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Why are climate scientists ignoring peak oil and coal?

Thursday 6 January 2011
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Climate scientists often make assumptions about large-scale growth in resource extraction without thoroughly referring to relevant studies in other disciplines. This is partially understandable given that they are not economists or political scientists. Yet I believe it is cause for concern.

Photo by Bert Kaufmann

While criticising the pervasive obsession with infinite growth of our political and economic institutions, it appears that many (albeit not all) climate scientists hold the belief that human ingenuity will somehow substitute declining oil with different forms of natural-gas, liquefied-coal, shale gas, and other carbon fuels at prices that can sustain growth.

For example, at the Cancun climate summit there was a paper by Professor Kevin Anderson that stated that “the only way to reduce global emissions enough, while allowing the poor nations to continue to grow, is to halt economic growth in the rich world over the next twenty years. There is compelling evidence that economic growth has already reached its global peak and that any strong return to growth (manifested by countries in the OECD or emerging economies such as China or India) will be met by a wall of triple-digit oil prices triggering another economic collapse. Continuing economic growth will also depend heavily on heavy fossil fuels, such as coal.

However, according to a study by Tadeusz W. Patzek and Gregory D. Croft, the world could also face peak coal in 2011, after which “the production rates of coal and CO2 decline, reaching 1990 levels by the year 2037″.

This estimate of the peak is early compared to other studies predicting peaks over the next few decades, but the report authors claim that this is because the world will seek to consume the highest-quality and most accessible coal first and leave the less energy-dense and least accessible coal to burn later (and most likely only for certain critical economic/military sectors).

The crucial point is that all our theoretically large supplies will not become economically viable because of a lower energy return on energy invested (or EROEI).  This will ultimately have repercussions for economic growth and affordable prices.

A piece written by Uppsala University physics professor Kjell Aleklett also criticizes the level of economic awareness of Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) scientists with respect to coal.

“Our conclusion is that the assumptions of coal use that the IPCC recommended that climate researchers refer to in calculating their future horror scenarios are completely unrealistic. The question is why at all these gigantic volumes of carbon dioxide emission are to be found among the possible scenarios. The IPCC bears a great responsibility for the fact that thousands of climate researchers around the world have dedicated years of research to calculating temperature increases for scenarios that are completely unrealistic.”

The question is, how much impact will coal have on CO2 given how dependent the global economy is on oil? Dave Cohen of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas writes concerning the projected “business as usual” (BAU) scenario in a world of peak oil:

“In all BAU scenarios, it is presumed that energy technology (coal-to-liquids, biofuels, electric cars, any or all of these) will seamlessly step up to replace oil as the need arises. This assumption is not yet proven, and it appears to be tragically unrealistic.”

Cohen also mentions how CO2 emissions fell in the United States as a response to the recession, and they also fell in many industrialized nations in 2008 (albeit global emissions rose slightly overall due to Chinese and Indian growth), but with a global fall being confirmed for 2009.

Importantly, any significant prospect of economic growth is likely to trigger another oil price-hike and another recession with its associated emissions declines. Obviously though, the emission declines are nowhere near enough to prevent growth in overall CO2 concentration in the atmosphere.

Growth misunderstandings

Looking at the predictions of climate scientists, we see certain assumptions about growth without factoring in the economic impacts that occurred as a result of the 2007-08 recession. For example, Climate Progress’s Joseph Romm reports that “[c]onsequently, and with tentative signs of global emissions returning to their earlier levels of growth, 2010 represents a political tipping point.”

It is hard to tell when such strong growth will occur once more. But what seems clear is that any strong increase in demand will quickly tell us that we are at the end of growth — particularly when we have a global derivatives debt that is almost 20 times the size of the world economy. These derivatives are basically a complex form of financial gambling and future risk-taking. They are part of our hugely problematic debt-based money system which seemingly insists on infinite growth; a perverse concept which violates the limits of our biosphere.

So, are most climate scientists aware that the world has likely hit the limits to industrial economic growth already? It seems that global warming scenarios are based around assumptions of continuing emissions growth facilitated by a world where political, monetary, and energy systems are not in a state of turmoil. Romm makes the following assumptions:

“We’re at about 30 billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions a year — and notwithstanding the global economic slowdown, probably poised to rise 2% per year (the exact future growth rate is quite hard to project because it depends so much on what China does and how quickly peak oil kicks in). We have to average below 18 billion tons (below 5 GtC) a year for the entire century if we’re going to stabilize at 450 ppm (see “ Nature publishes my climate analysis and solution“). We need to peak around 2015 to 2020 at the latest, then drop at least 60% by 2050 to at most 15 billion tons (4 billion tons of carbon), and then go to near zero net carbon emissions by 2100.”

We now know that the IEA has admitted that conventional crude reached its all-time peak in 2006. In their 2010 report they state the following:

“Crude oil output reaches an undulating plateau of around 68-69 mb/d [million barrels per day] by 2020, but never regains its all-time peak of 70 mb/d reached in 2006, while production of natural gas liquids (NGL) and unconventional oil grows quickly.”

A German think-tank also stated a few years ago that conventional crude oil peaked in 2006.  And, when considering “unconventional” liquid-fuels as a possible measure to alleviate the impact of the peak in conventional crude, it is important to realise that there is no real evidence to suggest that  these  alternatives (such as Canada’s tar sands) can fill the gap at prices that we can afford to burn.

Facing reality

Perhaps, it is worth highlighting here that speculative assumptions leave much room for error when it comes to mathematical modelling of a system that is highly dynamic and/or based on certain unknowns. Nevertheless, the current scientific predictions make it clear that we face a hostile climate in the coming decades. Many places are likely to become badly affected by higher temperatures with global average increases of between 2-2.8 degrees Celsius (assuming a rapid decline as depicted by the Hadley Centre).

However, the triggering of any climate feedback tipping points may depend on human economic activities that are helping to perpetuate these mechanisms; and these activities in turn are dependent on affordable oil prices in a global economy.

In the worst case, triple-digit oil prices and demand-destruction, political crises and wars, etc., will likely contract the GDP of industrial nations by a large amount. For example, a possible conflict with Iran could cause oil prices to soar rapidly. Also, the US Joint Forces Command 2010 report has warned that “surplus oil production capacity could entirely disappear” by 2012 as well as warning of potential energy-based conflicts. Unfortunately, these factors are not included in the climate change projections made by bodies like the IPCC.

In a world of peak oil and of escalating political volatility, the fears and worries expressed by climate change scientists (such as those at the recent Cancun summit) concerning catastrophic climate scenarios, are looking less justified. However, as discussed above, a rapid decline in CO2 output can still potentially lead to a 2.8ºC global average temperature increase by the end of this century. Although, one could argue that even this level of CO2 growth may not come to fruition if conflicts break out over energy resources in the next few decades. This could end up forcing governments to ration energy to be used only for bare essentials.

In order for any energy system in the future to work, there must be an end to the “just-in-time” market inventory system that makes us very vulnerable to shortages. (The just-in-time system is one in which the materials needed for the manufacture of a good are delivered to the factory just as they are needed. This reduces in-process inventory and carrying costs, freeing up cash for other purposes.)

Better still, instead of waiting around for governments and businesses to move beyond their growth-fetishes, people can consider getting involved in the Transition movement as a way of empowering themselves in a world where large-scale economies can no longer operate.

This Article was written by Hossein Turner and originally published by Our World 2.0 web magazine from the United Nations University.

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Comments (12)Add Comment
January 07, 2011
Votes: -1

Mr Kaufmann is ignoring that total emissions have currently risen during the past year and just because the developed countries cut back doesn't mean the others will also do so. The world is changing...fast. The economic "recovery" is no longer being lead by the US (even with its trillions of stimulus paper money), but by China and the other BRICS. Dr. James Hansen has already calculated the carbon level increases if we burn the known reserves of fossil fuels...and it's not good. Remember, cutting back year from year is not very important but the total aggregate of carbon emissions! Eventually, and very soon, we will have to stop adding carbon to the natural cycle. The lead time is very short (maybe less that 50 years!) When folks get desperate they are going to burn ANYTHING (especially if it keeps them warm!) it's what economists call the discount rate.
Well, saying that is all well and good, finding a solution (the human race just added another BILLION in the last decade alone!)
is another matter.

Yvan Dutil
January 07, 2011
Votes: -1

Peak coal and peak oil do have some importance in the climate change analysis, but not as much as you can think. First, there is still much more coal and oil to pass over the 2C mark.

In addition, the change nothing to the action to be taken. In both case, oil and coal prices will climb potentially hurting the economy. However, if climate change protection policy had been taken sooner, the economic damage are likely to have been smaller.

I had once this discussion with an economist. He told me that while peak oil and peak coal might sign the end of our civilization, this would be only an epiphenomena. However, species extinction takes millions years to recover.

January 07, 2011
Votes: +0

It`s called "critical mass" people. Any number that grows "exponentially" inevitably reaches "critical mass". We reached that in the mid 70`s when the "avalanche" began. Difference though is that we`re NOT numbers, we`re PEOPLE. And we have a CHOICE to multiply.
CHOOSE more wisely is all.

January 07, 2011
Votes: +0

Once conventional easy to get at oil peaks, its all downhill. I've been preparing my family for Peak Oil for several years now and attached a helpful video to show people what they can do to prepare...



Meme Mine
January 07, 2011
Votes: +0

As a former climate change believer, may I personally apologize for condemning billions of children to death by CO2 for 25 years, “just” to get them to turn the lights out more often? I had become the fear mongering neocon of CO2 environMENTALism as I issued CO2 death warrants to YOUR family and mine. I apologize for calling cold -warm, warm -hot and for calling all bad weather -Humanity’s fault. I apologize for splitting responsible environmentalism and dragging progressivism down with it. I apologize for trying to control climates of a planet instead striving to achieve the needed population control. I apologize for our constant demonizing, fear mongering, our utter hate for humanity and our whacko exaggerations of climate change. I apologize for not admitting that Climate Change was the END OF THE WORLD, as in “unstoppable warming” and “out of control warming and “runaway warming“. I’m sorry I forgot this MOST important fact: that it was the trusted scientists and their evil chemicals that made environmentalism necessary in the first place. We admit to being pretend rebels as we were spoon-fed by corporations and politicians promising to lower the seas. The neocons have never admitted their Iraq War WMD’s. I admit my ideology’s WMD’s that led us to another Bush-like false war against a false enemy. Please forgive me?

January 08, 2011
Votes: +0

"the fears and worries expressed by climate change scientists... concerning catastrophic climate scenarios, are looking less justified."

This shows, as I have pointed out to Kjell, Euan Mearns, Rutledge and others a number of times, a severely deficient understanding of climate, particularly rapid climate changes and fast feedbacks, and astonishingly poor risk assessment.

The assumptions we now hold about climate are obviously and starkly UNDERestimating the impact and sensitivity of climate forcings. Virtually every measure of climate change is accelerating and/or decades and even centuries ahead of schedule. Obviously, relying on IPCC IV is not only unjustified, but exhibits a bias because the science has massively advanced since 2005 and earlier, which is the time frame of the *science* in that paper, which is, after all, nothing but a literature review rather than a scientific study.

If we are seeing the effects at 390 ppm CO2 and below that we didn't expect until we were far beyond 400 ppm, we obviously and badly are understating the change that comes with GHG forcings. This is essentially proof positive of the need to return to 350 ppm or lower, yet, you and they are advocating for 450, 550 or more by suggesting fossil fuels are not a serious concern. This literally begs credulity.

In order to make an argument for their positions, Aleklett, et al., must pretend all the research since 2005 simply doesn't exist, which is what advocates and colleagues on his web site have done. They literally state one cannot consider anything but the IPCC reports in policy-making. This is intentionally myopic. These people cannot fail to understand that the IPCC process does not evaluate the validity of any given research paper, but merely collates them and comes up with averages for various possible scenarios. To ignore the science itself is not just evidence of, but proof of, magical thinking. It is no different than refusing, say, to believe there is no Santa unless your own father or mother tell you so. The logical fact that there are no flying reindeer and it's impossible for one man, regardless of means of travel, to visit every home on the planet in a mere 12 hours, all the while pausing to eat milk and cookies in every home. This is the logical fallacy of Appeal to Authority.

Despite the fact no ice dynamics, no methane seeps, and a number of other lines of evidence aren't even included in the IPCC IV report is completely ignored because these men have a bizarre attachment to Peak Oil that prevents them from due diligence and proper analysis. How they justify anything other than fully considering climate AND peak energy is beyond my comprehension. These are not stupid men, after all; they are not cranks like Monckton or Watts. But, they are completely biased in their reasoning.

Some simple facts:

Methane - @ .8 ppb pre-indusrial, @1.8 ppb now. Very large seeps found throughout the Arctic permafrost and sub-sea clathrates, particularly the Siberian continental shelf. Centuries ahead of schedule.

Sea Ice and land ice - virtually all old sea ice gone in Arctic, net melting in Greenland and Antarctica. Both of the latter are a century or more ahead of schedule. 90% of glaciers melting, decades ahead of schedule.

Warming - unprecedented for at least 100,000 years; CO2 levels unprecedented for millions of years.

Greenland melt - recent findings indicate Greenland has been ice free at CO2 levels as low as 400 ppm. We are at 390 ppm now with melt along the entire southern and western coast lines, and even into the northern coast, of Greenland.

It is supremely obvious ANY additional CO2e is not just ill-advised, but supremely dangerous, and this is an obvious conclusion. When we add in the residence time of CO2 being centuries.

Essentially, these people are ignoring reality because they are wedded to a concept. They fail to understand that these concepts, PO and AGW, must be considered together, not in isolation and they can do this because they either don't understand tipping points and rapid climate changes or they are ignoring the evidence.

It is important that learned men gather their wits and deal in reality, for people listen to them even as they engage in obviously and massively flawed analysis.

IF RAPID CHANGE TRUE, DO SOMETHING: Limit effects, disaster less likely, but not erased


IF RAPID CHANGE FALSE, DO SOMETHING: Ecological services and energy preserved for future generations

IF RAPID CHANGE FALSE, DO NOTHING: Ecological services still depleted, crash still occurs due to overshoot.

This is a no-brainer and the head-in-the-sand approach of both denialists and PO activists who minimize the concerns about AGW is potentially fatal to civilization. We buy home insurance, life insurance, limit traffic speeds, ban products, etc., etc., etc. on far lower risk thresholds.

January 08, 2011
Votes: +0

You ask the question why are climate scientists ignoring peak oil and coal. Simple, really, their grant gravy train is at serious risk. Perhaps those attending Cancun were unaware that Cancun experienced record low temperatures during the conference.
Yes, I know posters will jump all over me but its nice to know that those skeptical of the ridiculous claims of climate catastrophists are now in the ascendency.

January 08, 2011
Votes: +0

Climate scientists don not make assumptions about large scale economic growth, they make predictions of greenhouse gas production. Your premise is flawed and your bias is transparent.

Hossein Turner
January 09, 2011
Votes: +1

It is quite clear that the world has hit Peak growth already. This is something that climate scientists are not really understanding properly. They also seem to misunderstand the fact that it doesn't matter how much oil and coal remains beneath the ground. If it takes MORE energy to get out, than you get from burning - then it's a total waste of time. That applies for remaining coal reserves, oil shale, deep-ocean, tar-sands, etc. And burning these things to "keep warm" or "cook food" is not the sort of usage that has sent this world into crisis. It is the burning of these things for industrial profit, manufacturing, etc that has been the driver.

We now have no choice at all - but to change our economic system to one based on a steady-state, non-debt paradigm. We are facing a potential mass-default on the debt in every nation-state up to its heels in toxic derivatives. The collateral on the debt no longer exists in a world where oil has peaked and can no longer meet growing demand. No amount of fossil-fuels remaining on this planet - can replace the current global economic edifice that has been created by oil. Contraction is inevitable, and that threatens very dangerous geopolitical consequences.

We have no choice but to act now. The "end of growth" reality is easier to articulate to people than the more complex issue of anthropogenic global warming.

Hossein Turner
January 10, 2011
Votes: +1

Killian says:-

"It is supremely obvious ANY additional CO2e is not just ill-advised, but supremely dangerous, and this is an obvious conclusion."

That may be your opinion; but you clearly haven't read the whole article carefully. I quoted a piece from Climate Progress about what will be needed to stabilize at 450ppm CO2. I also stated a claim from Kevin Anderson about ending all growth in the industrialised world in the next 20 years. I also stated that the world has ALREADY hit peak growth. That is a fact.

Honestly, some of the myopic claims of some climate scientists really are irritating. You clearly misunderstand the macro-economic and energy picture - and that is for the Peak Oil people to educate you.

Hossein Turner
January 11, 2011
Votes: +0

James Hansen also published a paper titled "Implications of “peak oil” for atmospheric CO2 and climate". In it he stated the following:-

"We suggest that, if estimates of oil and gas reserves by the Energy Information Administration are realistic, it is feasible to keep atmospheric CO2 from exceeding approximately 450 ppm, provided that future exploitation of the vast reservoirs of coal and unconventional fossil fuels incorporates carbon capture and sequestration."

As my article points out. Unconventionals are not going to fuel the global economy at prices we can afford to burn. Combine this with peak debt and political instability and we have inevitability of collapse on our hands. The labour unions, scientists and all other pressure groups need to join the Transition Towns movement as a matter of global security in these treacharous times.

Shodo Spring
January 31, 2011
Votes: +0

People are quoting old research. It has been many years since Jim Hansen lowered his recommendation from 450 to 350. I don't know what else is wrong here, but I suspect we have trolls. Too bad.

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