Welcome to the age of diminishing returns

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Enough fossil fuels to fry us all



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".








33 comments:

  1. Don't be so gloomy, Dr. Bardi. Mother Nature (or Gaia) has more tricks up her sleeve.
    CO2-levels are still rising, but temperatures have remained relatively stable for the last 15 years.
    http://www.woodfortrees.org/plot/hadcrut3vgl/from:1997/plot/hadcrut3vgl/from:1997/trend

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    1. I am happy for you, fellow Cassandra, that you see things this way.

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    2. Farmer in the DellJuly 5, 2012 at 8:29 AM

      I'm afraid the model of Gaia as mother is too indulgent; an archetype of Medea*, the Greek goddess who murdered her children to avenge her betrayal, may be more accurate.

      I'm in the second summer of drought here on my farm in the Midwest. (It got to D0, abnormally dry, last summer, a year also paradoxically marked by record yearly rainfall—extremes of global warming—and now we're in a tough D2 severe drought this summer, with July and August to get through.)

      Anyway, Ugo, thanks for your blog here; it's very informative.

      _____
      * Peter Ward. (2009) The Medea Hypothesis: Is Life on Earth Ultimately Self-Destructive? (Science Essentials) Princeton University Press.

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    3. Yes, I know Ward's book. Of course, Gaia (or Medea) simply doesn't care about us. Very unfortunately.....

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  2. It's not as simple as just using coal or gas when oil is scarce. Most of our transport relies on liquid fuels and can't be readily converted to other sources. A scarcity of oil cripples a lot of economic activity. That's just one possible cause of collapse. See the ongoing financial and growing unemployment crises in various countries.

    It's all interconnected. When the house of cards really starts falling it will likely be dramatic and unpredictable, as Orlov points out: http://cluborlov.blogspot.com.au/2012/06/fragility-and-collapse-slowly-at-first.html

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    1. I hope you are right Tim. What you are describing is the "Seneca effect"; rapid collapse. It may save us from a worse disaster, but it will be a disaster nevertheless. And it may come too late.

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  3. 1) Nature bats last. Any one of the ice albedo/tundra peat/methane clathrate/ocean anoxia bombs go off, it would be very bad. We must stop fossil carbon loading of the air.

    2)the first post links to a graph that cherry picks 1997 as the start year, I recommend looking at skepticalscience.com or realclimate.org or better yet, the peer reviewed literature for the real science. Warming has not stopped, radiative imbalance worsens each year with most of the heat going into the ocean.

    sidd

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    1. Not only does he cherry pick 1997. he also cherry picks a data set that has been replaced by a new one. And lo and behold, gone is the relative stability.

      Never mind the fact that the period starts with the El Niño of the century and ends with a series of La Niñas, an incredibly inactive Sun, negative PDO, AMO, and lots of aerosol emissions from BRIC countries...

      But a new El Niño is shaping up. That'll probably make the cherry picking a tad more difficult.

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    2. Sometimes I find myself admiring the people who can arrive to this level of self-delusion. Just choose carefully a subset of data and - magic - global warming disappears. It is human after all.

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  4. Why "in the world" does anyone pay any attention to this self-serving, devil''s advocate Monbiot, who is probably just interested in creating enough of a reputation to get laid? Imagine you were as ugly as he is; is there really any other explanation--other than insanity--for his positions? The ugly lunatic is simply trying to get laid--at the expense of the existence of Earth.

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    1. All right, I leave this comment on just to state that further comments on this tone will be erased. Sorry, this is not the way to behave: if you think Monbiot is wrong, just say it - but it makes no sense to use this kind of insults

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  5. The last actual research I've seen done by NASA (as opposed to great volumes of hot air being produced by talking heads) indicates that additional levels of CO2 matter little because the atmosphere is already absorbing almost all of the radiation that CO2 absorbs. In that sense we may have hit the tipping point 150 years ago.

    This makes additional greenhouse gases such as methane and especially hydrochloroflurocarbons even more worrisome, as those may very well not be saturated in absorbing their bands of radiation. And of course rising CO2 levels have other effects such as ocean acidification.

    Quite frankly, from a human standpoint, the question is academic. Peak oil saving us from global warming feels a lot like being told we don't need to worry about bankruptcy because our cancer will kill us first.

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  6. Mr Wheeler - most already know that the greenhouse effect from CO2 reduces logarithmically, not linearly, but any further increase in temperature is too risky - CO2 is still the "biggest control knob" (Richard Alley) we have so we shouldn't think of the reducing effect as a get out of jail free card.

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    1. Correct: the relation between CO2 concentration and temperature is logarithmic. But that's an academic point - if we arrive to 1000 ppm or higher we are fried anyway - logarithmic or not.

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    2. Ugo
      Could you give us a brief expanded note on this sometime? I would value that.
      The IPCC models take these calculations in their stride, and we are given a result in terms of a theoretical equilibrium surface temperature for a given period of sustained CO2 levels (or CO2 equivalent). The chief future effect of fossil fuels continuing to raise CO2 every year seems to be the prolonging of the inevitable warm pulse as it gradually raises the temperature of the oceans. The more we put up, the longer the warm pulse, with ongoing positive feed-back effects, particularly albedo values. I would value your thoughts on climate sensitivity as a quantity.
      PS The last time the earth saw atmospheric CO2 at or near 400ppm was 5M years ago IIRC. The ‘sensitivity’ that the earth will display now, given the amazing rapidity of present change compared with the very slow changes in the components of the carbon cycle back then, must be very difficult to conjecture?
      best
      Phil

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    3. I just looked at the NASA site and they issued the following on 19th January this year. I don't know where the gentleman at the top gets his numbers.

      "NASA Finds 2011 Ninth-Warmest Year on Record
      01.19.12

      The global average surface temperature in 2011 was the ninth warmest since 1880, according to NASA scientists. The finding continues a trend in which nine of the 10 warmest years in the modern meteorological record have occurred since the year 2000."

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    4. Since I wrote the above comments I have read a recent paper by Hansen et al which seems to increase my own understanding.
      One of the useful results of a serious blog like Ugo's is that issues like this can become better understood by people who are not climate scientists, and the blog generates better informed trust in the science and scientists - 'what is known and what is not known; how scientific argument develops'.
      http://pubs.giss.nasa.gov/docs/notyet/submitted_Hansen_etal.pdf
      Quote:
      "The immediate planetary energy imbalance caused by a CO2 increase can be calculated precisely. The radiation physics is rigorously understood and does not require a climate model. But the ongoing energy imbalance is reduced by the fact that Earth has already warmed 0.8°C, thus increasing heat radiation to space. The imbalance is also affected by other factors that alter climate, such as changes of solar irradiance, the reflectivity of Earth's surface, and aerosols.
      Determination of the state of Earth's climate therefore requires measuring the energy imbalance. ... "

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  7. I have been mulling over in my head our resent use of all these unconventional sources of fuels and the connection with large scale infrastructure projects/repairs. Merrideth Whitney talked about a coming municipal bond crisis in the US. The best explanations for why it didn't happen seem to be along the lines of local municipalities forgoing infrastructure projects/repairs. Orlov's site has had graphs showing electrical outages in the US growing at exponential rates in the past 5 years. I was wondering how much our ability to continue to burn unconventionals was at the cost of capital stocks and the long term ability for this to continue? How long can we continue to eat our equivalent of seed stock? I know it is intrinsically worked into the World3 model, but was wondering if Prof Bardi could parse it out a little.

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    1. Well, Brian, we can play with models as much as we like. The problem is that models cannot predict the future. They can only tell us what futures are possible; then it is up to us to discover which one will be "the" future. So, we can't really say whether dwindling EROEI will cause the crash of the whole system before global warming destroys us. Both are possible futures, but we'll have to discover which one will arrive first

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    2. I was hoping the modeling could point to a certain path we are on, where there are a lot of mathematical constructs but only a subset that comport with reality. I saw some presentation a while ago where the presenter more or less said, that of all the World3 models, we are most closely following the standard run. And I don't think George was alone in his thinking that peak oil could save us from ruining our ability to live on this planet, because Guy McPhearson more or less said a similar thing recently. Could peak oil stop us before the stated 450 ppm? Do global warming models even suggest that there is any reason at all at this point to stop releasing CO2 cause it is too far out of control? Not asking for you to answer those questions, but I thought models could give us insight to those questions.

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    3. Well, Brian, it is true. Peak oil COULD save us from tipping to another planet. Or not. My impression is that models cannot help us much in predicting where a complex and strongly non linear system is heading to. Climate models are very limited, and the same is true for socio-economic ones. There have been cases of good agreement, true. Hubbert for the 48 lower states is an example. And the "base case" model of World3 is another. But there have been also many cases of models that missed strongly non linear effects and were totally unable to keep pace with reality.

      The best we could do is to try to incorporate the economy into climate models and see how climate and depletion evolve together. But it would be a huge tasks, full of uncertainty. And then, what the purpose would be? There is no need of a complex model to tell us that we are at risk of extinction - maybe we can escape despite ourselves, but maybe not.

      The real problem we have is how to change the social decision mechanism. We'd need a crash program of elimination of fossil fuels as fast as we could reasonably do it. But, look at the situation: after Mr. Maugeri has pulled out his recent trick that says that we have plenty of oil, everyone is happy! Looking from the comments on the Web, I think Maugeri could have been wearing a red hat with white fur trimmings.

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  8. Since Professor Bardi does not suggest a way out, is it safe to presume we are finished either way?

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    1. As I said, the future cannot be predicted. We are following the wrong path, but there is always hope to change direction

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    2. > We are following the wrong path, but there is always hope to change direction

      But what do you we need to do to get onto a preferable path? What are the most important changes that should take place?

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    3. We need to force the system. By itself, it won't take the right direction

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    4. What specific actions can we take to force the system?

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    5. Start the moral equivalent of a war (but Jimmy tried and he didn't succeed)

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  9. "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."

    Would say it's more about the scenarios that one can be doubtful, not even discussing the models.
    And it's the IEA that hasn't done its job for so many years, the IPCC basically using the IEA numbers as possible inputs to the models.

    Plus even if using broad figures there is still a lot of coal for instance, in many case extracting this coal uses a lot of oil one way or another, or in economic terms, PO is enough to create a massive recession...

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    1. Yves, I think it is a complex relation of elements. I don't think it is correct to say that "PO can create a massive recession" - not more than saying that "A massive recession can create PO". As long as there is no massive recession, there won't be peak oil, And as long as there is no peak oil, recession will not be definitive (or massive). In other words, collaspse and peak oil go together - there is no easy cause-effect relationship

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  10. The current, almost fashionable, argument that there will be no 'peak' in production any time soon reminds me of "Zeno's Paradox". As you will remember Zeno's arguments were mostly about motion, trying to prove that motion doesn't exist, or change doesn't exist. The point is the way this is usually viewed from the modern perspective is that you have a limit value. As you approach the limit you can think of strategies so that your next iteration, jump, or action will, say, halve the distance. You will be taking an infinite number of jumps to reach your goal. This suggests motion is impossible, hence the paradox. In the context of oil exploration we see progressively more effort with radical and drastic technologies to maintain current production. We are increasing the effort and ingenuity as we approach the limit. It does not mean the limit has gone. Eventually there will come a point for any well/site where EROEI gives us 1 and the well is no longer viable for energy purposes. The additional effort is just like the multiple and more closely packed points in Zeno's argument which confused generations of thinkers until the invention of the Calculus explained it. We are now looking at a real world example.

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    1. There are some similarities to Jevons paradox: the proposition that technological progress that increases the efficiency with which a resource is used tends to increase (rather than decrease) the rate of consumption of that resource.

      If new technology enables the oil peak to be delayed, the tendency may be (probably would be) for oil use to increase... thereby reducing the delay to some extent.

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    2. Very good point, anonymous. It would deserve a post in itself. Would you feel like writing something on this matter?

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    3. Thank you. I'll consider writing more on this subject.

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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)