change worse”

L.D. Says:
July 11th, 2007 at 4:56 pm

Not sure at all. After the peak, people will become aware of the need to buy less hungry cars, to buy solar panels, etc. Anyway, since the oil price will double or more, the consumption will fall, and renewable energies will become viable. So the CO2 will drop.

admin Says:
July 14th, 2007 at 5:42 am

Any worsening of the carbon intensity of fuel – shifting from crude to coal for instance – makes emissions reduction harder. You are right that reduced demand will mitigate against this, but the post-peak recession would have to be biblically severe to solve climate change. Emissions dropped by about 25% from 1929 to 1932. Today we need to cut CO2 by at least 60% by 2050, perhaps nearer 90%. So to solve climate change simply through post-peak demand destruction would mean taking on the chin economic contraction two or three times bigger than the Great Depression. Not the optimal solution.

Kevyn Miller Says:
August 4th, 2007 at 4:47 pm

In the late 1920s New Zealand was the second most motorised nation in the world. Between 1930 and 1933 the volume of petrol imported fell by slightly more than 50%. As motor vehicles now account for a significantly higher proportion of global carbon emissions than they did prior to the depression we should expect that another depression will reduce in emissions by more than 25%, possibly as much as 50%.

Location, location, location, is definitely a key tactic to weathering the peak oil storm.

It’s good to see that you recognise that solar means more than just photovoltaics. Solar water heating is key to freeing up existing gas and electricity capacity for other applications. Improved building insualtion and glazing is also an effective way of increase the sun’s contribution to space heating. Using photovoltaics as a roofing material reduces two of their shortcomings. No land needs to be sacrificed and the waste heat generated as a result of their low efficiency can be used for space heating and cooling.

One way to store wind power would be to use mechanical windmills to pump water uphill for micro-hydro use of existing town water supply reserviors.

There are various ways of using air currents to cool buildings that can be quickly and inexpensively added to existing buildings to replace air conditioning units.

Most will not be adopted before the peak oil shock because they involve a loss of comfort, convenience and control. But their low-tech simplicity means they can and will be implemented to soften the blow.

Sure, we will probably end up having to turn bonnets into bicycles, but as that will have to be done by hand it will have the advantage of creating some employment. I suspect that those who will suffer most in a peak oil depression will be landlords, bankers, and investment advisors. The rest of us can go back to earning our daily bread on the land and squatting in abandoned flats.

I think the peak oil shock is more likely to be a shock of the old rather than a shock of the new. Since it will, in essence, be turning the clock back 100 years it wont be a shift into the unknown and that will make it easier for most people to adapt. And no doubt, for many people, the initial shock will be tempered by the anticipation of a return to “the good old days and ways.” Psychologically a softer landing, albeit they will probably disillusioned when they encounter the reality of the old day and ways but anything that keeps people motivated to push through the initial collapse is good.

San Diego Roofing Says:
August 4th, 2010 at 2:28 pm

As the unemployment lines grow, the political will to tackle climate change may be sapped by the need to keep the lights burning as cheaply as possible.

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