George Monbiot said in a recent article that “We were wrong about peak oil. There is enough to fry us all”. He is wrong on peak oil, but right with his general conclusion. There are enough fossil fuels to fry us all.
Will peak oil save us from global warming? Can it be that the decline of oil production caused by scarcity will be more effective than the (feeble) attempts made by governments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions?
This point was debated briefly this year the conference of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil (ASPO) in Vienna. It is a typical controversy of ASPO conferences: some people seem to be so oil centered that they think that the climate models of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) are all wrong because they don’t take into account the ASPO data. The latest manifestation of this peculiar delusion comes from George Monbiot who decided that peak oil is not coming so soon, after all, and so concluded that “We were wrong about peak oil, there is enough to fry us all.”
Now, we can say that Monbiot is wrong: first of all because he gives too much credit to an optimistic recent study on oil production (and even misinterpreting it – if you read it carefully, the data of the study are not so optimistic. See here and here for a critical assessment)
But the real mistake made by Monbiot is to over-emphasize the importance of peak oil for climate change. So far, the vagaries of oil production haven’t affected so much the trend of the emissions of greenhouse gases. Today, even though crude oil production has been flat for several years, carbon dioxide emissions keep increasing.
That’s what you’d expect: oil is just one of the sources of extra CO2 in the atmosphere and the increasing costs of extraction are pushing the industry to use dirtier fuels. In other words, we are seeing a trend towards using fuels which release more CO2 for the same amount of energy generated. In this sense, tar sands, heavy oil, oil shales, and the like are all dirtier than oil. Coal is even worse and it is also the fastest growing energy source in the world. To say nothing of the emissions of methane by fracking, (methane is a much more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide).
So, why should we expect peak oil to make a difference? Paradoxically, if peak oil were to come tomorrow, we might see CO2 emissions increase even more as that would cause an even more massive use of coal, tar sands, and other dirty sources. It is true that, eventually, the declining energy yield (EROEI) of fossil fuels will cause a general decline of greenhouse gas emissions; but we shouldn’t expect that to be very soon and it won’t be the immediate consequence of peak oil.
If we continue with the present trends of fossil fuel production, we risk to make climate change irreversible if we pass the “tipping point”, the point of non return, which we may well have passed already. If peak oil had to have an effect on climate (maybe), it should have come at least 20 years ago when CO2 concentrations were still around 350 ppm, said to be the upper limit to avoid irreversible climate change. Now, at 400 ppm and growing, peak oil is not enough to stop global warming.
So, in the end George Monbiot is wrong on peak oil, but right on his general conclusion. We only have to modify it a little, as “Peak oil or no peak oil, there are enough fossil fuels to fry us all“.