The Gruesome Twosome
So, what will happen when the oil runs out? Well, apart from civilization as we know it being a thing of the past, the most important impact will be upon that other harbinger of destruction – climate change.
Oil and climate change?
Well, the extra heat and Carbon Dioxide that’s gunking up our atmosphere with a Green House effect had to come from somewhere. And if that somewhere is anything to do with humans (which seems likely though unproven) then burning carbon fossil fuel (oil) seems a safe bet.
Two key data snippets to keep in mind about oil and global warming are these:
- The global supply of oil is presently limited to approximately 85 million barrels per day. The capability to pump more than that does not exist.
- The “safe” upper limit on CO2 in the atmosphere is reckoned to be about 450 parts per million (ppm). Above that the climate could become irreversibly unstable.
We’ll revisit these factoids in a bit, but for now also remember this.
We cannot keep burning oil at the rate we have been. Not because it’s ecologically unsound or too expensive, but because it is not physically possible.
The supply is barely capable of meeting present demand, and is set to actually decrease in the very near future. There is quite simply not the oil to burn even if we wanted to.
What effect will this have?
Well, of course oil never will run out as such. But for practical (and worryingly immediate) purposes, we have to accept that our days of relatively cheap and accessible fuel are seriously numbered.
The theory of Peak Oil is widely accepted and predicts the point at which global production of oil will reach a peak i.e. when half of the world’s viably recoverable oil has already been used up.
The peak will be followed by a rapid and irreversible decline in the supply of oil. Our present rate of consumption guarantees that we will burn through the remaining 50% considerably faster than we got through the first 50%.
Needless to say, there is some debate about the exact timing for the peak with some estimates claiming we passed the peak in 2005 and others pushing it out beyond 2010. It depends who you ask and which country you focus on.
But to be blunt, this is not a matter of “if”, it’s a question of “when” and the answer appears to be, umm, around about right now.
The effects on the world in financial, military and social terms are likely to be profound. One might even argue that global warming is largely irrelevant since we ain’t gonna make it that far once the oil is gone. It’s not an entirely flippant suggestion.
There are many plausible scenarios for an oil restricted world (most of them rather disagreeable) but this article is focused on just the possible consequences for the climate.
Some boring but important facts
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Special Report on Emissions Scenario predicts that continuing with business as usual (BAU) will result in best and worst cases for CO2 at 500 ppm and 900 ppm which is grim indeed (remember our point-of-no-return limit of 450 ppm).
However, a more recent report by James Hansen, a professor at Columbia University, suggests the following instead:
|Scenario||Peak Oil Year||Peak CO2||Peak CO2 Year|
|Coal Phase Out||2022||440 ppm||2050|
|Late Peak||2037||460 ppm||2050|
|Realistic Peak||2010||425 ppm||2040|
Hansen’s BAU scenario has all resources peaking as follow: 2077 for coal, 2026 for gas and 2016 for oil and also produces a peak CO2 well in excess of the safe limit.
The 2nd scenario assumes measures to actively phase out coal (the worst fuel by far in terms of CO2 emissions).
Scenario 3 pushes Peak Oil out to 2037 (technology constantly improves our ability to continue extracting oil at peak flow rates from reserves that are in fact past their peak). However, the price to pay here is that the oil supply will crash dramatically after this.
The final scenario brings Peak Oil back to 2010, which many would consider to be the more realistic date.
What does that mean precisely?
It should be obvious from this that running out of oil (coal and gas) is good news where the climate is concerned (though a less thrilling prospect for modern life as we know it).
This is hardly surprising. If burning fossil fuels is causing build up of CO2 in the atmosphere then having rather less to burn is certainly going to help control or reduce CO2 levels.
But most emissions scenarios (such as IPCC studies that influence world policy on global warming) have thus far failed to account for whether the oil will even be there to burn.
Climate prediction models that assume mankind will continue consuming energy in the manner to which it has become accustomed are totally unrealistic because the fact is we are running out of fuel – fast.
That many global warming campaigners choose not to discuss (or even acknowledge) the imminent peak in oil and other fossil fuels is, to put it mildly, curious.
So the climate will be saved after all?
We need to explore alternatives to fossil fuel not just for environmental reasons, but for straightforward economic ones. Though of course not everyone knows how to fit a wood burning stove let alone how to reap the benefits from this kind of microgeneration initiative.
But we should nevertheless be far from complacent about the environmental dangers remaining even in the face of an imminent energy crunch.
There is thought to still be enough fossil carbon fuel left in the ground to take us up to (or even beyond) the 450 ppm of CO2 that climatologists constantly fret about.
It is vital that we, and that means all us, both developed and developing countries, start to phase out coal (which can take us right over the edge all by itself) with immediate effect.
It is reasonable to expect that as the oil runs dry so will the associated CO2 pollution. What is less clear is whether, when that happens, it might already be too late.
We could then be left facing the double whammy to end all double whammies (and our world with it). No energy and a hostile climate.