Oil Limits and Climate Change

2 06 2013
They say that every cloud has a silver lining. If, as expected, future fossil fuel energy consumption drops because of a financial collapse triggered by high oil prices or other limits to growth, then, at least in theory, catastrophic climate change could be largely averted….One of the most important variables in AGW models is the amount of  CO2 from the burning of fossil fuels emitted into the atmosphere. In a recent post (Peak Oil Demand is Already a Huge Problem), Gail Tverberg showed the following estimate of future energy consumption.

Figure 1. One view of future energy consumption for the world as a whole. History is based on BP's 2012 Statistical Review of World Energy.

Figure 1. One view of future energy consumption for the world as a whole. History is based on BP’s 2012 Statistical Review of World Energy.

She explained in that post that oil limits are different from what most people expect.

Oil limits are more likely to become price limits than geological ones…. The result of these price limits will be that fuel consumption of all sorts (and not just oil) will decline in the near future.  It will simply become unaffordable…. and this will cause greater job losses and an inability to afford products of many kinds, including those made with fossil fuels which today means just about everything.

Financial collapse, particularly of governments, and a long-term decline in population such as those already discussed on this blog are also part of this scenario.

Many people who know about climate change know little about peak oil. Many who know about peak oil dismiss climate change.  Our estimate of CO2 generation by fossil fuels in the 21st century is only about 25% of the amount (range midpoint) assumed in the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Report.  And Gail has just announced she agrees with us.  When differences in estimates of an important variable are this far apart, one starts reaching the “Garbage in, garbage out” problem.

If we look to peak oil, I’d say the equivalent to Hansen’s 1988 testimony was Campbell and Laherrère’s article in Scientific American in 1998 which said, among other things:

Barring a global recession, it seems most likely that world production of conventional oil will peak during the first decade of the 21st century.

Which, as it turns out, looks to be holding up pretty well as a prediction.

This is a persistent problem for all modellers.  Even assuming the climate models are perfect apart from estimates of future CO2 fossil fuel use, and even if anthropogenic issues are implicated as the cause of recent climate chaos, the models with their erroneous estimates of future fossil energy consumption are unhelpful for determining what future actions need to be undertaken……..

A comparison of energy consumption estimates is shown in Figure 2 from Gail’s website. Estimates of energy consumption (similar to that in Figure 1) is shown as “the Collapse scenario”.

Figure 2. Comparison of Energy Consumption Estimates. Climate high and Climate low are based on Figure 1 of this Oil Drum post by DeSousa and Mearns. "Peak oil" is based on  a 2013 estimate by  Energy Watch Group.  Collapse is my estimate, associated with Figure 1 of this post. In all of the estimates, there is an implicit assumption that the fuel mix stays relatively constant.

Figure 2. Comparison of Energy Consumption Estimates. Climate high and Climate low are based on Figure 1 of this Oil Drum post by DeSousa and Mearns. “Peak oil” is based on a 2013 estimate by Energy Watch Group. Collapse is my estimate, associated with Figure 1 of this post. In all of the estimates, there is an implicit assumption that the fuel mix stays relatively constant.

Figure 2 Explanation

linemaintenance

Try that without oil

The Collapse Scenario in Figure 2 is Gail’s estimate of future energy consumption, using amounts similar to Figure 1 also from her website. It is based on the assumption that financial limits are what brings down the economy.  As the Matrix is brought down, our capability to provide many basic services, such as road maintenance and keeping electric transmission lines going, disappear.  Thus, we become incapable of maintaining the complex systems needed to extract oil and gas and coal, and as a result of this, also unable to maintain current energy supplies. Even renewables will become a problem, because, as I continually say here, we need fossil fuels to create new renewable energy generation.  We also need fossil fuels to maintain the lines used to transmit the electricity, and to provide back-up generation.

If the problem we are facing is financial collapse, biomass can be expected to behave differently than other renewable energy resources.  And you should see the broohaha over the future of wood burning on the Conversation from people who have no idea what the future holds! If people are poorer, there will be great demand for wood for heating, and in fact, there is evidence that Greece is turning to wood burning already. (Greece being an early example of a country approaching the financial problems I expect to occur globally.) Under a Collapse Scenario, a likely problem is deforestation.

The Peak Oil Scenario shown in Figure 2 is based on a 2013 estimate by the Energy Watch Group.  The assumption in estimates using “Peak Oil” ways of evaluating supplies is that geological constraints determine supply.  As usual, the “big picture” is missing…..  The question of price doesn’t come into their analysis; instead “Hubbert style” curve fitting techniques are used.  If oil supplies decline, the assumption is made that natural gas and coal extraction will to some extent rise to offset the oil decline…….

Many who support the peak oil method of calculating expected availability of future fuel supplies advocate ramping-up of wind and solar power.  One can reason that the use of renewables is supported because fossil fuels are seen to be limited, and renewables might act as “fossil fuel extenders”.

Dave and I (and now Gail too) believe that peak oil estimates are overstated because they do not consider the economics of depleting fossil fuel supplies.

Oil consumption by importers starts to decline if price is high–something that happens long before world oil supply actually starts to decline. And here in Australia where this scenario will unfold very quickly, before 2020 I estimate, lowering our oil consumption will tank the economy.  See Gail’s post How Oil Exporters Reach Financial Collapse.

The Climate High and Climate Low estimates are based on carbon amounts shown in Figure 1 of this 2008 Oil Drum post by De Sousa and Mearns.  In converting these carbon estimates to energy consumption estimates, Gail implicitly assumes that the carbon intensity of energy use would remain unchanged–that is, improvements resulting from more use of natural gas and renewables use would be offset by increases in coal consumption. This assumption is probably not what the IPCC would make says Gail…. Their “Low Estimate” would probably assume greater use of renewables and natural gas than their High Estimate, so that the actual energy available in their Low Estimate would be closer to the energy available in their High Estimate than what her graph would suggest. The  2007 IPCC report does not give much detail, except to generally discuss their reasoning.

The IPCC’s basic assumptions seem to be:

1. Demand is the basic determiner of supply. In the view of the IPCC, there is lots of oil, gas, and coal in the ground (see Figure 4.2 of Working Group III Report). It is assumed that we can get these fuels out, essentially as fast as we want. No consideration is given of diminishing returns, and the resulting likely run-up in both needed investment funds and  price to the user. (See Our Investment Sinkhole Problem.)

2. Because the IPCC report misses the issue of diminishing returns and resulting higher price, it assumes that demand can keep on ramping up pretty much indefinitely. In the real word, demand is what customers can afford to buy. This is already declining for the US, Europe and Japan, with the high oil prices experienced in recent years.

Figure 3. Oil consumption by part of the world, based on EIA data. 2012 world consumption data estimated based on world "all liquids" production amounts.

Figure 3. Oil consumption by part of the world, based on EIA data. 2012 world consumption data estimated based on world “all liquids” production amounts.

Overview of IPCC 2007 Report

As Gail sees it, there are three important aspects  of the 2007 IPCC analysis:

1. The Climate Model. This is the part of the report that says, if CO2 is such and such, and other forcings are so much, the effect on the climate is this amount. “I personally do not have expertise to evaluate this part of the report. I note, however, that at least some climate scientists seem to be back-pedalling on how much impact is expected from a given amount of carbon” states Gail….

A letter published in Nature Geoscience on May 19, 2013, titled Energy Budget Constraints on Climate Response indicates that the climate effects of a given set of forcings seems to be lower than the 2007 IPCC report suggested. This letter, together with explanatory information is available free for download, with registration.

2. The Estimates of Fossil Fuels going into the Model. It is this part of the model that seems to be seriously erroneous.  The carbon added during the 21st century in the Collapse Scenario is only about 25% of what the IPCC estimates use (averaging the high and low) . De Sousa and Mearns calculate that their Peak Oil estimates would keep CO2 emissions below 450 parts per million. Gail’s Collapse Scenario estimates are considerably below De Sousa and Mearn’s Peak Oil estimates, so would in theory produce lower yet CO2 impacts.

3. What to Do About the Problem.  We all think this part of IPCC report has a serious problem as well.  The report, as it is published, is not about How to Reduce CO2 Emissions. If this had been the goal, the report would likely have talked about reducing population, eating less meat, making manufactured goods that last longer, and standardizing goods, so that it is not necessary to buy new goods, just replacement parts. Instead, the IPCC 2007 report provides a wish list of ways we might keep Business as Usual (BAU) going, using techniques that might reduce fossil fuel use with little pain to the business community and consumers.  In other words………  they haven’t got a clue!!

A big part of the problem with the analysis of what to do about the problem is that the researchers putting together the analysis do not understand the way the Matrix works. According to Newton’s Third Law of Motion, Gail reminds us, “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.”  Unfortunately, there is something very similar when one tries to make energy substitutions.  A researcher might assume that substitution of higher-priced renewable energy for lower-priced fossil fuel energy would reduce world carbon emissions, but this is true only if second and third order effects don’t undo the supposed benefit.  Higher-priced fuels make a country less competitive in the world marketplace, and give an advantage to countries using coal for their generation.  Adding a proper carbon tax, not that pretend one the Labor Party and the Greens introduced, has similar unplanned effects.

Figure 4. Actual world carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels, as shown in BP's 2012 Statistical Review of World Energy. Fitted line is expected trend in emissions, based on actual trend in emissions from 1987-1997, equal to about 1.0% per year.

Figure 4. Actual world carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels, as shown in BP’s 2012 Statistical Review of World Energy. Fitted line is expected trend in emissions, based on actual trend in emissions from 1987-1997, equal to about 1.0% per year.

When we look at actual CO2 emissions, we find that they have risen dramatically since the Kyoto Protocol was ratified in 1997 (Figure 3, above). (See Gail’s posts, Twelve Reasons Why Globalization is a Huge Problem and Climate Change: The Standard Fixes Don’t Work.)

One of the implicit assumptions in the IPCC report is that continued growth in a finite world makes sense, and can be expected to continue until 2100. In fact, we are reaching limits of many kinds.

Figure 5. Various types of limits we are now reaching

Figure 5. Various types of limits we are now reaching

In fact, modellers should be considering all of the limits simultaneously.  Modelling any one limit on Figure 5 by itself will produce results that will suggest that that limit alone is a huge problem, that might perhaps be fixed.  But a financial problem can be expected to lead to economic shrinkage which will by itself help mitigate several of the problems, and that includes climate change……

Given the multiple limits we are reaching, Gail thinks we need to step back…. Energy is essential to create products and services of all kinds. The IPCC is claiming that, with a few tweaks, economic growth of the type we have grown to expect can continue until the year 2100.  This assertion we believe is clearly false, with or without any of the tweaks they are advocating……

We need to be figuring out how to transition to a world rapidly changing for the worse, in terms of energy availability.  We cannot be sure climate change should be our Number 1 concern, because the CO2 part of the problem looks likely to mostly take care of itself. Instead, we need to be looking at how we can make do with a lot less.  And we also need to be cutting back on the real source of demand–population growth.

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2 responses

2 06 2013
Justin Nigh

What I found missing from this analysis is the presence of positive feedback loops already underway. Even if we stopped all CO2 emissions today, it would not reverse this trend. As such, any analysis which fails to recognize this reality will be incomplete.

2 06 2013
mikestasse

Well yes, even the effect of people burning wood such as I do could have a huge impact if deforestation becomes substantial…. in the end, there are just TOO MANY of us on the planet…!

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