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Global warming exaggerated, insufficient oil, natural gas and coal

Climate change and global warming has become part of our everyday life, and central to this debate is the emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2). The fossil fuels that we use contain carbon and hydrocarbons, and in the combustion of these fuels, carbon dioxide is released along with energy.

In the present climate debate, however, the amount of available fossil fuels does not appear to be an issue. The problem, as usually perceived, is that we will use excessive amounts in the years ahead. It is not even on the map that the amount of fossil fuels required in order to bring about the feared climate changes may in fact not be available.

Mexico's giant oil field Cantarell is afflicted with problems and the production is in rapid decline. In 2005, the Mexican national oil company Pemex presented two scenarios for the ultimate production; one optimistic in which it was assumed that 50% of the initial oil under ground would ultimately be recoverable, one pessimistic assuming only 30% recoverability. That the trend appears to validate the pessimistic scenario is naturally disastrous for Pemex and the Mexican state, but our climate is the winner.

There is an important decision to be made. Should we regard the oil remaining in the ground as a source that could result in future CO2 emissions, or should we accept that this oil for the time being actually remains in the ground? The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) considers it a resource.

In its gigantic simulations, resembling a "SimCity game", IPCC has simulated our future, and the participating families of the game are A1, A2, B1 and B2. Each family has a certain development in terms of population and GDP growth, energy and land use, available resources and technological progress. The real temperature-raising bad guys are the A2 family. If left unconstrained, they will make the world average temperature 3.6 degrees Celsius higher by 2100. On the low extreme, the gentlest member of family B1 will only make the temperature increase by one degree.

The presupposition for any temperature increase is that we consume great quantities of oil, natural gas and coal. The fact that IPCC exhorts our politicians to curtail the use of fossil fuels gives the impression that the fossil resources are enormous, but there are reasons to doubt this.

At Uppsala University we study global energy resources, and have recently put forward a detailed analysis of future oil production. By disaggregating the production into 6 well-defined sections, we are now able to present a time frame for the global maximum production capacity, "Peak Oil". It will occur between 2008 and 2018. If the world's giant fields, which produce 60% of the oil, behave like Cantarell in Mexico, we have the "worst case" of a peak in 2008. But if instead the most optimistic prognosis for Cantarell is applicable, and global demand increase is simultaneously dampened, then we have the "best case" of maximum production in 2018.

We can now calculate how much energy/CO2 that can be produced during this century by using oil, and compare it to the amount required by the IPCC-families. To our surprise, the families A1, A2, B1 and B2 require more oil than what is realistically possible.

If we move on with the analysis and study future natural gas production in relation to the IPCC scenarios, the picture is even clearer. In North America, natural gas production is in decline, just as the production from the giant gas fields of northwest Siberia which stand for 90% of Russia's production. Plans for making liquid fuels from natural gas in Qatar have been cancelled. Projected ports for the handling of liquefied natural gas in the US and Europe are being downscaled, as the global supply of liquefied natural gas will probably be lower than was expected only a year ago.

Natural gas is widely seen as a "gentle bridge" to a future sustainable society. Today, the bridge appears to be shorter than expected, but as for CO2 emissions, again we are winners.

The third fossil source of CO2 emissions is coal. According to a widely held view, the amount of available coal is virtually endless. However, when we do detailed studies of production profiles in the six countries harboring 85% of the world's coal reserves, we discover clear signs of peaking coal production in certain regions. Moreover, we notice a decline in production of the highest quality coal, that is, the coal with the highest energy content per volume. In the US, the world's second largest coal user, the volume of mined coal is increasing while the total energy content is decreasing. Has US already reached "Peak Coal" in terms of energy.

China will soon reach its maximum coal production capacity, leading to a situation where Russia alone will be sitting on the last large coal reserves. Future production in Russia will determine when we will reach "Peak Coal" at the global level. In contrast to conventional wisdom, we will be CO2 winners.

The sum of all fossil resources that the industry considers available is presented annually in BP Statistical Review. According to this rather optimistic estimate, the total energy of all oil, natural gas and coal amounts to 36 Zeta joules (ZJ), a gigantic amount of energy. This is more than what our research group considers likely, but it is still less than what do the scenario families A1, A2, B1 and B2 require. The fossil energy will not be sufficient.

The A2 family is our number one enemy, so let us study its appetite for energy. Up to 2100, IPCC prognosticates that A2 will need between 70 and 90 ZJ, that is, twice as much as the industry believes is available. Then there is another detail that is never discussed, namely that all scenarios will need fossil energy also after 2100.

We do not have to discuss or doubt the established historic rise in temperature, but we have to discuss and doubt the future temperature increases that the IPCC scenarios project and the fossil resources that IPCC assumes in its prognoses.

We need a new assessment of future temperature increases based on a realistic consumption of oil, natural gas and coal.

Only with that knowledge we will be able to make sensible decisions for the future. The big issue will be that too many will have to make do with too little energy. When debating, we will probably have to replace the word "environment" with "energy", but the energy policy needed will also need to make the environment a winner.

The article is a translation of the article "Klimathotet är överdrivet eftersom oljan (naturgasen och kolet) inte räcker" published in the leading Swedish newspaper DN, Dagens Nyheter, on May 18, 2007. The author Professor Kjell Aleklett, Uppsala University, is also president of ASPO, The Association for the Study of Peak Oil&Gas.

Editorial Notes: UPDATE: An expanded version of this article with graphs appeared June 5 in On Line Opinion. -BA

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