Interaction of Peak Oil and Climate Change

Although both variables are caused by collective human behaviour and potentially can be ameliorated by human behaviour, they arise from geological and climatic limits beyond human control. The debate over amelioration vs adaption to climate change is often portrayed as a potent moral choice between burning coal and accepting a changed world, or a shift to renewable energy to save nature. The emerging evidence suggests that this choice was one that humanity collectively fudged in the 1980's.

Similarly the actions necessary to make an orderly transition from oil to other energy sources has been assessed as taking at least two decades.37 Again society had the evidence from the peaking of US oil production in1970 but with the return of cheap oil in the 1980’s the energy problem appeared to have simply gone away due to “better” economic policies. Now climate change is accelerating and peak oil is upon us.

As well as having to adapt to both of these new realities, we also grapple with the interactions both positive and negative. The accelerating shift to increased dependence on natural gas is often portrayed as a positive reduction in carbon intensity but this is simply accelerating the depletion of our children’s remaining inheritance of high quality transport fuel. Similarly projects developing tar sands and other low grade sources of oil massively increase greenhouse gas emissions. Perhaps more surprising to some, the huge push in the US and Europe to make biofuels from corn and oil seed crops is increasing land degradation, resource consumption and contributing to driving up the cost of grains and oil seeds. Many authorities38 are warning of global famine due to climate and energy crisis factors (including biofuels) coming together. The low ERoEI of biofuels, especially corn based ethanol, suggest biofuels may be a way to deplete natural gas while degrading agricultural land and starving the world’s poor.

We can build local resilience at the same time as we make the greatest contribution to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

On the other hand, radical reductions in consumption due to transformative lifestyle change, creative reuse of wastes generated by industrial and consumer systems, and a shift to truly productive work within revitalised home and community economies, show how we can both build local resilience and capacity to adapt to the destructive change at the same time as we make the greatest contribution to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and fossil fuel depletion rates. While this strategy would be most productive and effective in the most affluent countries, it has increasing relevance world wide.39

The reluctance to seriously consider positive reductions in consumption in public debate about climate solutions could be swept away by the unfolding global energy and food crisis. Developing some of the harder and longer term ecological and modest technological adaptions to ongoing and relentless energy descent will take decades to have widespread impacts (as do all high energy, high-tech centralised approaches) but radical and rapid human behavioural change is possible and even likely (given the right psycho-social conditions). The emerging energy and economic crisis will make these reductions a reality with or without a planned and creative response.

The alternate scenarios I have constructed provide more detail about how the Energy Descent future might evolve over the next few decades rather than the hundreds of the years of the long term scenarios. As well as combining the effects of slow or rapid oil production decline, and slow or rapid global warming, they cover a very broad spectrum of human possibilities that can be recognised by various symptoms and signs in different places in the world today. They are all energy descent scenarios in that they depict possible futures with progressively declining net energy. This must be understood against the historical background in which energy use per capita globally has been on a bumpy plateau for thirty years after the previous thirty years of rapid growth per capita from the end of World War II. The graph below from the previously mentioned study suggests per world wide capita energy use may continue to rise to about 1.7 tonnes of oil equivalent (toe) by 2020 before falling to 0.9 toe by 2050.40

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However when we use net energy ratios to convert these undifferentiated joules of energy, I believe that we are already into a global decline in net energy per person and will soon be into absolute global net energy decline.

Next page: Four Energy Descent Scenarios  

Last Updated ( Friday, 30 May 2008 )