Peak Oil and Climate Change...a guest post...

(A guest post by frequent contributor Dave C....good stuff.)

Back in October of 2003, the current president of ASPO Kjell Aleklett told news sources that there was "Too little oil for global warming". Humankind faces two unprecedented crises, fossil fuels depletion in the near term and climate change on a longer timescale. What's the connection between them?

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC) is the source of the scientific consensus on global warming. Their third assessment report (TAR), published in 2001, strongly related warming in the recent past and current warming to anthropogenic (human-caused) emissions of greenhouse gases into Earth's atmosphere. Right now, there are 380 ppmv (part per million by volume) of CO2 in the atmosphere whereas the pre-industrial figure was about 100 ppmv less. Climate modeling attempts to estimate the amount of warming, called the "climate sensitivity", with a doubling of pre-industrial levels, to about 560 ppmv. Currently, the range of that sensitivity is 2.5 to 4.0 degrees centrigrade. Although the models measure how much warming there will be with a doubling, they don't say anything about when that doubling will occur. This depends on many factors that include climate feedbacks (e.g. decreasing albedo in the Arctic) and most importantly, the rate of CO2 emissions in the future. That's the connection with peak oil and, down the road, peak natural gas.

To calculate the rate of CO2 accumulation, the IPCC issued a Special Report on Emissions Scenarios (SRES) in 2000 to accompany their main report.

Check out Global Futures Scenarios or Emissions Scenarios - What are they and what do they tell us? for more information.


ASPO's claim, summarized in this New Scientist article, is simply this: future oil and gas usage will be so attenuated as the 21st century goes on that none of the IPCC scenarios, not even the B1 "optimistic" ones, will come to pass and so CO2 emissions will remain below a doubling. See the accompanying graph. Certainly, in this view, all "Business As Usual" scenarios (e.g. SRES IS92a) are ruled out. Hence, global warming may not be nearly as bad as currently modelled by the scientific community.

Of course, Aleklett's claim is very controversial and there hasn't been much follow-up. On the IPCC reaction and continued growth in Coal usage, New Scientist reports:
Nebojsa Nakicenovic [SRES Editor], an energy economist at the University of Vienna, Austria who headed the 80-strong IPCC team that produced the forecasts, says the panel's work still stands. He says they factored in a much broader and internationally accepted range of oil and gas estimates than the "conservative" Swedes.

Even if oil and gas run out, "there's a huge amount of coal underground that could be exploited", he says. Aleklett agrees that burning coal could make the IPCC scenarios come true, but points out that such a switch would be disastrous.
Needless to say, calculating future energy use is really hard. So, there are questions. Who could have predicted accurately China's burgeoning energy budget back in 2001? How will technology, economics and geology constrain future fossil fuels usage? Is the radical decline envisioned by Aleklett really in the cards? Will the next IPCC report, due out in 2007, reflect the reality of peak oil and natural gas depletion? Stay tuned, the future of the planet depends on it.

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Excellent post. Another key question is whether/how soon rising fuel prices and scarcity will change our transportation habits and urban forms. We have over 100 years of inertia pushing us towards sprawl in the U.S. That won't change easily, but at some point the calculus for each individual home buyer and business owner will change. The first to change will likely be the low to moderate income residents of exurban areas. The so-called "super commuters" won't last long with gas at over $3/gallon.

"Aleklett agrees that burning coal could make the IPCC scenarios come true, but points out that such a switch would be disastrous."

Just because it's disastrous doesn't mean that companies and governments won't do it.

Perhaps the key is in the table itself, which clearly states "IPCC's range of scenarios for cumulative oil and gas use."

Do they also have a graph showing projected coal usage? As well as a graph showing total CO2 emissions? Or is this a misprint, and they meant "all fossil fuel use?"

It is a crucial distinction. As this graph stands now, showing only oil and gas, it is clear that IPCC is mistaken and ASPO correct.

I am reminded of the projections of "nuclear winter" scenarios during the Freeze movement of the '80s. They counted the number of deliverable nukes, calculated the urban areas that could be vaporized and turned into smoke by each, and added it all up. The neglected to notice that there is a finite acreage of urban area, and "making the rubble bounce" wouldn't necessarily produce more smoke.

Re: Do they also have a graph showing projected coal usage?

The actual source of that graph (from the New Scientist article) is Figure 26 of Study of World Oil Resources with a Comparison to IPCC Emissions Scenarios (pdf) on page 75. (This is from the Upsala Hydrocarbon Depletion Group website. You won't find a working link to this report, I had to reconstruct it due to a redirect.)

Here's what I found about their reasoning and coal (p. 80)

[The IPCC] basing oil, gas, and coal resources on the Rogner report with its vast resource numbers, is to consider the maximum amount of resources possible.... A smaller amount of resources on the other hand is represented by the oil depletion model in this report and by Williams in Oil and Gas Journal. Under the assumptions in the oil depletion model, there is not a single SRES scenario that is as low in oil and gas production. To be able to produce oil and gas until 2100 according to most SRES scenarios, a world oil and gas reserve twice as large than what we have today is required....

Coal might become even more important in future primary energy production than IPCC has taken into account. The coal resources are much bigger than for oil and gas, and still not very expensive to produce....

In other words, it appears that they only consider oil & gas depletion, implying that coal will play a greater role in the future than SRES scenarios project.

However, to see something like what you are looking for from the climate scientists, see Figure 2 from Energy implications of future stabilization of atmospheric CO2 content by Hoffert, Caldeira, et. al. published in Nature, vol 395, 29 October 1998 (pdf).

Thank you Dave.