This report is a synthesis of the current state of knowledge on energy resources and global climate and environmental change. The findings clearly indicate that the convergence of peak energy resources and dangerous anthropogenic climate and environmental change will likely have a disastrous impact in the near- and long-term on the quantity and quality of human life on the planet (see synopsis below).

Topics include: peak oil, coal, natural gas, uranium, and phosphorus; climate change; environmental degradation; population; food and agriculture; water resources; and the limits of biofuels (including algae-based biofuels).

The findings suggest:

  • Global conventional oil production likely peaked around 2005 – 2011.
  • Peak global production of coal, natural gas, and uranium resources will likely occur by 2020 – 2030, if not sooner.
  • Energy resource shortages post-peak oil will likely cause a systemic collapse of global industrialized civilization in the near-term as the abundant fossil fuel energy resources used to develop and support industrialized economies become increasingly scarce.
  • Current trends in land, soil, water, and biodiversity loss and degradation, combined with potential climate change impacts, ocean acidification, a mass extinction event, and energy scarcity will significantly limit the human carrying capacity of the Earth.

In order to keep current on the issues of peak energy, climate change, and economic decline which are occurring at an accelerating rate, relevant updates will be made on the author’s blog: Global Change Watch.

Peak Energy, Climate Change, and the Collapse of Global Civilization: The Current Peak Oil Crisis (2nd Edition; November 2010) is a not-for-profit report that is currently released as an eBook (pdf file).

The eBook may be freely downloaded, printed, and distributed:

pdf download pdf (39 Mb) (free)


EXCERPTS

PREFACE

During my research on peak oil and energy resources, climate change, and the capacity of the Earth to support human life, I found that there was much information available on the issues (i.e., the relevant science, data, and facts were already available), but that much of it was not synthesized to make a comprehensive and complete picture (i.e., complete with accurate data and comprehensive analyses). So, some of the people who may be aware of peak oil (or climate change) may not fully understand the consequences. And, while some people may be concerned about peak oil, they may be unaware of the extent of the climate change crisis…and vice versa.

For instance, many policymakers and negotiators are arguing with little progress over the wrong climate targets (i.e., an average global temperature increase of 2oC above pre-Industrial Revolution levels by limiting the atmospheric CO2 concentration to 450 ppm), while assuming that anything resembling business as usual energy consumption and economic growth is possible. Yet, the scientific evidence and projections clearly indicate that all of these targets and assumptions are very incorrect and woefully inadequate. As another example, much of the peak oil literature does not offer the reader a comprehensive explanation of peak oil and its potential impacts on society. The information is very good, but much of it focuses on one or only several issues, which may leave many readers unfamiliar with peak energy issues with more questions than answers about the issue, its consequences, or how to adapt to it. Similarly, much climate literature does not consider energy scarcity or population limits in their analyses.

It became obvious to me that writing this report was one of the most important acts I could do for the public, right now. All discourse and policy on these issues must be based on the current and correct data and science, if it is to have a chance to succeed. This report is an attempt to synthesize and holistically analyze the current state of knowledge on these important and inter-related issues. Despite the inherent uncertainties stemming from the data, science, and predictive power of models, the overall analysis provides a clear picture of the orders of magnitude and probability distributions of current and future global changes.

Ultimately, this report is for the public for the benefit of humanity. It is a warning and a call to action. Since peak oil and climate change are occurring now without much of the public’s awareness, this report may also act as a sort of history so that people in the future may be able to understand what happened to the world regarding peak energy, climate change and economic and societal collapse, after the fact. Future generations should know what happened during this period of history in order to learn from the past mistakes of humanity. Hopefully, this report may contribute to a smoother and less disastrous post-peak oil transition period by warning people of the impending crises.

When I set out to investigate peak oil and energy resources, it was with the intention to either: disprove peak oil theory and/or the predicted timings of when peak oil and energy resources would occur; or to communicate what is peak oil and the potential crisis, if I could not disprove peak oil and its urgency. The deeper I investigated peak oil and energy resource issues, the more it became clear that peak oil was a very severe and imminent crisis.

However, given the possibility of the unprecedented and imminent threats of peak oil and dangerous climate change, the reader should not simply believe one author’s analysis and conclusions since the reader can always check the references. Nonetheless, every reader is urged to seriously consider the arguments, evidence, references, and conclusions presented in this analysis. And, when reading, viewing, and listening to other arguments and points of view by other authors consider their methodology, sources, references, and assumptions. In this investigation, a recurring issue is that many assumptions have been made by analysts and societies regarding energy resources and the economic and social systems that rely on them to maintain their functioning. Similarly, many societies generally make grave assumptions about the human carrying capacity of the environment and the severity of climate change in that the magnitude of the crises are generally grossly and inappropriately nderestimated. This analysis looks at how peak energy resources and climate change may affect the human carrying capacity of the Earth in the coming decades.

The reader may notice that there are many numbers and units of measurements used in the petroleum and energy science and industry. Part of the challenge of understanding petroleum and energy science and the industries’ claims is keeping track of all the data and estimates when there are so many different ways that energy resources are measured. An attempt has been made in this analysis to convert as many of these measurements and numbers to as few units as possible in order to facilitate the reader’s comprehension of the data and estimates.

Although some readers may find some of these specific figures and estimates relevant for their interests, most readers would do well to simply focus on understanding the order of magnitude of the numbers, figures and estimates. A general idea of the quantities at issue should be sufficient to get an overall understanding of the energy and climate situation. After all, most of these numbers are based on estimates, and estimates of estimates. Furthermore, these data and estimates represent the unresolved aggregation of a variety of accounting and reporting methods. Despite these inconsistencies in the data and estimates, the data are nonetheless useful for providing order of magnitude estimates and probability distributions of quantity and uality of oil and energy resources, demand, and other related matters.

When dealing with uncertainty, one must make decisions without necessarily knowing what the consequences of action or inaction might be. However, at some point action becomes necessary even when uncertainty is still great. There is a saying: If one only knows 50% of the facts, then one should not make a decision or form an opinion. But, if one waits until one has more than 90% of the facts, then it will be too late to act. Given the evidence presented in this analysis, the inherent uncertainty involved should be a cause for alarm and a call to action. The peaking of oil will not be accurately predicted until after the fact. If people wait to act until there is more than 90% certainty, it may be too late to act. Hopefully, I have been able to offer the reader at least 50% of the facts – figuratively speaking.

When one reviews thoroughly the public domain data and claims from various governments, scientists, industry leaders and other organizations, it becomes clear that oil and energy resources will not last much longer. How much longer will their supplies be able to support global demand and the civilizations that depend highly on them is uncertain. However, the evidence suggests that it will be sooner rather than later. How much sooner? The world may likely already be experiencing peak oil and the terminal decline of global oil production. Within the next few years, or even the next few months, oil shortages and unsustainably high oil prices will likely cause the faltering global economy to collapse, and with it modern industrial global civilization. This will likely make it even more challenging for the world to adapt to future dangerous climate changes that are already in the pipeline.

While researching on peak oil and energy resources, I noticed that there was a great amount of useful and well-written research and information on the issues, but that most of them did not present the findings and state of knowledge in a comprehensive way. Although there are quite a few organizations and publications that do a very good job at bringing together and synthesizing the issues and facts, one still needed to spend a lot of time searching through many different organization publications and websites to put the whole picture together. Although one cannot realistically hope to write a 100% comprehensive review of such overwhelmingly complicated and technical issues as peak production of oil and other energy resources, climate change, and the planet’s capacity to sustain human life, This paper is an attempt to synthesize these problems in a concise, but sufficiently-detailed, analysis. Ultimately, this paper was written to empower people and societies to prepare themselves for the radical changes in the world ahead with the information presented in this analysis. May you find it helpful.
~ T.M., October 2010

KEY POINTS

  • Peak oil is happening now.
  • The era of cheap and abundant oil is over.
  • Global conventional oil production likely peaked around 2005 – 2008 or will peak by 2011.
  • “Peak oil” refers to the maximum rate of oil production, after which the rate of production enters terminal decline.
  • Although there will be oil remaining in the ground when world oil production peaks, the remaining oil will become increasingly difficult and more costly to produce until the marginal financial and energy cost of producing oil exceeds the marginal profit and energy gained.
  • Global oil reserve discoveries peaked in the 1960’s.
  • New oil discoveries have been declining since then, and the new discoveries have been smaller and in harder to access areas (e.g., smaller deepwater reserves).
  • Huge investments are required to explore for and develop more reserves, mainly to offset decline at existing fields.
  • An additional 64 mbpd of gross capacity – the equivalent of six times that of Saudi Arabia today – needs to be brought on stream between 2007 – 2030 to supply projected business as usual demand.
  • Since mid-2004, the global oil production plateau has remained within a 4% fluctuation band, which indicates that new production has only been able to offset the decline in existing production.
  • The global oil production rate will likely decline by 4 – 10.5% or more per year.
  • Substantial shortfalls in the global oil supply will likely occur sometime between 2010 – 2015.
  • Furthermore, the peak global production of coal, natural gas, and uranium resources may occur by 2020 – 2030, if not sooner.
  • Global peak coal production will likely occur between 2011 – 2025.
  • Global natural gas production will likely peak sometime between 2019 – 2030.
  • Global peak uranium will likely occur by 2015 to sometime in the 2020’s.
  • Oil shortages will lead to a collapse of the global economy, and the decline of globalized industrial civilization.
  • Systemic collapse will evolve as a systemic crisis as the integrated infrastructure and economy of our global civilization breaks down.
  • Most governments and societies – especially those that are developed and industrialized – will be unable to manage multiple simultaneous systemic crises. Consequently, systemic collapse will likely result in widespread confusion, fear, human security risks, and social break down.
  • Economies worldwide are already unraveling and becoming insolvent as the global economic system can no longer support itself without cheap and abundant energy resources.
  • This current transition of rapid economic decline was triggered by the oil price shock starting in 2007 and culminating in the summer of 2008. This transition will likely accelerate and become more volatile once oil prices exceed $80 – $90 per barrel for an extended time. Demand destruction for oil may be somewhere above $80 per barrel and below $141 per barrel.
  • Economic recovery (i.e., business as usual) will likely exacerbate the global recession by driving up oil prices.
  • A managed “de-growth” is impossible, because effective mitigation of peak oil will be dependent on the implementation of mega-projects and mega-changes at the maximum possible rate with at least 20 years lead time and trillions of dollars in investments.
  • Peak oil and the events associated with it will be an unprecedented discontinuity in human and geologic history.
  • Adaptation is the only strategy in response to peak oil.
  • Mitigation and adaptation are the only strategies for climate change.
  • Peak oil crises will soon confront societies with the opportunity to recreate themselves based on their respective needs, culture, resources, and governance responses.
  • The impacts of peak oil and post-peak decline will not be the same equally for everyone everywhere at any given time.
  • There are probably no solutions that do not involve at the very least some major changes in lifestyles.
  • Local and societal responses and adaptation strategies to peak oil and climate change will vary and be influenced based on many factors including: geography, environment, access to resources, economics, markets, geopolitics, culture, religion, and politics.
  • The sooner people and societies prepare for peak oil and a post-peak oil life, the more they will be able to influence the direction of their opportunities.
  • The peak oil crisis may become an opportunity to recreate and harmonize local, regional, and international relationships and cooperation.
  • The localization of economies will likely occur on a massive scale, particularly the localization of the production of food, goods, and services.
  • Existential crises will soon confront societies with the opportunity to recreate themselves based on their respective needs, culture, resources, and governance responses.
  • If the international community does not make a transcendent effort to cooperate to manage the transition to a non-oil based economy, it may risk a volatile, chaotic, and dangerous collapse of the global economy and world population.
  • One of the most important modern technologies to preserve post-peak oil may be the Internet, which can potentially help the world stay connected in terms of communications, information, and Internet technology services even after global transportation services decline.
  • Peak oil and energy resources may offer the only viable solution and opportunity for humanity to mitigate anthropogenic climate change on a global scale – by essentially pulling the plug on the engine of the global economy that has driven the climate system to a very dangerous state.
  • The success of the Green Revolution of modern industrial agriculture since around 1950 is primarily due to its increased use of fossil fuel resources for fertilizers, pesticides, and irrigation to raise crops. Fossil fuel energy inputs greatly increased the energy-intensiveness of agricultural production, in some cases by 100 times or more.
  • Since the advent of the Green Revolution, the global human population has increased from 2.5 billion in 1950 to nearly 7 billion today.
  • Global demand for natural resources exceeded planet’s capacity to provide sustainably for the combined demands of the global population between 1970 – 1980.
  • The global population is projected to grow to around 9.2 billion by 2050.
  • Current trends in land, soil, water, and biodiversity loss and degradation, combined with potential climate change impacts, ocean acidification, a mass extinction event, and energy scarcity will significantly limit the human carrying capacity of the Earth.
  • Future climate change has the potential to substantially reduce the human carrying capacity of the Earth by 0.5 – 2 billion people, or more with abrupt climate changes.
  • The human carrying capacity of the Earth may be 0.5 – 7.5 billion people by 2050.
  • The human carrying capacity of the planet may be 0.5 – 6 billion by 2100.
  • Even when greenhouse gas emissions decline after peak oil, climate change will likely continue to be driven by human activities, but in a reduced capacity.

  • Moreover, the potential mitigation of climate change due to future energy scarcity will not stop the already committed climate changes that are in the pipeline.
  • It is possible that climate negotiations may be abandoned or at least marginalized for a long time (if not permanently) as the crisis of peak oil and economic shock and awe overwhelms the stability and security of every nation.
  • It will likely require a concerted and transcendent effort on the part of any remaining international climate negotiators, their governments, and the public to pursue a meaningful international climate policy – much less a binding international climate treaty.
  • Based on these estimates, the global population may have nearly reached or already exceeded the planet’s human carrying capacity in terms of food production.

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

“We are in a crisis in the evolution of human society. It’s unique to both human and geologic history. It has never happened before and it can’t possibly happen again. You can only use oil once. You can onlyuse metals once. Soon all the oil is going to be burned and all the metals mined and scattered.”
– M. King Hubbert1, geophysicist and energy advisor Shell Oil Company and USGS, 1983

“An additional 64 mbpd of gross capacity – the equivalent of six times that of Saudi Arabia today – needs to be brought on stream between 2007 and 2030.”
– International Energy Agency (IEA)2, 2008

“Peak oil” refers to the maximum rate of oil production, after which the rate of production enters terminal decline (see Figures 1 and 2). Although there will be oil remaining in the ground when world oil production peaks, the remaining oil will become increasingly difficult and more costly to produce until the marginal financial and energy cost of producing oil exceeds the marginal profit and energy gained.

Peak oil is happening now. The era of cheap and abundant oil is over. Global conventional oil production likely peaked around 2005 – 2008 or will peak by 2011. The peaking of oil will never be accurately predicted until after the fact. Nevertheless, since mid-2004, the global oil production plateau has remained within a 4% fluctuation band (see Figures 20a and 20b, which indicates that new production has only been able to offset the decline in existing production. The global oil production rate will likely decline by 4 – 10.5% or more per year. Substantial shortfalls in the global oil supply will likely occur sometime between 2010 – 2015.

Global oil reserve discoveries peaked in the 1960’s (see Figure 10). New oil discoveries have been declining since then, and the new discoveries have been smaller and in harder to access areas (e.g., smaller deepwater reserves). The volume of oil discovered has dropped far below the volume produced in the last two decades. In total, 507 fields are classified as ‘giant’, and account for 60% of conventional oil production. The top 110 producing oilfields produce over 50% of the global oil supply, and the most productive 10 fields contribute 20%. The top 20 oilfields contribute 27%. Production from 16 of the top 20 producing fields was also in terminal decline in 2007 (see Table 1).

Non-OPEC conventional production is projected to peak around 2010, and thereafter begin to decline. OPEC’s oil production will likely peak within the near-term. Saudi Arabia has more than 20% of the world’s proven total petroleum reserves. After 2010, a steady terminal decline in oil production is projected at a depletion rate above 5% per year (see Figure 7). Huge investments are required to explore for and develop more reserves, mainly to offset decline at existing fields.

An additional 64 mbpd of gross capacity – the equivalent of six times that of Saudi Arabia today – needs to be brought on stream between 2007 – 2030. Therefore, it is unlikely that global oil production will be able to supply projected global demand within the near future.

Business as usual (BAU) oil demand is projected to increase by 1% per year on average from 2007 – 2030 – from 84.7 million barrels per day (mbpd) in 2008 to 105.2 mbpd in 2030. Under BAU, oil production is projected to grow from 83.1 mbpd in 2008 to 103 mbpd in 2030 (see Figure 15). Undiscovered oil fields account for about 20% of total crude oil production by 2030. In other words, no one knows whether or how there will be enough oil to supply 20% of total projected crude oil production by 2030.

The remaining oil is becoming increasingly harder to access and extract, and it is of increasingly lower quality. Therefore, the energy and economic investment required to produce the remaining oil is increasing as the energy yield from reserves is decreasing – i.e., the energy return on investment (EROI) is decreasing. The present EROI for oil is significantly lower than the past EROI for oil; and future EROI for oil will be even lower (see Figure 11).

Conventional oil is a fluid that generally requires minimal processing prior to sale and consumption. Conventional oil from producing fields currently supply approximately 85% of the global liquid fuel mix. Unconventional oil may be found in a variety of reserve formations and viscosities (i.e., thicknesses) that typically require specialized extraction technology (e.g., mining, injection of solvents) and significant processing prior to sale and consumption.

Unconventional oil generally includes extra-heavy oil, oil sands, oil shales, coal-to-liquids (CTL) and gas-to-liquids (GTL). These unconventional oil resources may supply less than 7% of projected global demand by 2030 (see Figure 15). It is unlikely that unconventional oil resources will be able to significantly replace conventional oil supplies in the future. The EROI of these unconventional oil resources is lower than that of conventional oil. Unconventional oil resources have greater environmental impacts associated with them, including higher CO2 emissions. Unconventional oil resources cost at least 2 – 3 times more to produce than conventional oil; so it is likely that oil prices for consumers may increase proportionally (see Table 2, and Figures 12 and 13).

Electricity generation from alternative energy resources (i.e., wind, solar, tidal, geothermal) will not be able to replace oil as a transportation fuel since much of the entire world fleet of automobiles, ships, trains, and aircraft would have to be replaced by electric-powered vehicles. Furthermore, such alternative energy resources cannot replace oil as a petrochemical feedstock.

Most biofuel crops are not feasible for replacing oil on a large-scale due to their enormous requirements for cropland and nutrients (i.e., fertilizers) (see Table 3). The projected share of biofuels in the total global supply of road transport fuels will increase from 1.5% in 2007 to 5% in 2030 assuming BAU (see Figure 15). Biofuels from algae and other microorganisms may potentially be a substitute for petroleum, but high capital and economic costs; and requirements for large areas of land, water, phosphorus and other nutrients (i.e., fertilizers) will likely prevent future algal and microbial oil production from replacing oil on a global-scale. In particular, peak phosphorus resources will severely limit the viability of large-scale algae production.

Furthermore, the peak global production of coal, natural gas, and uranium resources may occur by 2020 – 2030 (see Figure 72), if not sooner. Global peak coal production will likely occur between 2011 – 2025 (see Figures 65 and 66). Global natural gas production will likely peak sometime between 2019 – 2030 (see Figure 68). Global peak uranium will likely occur by 2015 to sometime in the 2020’s (see Figures 69 and 70). Since oil is used to produce, distribute, and build and maintain the infrastructure for coal, gas, unconventional oil, nuclear and renewable energy resources, the decline in oil production could very simply bring about declines in the production rates of the other energy resources sooner than the above dates indicate. Peak oil thusly may cause peak energy resources to occur sooner.

Global peak energy will be delayed only if: (1) one or more major new primary energy sources are discovered or developed that are comparable in quantity, quality, and versatility to fossil fuels (especially oil and liquid fuels); (2) significant breakthroughs occur in the quantity, quality, and/or versatility associated with one or more existing primary energy sources; and/or (3) a substantial and sustained decrease in the level of human energy consumption occurs. If either or both of the first two caveats do not occur, then the third caveat must come true, either through a reduction of per capita energy consumption and/or by a decrease in human population.

The conclusions of this analysis are supported by publications and statements made by several national governments, the George W. Bush and Obama administrations, the U.S. Department of Energy (see Figures 8a and 8b), the U.S. and German militaries, leading energy information reporting agencies, the oil industry, the private sector (see Figures 9a and 9b), science, and academia. Part of the reason why the general public are unaware of peak oil is because oil data in the public domain is often misreported, greatly inflated, and sometimes falsified. Contradictions and ambiguity in public data are mainly due to a lack of binding international standards to report oil reserve volume and grade; the conditions at which oil resources may be classified as commercially exploitable reserves; intentional misreporting and falsifying data to further financial and political agendas; lack of transparency and auditing; and uncertainty in technical assessments. The oil resource data and assessments of OPEC (see Figures 3, 4, and 5), information and reporting agencies that monitor the oil industry (including the International Energy Agency (IEA) and the Energy Information Agency (EIA)) (see Figures 8a and 8b), and private industry are also called into question. Buried in caveats and overly optimistic wording (see Figure 15), the estimates and figures of reporting agencies indicate that the global supply of oil will likely not be able to keep up with projected BAU demand, and that great oil supply shortages will likely start to occur within the next few years (see Figures 8a and 8b), if not sooner.

The economic theory on which the economy is based assumes inexpensive and unlimited energy supplies. The global and industrialized economy is based on fractional reserve banking, compound interest, debt-based growth, and compound or unlimited growth. Credit forms the basis of the monetary system. In a growing economy debt and interest can be repaid; in a declining economy they cannot be repaid. Therefore, declining energy flows (i.e., oil) cannot maintain the economic production required to service debt. When outstanding debt cannot be repaid, new credit will become scarce; and economic growth will decline.

Peak oil will have systemic effects throughout the entire global civilization. Global civilization is locked into a very complex and interrelated world economy. Any attempt to alter significantly the energy and transportation infrastructure and the global economy on which it is based would cause it to collapse – but without an increasing energy supply (i.e., oil), the infrastructure and economy on which our civilization is based cannot survive. The principle driving mechanisms for a global economic collapse are re-enforcing positive feedback cycles that are non-linear, mutually reinforcing, and not exclusive. A principle initial driver of the collapse process will be growing awareness and action about peak oil. Systemic collapse will evolve as a systemic crisis as the integrated infrastructure and economy of our global civilization breaks down. Most governments and societies – especially those that are developed and industrialized – will be unable to manage multiple simultaneous systemic crises. Systemic collapse will likely result in widespread confusion, fear, human security risks, social break down, changes in geopolitics, conflict, and war. With the collapse of the globalized economy, many communities will have to develop localized economies and food production.

Oil shortages will lead to a collapse of the global economy, and the decline of globalized industrial civilization. Systemic collapse will evolve as a systemic crisis as the integrated infrastructure and economy of our global civilization breaks down. Most governments and societies – especially those that are developed and industrialized – will be unable to manage multiple simultaneous systemic crises. Consequently, systemic collapse will likely result in widespread confusion, fear, human security risks, and social break down. Economies worldwide are already unraveling and becoming insolvent as the global economic system can no longer support itself without cheap and abundant energy resources.

This current transition of rapid economic decline was triggered by the oil price shock starting in 2007 and culminating in the summer of 2008. This transition will likely accelerate and become more volatile once oil prices exceed $80 – $90 per barrel for an extended time. Demand destruction for oil may be somewhere above $80 per barrel and below $141 per barrel. Economic recovery (i.e., business as usual) will likely exacerbate the global recession by driving up oil prices.

A managed “de-growth” is impossible, because effective mitigation of peak oil will be dependent on the implementation of mega-projects and mega-changes at the maximum possible rate with at least 20 years lead time and trillions of dollars in investments. Peak oil and the events associated with it will be an unprecedented discontinuity in human and geologic history.

Adaptation is the only strategy in response to peak oil. Mitigation and adaptation are the only solutions for climate change. Existential crises will soon confront societies with the opportunity to recreate themselves based on their respective needs, culture, resources, and governance responses. If the international community does not make a transcendent effort to cooperate to manage the transition to a non-oil based economy, it may risk a volatile, chaotic, and dangerous collapse of the global economy and world population.

Humanity has already passed the threshold for dangerous anthropogenic interference with the natural climate system. Future climate change has the potential to substantially reduce the human carrying capacity of the Earth by 0.5 – 2 billion people, or more with abrupt and non-linear climate changes. Currently, many nations are dealing with climate change impacts that are resulting from shifts in the onset of seasons; irregular, unpredictable rainfall patterns; uncommonly heavy rainfall; increased incidence of storms; major flood events; and prolonged droughts. Further, changes in temperatures and weather patterns have driven the emergence of diseases and pests that affect crops, trees, and animals. All these climate impacts already have a direct impact on the quality and quantity of crop yields, and the availability and price of food, animal feed, and fiber.

In 2010, the eight month mean (January 2010 – August 2010) global atmospheric concentration of CO2 was approximately 391 parts per million (ppm) (see Figure 33). The average global atmospheric CO2 concentration currently increases at a rate of approximately 2 ppm per year. By 2030 and 2050, atmospheric CO2 concentrations will respectively be at least 431 ppm and 471 ppm or more assuming current BAU emissions trends. As of 2005, cumulative GHG emissions may have already committed the planet to a warming of 2.4ºC (within a range of 1.4º – 4.3ºC) above the preindustrial mean temperatures. Even if all anthropogenic GHG emissions cease in 2010 (an extremely unlikely scenario), thereby limiting atmospheric CO2 concentration to 391 ppm, the climate system may have already passed the 2°C threshold for dangerous climate change. As CO2 concentrations approach 441 ppm a corresponding committed warming of 3.1oC will occur by 2030 in the absence of strong countervailing mitigation. At the current rate of GHG emissions, a CO2 concentration of 450 ppm could be reached by around 2040.

A CO2 concentration of order 450 ppm or greater, if long maintained, would push the Earth toward an ice-free state and that such a CO2 level likely would cause the passing of climate tipping points and initiate dynamic responses that could be out of humanity’s control. Abrupt, non-linear changes are caused by small increases in global climate change that result in large and irreversible environmental changes once climate tipping points are passed. Anthropogenic GHG emissions are driving the global climate system toward such tipping points earlier than previously predicted. The potential impacts of passing such climate tipping points would be
catastrophic, and include
(see Figure 60):

  • the disappearance of Arctic summer sea ice (see Figures 50 and 51),
  • a major reduction of the area and volume of Hindu-Kush-Himalaya-Tibetan Plateau (HKHT) glaciers, which provide the head-waters for most major river systems of Asia including the Indus, Ganges, Irrawaddy, Mekong, Red, Yangtze, and Yellow rivers (almost 30% of the world’s population lives in the watersheds of these rivers) (see Figures 40 and 41),
  • ocean acidification (see Figures 52 – 55),

  • the deglaciation of Greenland Ice Sheet (see Figure 56),
  • the dieback of Amazonian and boreal forests (see Figure 57),
  • the shutdown of the Atlantic Thermohaline Circulation (see Figure 58),
  • the collapse of West Antarctic Ice Sheet (see Figure 59), and
  • a mass extinction event (see Figures 25, 31, and 32).

The catastrophic impacts from these events could include many meters of sea level rise, massive displacement and loss of people and wildlife, severe loss of biodiversity, mass extinction of species and ecosystems, extreme climate events, megadroughts, catastrophic water shortages, and massive famines that could result in chronic economic depressions, political instability, social revolutions, resource wars, overwhelming humanitarian crises, and human rights challenges. Passing climate tipping points would likely cause other severe impacts, such as the release of CO2 and methane from permafrost and ocean hydrates that would likely cause additional runaway climate feedbacks that could accelerate further climate change.

A target atmospheric concentration of CO2 of no greater than 350 ppm will likely be needed to prevent the world from passing climate tipping points. However, a target concentration of CO2 of 300 ppm may be needed to ensure that the climate does not pass the 2ºC threshold.

Substantial reductions in anthropogenic GHG emissions post-peak oil, combined with major efforts in carbon sequestration would be necessary to achieve this implausible target. Temperature tipping points for abrupt and non-linear climate changes could be passed within this century, or even in the next decade. Even if climate tipping points are not crossed, committed climate change that is already “in the pipeline” will likely have severe negative impacts on most water resources, food production systems,
economies, and ecosystems worldwide.

Since the advent of the Green Revolution in 1950, the success of modern industrialized agriculture is primarily due to its increased use of fossil fuel resources for fertilizers, pesticides, and irrigation to raise crops. Fossil fuel energy inputs greatly increased the energyintensiveness of agricultural production, in some cases by 100 times or more. In particular, oil has been used on a global industrial scale to:

  • produce pesticides and other agrochemicals (herbicides, fungicides, some synthetic fertilizers);
  • produce pharmaceuticals and medical supplies for livestock;
  • fuel tractors, sprayers and crop dusters, farm equipment, and vehicles to produce food;
  • pump and transport water for irrigation;
  • make plastic materials for irrigation and other infrastructure;
  • transport materials to farms;
  • transport food from field to processors, storage, distributors, and consumers; and to
  • make plastic materials in which to contain, store, and package food.

In terms of energy resources, the human carrying capacity of the Earth may be even lower based on historical relationships between global population and energy resource use, since the availability of all energy resources may limit the size of the global human population. The consumption of abundant fossil fuel energy has allowed the human population to increase greatly from approximately 0.5 billion before the year 1700 to about 7 billion today (see Figure 72). Until around 1500, the global human population had never exceeded 0.5 billion people (see Figure 24 and 72). By 1800, approximately 1 billion people lived on the Earth at the beginning of the the Industrial Revolution when fossil fuel energy was beginning to be exploited on a large-scale. Since the advent of modern industrialized agriculture around 1950, the global population has increased from 2.5 billion to nearly 7 billion in 2010 (see Figure 24, 61, and 72).

Decreasing energy resources may decrease the global human population that depends on them. Without enormous amounts of energy that oil and other fossil fuel energy resources have supplied for the past two centuries, the human carrying capacity of the Earth may be as low as 0.5 – 2.5 billion people.

Therefore, the total estimated human carrying capacity of the planet is 0.5 – 7.5 billion by 2050, and 0.5 – 6 billion by 2100, assuming that no abrupt and non-linear climate changes, a rapid mass extinction event, a global conflict (e.g., nuclear war) or any other massive environmental catastrophe occurs. Yet, the projected global human population is 9.2 billion people by 2050. This analysis only considered minimally adequate per capita food and energy supplies. The more resource-intense are the economies and lifestyles of the global population, the lower will be the potential carrying capacity. The human response to peak oil and environmental management practices will be a key factor affecting the potential human carrying capacity of the Earth.

Ironically, peak oil and energy resources may offer the only viable solution for humanity to mitigate anthropogenic climate change on a global scale – by essentially pulling the plug on the engine of the global economy that has driven the climate system to a very dangerous state. Nevertheless, this potential mitigation of climate change will not stop the committed climate changes that are expected to occur in the future, nor will it stop all anthropogenic sources of greenhouse gas emissions altogether.

It is possible that climate negotiations may be abandoned or at least marginalized for a long time (if not permanently) as the crisis of peak oil and economic shock and awe overwhelms the stability and security of every nation. It will likely require a concerted and transcendent effort on the part of any remaining international climate negotiators, their governments, and the public to pursue a meaningful international climate policy – much less a binding international climate treaty.

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Author and Organization

Tariel Mórrígan earned his B.A. in Physics from the University of California at Santa Barbara. He received his Master in Environmental Science and Management (MESM) from the Donald Bren School of Environmental Science and Management at UC Santa Barbara, where he specialized in climate change, conservation, and political economics. Mórrígan is currently the principal research associate of Global Climate Change, Human Security & Democracy (GCCHSD) and a member of its Global Academic Council. His most recent publication is Peak Energy, Climate Change, and the Collapse of Global Civilization: The Current Peak Oil Crisis.

Global Climate Change, Human Security & Democracy (GCCHSD) is a four-year project administered under the auspices of the Orfalea Center for Global & International Studies at UC Santa Barbara. GCCHSD analyzes climate change and ecological balance from the perspective of governance, democracy and human rights – and more broadly, human security. Directed by Richard Falk and Hilal Elver, the project endeavors to conduct research, meetings, a series of workshops and conferences held throughout the world; followed by publications of reports, occasional papers, and books on the challenges and proposed best practices to surmount the political dimensions of these climate and security crises. GCCHSD has organized an Academic Advisory Council and a Global Advisory Council consisting of ministers, statesmen, and specialists in order to determine how to develop and implement these practices. The Orfalea Center for Global & International Studies, directed by Mark Juergensmeyer, was established to provide an intellectual and programmatic focus and financial support and facilities for UC Santa Barbara’s activities in global, international, and area studies.

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Tariel Mórrígan, October 2010 (1st edition, digital only); November 2010 (2nd print and digital edition); Version 2.0

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