Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Where peak oil meets climate change

Unconventional fossil fuels are the great unknown area of overlap between the irresistible force of energy security and the immovable object of climate disruption. If we don't leave the vast majority of the tar sands, oil shale and methane clathrates buried, then we can pretty much kiss any chance of a stable and livable climate for the next few decades, centuries and millennia goodbye. If we don't exploit them as fast as we can, then we're likely find the global economy increasingly squeezed by significant shortages in liquid fuels within the next decade.

It is of course massively oversimplified, but which would we prefer: driving into the side of a cliff, or falling off the edge of one?
NB My analogy with a car crash is intended to signify that these issues are not merely inconveniences, but will likely affect many aspects of the lives of many people on the planet. Not every car crash is fatal, of course, so I'm not saying that we're "doomed". Indeed, that was the point of originally reaching for this analogy. There is a big difference between the necessity of facing the issues (and the likelihood of some significant losses) and the impossibility of doing anything worthwhile.


Milan said...

The relative timing of fossil fuel depletion and climate change is a major uncertainty - as is the question of how people will respond if oil becomes very expensive before we start taking serious action on climate change.

The worst possible responses are greater reliance on the oil sands, and coal-to-liquid technology.

byron smith said...

I agree. I'm working on a post about the various ways of conceiving the relation between energy security/peak oil and climate change (at a broad scale). My fear is that the former will increasingly dominate discussion and decision-making over the next decade, leading to the full exploitation of unconventionals (and coal, of course!), which is just to jump out of the frying pan and into the fire.

Michael Westmoreland-White said...

I fear I see the horrible shape of things to come in the actions of Russia taking advantage of receding arctic sea ice to claim drilling rights in the arctice circle--which will speed up the melting of the ice in a vicious cycle.

byron smith said...

Guardian: This article has some more useful stats.

byron smith said...

Monbiot: We were wrong on peak oil. There's enough to fry us all. I think that Monbiot is (a) reporting some important developments in the oil industry but (b) has bought too much of the industry's own hype and failed to take account of more complex understandings of peak oil. Indeed, the predictions of peak oil were primarily of conventional liquids, which have indeed apparently still peaked. It is not that we run out of oil, just that it gets more and more expensive (in energy terms) to extract, and so we're out of cheap and easily accessible oil. We've known for some time that there are enough fossil hydrocarbons to ensure climate catastrophe. The hope that peak oil would save us from climate disaster has been illusory for some time.

I like Monbiot, but sometimes (here, on nuclear power and on the UEA email hacking), I feel he has a bit too much delight in making a great show of "changing his mind" in order to flourish his integrity, whereas I feel each of these just shows that he hasn't reflected deeply enough on the topic at hand, or held an overly simplistic view on it in the first place.