Tuesday, May 03, 2011

No way out? Peak oil will not save us from climate change

You may not be able to take it with you, but you can take it down with you. Remember, George Monbiot is sometimes regarded as one of the more optimistic voices on ecological issues.
"The problem we face is not that we have too little fossil fuel, but too much. As oil declines, economies will switch to tar sands, shale gas and coal; as accessible coal declines, they'll switch to ultra-deep reserves (using underground gasification to exploit them) and methane clathrates. The same probably applies to almost all minerals: we will find them, but exploiting them will mean trashing an ever greater proportion of the world's surface. We have enough non-renewable resources of all kinds to complete our wreckage of renewable resources: forests, soil, fish, freshwater, benign weather. Collapse will come one day, but not before we have pulled everything down with us.

"And even if there were an immediate economic cataclysm, it's not clear that the result would be a decline in our capacity for destruction. In east Africa, for example, I've seen how, when supplies of paraffin or kerosene are disrupted, people don't give up cooking; they cut down more trees. History shows us that wherever large-scale collapse has occurred, psychopaths take over. This is hardly conducive to the rational use of natural assets.

"All of us in the environment movement, in other words – whether we propose accommodation, radical downsizing or collapse – are lost. None of us yet has a convincing account of how humanity can get out of this mess. None of our chosen solutions break the atomising, planet-wrecking project."

- George Monbiot, "Let's face it:
none of our environmental fixes break the planet-wrecking project"

While discussing such matters with my supervisor a few months ago, he wryly observed, "You know you are in trouble when you say, 'Only the Black Death can save us now'".

Monbiot points out in the full article that Fatih Birol, the chief economist of the International Energy Agency, admits that peak oil passed in 2006. Yet this hasn't lead to economic collapse (yet) because the shortfall in liquid conventional oil has so far been filled by tar sands and liquid methane. The pursuit of such resources to avoid a shortage of oil is taking us directly into the vast carbon reserves of non-conventional and alternative fuels, illustrating the Scylla and Charybdis of peak oil and climate change. Some commentators have expressed the hope that peak oil may save us from climate change by limiting the amount of carbon available to be burned. Unfortunately, there is plenty for us to ensure the long term destruction of the only climate under which human society has thrived.


Toby said...

But those are all more expensive to get out of the ground. Thus the price of burning oil is increased. Just like a carbon tax, this has an economic effect on the consumer, so I think it will go some way towards limiting the carbon output. Not suddenly stopping it, but certainly pressuring against it.

Sam Charles Norton said...

Even putting to one side the disagreements about climate change, I think Monbiot is completely wrong: http://elizaphanian.blogspot.com/2011/05/george-monbiot-is-still-in-techno.html

byron smith said...

Toby - You are right that there is no simple replacement of conventional with non-conventional (there are reasons why conventional sources have been exploited first). Sam has pointed out more reasons in the post that he's linked to (and I've responded to him there).

Nonetheless, Monbiot's argument can be modified slightly to take this into account. The fact is that these alternatives already are being exploited (and the results of the Canadian election only make this likely to accelerate in the near term), being considered economical by the vast energy companies whose existence depends on making good bets on such matters. Whether they continue to be viable for the long term is another matter, but what matters at the moment is that the mitigation of peak oil is coming at the expense of the climate, as has long been feared. We are getting the worst of both worlds: a failure to come to terms with peak oil through a triumphant narrative of non-conventional exploitation (witness the rhetoric around shale gas as US energy saviour) and the extension of growing carbon emissions for some time to come. We don't need to be burning carbon for the next hundred years to seriously undermine the relative climatic stability during which human civilisation has developed. A couple more decades of industrial scale exploitation will likely be quite sufficient.

byron smith said...

Monbiot's follow-up piece.

I agree with Sam that Monbiot overstates the degree to which non-conventional fossil fuels will be able to replace an increasing conventional liquid shortfall. Otherwise, a very interesting piece.

byron smith said...

Guardian: Is there a carbon bubble in the market? Why are fossil fuel investments triple-A rated? If governments get serious about keeping us below 2ºC, then we can only burn about 20% of recoverable reserves, meaning that most of what they are listing as assets will become unusable.

byron smith said...

CP: We've plenty enough rope to hang ourselves. A look at the numbers for fossil fuel resources and reserves and their relation to climate emissions scenarios.

byron smith said...

Monbiot: We were wrong on peak oil. There's enough to fry us all. Given that he's been saying more or less the same thing for some (as evidenced by some of the links above), I'm not sure why he suddenly claims to have been "wrong".

byron smith said...

See also these replies. One from Rob Hopkins, founder of the Transition Movement, who references a number of other responses, including this somewhat lengthy piece by John Michael Greer, which was actually written before Monbiot's.