Can Peak Oil Save Us From Climate Change?

limitsgc2Off the keyboard of Ugo Bardi

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Published on Resource Crisis on October 8, 2015

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"Peak Oil will save us from Climate Change:" a meme that never went viral

The idea that peak oil will save us from climate change has been occasionally popping up in the debate, but it never really gained traction for a number of good reasons. One is that, in many cases, the proponents were also climate science deniers and that made them scarcely credible. Indeed, if climate change does not exist (or if it is not caused by human activities), then how is it that you are telling us that peak oil will save us from it? Add to this that many hard line climate science deniers are also peak oil deniers (since, as well known, both concepts are part of the great conspiracy), then, it is no surprise that the meme of "peak oil will save us" never went viral.

That doesn't mean that we shouldn't ask the question of whether we have sufficient amounts of fossil fuel to generate a truly disastrous climate change. The debate on this point goes back to the early 2000s. At the beginning, the data were uncertain and it was correctly noted that some of the IPCC scenarios overestimated what we are likely to burn in the future. But, by now, I think the fog has cleared.  It is becoming increasingly clear that fossil fuel depletion is not enough, by far, to save us from climate change.

Nevertheless, some people still cling to the old "peak oil will save us" meme. In a recent post on "Energy Matters", Roger Andrews argues that:

All of the oil and gas reserves plus about 20% of the coal reserves could be consumed without exceeding the IPCC’s trillion-tonne carbon emissions limit.

Now, that sounds reassuring and surely many people would understand it in the sense that we shouldn't worry at all about burning oil and gas. Unfortunately, that's just not true and Andrews' statement is both overoptimistic and misleading. One problem is that the "2 degrees limit" is a last ditch attempt to limit the damage created by climate change, but there is no certainty that staying beyond it will be enough to prevent disaster. Then, there is a problem with Andrew's use of the term "reserves," to be understood as "proven reserves". Proven reserves include only those resources that are known to exist and to be extractable at present; and that's surely much less than all what could be extracted in the future. The parameter that takes into account also probably existing resources is called "Ultimate Recoverable Resources" or URRs

So, let's consider a world fossil URR estimate that many people would consider as "pessimistic," the one by Jean Laherrere that I already discussed in a previous post. It turns out that we have enough oil and gas that, together, they can produce enough CO2 to reach the 2 degrees limit; even though, maybe, not more. There follows that, if we really wanted to burn all the oil and gas known to be extractable, to stay withing the limit we would need to stop all carbon burning; starting from tomorrow! Not an easy thing to do, considering that coal produces more than 40% of the energy that powers the world's electrical grid and, in some countries, much more than that. It is true that coal is the dirtiest of the three fossil fuels and must be phased out faster than oil and gas, but the consumption of all three must go down together, otherwise it will be impossible to remain under the limit.

In the end, we have here one more of the many illusions that surround the climate issue; one that could be dangerous it were to spread. However, in addition to the other problems described here, Andrew's post falls in the same trap of many previous attempts: it uses the data produced by climate science to try to demonstrate its main thesis, but only after having defined climate science as "Vodoo Science." No way: this is not a meme that will go viral.

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