Thursday, October 8, 2015

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

Image from "Peaksurfer"

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 burning coal - zero burning, zilch -  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 into 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.


  1. Ugo
    I tried combining Laherrere oil with Aleklett coal and NG and at the most optimistic figures added up to CO2 at double pre-ndustrial levels probably by 2100. When we get Peak Temperature after that is not easy to calculate but it would seem higher than the "2 degC".

    I would like to see Climate Science attempting more credible scenarios for emissions than many of the ones they have used, but the hanges our grandchildren are going to face will be massive.
    If Hansen is correct we could see massive early melting this century. Just as an example I can see Britain defending London for the first one metre sea rise, but losing it after that, possibly in the lifetime of our youngest grandchild!


    1. i thought it was common knowledge in the climate change blogs that the BAU scenario of the last IPCC report (ie the one we are on) suggests we are on target for a 4c rise by 2060, and 6c by 2100.

      the only way they could fiddle less warming out of the data is by factoring in impossible geo engineering.

      2.5c is pretty much already in the bag NOW if lag and global dimming are factored in. this rise will happen even if industrial civilization collapses tomorrow. another 20 or 30 years of probably rising car and power station emissions will give us 4c. and 4c leads to 6c as positive feedbacks like methane will be kicking in hard from the 2c to 4c rise. i don't suppose the rise will be trivial, linear or stop at 6c.

      everything seems to be playing out worse than predicted.

  2. Ugo,

    I have to admit I've rather given up on Euan's blog when it comes to his climate change analysis, it's very poor in general and sometimes feels rather dishonest. It's almost a mirror of Anthony Watt's site, at times. Regarding burnable carbon, I think the recent paper of McGlade et al ( ) settles the argument quite squarely on the side of "we have easily enough carbon to cook ourselves", and that is not even counting the methane hydrates that the Japanese are trying to hard to commercialise and all the carbon released from the forests that we are burning. McGlade did a very thorough analysis, and in fact did his PhD on peak oil. He has a very interesting talk on it, which you may enjoy:

    It is probably also worth noting that the hubbert linearisation technique favoured by Laherrere often tends to give very pessimistic dates of peak, so while that's good from a peak oil view, it's bad from a climate change view! What worries me is that we might yet see a peak in oil production within the next decade or two (or at least much more volatility in price), and if it does come at this time then just when climate change is likely to really start moving into gear is just when we'll be running into whatever peak oil ends up looking like.

  3. I tend to make two hopeful assumptions regarding peak oil and climate change:

    1. On the downslope of oil production after the peak, whether Seneca cliff steep or Hubbert curve steep, the global market economy will enter a state of generally continuous recession.

    2. Continuous recession will cause massive financial crises, which will exacerbate economic contraction, likely to the point of supply chain collapse (see David Korowicz's work), which will then greatly diminish all economic activity, including fossil fuel extraction.

    If my assumptions are correct, much of the fossil fuel URR will remain in the ground, not because it will be physically unavailable, but because it will be economically unavailable.

    In the interest of a livable world for future generations, let's hope peak oil comes sooner, rather than later.

  4. I really like the "pregnant with meaning" circle/pie diagram at the top of the post with its two crossing arrows and its very nice four colored slices of the pie. Let me provide a "colorful" interpretation of it : We are obviously heading for the red slice where both climate change increases and peak oil too "increases" / remaining oil decreases. Since its definitely a flashing or solid "red light" scenario. Instead the green slice maybe represents a wishful thinking "green world" which would be nice but won't happen. We can therefore drive straight through the green light though if too many folks keep driving merrily the light surely will turn yellow and soon red. So the green light is to be taken with a grain of salt but NOT from ten kilometers under the Brazilian off shore oil reserves. (Petrobras take note) The blue slice instead could perhaps happen if lots of renewables started being used. Maybe the color blue represents wind energy or solar energy which comes from the clear blue sky? Finally the upper left hand quadrant or slice is very appropriately "coal or soot brown" since for it to happen lots of coal would have to be burned instead of oil. Naturally best of all would be if the two arrows could simply be inverted to point from top to bottom (for climate change) and from right to left (for oil). In this very happy scenario over time we would have more and more oil and less and less climate change. And four new colours with even more colorful scenarios would start to arise. After roughly thirty years deniers of all colours, peak oilers of all stripes, soft touch and hard touch climate change activists and mainstream and alternative media journalists and respective bloggers, trolls and etc etc could all live happily ever after as one big happy family in ALICE IN WONDERLAND. Could someone please just switch the arrows around and thereby welcome in the mad hatter, the rabbit hole and etc. etc. ?

  5. Some questions concerning the climate crisis.

    Carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere has changed a lot during the evolution of life. In fact we live in a low carbon era. Carbon is lost through sedimentation and freed by volcanoes. It seems like the volcanic activity is less today than earlier on. Maybe we are doing life a great service by returning coal to the cycle of life? Why is these carbon dioxide levels a problem now and not before, or was it a problem before? Look at some of these diagrams:

    Maybe the problem is that we release carbon to quick to the atmosphere. Most of the carbon dioxide released will in the long run get absorbed by the oceans from what I have understood. The steady state equilibrium seems to be 1 carbon atom in the atmosphere for each 50 of them in the ocean. The Bern model used by IPCC to model the coal cycle does not comply with this steady state equlibrium of coal. Shouldn't this be considerad as necessary of a model of the coal cycle? The effect is that you get an exagerated duration of coal in the atmosphere which as a result exagerate the greenhouse effect of carbon dioxide.

    These pieces are lacking in my climate puzzle. It would be great to find them. Maybe Ugo Bardi or some reader know a good answer?

    Finally, Gail Tverberg has another view than Ugos. She calls the problem an affordability crisis and it will hit before peak oil. This will save the climate. Unfortunately it will cause our modern society to collapse through the collapse of the financial system. What do you think of this?

    1. christopher, you are ignoring what the sun was doing many millions of years ago. i think i read somewhere (maybe this blog) the sun was a lot cooler 150 million years ago, as it is warming over time as is usual for stars. eventually, in a billion years or so, it will be too hot on earth for life, in spite of carbon dioxide driven greenhouse effect going down to compensate (more sedimentation at higher temps). but even if this wasnt true, earths current biosphere has been finely honed and adapted over many millions of years for the specific c02 levels of pre industrial times, so elevating it rapidly will only do bad things, certainly cause a mass extinction to some degree, maybe even as bad as the permian one. but in the long term, life of course, will adapt to the higher levels but we will all be long gone by then. im not talking just humans, i mean maybe all mammals, birds, reptiles, fish etc will go, ie large things at top of food chain that are most vulnerable to collapse of food chains.

      so i dont think we are doing 'a favour' to life, as it seems to have been doing pretty well before our meddling. there are probably as many species on the planet today as there has ever been. not for much longer, i guess.

    2. By a favor to life I meant that if CO2 levels continue to decline life will in the end be meager. We need some CO2 in the atmosphere. If volcanic activcity frees CO2 slower than sedimentation trapps CO2 life will have problem in the long run. Mankind replaces volcanic activity. After the permian era of low levels of CO2 strong vulcanic activity increased the level. Of course mankind is faster than vulcans. Evolution may have a problem to work this fast.

      Furthermore, as I have understood most of the CO2 will end up in the oceans. 50 to one of the CO2 molecules we release will be swallowed by the ocean. The question is how long time it will take to reach steady state?

    3. Gentlemen, excuse me, but the comments of a blog are not the place to learn climate science. It is a complex matter, a full fledged science, and it has to be taken with a certain level of respect. Otherwise, the discussion may easily degenerate; and it usually does. So, I suggest to Christopher to do his homework better;There are plenty of ways to learn climate science on the Web, or there are good textbooks. But comments are generally no good for this purpose

    4. Sorry, I didn't mean to show any disrespect. These are the just two questions I have been thinking on for a long time and never found an answer on. I have been looking for the right expert to show up. I admit they are complex. I thought that maybe Ugo would know the answer concerning the question about the Bern model. That kind of model is after all related to the models you use in physical chemistry, that is ode's describing quantities of an element. To me the Bern model looks wrong when considering the steady state condition. But I admit I am not a climate scientist. I'll try to do my homework elsewhere then.

  6. I would say that the future has never been more upredictable as it is today. From a systems theorie point of view, as more an more parameters in the system behave unelastic (i.e. oil), the more uncalculable the system behaves. This is what he "limits to growth studies" of the club of rome from 1972 till 2012 show.

    Consequently in "2052" Jorgen Randers dismisses his own models because of this chaotic behaviour. Instead he very much argues from a "political" standpoint. He says we will still not stop burning fossile fuels, because "short termism" will dominate our actions. "Short Termism" really is "Capitalism" by another word, and it will destroy our climate.

    Though unwillingly, I am inclined to mostly agree to Randers. But I still see a slim chance that peak oil could lead to a collapse of the industrial western financial system, economic system and political system. There is a chance that capitalism ends soon enough for us to escape runaway global warming. If this is god or bad might be hard to answer.

    I would like to cite IIER, a suiss postfossile thinktank:
    "IIER research suggests that all de-growth approaches will not be successful at an aggregate societal level, at least not before reality enforces de-growth when economic expansion is no longer possible."
    "The ultimate consequence IIER derives from these findings is that we humans - for well established reasons - will not adjust our behavior at a societal aggregate level before we are forced to do so. We may find this tragic or regrettable, but ignoring this reality might drive us to incorrect conclusions. While we wish it would be different, we have come to the understanding that we should look at a future where largely unchanged societies run into resource constraints, because this is far more likely than any other more benign scenario involving deliberate changes before resource or financial market limits inhibit further expansion."

    1. "Short Termism" really is "Capitalism" by another word,.." What about the USSR? They were none to friendly on the environment either. In fact I would argue they were worse than us, since environmentalism could never slow the machine down, because it was not tolerated. What do you call the Chinese? Free Market Communism? This is not the first time they have trashed their lands from overshoot either, only the scale is different. We are biologically programmed for "Short Termism" and our only hope ever was reason, but it seems that the older limbic system has won out over the neocortex. I'm no fan of capitalism and especially not the neo liberal criminal racket version, but it is a manifestation of our inherent Short Termism, not the cause. There is nothing new under the sun with our behaviours. As our technology and numbers have increased so has the speed and scale of the destruction. Were no different than our paleolithic ancestors - just more efficient.

      Humans responsible for demise of gigantic ancient mammals
      Early humans were the dominant cause of the extinction of a variety of species of giant beasts, new research has revealed.

    2. Climate Change really came up during the Reagean / Thatcher era, so i dont see how former "socialist" systems play any role in the discussion about how societies handle it. Clearly though, western capitalism, especially the Reagan / Thatcher kind, does the worst possible job of handling the climate crisis.

  7. Chris
    I am not sure what you are asking.

    Roughly the last million years when the continents have been positioned pretty well as they are today there has been an oscillation in ocean depth concomitant with increased / decreased ice at higher latitudes. The difference between high and low sea level during oscillation is about 120 metres. Concomitant atmospheric CO2 and CH4 concentrations have oscillated similarly, and dramatically, but within constrained limits. The graphs from Hansen are quoted and referenced in a piece I did for Ugo's blog a while ago. Industrial era changes in atmospheric CO2 and CH4 are 'off the graph' – see my ‘personal insight 3’ -.

    Ugo did a useful job IMO in explaining the geological history and chemistry of the carbon cycle over 10s and 100s of million years which also witnessed large changes in continent configuration and sometimes catastrophic near-death events for life itself as well as mass extinctions.

    Hope this helps.
    (Apologies to Ugo for my jumping in and quoting him, but I have already recommended his piece to many people.)

  8. I entertained the notion that peak oil would prevent climate change from running away some years ago but the significant fact is that I only 'entertained' the idea and did not reach any firm belief that it was true or false. I held my suspicion in abeyance waiting for more info. At some point I came across some information that indicated burning coal is able to generate a six degree temperature rise all by itself. The amount of C02 bound up in coal far exceeds that of oil.

    Thinking that peak oil will prevent catastrophic climate change is an example of wishful thinking that considers the oil/climate situation in isolation of other significant considerations for the feel good emotional pay-off. I don't think it is a particular dangerous meme because a person who is interested in resource depletion / overpopulation issues on their own is not going to get stuck on the thought and will only be driven to find more info. A person who embraces the meme is already an idiot with an agenda and was a lost cause to begin with.

    I know someone who is not into science at all who said to me just last week that if we don't get a frost where we live by Halloween then 'something is up'. We have both lived in the Pacific Northwest for most of our lives and I think his horse sense comment is actually rather well considered. Currently it is about five to ten degrees warmer than it should be for this time of year and I sense this will be another year without snow. Thirty years ago a couple of feet of snow a year was normal here.

    The Arctic is farting out methane in large quantities that could result in some serious doom. Currently my web page links to an article that shows a large crater that appears to have been caused by an explosive methane release, perhaps a Hiroshima bomb's worth of global warming all by itself. Peak Oil by itself may be able to trigger a thermal runaway situation where Arctic methane release triggered by Peak Oil warms the Earth enough so that all Arctic methane is released and then Peak Oil will indeed be responsible for catastrophic climate change.

    With the size of the human population as it now is, with half of all forests now gone, with oceans now depleted of fish, any climate change is serious because at the limit of growth there is no wiggle room. Any change will mean famine somewhere on the planet and with methane bubbling in the north there may soon be much toil and trouble.

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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)