The Oil Depletion Protocol: an update
[Excerpts only. Full text at Global Public Media]
My book The Oil Depletion Protocol: A Plan to Avert Oil Wars, Terrorism and Economic Collapse was released eight months ago; given the importance of its subject, I thought an update might be useful.
Relevant developments during these few months have been both encouraging and discouraging.
First the encouraging items. The Oil Depletion Protocol (ODP) has been explicitly endorsed by several cities, including San Francisco, California and Bloomington, Indiana. More significantly, perhaps, it has been implicitly adopted in the targets of the Portland, Oregon peak oil task force. The Peak Oil task force of Oakland, California will likely make similar recommendations (I'm a member of that task force).
Post Carbon Institute continues to lead efforts to publicize the Protocol.
.... Now for the discouraging developments. There was not an enormous amount of immediate public or official response to the book. There has so far been no discussion of the Protocol at high levels of government in any nationâ€”including Sweden, which has set a target for reducing petroleum dependence that is close to the Protocol's mandate. And sales of the book have been relatively slow (about 5,000 copies so far).
There are several possible explanations for the Protocol's tepid take-off. One is the temporary moderation in global oil prices during the first months of 2007, which in turn generally cooled the growing media interest in Peak Oil (both situations will likely change soon). Another is the enormous attention focused on climate change as a result of Al Gore's film and the release of several significant reports highlighting the rapidity of the onset of climate impacts from growing atmospheric CO2 levels. It is probably fair to say that environmental NGOs and their funders have become obsessed with the issue of climate change nearly to the exclusion of all other subjects, and discussion in government circles having to do with environmental and energy policy is being framed almost exclusively in terms of carbon emissions reduction.
...Of course, increasing public awareness of the threat of climate chaos is a very good thing. However, as I have discussed elsewhere (see MuseLetter #177, "Bridging Peak Oil and Climate Change Activism"), ignorance of energy supply issues is likely to lead to climate solutions that fail. And lack of attention specifically to the problem of oil depletion may well lead to an economic and geopolitical crisis in which efforts to stabilize climate will be thrown overboard as nations desperately attempt to maintain their economies and their geopolitical influence (more discussion on this below). Hence the need for special policies to address the problem of Peak Oil on its own termsâ€”of which the Oil Depletion Protocol is the clearest and simplest I have seen.
This slower-than-hoped-for progress in publicizing the ODP is leading to a reconsideration of strategy, and even some rethinking of the Protocol itself.
...One way or another, nations will implement a rationing system for fossil fuels in the years ahead. Whether that system takes the form of high prices, taxes, tradable personal quotas, cap-and-trade, cap-and-share, some combination of these, or another proposal altogether, remains to be seen. The sooner all of the options are brought together and discussed so that their costs and benefits can be transparently assessed, the better.
The Equity Issue
If international equity is a subtext of Cap and Share, that is at least partly because it appears to be a precondition for less-industrialized countries to participate in any global carbon emissions reduction plan. China and India look enviously upon the wealth accumulated by the US, Japan, and Europe as a result of historic fossil fuel consumption. What right do wealthy nations have to draw a line in the sand now, saying, "It was fine for us to use fossil fuels, but you must forgo them so as not to spoil the environment"? Since the bulk of the carbon emissions released thus far have come from the industrialized countries, shouldn't those countries shoulder the lion's share of the burden of the energy transition? Further, shouldn't the nations that haven't had their share of fuel-based economic growth get a chance at it?
But in order for the poorer counties to have their chance at industrial development without triggering a worst-case climate meltdown, the already industrialized countries will have to agree to reduce their carbon emissions proportionally faster than the poorer nations. This all makes perfect sense from the perspective of the less-industrialized nations. Yet if reducing carbon emissions means economic hardship, it is difficult to imagine a scenario in which the wealthy nations could be persuaded to go along.
One can imagine the now-industrializing countries saying to the already industrialized, "You go first or we will do nothing, which means we all will suffer"â€”and the US saying in response, "Carbon reduction? In principle maybe, but only if it means no economic pain and no loss of privilege and power. We'd fight before we'd agree to that."
Is there a way around the impasse? Possibly, but it will not be an easy one. It involves reframing the discussion to include the depletion issue.
... perhaps most significantly, it's a new game. During the 20th century, fossil fuel consumption meant greater wealth. In the 21st century, fossil fuel dependency means vulnerability to supply shortfalls, spiking prices, and supply disruptions from war and terrorism. Nations that reduce dependency faster benefit moreâ€”so long as they avoid economic collapse. Therefore permitting less-industrialized countries proportionally greater access to fossil fuels in a global carbon reduction agreement does them no favor; it merely fosters greater dependency and therefore vulnerability.
Sooner or later equity activists and leaders in the less-industrialized world must accept that less-industrialized countries will never industrialize according to the example of Europe and the US. This may be unfair, but the model set by the wealthy countries is unsustainable and should not be emulated.
However, fossil fuels are not needed for subsistence. Everyone lived without them a couple of centuries ago and everyone will live without them a century or so from now. The only question is how will we make the transition.
...The Oil Depletion Protocol sets a target for reduction in oil production and consumption in a way that is in no way arbitrary, and that in fact should logically apply to the extraction of all non-renewable resources. The debate as to how we will meet that target will no doubt be an interesting and heated one. But we must begin by accepting the target itself, and the sooner we do so, the better.
[Full text at Global Public Media]