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Solving peak oil & climate change


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In the energy section

What if you could see climate warming gases? Wouldn't you do more about it? A still from an excellent short film explaining climate change.

More: DirectGov's climate change pages.

Climate change and peak oil pose a formidable challenge to our security, values and way of life.

A 'powerdown plus renewables' strategy could mitigate both problems, help us cope if they do occur and actually increase our 'well being' in the process!

The Committee on Climate Change (CCC) is an independent body established under the Climate Change Act to advise the UK Government on setting carbon budgets, and to report to Parliament on the progress made in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. They have published their first report which details how the UK could reduce its carbon emissions by up to 80% by 2050.

Mae Y Pwyllgor ar Newid  Hinsawdd (CCC) yn gorff annibynnol a sefydlwyd o dan Ddeddf Newid yn yr Hinsawdd i gynghori Llywodraeth y DG ynglŷn â gosod cyllidebau carbon, ac i adrodd i’r Senedd am y cynnydd a wnaethpwyd mewn lleihau gollyngiadau nwyon tŷ gwydr. Maent wedi cyhoeddi eu hadroddiad cyntaf sy'n cynnwys manylion am sut y gallai'r DG leihau gollyngiadau carbon 80% erbyn 2050.

Climate change

Most leading climate scientists now conclude that if our global greenhouse gas emissions exceed the planet's critical 'tipping point', it will set us on course for abrupt, accelerated or runaway climate change.

This could entail massive agricultural losses, widespread economic collapse, international water shortages, massive rises in sea levels, a slow down of the Gulf Stream, refugee problems on a scale not yet experienced - basically a global catastrophe on a scale that would dwarf the recent events in New Orleans and continue for tens of thousands of years.

Even if we meet our climate change targets, humanity can only avoid the 'tipping point' if the other countries follow suit. A 'global solution' must be developed which embraces all our needs.

The major contender, 'Contraction and Convergence' suggests that we in the overdeveloped west must contract our level of emissions to converge at some 'fair share' with those of the majority world, so going a long way to deliver equity between north and south.

Peak oil

Our unstoppable oil economies are now being halted by the immovable facts of geology. Rather than talking about when oil could "run out", the peak oil experts predict that despite accelerating demand, global rates of production may be at, or approaching, its peak.

This is not news, way back 1956; an oil geologist named M King Hubbert predicted that U.S. oil production would peak in 1970.

His superiors at Shell Oil were aghast.

They even tried to persuade him not to speak publicly about it. His peers, accustomed to decades of making impressive oil discoveries, were highly sceptical, arguing technological improvements in exploration and recovery would increase the amount of available oil.

But after decades of derision, Hubbert was proved right. U.S. oil production did indeed peak in 1970, and it has declined steadily ever since.

Even impressive discoveries such as Alaska's Prudhoe Bay, with 13 billion barrels in recoverable reserves, or the developments of new extraction technologies haven't been able to reverse that trend - it is simply imposed by the geology.

A graph showing when the world's oil reserves are due to run out. Read more at ASPO - The Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas.

Peak Oil should come as no shock to the oil industry which well understands the process of discovery, extraction and depletion.

North Sea oil has peaked, as have the supplies of Mexico, Indonesia, China, Oman and Norway.

The inevitable peak of world oil production is now imminent, and to compound the problem we are using oil quicker than ever before.

There will be warning signs. Set against escalating demand, prices will rise dramatically and become increasingly volatile.

With little or no excess production capacity, any supply disruptions such as hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico will drive world oil markets into frenzy.

As will occasional admissions by oil companies and oil-rich nations that they have been overestimating their reserves.

Despite continuous warning from oil geologists and oil economists across the world little action has been taken to deal with Peak Oil, and its inevitable price shock.

Why not? Because the prevailing belief is that the free market will take care of it. However, normal economics break down when it comes to oil. In most cases if the price of something goes up, more of it is produced.

But the price of oil has no effect on how much oil there is to be found. We are currently using oil that we found 40 years ago.

The industry can of course switch to remote smaller fields, containing harder to extract oil, or make oil from coal but this is neither cheap nor quick. A high price will not bring back the massive, easily accessible discoveries of the early days.

In addition, free market principles forget about time lag.

We cannot assume that as soon as oil becomes scarce and expensive alternative forms of generation will be ready to completely fill the gap.

If the new energy technologies we require are not developed fast enough there may well be period of great hardship and abrupt dislocation when oil become cripplingly expensive and supplies intermittent.

And if we wait until the challenge is really upon us before becoming serious about developing the technologies we require, we may very well no longer be able to muster the resources needed.

Climate change and peak oil

So what is the link between the challenges of peak oil and climate change? The truth is that although they relate in a great many ways, the most important link is that they are both mitigated by the same solution - 'powerdown plus renewables'.

Our current use of fossil fuels has grown well above that which is required to deliver our well being, we are, in fact, energy obese.

Once we have contracted our energy consumption to converge with our fair share, delivering it with renewable sources not only becomes achievable, it rapidly becomes cheaper as oil prices hit the roof, and becomes significantly more dependable if oil supplies become intermittent.

I must emphasise that powerdown is not the same as energy efficiency, it goes very much further.

By energy efficiency we mean that when we need a new fridge, we look at the eco-label and choose a new fridge which is perhaps 12% more fuel efficient than your old one.

By powerdown I mean questioning the need for the fridge in the first place.

Why spend energy heating a room, then spend more energy making a part of that room cold again, larders have worked perfectly well for centuries.

Powerdown also means questioning what you put inside the fridge. Globalised industrial agriculture now means we must spend 10 calories of petrochemicals to provide one calorie of food.

Switching to a locally sourced, mostly organic, un-processed, low-meat diet will not only increase our general health and well being, it will massively reduce the fossil fuel dependence of our eating habits (as well as virtually removing the need for a fridge!)

The potential powerdown that could be achieved through a re-think in the way we grow, distribute and prepare food are massive.

We export 102,000 tones of lamb to the EU, whilst also importing 125,000 tonnes from the EU. Similar paradoxes exist for many other products.

Local food markets are not only more energy efficient, they are considerably more reliable.

But could British farmers really feed the nation if oil becomes expensive and scarce? With a re-think, many people believe we could.

Firstly it would require a change of diet, but isn't that something we need to do in any case?

Secondly supermarkets reject around 30% of vegetables we grow because they are the wrong shape, colour or size.

The food industry also wastes a lot of useable food when it makes processed ready meals.

Then consumers bin about 30% of the food that they buy. If we stopped this wastage then the UK could become significantly more self-reliant for food whilst also vastly reducing the oil needed to provide it.

The changes we must make to mitigate both peak oil and climate change are very much the same changes needed to protect us should such traumas ever strike.

A 'powerdown plus renewables' strategy will not only reduce or forestall the problems; it will also make us much better placed to cope with them. In fact it could actually increase our 'well being' as well.

Buildings, energy, water, work, clothing, heating, holidays and healthcare; there are a great many other areas where facing up to our oil addiction could actually increase our well being, whilst also allowing the majority world the energy and resources they urgently need to improve their well being.

The current 'development' policy of encouraging the majority world to pull itself out of poverty through globalised trade is a mistake.

The sheer scale may prove more than the climate can bear, and there probably isn't enough cheap oil left to do it for much longer. Industrialised cash cropping is not a long-term solution to poverty, it is peddling an addiction to increasingly scarce oil in order to satisfy our selfish desires for cheap exotic products.

Far better we move from the 'century of the self' to the 'century of the self-reliant'.

Despite record increases in global economic activity, the rich are still getting richer and the poor are still getting poorer. Never in the field of human commerce has so much been earned by so many, for so few.

Therefore rather than trying to maximise GDP in the majority world we should focus on increasing equity, healthcare, water, homes, protecting and restoring eco-systems, eliminating conflict, hunger and poor working conditions.

Questioning growth

melting ice capsSet against diminishing energy supplies, perpetual conventional economic growth will be all but impossible.

Yet in every crisis there is opportunity. We need a new economics, focused on maximising well being rather than growth. Once you have enough food, shelter and the basic means of subsistence, additional income does not seem to make people any happier.

A recent New Economics Foundation study showed that despite major increases in GDP since the 1960s, we are no happier now than we were then.

We have enough money; we just need to share it out better. Let's stop growing and focus on delivering a safe environment for kids to play in, clean safe hospitals and re-building a sense of community.

Dealing with climate change and peak oil holds the potential to allow us to create the kind of world that we actually want. It doesn't have to be a huge disaster, although business as usual will not see us through.

We now have a chance to change everything, because everything must be changed. But we must use the time and the oil we have left to its very best effect now and not bury our heads in the sands of denial.

Paul Allen and Alex Randall

More info:

Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research


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