When crossing the ocean by sea or by air small differences in the direction you take will result in huge differences in your ultimate destination. Back in the middle of the last century, human society might have made relatively minor adjustments in its trajectory, say, in the growth of consumption of resources including energy, even perhaps deciding that these must level off at some point in the future.
We humans made no such adjustments and so we now find ourselves faced with only draconian choices. But we do not seem to understand that we’ve arrived at a destination far from the one we imagined in 1950. An example is the celebration in the environmental community of a recent federal court decision to invalidate oil and gas leases offered by the U.S. government on 80 million acres of the Gulf of Mexico. (It turns out that oil and gas companies only bid on 1.7 million of those acres.)
The ostensible reason for invalidating the leases was that the government did not adequately consider the effect of the leases on climate change. The government could do another evaluation and try selling the leases again. But environmental organizations would likely challenge the leases in court again.
While the effects of climate change are already severe and likely to become even more so, global human society is utterly dependent on uninterrupted flows of fossil fuels to function. And, while climate change activists continue to champion a so-called energy transition to green energy sources such as solar and wind, what they might not understand is that so far, these alternatives have been used to augment human energy consumption. They have not displaced fossil fuels at all. Nor are they likely to in any time frame that matters.
To understand why this is so, we need the help of two concepts: power density and the rate-of-conversion problem. Here’s what I wrote about power density more than a decade ago:
Power densities are a measure of the land required for both energy sources and energy users. The current infrastructure matches the small footprint of energy sources against the large footprint of energy users. With the drive toward renewable energy sources, this relationship is about to be reversed with consequences few people understand.
I concluded the following:
[I]t is glaringly obvious that the energy sources we rely on now are one to two orders of magnitude smaller by land area per unit of energy produced than the industries and buildings they service are per unit of energy consumed. That means it takes a relatively small land area to service the enormous area devoted to commercial, residential and industrial buildings. Just the opposite will become the case using renewable energy sources. We will be obliged to devote vast tracts of space—far more vast than the buildings they serve—to support the energy use of our current infrastructure. This may not be impossible, but it will certainly be costly and socially disruptive.
The second issue, the rate-of-conversion problem, has become even more daunting since the time I first wrote about it in 2008. This concept refers to the rate at which we are converting to low-carbon and no-carbon energy sources versus the rate at which we need to make that conversion. In that piece I explained the “crucial issue at the heart of the rate-of-conversion problem” as follows:
When should we start making our conversion to an alternative energy economy? The answer is fairly straightforward. We should start while we still have ample and even growing supplies of fossil fuels. This is especially true of oil which is so critical to transportation and to the mining of the minerals needed for nuclear reactors and fuel and for the manufacture of wind turbines and solar panels.
The era of plentiful fossil fuels, however, may be drawing to a close sooner than many believe.
Back then oil was headed to its all-time high near $150 per barrel. Since then prices have fluctuated wildly between extremes. Today, however, oil prices are on the rise again. But something has happened which few people realize. World oil production—meaning crude including lease condensate which is the definition of oil—peaked in late 2018 and has never recovered. This has happened even as we are nowhere near displacing fossil fuels for our energy needs and the world’s most important fossil fuel is now in decline.
What’s more is that the environmental community is focused on preventing additional production of oil, natural gas and coal—which is, of course, imperative if we are going to reduce carbon emissions and thereby lessen and even halt the progress of climate change.
But lower production of fossil fuels may make it more difficult to fuel the factories and mines that are building the devices and structures we need to bring about a low-carbon future. There appear to be no good choices because we as a society have waited far too long to make the energy transition.
We could collectively go on a draconian energy diet to conserve fuel and reduce carbon emissions. But, that hardly seems politically and socially feasible. One of the chief reasons is that beyond the personal sacrifice, such a move would almost surely put the world economy into a long-lasting recession or depression. This is because energy is a central industry that supports a huge amount of economic activity.
But what if we devoted the energy saved to an emergency program to deploy low-carbon and no-carbon energy sources? That would put people to work and stimulate economic activity. We would, however, have to re-train tens, if not hundreds, of millions of people in very short order. We would be doing the equivalent of building a plane while flying it. Given the highly technical nature of the available alternatives, it is unlikely that this re-training would go quickly or smoothly.
Then there’s the investment in plant and equipment which takes considerable time to build. And, there is the adjustment and expansion of the energy infrastructure used to bring us electricity and liquid fuels. It would have to be adapted for dependence on far more electricity and far less liquid fuel as, for instance, ground transportation becomes increasingly electrified—which, of course, requires the emergency production and deployment of electric vehicles as quickly as we can and the recharging stations to accommodate them. And so on, and so on….
The speed and scale at which we must act to be successful in both reducing carbon emissions and replacing the energy sources which produce them suggests that we are far past the time when we should have begun.
The idea that a smooth transition away from fossil fuels is already happening and can succeed without draconian emergency measures is a self-deception of the first order. While I understand the desire to stop further burning of fossil fuels, I also understand that we have almost certainly blown any chance to make a decline in fossil fuel use—either forced or voluntary—a smooth process that does not risk the unraveling of modern global society.
We have only difficult choices ahead. We must now think about how to reduce the impact of two converging trends, climate change and energy depletion. That will be a huge undertaking that no court decision blocking fossil fuel production will be able to lessen.
Photo: Containers of oil in Lanzarote, Canary Islnds (2008). Photo by Clemen.rojo via Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:End_of_the_oil_era_II.JPG