12 November 2006

Less oil – more climate chaos?

By Rupert Read

Oil is running out. We've known this for a long time, only now, with the North Sea oil fields in sharp decline, and oil prices seemingly stuck at a 'high' level, are we really starting to face up to it.

Our lives are so deeply built on oil that we can barely imagine what things will be like when the oil running out starts to hit us in our daily lives as hard as it is already hitting our wallets. Our roads are made of oil. Our food supply is deeply dependent upon oil. Even our clothes are mostly made out of oil, nowadays.

We are probably almost exactly at that fateful moment in human history that is being called Peak Oil: the moment when the total worldwide production of oil reaches its maximum rate, and then starts slowly but irrevocably to decline.

This all sounds pretty gloomy; but is there a hidden reason here to be optimistic? Could it be that the peaking of oil production, followed inevitably by less use – less burning – of oil, whether in boilers, factories, cars, or aircraft, will at least help us to avoid climate catastrophe?

Sadly not. The fact is that Peak Oil is all set to make it even harder to prevent the degradation of human civilisation within a century that catastrophic climate change would mean - melting the ice-caps, flooding our coasts and cities, burning the Amazon, creating hundreds of millions of environmental refugees, rendering large parts of the Earth simply uninhabitable, bringing hurricanes and tsunamis even to England.

Why? Because, as oil starts running out, unless we are very well-prepared, the first effect will be massive economic downturns and instabilities. Remember the 'oil shocks' of the 1970s? You ain't seen nothin' yet, compared to the oil shocks that Peak Oil threatens us with. Major economic instability will make it far harder to find the absolutely essential political will to change our economy to a low-carbon economy.

Even more worrying: as the oil fields of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia go into decline, attention will shift to the lower-quality bitumen, tar and 'heavy oil' supplies buried in Canada, Venezuela etc. The problem with these is that they require far more energy to extract from the ground than do existing oil fields. How do you get that energy? Most likely, by burning lots of oil (or gas, or coal). You see the problem: as we scramble to find replacements for our dwindling oil supplies we will burn much more fossil fuel in order to get hold of new supplies. That means more carbon emissions

And some kinds of coal have CO2 emissions forty times as high as those from conventional oil. If we start burning that coal, we really are signing humanity's suicide note.

We must not do so. We must not kill the future. So: what we have to do is plan now to avoid jumping from the frying pan of Peak oil into the furnace of global over-heat. We have to move fast to transform our lives.

They are working on it in Sweden. They plan to end their dependency on oil by 2020! Here are some examples of how they're doing it:
  • Running a small city's bus fleet on very clean biogas made from the sludge that otherwise goes to waste in sewage treatment plants.

  • Using the tax system to incentivise power stations to switch from burning fossil fuels to burning local biomass.

  • Building 'passive' houses that don't need any external heating.

  • Renovating housing estates systematically along ecological principles, reducing crime and increasing the well-being of those living there.
The big challenge for Sweden will be trying to go zero-carbon without becoming dependent upon large-scale unsustainable biofuels projects. But at least they are really trying. It is time for renewable energy and a relocalised economy to see us all through this crisis. Roll on the day when East Anglia - and England - try to follow Sweden's example!

And d'you know what? If we did, we’d have happier lives in the process. For all the oil that we have burnt over the last generation has not made us any happier than we were in the 1970s. It has in fact made us more isolated, more stressed, more materialistic, iller, less contented.

So maybe Peak oil and even Climate Change are good news in the end. They may prompt us to make the changes in our society, that we need to make anyway: in order to live lives not with more stuff, but with a higher quality of life.

Thanks to Jack Guest, filmmaker ('A convenient truth'), for help with this column.