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
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
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.