Peak Oil vs. Global Warming
Could we avoid the worst ravages of global warming because we run out of oil?
Not since King Kong vs. Godzilla have we seen a monster fight of this magnitude. Disaster vs. Disaster! Things Fall Apart vs. The Center Cannot Hold! Category I Apocalypse vs. Category I Apocalypse! Best of all, NASA's James Hansen serves as referee.
In the first corner, we have Peak Oil, the premise that we'll soon (or perhaps already) have reached the maximum production of petroleum, and that remaining reserves are far lower than generally acknowledged. The result: ever-rising fuel prices, global conflict over dwindling resources, and possibly even social and economic collapse if peak oil hits faster and harder than expected. Even the moderate-case scenarios show declining petroleum access by the 2020s -- and all while China and India are ramping up a car economy.
In the second corner, we have Global Warming, the result of greenhouse gases -- particularly CO2 from human sources, such as burning petroleum -- trapping heat in the atmosphere. We're now at 385 parts-per-million and rising (up from 284ppm in the pre-industrial era). Climatologists generally consider 450ppm a tipping point into unrecoverable disaster, although there are now some signs that the already-past 350ppm would be a safer maximum. Among the actions required to avoid global warming disaster: a dramatic reduction in the consumption of fossil fuels.
In the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, the "business-as-usual" scenario, which posits that society keeps going as it has, and fossil fuel consumption continues to grow at its current pace, results in an atmospheric CO2 concentration of over 950ppm by the end of this century. That's not likely to happen, of course -- the effects of global warming (sea level rise, drought, pandemic disease, dogs and cats living together, etc.) would make such steady growth untenable. Technology change would play a role, too, as would shifts in population. But the biggest reason why it wouldn't happen is a simple one:
There isn't enough petroleum in the ground, in any form, to make it possible.
That's the argument that James Hansen and his colleague Pushker A. Kharecha make in an article posted to the science website Arxiv.org. (I've been informed that the article went up about six months ago, but hasn't received much attention.) In "Implications of “peak oil” for atmospheric CO2 and climate" (PDF), Kharecha and Hansen assert that the effort to keep atmospheric carbon levels below 450ppm may be greatly helped by basic limits on the amount of available oil. Because of peak oil forcing limits on petroleum consumption, a reasonable phase-out of coal ("developed countries freeze their CO2 emissions from coal by 2012 and a decade later developing countries similarly halt increases in coal emissions. Between 2025 and 2050 it is assumed that both developed and developing countries will linearly phase out emissions of CO2 from coal usage"), active measures to reduce non-CO2 forcings (including methane and black soot), and draw-down of CO2 through reforestation, would limit CO2 to below 450ppm. This doesn't require the most aggressive peak oil scenarios, either -- simply using the US Energy Information Administration's estimates of oil reserves is enough. Using more aggressive numbers, atmospheric CO2 peaks at 422ppm.
Kharecha and Hansen present five scenarios, using a variety of estimates of peak oil timing and pace.
Peak oil emission in the BAU scenario occurs in 2016 ± 2 yr, peak gas in 2026 ± 2 yr, and peak coal in 2077 ± 2 yr (Fig. 3a). Coal Phase-out moves peak coal up to 2022 (Fig. 3b). Fast Oil Use causes peak oil to be delayed until 2037 (Wood et al., 2003), but oil use then crashes rapidly (Fig. 3c). Less Oil Reserves results in peak oil moving to 2010 ± 2 yr (Fig. 3d), under the assumption that usage approximates the near symmetrical shape of the classical Hubbert curve. In the Peak Oil Plateau case, oil emissions peak in 2020 and remain at that level until 2040 (Kerr, 2007), thereafter decreasing approximately linearly (Fig. 3e).
The difference between Kharecha and Hansen's business-as-usual and the other scenarios points to the importance of limiting coal and other greenhouse gases. Peak oil isn't going to save us from global warming by itself. We'll still have to make major changes to how we live, how we build, how we generate energy, etc. -- all of the imperatives we've had to reckon with for awhile.
And peak oil itself, despite its global warming benefit, remains a real problem. While the "doomer" peak oil scenarios seem to me to be overwrought and simplistic, it's true that our society is thoroughly dependent upon fossil fuels, and an abrupt reduction in availability would be traumatic. As I noted in The Big Picture: Climate Chaos, the intersection of global warming and peak oil means that we have overwhelming reason to move away from fossil fuels as energy sources as rapidly as possible -- and that solutions in one arena can help in the other.
It will be interesting to me to see how both peak oil watchers and anti-global warming activists take this report. I suspect that some oilers will dismiss it as not big news, since they already knew that society is going to collapse before we reach the worst of global warming; others might take it as an indicator that trying to deal with peak oil by producing liquid coal fuels (or similar fossil substitutes) is a bad idea, as it would eliminate the one slight benefit of peak oil conditions. I hope that climate watchers might have a generally more positive response, relief that the worst-case scenarios are even less likely than before. Unfortunately, I have a feeling that more than a few global warming-focused activists will see this report -- despite coming from Hansen -- as an attempt to reduce the urgency of the need to deal with anthrogenic carbon emissions.
What this report tells us, however, is that we can't simply focus on one crisis -- no matter how large and looming -- without taking into consideration the other key drivers of change. The onset of peak oil will alter how we deal with climate disruption, rendering climate strategies that don't take peak oil into account of limited value. Similarly, the fact of global warming must shape how our economies deal with a permanent oil crunch.
For both issues, the kinds of strategies most likely to succeed are those based on the precepts of an open future: innovation and experimentation; transparency and shared knowledge; and collaboration and shared responsibility. It's a future worth fighting monsters for.