Sunday, May 1, 2011

The ghost of ASPO-9: climate change

ASPO, the association for the study of peak oil and gas, has been around for more than ten years by now; from when it was conceived first by Colin Campbell, at a conference in Germany in 2000. In these years, ASPO has grown from a small group of petroleum geologists to a remarkable association of people with diverse backgrounds and impressive scientific credentials. Now, the 9th ASPO conference in Brussels is over. Jointly organized by ASPO-Belgium and ASPO-Netherlands, the conference had high level speakers, interesting talks and an active and participating audience.

And, yet, a ghost was hovering above the conference: the ghost of climate change.

Not that the issue was not discussed. The organizers did a good job in giving a prominent place in the program to Jean-Pascal van Ypersele, vice-chair of IPCC. The first morning of the conference he gave a good presentation of what we know today about climate change. But the IPCC vision is not the same as that of ASPO and the contrast flared during the panel discussion, when Kjell Aleklett, president of ASPO, accused van Ypersele and IPCC of following a "business as usual" approach. Having neglected peak oil (and peak fuels) in their scenarios, Aleklett said, the IPCC was presenting unrealistic and excessively pessimistic predictions of global warming.

Aleklett was not wrong in raising this issue and he has the merit of having being one of the first to have raised it. However, the problem is much deeper than a simplistic view that says that peak fuels will save us from global warming, as Aleklett seems to imply in some of his statements. It may well be that several of the IPCC scenarios are biased in this sense, but the IPCC correctly produces a "fan" of scenarios that take into account a variety of possibilities. Trusting specific projections for the future based on "peak fuels" scenarios in order to downplay the IPCC warnings is a dangerous game.  Indeed, the studies on this subject (see a short review of mine) indicate that, even taking into account an "ASPO-like" view of fuels availability, we can still get dangerously close to the threshold of "irreversible climate change." Climate models can't determine with certainty where the threshold is, but it may well be much too close for comfort; even with peak oil approaching. IPCC may, in fact, be excessively conservative in estimating the effect of positive climate feedbacks resulting, for instance, from methane release from permafrost.

Climate change and peak oil are not two separate issues: one is the mirror of the other. They are two major forcings affecting the ecosystem's balance and are bound to interact with each other in ways that are difficult to predict. It may well be that peak oil will slow down CO2 emissions and, at the same time, global warming will negatively affect the economy, further slowing down the consumption of fossil fuels. These two effects combined would help reducing the threat of irreversible climate change. But their interaction may be more complex and lead to the opposite effect. For instance, Euan Mearns noted at the conference that even energy efficiency, an apparently benign action designed to solve the peak oil problem, may actually worsen the situation by freeing resources that people may use to extract more fossil fuels. And, of course, the economic system may well turn to dirty and inefficiently fuels in order to compensate for the decline of oil production.

This problem appeared in full clarity with the talk by Darren Bezdek co-author with Robert Hirsch of a study on the mitigation of peak oil. In the world of Bezdek and Hirsch, there is no other solution to the threat of peak oil than stepping up the production of liquid fuels by methods such as coal to liquids, gas to liquids, tar sands, and the like. It is a good example of  "linear thinking" (as opposed to "dynamic" or "system thinking") that sees a problem and its solution in isolation, without considering the overall system. In this case, the switch to dirty fuels advocated by Bedzek would lead to a major increase in the emissions of greenhouse gases with unforeseeable (but most likely horrible) effects on climate. Hopefully, such a scenario may never unfold, but the fact that it is seriously proposed is worrisome. The audience at ASPO-9 seemed to be worried as well. The talk by Bezdek was strongly challenged in the debate and the most negative comments received open applause from the audience.

In the end, it may be the "peak oil approach" that can be accused of being "BAU." After all, if the IPCC scenarios do not include peak oil, it is also true that most peak oil scenarios do not include climate change. Indeed, in most of the talks on peak oil heard at ASPO-9 the climate issue was never mentioned.

Is there something wrong with ASPO that this fundamental issue remained a ghost; sometimes seen, but most of the time hidden? Probably not; it is just an objective difficulty of coping with the enormously complex problem of the human influence on the ecosystem. We all tend to specialize in something - it is the normal destiny of a professional. Then, when it is the moment of understanding the behavior of a system where multiple effects interact with each other in a cascade of feedbacks, it is difficult to see the limits of our vision. So, it is normal that peak oil specialists have troubles in including climate change in their views - just as it is normal that climate scientists often tend to downplay the role of peak oil in their scenarios.

At the end of the conference, the problems we face were well summarized by Philippe Lambert, green member of the EU parliament, who listed a series of dire problems that we are facing: not only peak oil and climate change, but also water supply, overpopulation and biodiversity (and he didn't mention nuclear weapons). None of these problems can be solved in isolation - concentrating on a single one may well worsen one or more of the others - as when proposing to replace oil with dirty, high emissions fuels.

So, we are facing big problems and often we just don't have the right frame of mind to see the right solutions. We'll see what happens, but the chances that we'll take the right approach to sustainability are not so good. In any case, remember that we can live without oil; our ancestors lived without it for thousands of years. But our ancestors never lived in a world 2 degrees hotter than it is now. And, surely, we could not survive in a world 6 degrees hotter. Perhaps peak oil will save us from that extreme outcome, but we cannot take that for granted. .


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)