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Commentary: Why doesn’t the UN take peak oil into account?

(Note: Commentaries do not necessarily represent the position of ASPO-USA.)

In thousands of ways, UN policy helps shape how we respond to emerging crises, from basic poverty to world political events, from food to climate change and population. What is emerging, however, is that UN analyses are increasingly diverging from reality - as they attempt to describe our future, they have failed to adequately (or at all) take into account that most basic of all considerations, material limits on energy resources.

The UN is one of the most powerful organizations in the world influencing international policy - the IPCC, the Population Council, the FAO - their work informs how governments and NGOs address a host of issues from women's rights to civil conflict, from water resources to world hunger. Historically the UN has been a leader in study and inclusion of factors often ignored or understated by individual governments - they have taken the lead on climate change, warned of the coming water conflicts, etc. and led the way in a host of areas.

Unfortunately, the UN has not been a leader on Peak Oil or energy depletion. Consider the IPCC's assumptions about available fossil fuels in the ground – UN analysis completely ignores the emergence of geological limits. While many people have attempted to correct this, and some members of the IPCC and many of the climate change community have recognized that the geological limits that we face on oil and other fossil fuels are highly relevant, at this point, the IPCC is still using inaccurate figures. Kjell Aleklett and James Hanson have worked together on this - and shown that the IPCC's assumptions are cornucopian.

While we know that we can still cross critical tipping points with the fossil fuels we have, we do need to understand how geology will shape this issue. More importantly, any framing of climate change as a lone issue leaves out a central portion of the picture of our emergent collective crisis.

While a number of energy leaders have taken the IPCC correctly to task, this is a UN-wide issue, and shouldn’t focus solely on the IPCC. The UN must take resource limits solidly into account across the board. For example, in the Millennium Development Goals, the UN assumes a pattern of longer term continued urbanization and economic development – in the absence of the energy resources that would be required to support them.

Assuming that the energy will be present for long-term continued globalization is an assumption that may well not be justified with the available resources. Asking what the world will look like as energy resources rise in price and diminish in availability is critical for a clear-eyed picture of our future.

UN population projections for the world assume continued economic growth, and contain within them the hidden assumption that fossil fuels will be there to make and distribute contraception and HIV drugs, to send more girls to school, to bring more people into cities. The recent rise in projected world population to 2050 can only be justified in a world that continues to grow and expand economically without contact with material limits.

Peak Oil changes the world food picture entirely - agro ecological responses to our food crisis, endorsed by several UN reports in the last few years, become not just a good idea but an absolute necessity when you have to reduce the amount of energy and in particular liquid fuels, consumed in agriculture. The UN has been a consistent leader in recognizing the ways that biofuels drive up the price of food for the world’s hungry poor, but has failed to grasp the ways that without a conscious untangling, food and energy prices will become even more tightly bound together – potentially leaving billions hungry.

Peak Oil is fundamental to nearly every issue that the UN addresses. Understanding why energy shortages tempt us to burn coal - and how to avoid it is critical to our climate picture. The UN's emergent focus on women's impact in reducing poverty and improving lives must continue - but must move in areas that aren't fossil fuel dependent. We must prepare for a less-globalized, not more globalized, society and one struggling with new poverty in new places as climate change and Peak Oil come together. Human rights of all sorts will be affected by the changes that are coming. If we do not wish to lose gains because we are surprised by depletion, we must prepare to hang on to them in a lower energy society.

There is, at this moment, as far as I know, no comprehensive UN study on energy resources and their future. This is both a shame and a scandal - we are preparing for the coming century without a clear picture of the real problems that beset us. Every nation on earth relies on UN research and material to make decisions - and that material is becoming increasingly irrelevant. It is time for the UN to come into the 21st century and recognize that finite resources are truly finite – and that a clear picture of our limits is essential to our human future.

Sharon Astyk is a writer, teacher and science blogger (www.scienceblogs.com/casaubonsbook) and a member of the Board of Directors of ASPO-USA.

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