From a policy standpoint, however, climate change is hard to address. Because the worst of its impacts may come decades from now, its solution is framed as a moral imperative: we should reduce fossil fuels for the environment and future generations. Many policy-makers genuinely want to do the right thing, but when a choice arises between climate protection and economic growth, growth wins nearly every time. Because 85 per cent of world energy comes from fossil fuels, it is hard to find a way quickly to end their use without a severe reduction in energy and a contraction of the economy. Any politician campaigning for economic contraction faces a tough battle.
The peaking in production rates of oil, coal and natural gas presents a different problem. Again, it is one of fossil fuel dependency, but in this case, instead of a sink (or pollution) dilemma, it is one of source (or scarcity). Fossil fuels are finite. Depletion ensures that the rate of extraction of these substances will soon start to decline, wreaking havoc on industrial economies, perhaps leading to societal collapse.
Will peak oil solve the climate problem? No! It is true most models of future carbon emissions overestimate the fossil fuels that can be extracted in coming decades. Indeed, studies suggest depletion will hold carbon emissions to a level such that atmospheric CO² concentrations won’t significantly exceed 450 parts per million (ppm) – the target often mentioned by IPCC.
However, recent research reveals climate sensitivity has been underestimated, so our target should be 350ppm – a level surpassed decades ago. Averting catastrophe means reducing fossil fuel use more quickly than depletion alone can effect.
Will addressing climate change mitigate the impact of peak oil? Not unless extremely stringent emissions policies reduce consumption rates ahead of depletion. But, as noted, such policies are a tough sell on the basis of moral argument alone.
Depletion adds more economic weight to the necessity of addressing climate change. Consider future supply scenarios for coal: if, as studies indicate, world coal production starts falling within two decades, coal will soon become much more expensive. New coal power plants thus become a bad bet for purely financial reasons, and renewable energy sources and conservation start to look much more attractive.
Peak oil kicks the discussion into overdrive. Soaring petroleum prices are creating crises for the trucking, airline and automobile industries, and contributing to rapidly rising food costs. These impacts rivet the attention of policy-makers. Reducing oil dependency is increasingly seen as a matter of economic survival.
Taken together, climate change and oil/coal/gas depletion form an airtight argument for rapidly weaning society off fossil fuels. Maintaining dependency is not an option; our only choice is whether to reduce it proactively and intelligently, or let dire events drive reactive policies.
Richard Heinberg is a Senior Fellow of the Post Carbon Institute and author of Peak Everything
This article first appeared in the Ecologist September 2008