Why Climate Activists Welcome Peak Oil

by Richard Heinberg

[Originally written for The Ecologist]

Climate Change is the worst environmental crisis ever. It is a problem of fossil fuel dependency, and solving it requires reducing that dependency quickly and dramatically.

But from a policy standpoint, Climate Change is hard to address. Because the worst of its impacts may come decades from now, its solution is framed as a moral imperative: we should reduce fossil fuels for the environment and future generations. Many policy makers genuinely want to do the right thing, but when a choice arises between climate protection and economic growth, growth wins nearly every time. Because 85 percent of world energy comes from fossil fuels, it is hard to find a way to quickly end their use without a severe reduction in available energy, and a resulting contraction of the economy. Any politician campaigning for economic contraction faces a tough battle.

The peaking in production rates of oil, coal, and natural gas presents a different problem. Again, it is one of fossil fuel dependency; but in this case, instead of a sink (or pollution) dilemma, it is one of source (or scarcity). Fossil fuels are finite. Depletion ensures that the rate of extraction of these substances will soon start to decline, wreaking havoc on industrial economies, perhaps leading to societal collapse.

Will peak oil solve the climate problem? No! It is true that most models of future carbon emissions overestimate the fossil fuels that can be extracted in coming decades. Indeed, peaking studies suggest that depletion will hold carbon emissions to a level such that atmospheric CO2 concentrations won’t significantly exceed 450 parts per million—the target often mentioned by IPCC. However, recent climate research shows that climate sensitivity has been underestimated, so our target should be 350 ppm—a level surpassed decades ago. This means that, if we are to avert climate catastrophe, we must reduce fossil fuel use more quickly than depletion alone can effect.

Will addressing Climate Change mitigate the impact of Peak Oil? Not unless extremely stringent emissions policies reduce consumption rates ahead of depletion. But, as noted, such policies are a tough sell on the basis of moral argument alone.

Depletion adds more economic weight to the necessity of addressing Climate Change. Consider future supply scenarios for coal: if, as studies indicate, world coal production will start falling within two decades, this means coal will soon become much more expensive. New coal power plants thus become a bad bet for purely financial reasons. And renewable energy sources and conservation start to look much more attractive.

Peak oil kicks the discussion into overdrive. Petroleum prices are already soaring, creating crises for the trucking, airline, and automobile industries, and contributing to rapidly rising food costs. These impacts rivet the attention of policy makers. Reducing oil dependency is increasingly seen as a matter of economic survival.

Taken together, Climate Change and oil/coal/gas depletion form an airtight argument for rapidly weaning society from fossil fuels. Maintaining dependency on these fuels is not an option; our only choice is whether to reduce it proactively and intelligently, or let dire events drive reactive policies.

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