Monday, November 7, 2011

ASPO-Italy 5: beyond peak oil

Toufic El Asmar, researcher at FAO and vice-president of ASPO-Italia, speaks at the 5th meeting of the association in Florence. Climate change and agriculture featured prominently in the discussion. 

Peak oil is behind us. That much seems to be clear from what was said at the 5th meeting of the Italian section of the Association for the study of peak oil (ASPO) held on Oct 28 in Florence, Italy. Already in the first talk of the meeting; the one given by Ian Johnson, secretary general of the Club of Rome, the emphasis was not on oil, but on the financial problems that the world is facing. This point was also made by Nicole Foss of the blog "theautomaticearth" who spoke of the impending total collapse of the world's financial system.

Another point that was extensively debated at the meeting is how the peak is driving the oil industry to extract and process polluting and inefficient resources, and how this is causing a worsening of the climate change problem. That was the reason that had led ASPO-Italy to organize this meeting jointly with "Climalteranti," a group of Italian climate scientists. At least half of the talks at the meeting were specifically dedicated to climate change and the climate question was present in practically all discussions. Recent data indicate a big jump in the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere, confirming that this trend is ongoing.

Peak oil is also affecting agriculture, as reported by the vice-president of the association, Dr. Toufic El Asmar, who is also a researcher at the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Rome. The problem is not yet on the radar of most people who deal with sustainability, but it is clear that it is enormous. Agriculture, as it is structured today, cannot survive without fossil fuels and the damage caused by climate change might be devastating,

Another point that was much discussed at ASPO-Italy 5 was the problem of communication. How to transform our models into policies? That turns out to be an extremely difficult problem. Not that we didn't work on it. Pietro Cambi, member of ASPO-Italy, estimated in his talk that about one person in three in Italy has been exposed at least once to the peak oil message during the past five years as a result of the work of ASPO and of related associations and people. It is a remarkable result considering that ASPO-Italy is an association of volunteers that operates on minuscule financial resources. Yet, the impact of our message is not appearing; not yet, at least.

For instance, the politicians of the Regional Tuscan Government did their best to steer clear of the ASPO-Italy meeting, despite the fact that it was held near the central building of the Tuscan Government and that it was a high level international meeting that saw the presence of several high level scientists. The only exception was Mr. Mauro Romanelli, Regional Councilor for the Green Party; evidently more enlightened than most. In Italy, as everywhere else, it seems that the magic word that solves all the problems remains "growth." Being seen in the company of Cassandras and catastrophists must be still considered as a good way to ruin one's political career.

In the end, it seems that peak oil has generated a strong reaction of the industrial, financial and political system. It has caused a movement to counter depletion by investing more resources in extraction, despite the increasing costs and the resulting environmental damage. Ian Johnson made this point clear in his talk. Years ago, when he was vice-president of the World Bank, they had estimated what the price of oil should be to make renewable energy competitive in the market. But, when that price level was reached, what happened was that oil companies abandoned all their programs in renewable energy to concentrate on new oil sources. No matter how dirty and expensive these resources may be, it is still possible to make a profit, provided that the industry doesn't have to pay for the costs of pollution. Which is, unfortunately, the case.

What we are seeing is a tremendous effort to maintain extraction levels at least constant, even at the cost of wrecking the world's economy and the planetary ecosystem as well. It seems to be a classic example of what I called the "Seneca Effect", that is the trading of some more years of near stability in exchange for a faster decline, later on. So, we are reacted to peak oil in the worst possible way.

The meeting was organized mainly by Luca Pardi, who is also the new president of ASPO-Italy. He replaces Ugo Bardi who has served as president for eight years. The meeting was co-organized with the Climalteranti group and sponsored by Mr. Mauro Romanelli, Tuscan Regional Councilor for the Green Party, who provided the prestigious "Sala delle feste" of "Palazzo Bastogi" in Florence, where the meeting took place. 


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)