Peak fossil fuel won’t stop climate change – but it could help

26 02 2015

The Conversation

Peak fossil fuel means it’s unlikely the worst climate scenario will come to pass. Gary Ellem explains.

What happens to coal in China will play a big role in deciding which climate road we’re all on. Han Jun Zeng/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Fossil fuels are ultimately a finite resource – the definition of non-renewable energy. Burning of these fuels – coal, oil and gas – is the main driver of climate change. So could the peak of fossil fuels help mitigate warming?

The short answer is maybe … but perhaps not how you might think.

In a paper published this month in the journal Fuel, my colleagues and I suggest that limits to fossil fuel availability might take climate Armageddon off the table, although we will still need to keep some fossil fuels in the ground for the best chance of keeping warming below 2C.

But more importantly, the peak of Chinese coal use is changing the face of global alternative energy industry development, and is soon likely to impact on international positioning for a low-emissions future.

Now for the long answer.

Predicting climate change

Predicting future climate change is dogged by two fundamental uncertainties: the dosage of greenhouse gas that human civilisation will add to the atmosphere, and how Earth’s climate and feedback systems will respond to it.

In the absence of a crystal ball for the future of emissions, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has adopted a scenario-based approach which highlights four representative concentration pathways (or RCPs). These are named after how much extra heating they add to the earth (in watts per square metre).

The relationship between emissions, and temperature projections. IPCC
Click to enlarge

From these scenarios the IPCC has developed temperature scenarios. So the RCP2.6 scenario is expected to restrict climate change to below 2C, whereas RCP8.5 represents catastrophic climate change of around 4C by the end of this century, rising to perhaps 8C in the ensuing centuries.

Fossil fuels forecast

The key thing to note here is that the emissions scenarios are demand-focused scenarios that have been developed to reflect possibilities for potential fossil fuel consumption. They explore a range of scenarios that include increasing global population and living standards, as well as the possible impact of new alternative energy technologies and global emissions-reduction agreements.

Instead of examining demand scenarios for fossil fuels, our work has focused on supply constraints to future fossil fuel production. Our work is not a forecast of future fossil fuel production and consumption, but rather seeks to determine the upper bounds of the geological resource and how it might be brought to market using normal supply and demand interactions.

We developed three projections based on different estimates of these Ultimately Recoverable Resources (URR). URR is the proportion of total fossil fuel resources that can be viably extracted now, and in the future (this accounts for some resources that are technologically inaccessible now becoming extractable in the future). The low case used the most pessimistic literature resource availability estimates, whereas the high case used the most optimistic estimates.

We also included a “best guess” estimate by choosing country-level resource values that we considered most likely. We then compared the resulting emissions profiles for the three upper bounds to the published IPCC emissions scenarios, as shown in the figure below.

Our projections for fossil fuel supply (black) matched with emissions scenarios (colours). RCP8.5 is the worst, RCP2.6 the best. Gary Ellem
Click to enlarge

In comparison to the published emissions scenarios, we found that it was very unlikely that enough fossil fuels could be brought to market to deliver the RCP8.5 scenario and we would recommend that this be removed from the IPCC scenarios in future assessment reports.

Mining out the optimistic fossil fuel supply base could perhaps deliver the RCP6 scenario, however, our best guess limit to fossil fuel availability caps the upper limit of emissions exposure to the RCP4.5 scenario (roughly equivalent to a median estimate of 2C warming).

But even under the low resource availability scenario, it will be necessary to leave some fossil fuels untapped if we are to meet the conditions for the RCP2.6 scenario or lower (to have more than a 90% chance of avoiding 2C temperature rise).

To sum up, our supply side assessment suggests that even if the climate Armageddon of the RPC8.5 scenario were desirable, it is unlikely that enough new fossil fuel resources could be discovered in time and brought to market to deliver it. To be clear, there is still much to worry about with the RPC4.5 and RPC6 scenarios which are still possible at the limits of likely fossil fuel resources.

So a simple reflection on global fossil fuel limitation won’t save us … but nations don’t face peak fuels at the same time. A country-level analysis of peak fuels suggests the possibility of a very different future.

How China could shake the world

As part of our assessment we looked closely at the fossil fuel production projections for four countries including China, Canada, the United States and Australia. Of these, China is by far the most intriguing.

China has little in the way of oil and gas resources and so has established its remarkable industrial growth on exploiting its substantial coal resources. Our projections indicate that the rapid expansion in Chinese coal mining is rapidly depleting this resource, with Chinese peak coal imminent in the mid-2020s under even the high fossil fuel scenario, as seen in the projections below.

Various scenarios for China’s fossil fuel supply. Gary Ellem
Click to enlarge

China is well aware of this and is currently scrambling to cap coal consumption and develop alternative energy projects and industries. Its leaders understand that the alternative energy sector is really an advanced manufacturing sector, and have moved to position themselves strategically as the world leader in solar, wind, hydro, battery and nuclear technology construction and manufacturing.

As fossil fuels start to fail China as a path to economic and energy security, China will join other regions in a similar position, such as the European Union nations, which have largely depleted their fossil fuel reserves.

For these nations focused on alternative energy investment for energy and economic security, global action on climate change is strategically aligned with their industrial strength. We can therefore expect them to pressure for increasing global action as a method of improving their strategic global trading position. We may see the beginnings of this transition at this year’s international climate talks in Paris this year, but it will take a few more years for the Chinese shift to play out as they exploit the remainder of their coal resource and gain confidence in the ability of their alternative energy sector to scale.

The question then becomes “can the USA manufacturing sector afford to be out of these global alternative energy markets?”. Our guess is “no” and a global tipping point will have been reached in the alternative energy switch.

This is perhaps the most profound way that peak fuels may contribute to a low-emissions future.


23 02 2015

Be prepared to be regaled by truly stunning photography, even when it’s ugly…..  A must watch film.  Anyone who enjoys their cushy lifestyle needs to know at what cost.  Share widely.

We are living in exceptional times. Scientists tell us that we have 10 years to change the way we live, avert the depletion of natural resources and the catastrophic evolution of the Earth’s climate.

The stakes are high for us and our children. Everyone should take part in the effort, and HOME has been conceived to take a message of mobilization out to every human being.

For this purpose, HOME needs to be free. A patron, the PPR Group, made this possible. EuropaCorp, the distributor, also pledged not to make any profit because Home is a non-profit film.

HOME has been made for you : share it! And act for the planet.

Yann Arthus-Bertrand

HOME official website

PPR is proud to support HOME

HOME is a carbon offset movie

More information about the Planet

“Ding dong, the witch is dead”!

9 04 2013

Or so say the banners of Thatcher haters in Britain, celebrating the death of Margaret Thatcher, thatcherwho must be one of the most divisive personalities of all times.  What I read online tells me Britons either hate her or love her.

I have to say I find some of the things she has done border on evil.  The way she smeared Nelson Mandela a terrorist is unforgivable, as is the sinking of the Belgrano, which must surely be a war crime…..

But what I want to write about here is how she’s attributed with certain things that merely make her a product of her era.

Very very few people realise (or even believe I have discovered) that Great Britain hit Peak Coal in 1913.  It was coal that made Britain great.  Thanks to the likes of James Watt who invented the machines that could turn coal into useful work, Britain was able, with the world’s most powerful Navy, to expand its grip on “the Empire”.

Old map of Berlin to Baghdad Railway

Old map of Berlin to Baghdad Railway

1913, you might notice, is the eve of “the Great War”, the war to end all war.  Churchill, who then was in charge of the Royal Navy could see the writing on the wall for coal.  The Royal Navy, if it was going to remain the world’s most powerful, needed oil.  And it didn’t have any.  And Supertankers did not exist yet, so the way to transport oil was by steam powered trains, overland.  The Germans, who wanted to take over from Britain (and whose coal reserves had not yet peaked) joined forces with Turkey to run trains between Persia (as it was then called) and Germany, to move all that valuable oil to its territories.

Anyone who still believes WWI was started because some unknown Arch Duke was killed in Serbia has been duped…..  WWI was about oil.  All those Australian boys who died in Gallipoli died for oil.  If you’ve ever read the story of Lawrence of Arabia, you will realise that he blew up all those trains to stop oil getting to Germany, and make friends with the Saudi Family, whose oil would not be discovered for another four decades.

During the intervening years between the two World Wars, the USA became the largest producer of oil in the world.  Its economy slowly but surely overtook everyone else’s, and it was because of American oil that the allies won the war.  Hitler had to stretch his resources to ridiculous levels by invading Russia and North Africa to get oil to fight the war with.  And he lost.  As did Japan.  Oil is that powerful………

The UK’s economy relied largely on coal to rebuild after the war.  But coal became ever scarcer and dearer, until the pea soup pollution in London saw coal banned as a heating fuel.  AGA ceased production of the solid fuel cookers, like the one we own, in 1972.

But the coal industry was a powerful lobby, and millions of labourers relied on the mining industry for their wages.  Year after year, government after government, seemed to have no choice but to subsidise the coal industry until the stage was reached that Britain was virtually bankrupt, and something had to give…….strike

Enter Margaret Thatcher.  She could plainly see the writing was on the wall, the country and the government were going broke, subsidising coal mining had to stop, and the Iron Lady grabbed the bit in her mouth and took on the Mining Unions.  The rest as they say is history.  A one year coal strike was the result, which affected every other industry from ship building to automobile production; indirectly, all of them were also subsidised….  and as more and more oil had to be imported from the Middle East, the Arabs decided they wanted more money for their black gold, and the oil shocks occurred.  Which by the way postponed global Peak Oil by almost a decade…..

Thatcher got the blame for all that turmoil, when in fact she had no choice.  Just like those in power today will have to do something when we have to close down oil refineries, park our cars and airplanes for good, and distribute what oil is left for essential services like agriculture.  That we will see similar chaos as that which happened in Britain back then is a certainty.

The other funny thing which I constantly hear today as the media eulogises the Iron Lady, is that she “pulled Britain from the brink of terminal decline”…. when in fact it was oil that did this!  Just as the shit was about to hit the fan in the UK, oil was discovered in the North Sea, and Britain was saved.  Temporarily at least, that is now all going pear shaped too.

reagan_thatcherWith Reagan’s help, Thatcher started the economic boom that has now got us into this ungodly economic mess. The pair of them started the “greed is good” bubble, wasting huge quantities of non renewable resources in the process, and causing the complete denial of the Club of Rome’s work.

I don’t think she was a great leader…  Like all other leaders, she did what she had to do at the time, but she screwed up, like most leaders do.  I don’t think history will be very kind to her.  And neither is Germaine Greer who wrote this amazing article about Thatcher…..  I highly recommend it!