The following is an overview of my recent lecture to the Linnean Society of London, which is named in honour of Carl Linneus, who among many other accolades has been described as "The father of modern taxonomy", and is also considered as one of the founders of modern ecology. It is the world’s oldest active society for the biological and environmental sciences, and the roll call of its Fellows includes such great names as Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace.
The lecture itself can be viewed here: https://vimeo.com/143163653
The link between the global oil supply and biodiversity is not directly causal; rather, the two are elements of a broader and more integrated picture. Of the energy used by humans on Earth, crude oil represents the lion’s share (33%), followed closely by coal (30%), with gas in third place at 24%. Traversing the gamut of energy sources, we find nuclear energy (4%) and hydro-power (7%), with renewable energy (wind and solar) entering the final furlong at just above 2% of total energy use, meaning that around 88% of our energy is furnished by the fossil fuels. 100 years ago, oil could be produced at an EROEI of 100, while this is now nearer to 17 as a global average, and falling, as unconventional oil sources increasingly make up for the decline in conventional production. So it’s becoming increasingly harder to maintain the oil flow into global civilization.
The Global Oil Supply
We produce around 30 billion barrels of oil every year, which is absolutely staggering, and depending on exactly what you count as oil, this works out to 84 million barrels a day, or about 1,000 barrels every second. The major producers are Saudi Arabia and Russia, who between them produce around one quarter of the world’s oil supply. Crude oil is a very various material: light oils are quite freely flowing, while the very heavy oils can be like the black stuff on the road outside. Sweet oils are relatively low in sulphur and easiest to handle, while sour oils contain 2% or more of sulphur and are more difficult to deal with. The big question is how much oil is remaining across the world? Much of what is left contains a lot of sulphur and is heavy, e.g.from the Orinoco belt in Venezuela, and takes a lot of costly processing. And, sometimes when it is claimed, e.g. there is supposed to be 500 billion barrels of oil present in U.S. shale, only a few percent of that is likely to be recoverable. This is the difference between a resource and a reserve: a resource is everything that is, or might be, in place, whereas a reserve is what can be recovered not only technically but economically. It’s also sometimes said that America has 2 trillion barrels of oil in the form of oil shale, but this isn’t actually "oil" at all, but kerogen, which is "immature oil", which if it had been put by geology in hotter regions of the ground, it would have been cooked into something that we recognise as oil. If you want to convert kerogen into oil, you have to heat it up, which takes a lot of energy, and so the energy returns are correspondingly less.
We need oil to fuel most of the world’s transportation, but it is also the raw chemical feedstock to make plastics, pharmaceuticals, and pretty much everything we use. But also, without oil, and natural gas to make fertilisers, modern agriculture couldn’t exist in the form that we know it. You need oil to fuel the tractors and combine harvesters etc., but food isn’t consumed where it is grown, by and large, it’s got to be moved around nations and the entire world. This (slide) is a bit of a poster child, for the unsustainability of agriculture. This is a field of soya beans growing in Brazil, and at one time this field was actually rainforest, but it has been cleared, and the mighty array of machines used to harvest it, run on diesel-fuel refined from crude oil, but the dust that is thrown up behind them is actually the top-soil. And so this is prone to erosion, which is one of the major problems that we have in maintaining agriculture into the future.
Existing conventional oil fields are showing a 4.1%/annum production decline rate which, put into context, means that to maintain the current flow of oil into global civilization, it is necessary to find a new Saudi Arabia’s worth of production every 3-4 years. A hard enough task in itself, and all the more so, when the new "oil" has to come from fracking shale, increased drilling in deeper waters, heavy oil, and processing bitumen from tar sands, all with typically lower EROEI than for conventional oil production. "Regular" oil production probably peaked around 2005, and according to the Paris-based International Energy Agency, to maintain the overall oil production rate, it will be necessary to increasingly produce from unconventional sources, but this is only viable if the oil price rebounds once more. In this overall scenario, oil production from shale by fracking, while significant, is not likely to account for more than 6% of the total global production. However, due to the current very low oil price, overall investment in fracking, and also tar sands, is likely to fall. However, it is speculated that due to the Kingdom’s necessarily high fiscal break-even cost, Saudi Arabia may go broke before the U.S. oil industry buckles.
If we must look toward a society that doesn’t have the level of oil flowing into it that it does now, then what are we going to do instead? We need to find alternatives in terms of fuels, and everything else that we depend on oil for. The other aspect is that burning oil contributes 30% of the total global CO2 emissions budget, and so there is the climate change impact to be considered too. Some people argue that perhaps this is a good thing, because a falling consumption of oil will lead to lower CO2 emissions, but so maintaining a complex and oil-driven civilization will prove a considerable challenge. Much attention is given to biofuels, e.g. bioethanol, but the reality is that if, in the U.K., we turned over the whole of our arable land to growing sugar beet, and stopped growing food crops, we could only produce enough ethanol to match 45% of the liquid fuels that we currently get from crude oil. Yields of cellulosic ethanol from miscanthus are about the same as from sugar beet (5 tonnes/hectare) and so although non-arable and marginal land can be used, huge land areas are still required and we still can’t match our liquid fuel budget as is currently obtained from crude oil. Biodiesel from rapeseed (canola) is a worse choice, since the yield is only about one tonne per hectare, meaning that perhaps one seventh of the U.K.’s liquid fuels could be produced from it, even if we stopped growing food crops entirely, and all vehicles were fitted with diesel engines. Another issue is that oil-based liquid fuels are required to grow and harvest all the biofuel crops, along with large quantities of freshwater.
An alternative is to grow algae and convert it into biofuel. In principle, this has many advantages, including a much higher yield per hectare than land based crops, that wastewater/saline water can be used rather than freshwater, and that although the tanks to grow it in have to be engineered, they can be placed on any land (so avoiding a compromise with arable land for food crops) and even floated out at sea! While replacing the current 30 billion barrels of oil annual production by algal fuels is a massive and probably unrealistic challenge, on the smaller scale, growing algae can be combined with wastewater treatment and absorption of CO2 from the flue gases of fossil fuel fired power plants, as an integrated approach to solve two significant environmental pollution problems while making some amounts of liquid fuels in the process. The extraction of crude oil by fracking ("hydraulic fracturing") can be considered as yet another attempt to fill the enlarging gap in conventional crude oil production, with its own problems and limits.
The 68th UN General Assembly has declared 2015 to be the International Year of Soils (IYS), some objectives of which may be summarised:
- to create full awareness of civil society and decision makers about the fundamental roles of soils for human’s life;
- to achieve full recognition of the prominent contributions of soils to food security, climate change adaptation and mitigation, essential ecosystem services, poverty alleviation and sustainable development;
- to promote effective policies and actions for the sustainable management and protection of soil resources;
- to sensitize decision-makers about the need for robust investment in sustainable soil management activities aiming at healthy soils for different land users and population groups;
- to advocate rapid enhancement of capacities and systems for soil information collection and monitoring at all levels (global, regional and national).
This is part of a global effort to raise awareness of soil degradation, which is one of the critical “woes” of current civilization. In France, the intention has recently been announced to increase the soil organic carbon by 0.4% per year as a strategy to store carbon from the atmosphere in the soil, and to simultaneously improve soil quality and fertility. Soil and water are vital elements for life, and are connected via the hydrologic cycle; soil is also a critical component of the carbon cycle, and hence preserving and rebuilding soil (improving its organic matter content, and structure) is fundamental to stabilising the climate and securing food and water supplies. Of all the actions we might take, building soil is truly sustainable and regenerative, and central to “Earth Stewardship”, which is one of the “possible future scenarios” that we discuss later.
- One quarter of all the Earth’s biodiversity is in the soil, i.e. that one quarter of the number of all the organisms on the planet live in the soil, most of which are bacteria.
- 52% of the land used for agriculture is moderately to severely affected by soil degradation: mostly by erosion.
- It takes 200─1,000 years to form just an inch of soil, depending on the climate and other local conditions.
- Soil from agricultural land is being eroded at 10─40 times the natural rate.
- In the last 40 years, one third of the world’s crop land has become unproductive as a result of soil degradation.
- It is estimated that 44% of the world’s food production systems and 50% of world livestock are vulnerable, as a result of land degradation. This is likely to be exacerbated by climate change.
- Food production in 2050 will need to be 70% greater than it is now, to feed an expected population that has risen to 9.5 billion (from 7.3 billion), and with relatively more meat being consumed.
- Avoid bare ground: reforestation, planting cover crops (peas, beans, buckwheat, clover, etc.).
- Build Soil Organic Matter (SOM); no-till farming methods.
- Shield the soil through the use of sand fences, shelter belts, woodlots and windbreaks; plant trees.
- Farmer-Managed Natural Regeneration: five million hectares of barren land have been “reforested” in Niger, at a density of 40 trees/hectare.
- Protect existing forests: huge stores of carbon both in the biomass and the soil, and oxygen producing bodies, “the lungs of the Earth”.
- Mulch from pruned trees, and straw to cover fields: increasing soil water retention and reducing evaporation.
- Tree planting: aids in the infiltration water into soil, and reduces flooding.
- Build the “Soil Food Web”: one teaspoonful of healthy soil can contain one billion microbes. The active presence of the soil fauna and flora improves the cycling of nutrients and water in the soil.
- Not an entity, but an active design system.
- Permaculture = Permanent (Agri)Culture
- Regenerative NOT merely sustainable.
- Permaculture = a good design!
- “You cannot solve a problem from the same consciousness that created it. You must learn to see the world anew.” Albert Einstein.
- Seeing the whole picture, and placing design elements together to support one another.
- “The problem is the solution.”
- Companion planting; no-till, building soil structure, efficient use of water, smaller PNK inputs; capturing carbon; best use of light; exploit “3rd dimension”.
- “Three sisters planting”: bean + corn + squash = N-fixer + 3D "stalk" + broad leaves (shades soil).
A forest garden is a beneficial arrangement of plants etc. that exploit the 3rd dimension, both above ground and below it, in terms of the different rooting depths of plants. Such an arrangement can be highly productive, as in the RISC roof garden, which thrives on top of the Reading International Solidarity Center building in the heart of Reading.
The RISC Roof Garden with 200 different plants, including TREES, all growing in just 30 cm of soil on the roof of a building in the centre of Reading. Clearly, many of the roots grow outward.
(…the changing climate)
Much attention is given to global carbon emissions and climate change, and rightfully so, yet this is just one feature of the “changing climate”. Many challenges that confront humankind (“The World’s Woes”) are often regarded as though they are individual problems, but actually are merely symptoms of a single problem – a too rapid consumption of resources of all kinds, and the attendant consequences. Some of these are:
- Carbon emissions: leading to global warming and climate change.
- Population increase: 9.5 billion by 2050, possibly rising to 11 billion by 2100?
- Declining (“peak”) resources: water, oil, gas, coal, uranium, metals, phosphorus, soil, fish stocks.
- Land degradation: soil erosion – desertification. 30% of global arable land has become unproductive in the past 40 years, and much of this has been abandoned. The connection between soil and water via the hydrologic cycle means that the degradation of soil leads to increased drought, but also flooding.
- Loss of biodiversity: it is believed that we are in the midst of the “Sixth Mass Extinction”, since the current rate of biodiversity loss is estimated to be at least as high as (or even higher than) occurred in the previous five mass extinctions.
- Increasing poverty: rising food costs, high prices of imported fertilizers, unfair global trade practices.
- PRESENTLY: “The sins of the fathers”, an impoverishing scenario where finite resources are exhausted year on year, and the Earth increasingly polluted by those same processes that consume them, e.g. carbon emissions.
- GROWTH: “growing our way to hope”, where growth is possible, if not globally, on the local scale. Resource resilience, as opposed to resource depletion. Transition Towns.
- Using permaculture, can provide much of our food and materials on the local scale, with greatly reduced inputs of crude oil, natural gas, fertilizers, and freshwater.
Soil is rebuilt from carbon taken out of the atmosphere, thus acting to ameliorate climate change.
More biodiverse systems are more resilient to water stress and pests, and tend to be more productive.
Nature (2015, 517, 187): study estimates that for a 50% chance to avoid G.W. >2oC (2100), one third of the world’s oil reserves, half of its gas reserves and 80% of its coal reserves must be left in the ground (up to 2050).
“Development of resources in the Arctic and any increase in unconventional oil production are incommensurate with efforts to limit average global warming to 2oC throughout the 21st century.”
In terms of production rate:
─5% (oil), +58% (gas), ─68% (coal): predicted reduction in emissions from 48 Gt CO2-eq (2010) to 21 CO2-eq (2050) =(─56%).
B.P. Statistical Review of World Energy 2014: Most of our energy still derived from fossil fuels by 2035, by when CO2 emissions (+29%)
The Future of Energy?
- Key effort should be toward energy efficiency.
- Retrofitting existing building stock.
- Renewable (low-carbon) energy. Limited quantity?
- Nuclear power, including thorium MSRs?
- Reduction in oil-fuelled transport.
- Local production of food, energy and materials.
- Water-energy nexus: 85% increased use of water in the energy sector by 2035.
- Limit to energy growth?
- Rebuilding and protection of soil: water-soil nexus.
- Can’t decouple energy from water and soil. Need an integrated, durable system to meet human needs.
….we live in interesting times….
(1) R.G. Miller and S.R.Sorrell, “The Future of Oil Supply,” Phil. Trans. R. Soc. A. 2014, 372:20130179
(2) J. Murray and D.King, “Oil’s Tipping Point has Passed,” Nature, 2012, 481, 433.
(3) C.J.Rhodes, “Making Fuel From Algae: Identifying fact Amid Fiction,” in Algal Fuels: Phycology, Geology, Biophotonics, Genomics and Nanotechnology, R.Gordon and J.Seckbach (eds.), Springer, Dordrecht, 2012, p177.
(4) M.Inman, “The Fracking Fallacy,” Nature, 2014, 516, 28.
(5) C.McGlade and P.Ekins, “The Geographical Distribution of Fossil Fuels Unused when Limiting Global Warming to 2 oC,” Nature, 2015, 517, 187.
(6) C.J.Rhodes, “Thorium-Based Nuclear Power,” Science Progress, 2013, 96, 200.
(7) S.Devlin et al., “Urgent Recall: Our Food System Under Review,” New Economics Foundation, Nov. 2014, ISBN 978-1-908506-72-6