Welcome to the age of diminishing returns

Friday, June 10, 2011

Peak? What Peak? Greenhouse emissions keep increasing

Recently released emission data from IEA. Reproduced from "Skeptical Science". 


Back in the early 2000s, when I was starting to study peak oil, I used to think that oil depletion was our main problem. Climate change seemed to me a threat for the remote future and, probably, automatically solved by the depletion of fossil fuels. Over the years, however, I saw more and more data accumulating that show that it is not so. I am now convinced that climate change is a much more serious threat to humankind than peak oil.

The most recent data on carbon emissions, published by IEA, are reinforcing my impression. Greenhouse gas emission are NOT going down, despite oil production having probably peaked. The recovery that we are experiencing, weak as it is, has been enough to push emissions to an all-time record high. We are generating more and more CO2, probably, also because depletion is forcing the industry to turn more and more to "dirty" fuels, such as tar sands.

The graph from IEA is especially worrisome because it says nothing about the parallel evolution of methane emissions, another, more powerful, greenhouse gas which is emitted as a result of the extraction and processing of natural gas. Methane emissions are on the rise, too, and the trend toward extraction of shale gas may make the situation worse.


Many times the IPCC has been accused of being too pessimistic and of not having considered depletion in the proposed scenario. But it seems that depletion is not biting on emissions as much as several studies had proposed. Rather, we seem to be following the "worst case" scenario of the several that the IPCC had proposed.

In the future, it may be that the effect of depletion will be felt more strongly but, for the time being, "peak emissions" seem to be far away.

8 comments:

  1. Ugo,

    Our scenario, which is one of the most pessimistic, had emissions peaking by 2020. A bit too early to call it a failure, IMHO, much less to more optimistic scenarios. The fact that the IEA's lowest CO2 emissions scenario needs more than the double of presently known and probable reserves remains an issue.

    Meanwhile, if the rush for non-conventional gas accelerates, everyone should re-adjust methane emission in their models.

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  2. CO2 from tar sands, methane from shale fracking, and now...

    methane from tar sands!  43,000 m³/day from the Mildred Lake settling basin alone.  In-situ methods such as SAGD won't have this particular emissions mode, but all of these things need to be looked at carefully.

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  3. Indeed Ugo, I've been through exactly the same evolution of thoughts. I gave a presentation a few years ago comparing implied CO2 trajectories from the then 120 mbpd IEA Outlook to a 'peaking scenario'.

    So far, it seems the 'dirtification' of our energy is preventing supply side limitations from constraining CO2. I suspect this is a relatively short term phenomena though.

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  4. Is anyone working to incorporate feedback loops into this equation? In part, this might explain why the models are coming out on the low side.

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  5. Good point, Chris; I think "dirtification" is a good term to describe the situation. I hope, too, that it will a short term phenomenon; but it is an additional trouble that we are facing

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  6. to Anonymous. Crossing the climate tipping point is a non linear phenomenon and modelling non linear phenomena is always very difficult. Actually, it is normally impossible if one wants to make it quantitative. So, normally climate scientists are modelling climate change as if it were a linear phenomenon, hence the results may be very optimistic.

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  7. Ugo - it is heartening to see one of your eminence as a peak oil writer recognizing the fundamental nature of the threat of Climate Destabilization, as compared with the merely economically ruinous threat of Peak Oil.

    Suffice to say that, as a farmer, I can get by and produce a surplus by using draft oxen if I have to, and like many round here I already use manure for fertilizer, but with the climate getting increasingly unstable it is getting very hard to plan the critical seasonal events - and a wrong choice or just the wrong weather means no crops for sale.

    I guess that you'll have studied CD to be aware of far more than you've stated above, for, as has often been pointed out, the IPCC projections (as censored by 192 national govts) are pathetically understated regarding the threats thus far, regardless of dubious fossil reserve projections.

    For instance, neither the timelag of 30 to 40 years between GHGs' release and their impact on climate (i.e. current destabilization reflects mid-70s' global pollution levels)
    - nor the loss of the sulphate aerosol 'parasol' as fossil GHG outputs are ended (that deflects about half of current warming)
    nor the diverse accelerating interactive warming feedbacks (that are on track to dwarf anthro-GHG outputs)
    - get even a fraction of the public attention they warrant.

    Thus in addition to ending GHG outputs, global temperature and climate have to be moderated while the atmosphere is
    gradually cleansed - which could be done with the necessary adoption of carbon recovery (via afforestation for biochar & syngas) in tandem with sufficient albido restoration (perhaps via arctic seaspray cloud brightening). Yet any such prospect will require global agreement and formal oversight - that will not be available until after a global climate treaty is signed and ratified.

    Therefore, I wonder whether you might agree that it is now time to start integrating PO as an mitigable issue within the paramount need for the formal climate treaty, and so shift from a focus on propagating knowledge of PO to one of actively campaigning for a climate treaty that is both equitable and efficient, and is also inclusive in addressing what used to be called the 'problematique' ?

    Regards,

    Lewis

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  8. some comments : the comparison with IPCC scenarios is biased by the fact that they are "renormalized" on the 2000 values. The real scenarios are already largely different at this time and a proper comparison should be done with actual numbers. Renormalizing means, for instance, that the cumulative past production won't influence the future production rate, an obviously wrong statement.

    second, there is nothing like a "predictive power" of SRES scenarios. A scientific theory is a set of rules allowing to make "good" predictions from the knowledge of initial conditions. To my knowledge, there is nothing like a validated scientific model governing the scenarios. They're only the output of a set of computer simulations, some of them having very weird features, with incredibly variable production rates of various fossil fuels, but a rather constant economic growth (yielding very different energy intensities for instance). The philosophy of SRES scenario is basically that the economy will grow whatever we do, and the amount of FF will adjust to our political decisions. The philosophy of peakists is quite exactly the opposite : that the amount of FF is governed by geological constraints and will be more or less the same whatever we'll do, and economy can be adjusted, but probably not so much, leading to a likely lack of growth and probably economical collapse.

    These philosophies are so vastly different that it is very difficult to mix them in the same view. But the recent economic crisis following the oil plateauing is a much stronger support to the peakist philosophy than to the SRES one : so I don't think there is anything useful to draw from a set of curves whose methodology has never been validated by any fact.

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Who

Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014)