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.





Crash on Demand

6 01 2014

As 2014 opens the window to our uncertain future, David Holmgren, with whom I had the great pleasure of having dinner in Richard Heinberg’s company in 2006 when they toured Australia together, has published a new essay (a 24 page pdf download), which is an update of his Future Scenarios, and which continues to build on “Money Vs. Fossil Fuels”, and expands on money and the economy.  This essay titled “Crash on Demand: Welcome to the Brown Tech Future” is a must read piece……..

energy_descent_scenarios-300x207

Holmgren is seeing the Brown Tech scenario as the one currently in play from the four outlined in Future Scenarios, where the decline of fossil fuels unfolds slowly; “but the severity of global warming symptoms is at the extreme end of current mainstream scientific predictions” says David….  The political system is Corporatist, and emphasis is placed on replacing declining conventional fossil fuels with lower grade fossil fuels, which are both more expensive and also release more GGE (Greenhouse Gas Emissions), exacerbating Climate Change even further.  David’s argument is essentially that radical, but achievable, behaviour change from dependent consumers to responsible self-reliant producers (by some relatively small minority of the global middle class) has a chance of stopping the juggernaut of consumer capitalism from driving the world over the climate change cliff.  It maybe a slim chance, but a better bet than current herculean efforts to get the elites to pull the right policy levers; whether by sweet promises of green tech profits or alternatively threats from mass movements shouting for less consumption.

browntech_logosmlw_bt

In the extensive discussions about money and economy, the influence of systems analyst Nicole Foss (Stoneleigh -The Automatic Earth) and economist Steve Keen (Debt Deflation) are strong and freely acknowledged.  David believes that deflationary economics is the most powerful factor shaping our immediate future.

The basic recommendation (as noted in the quote above) is not much different from what David Holmgren and I have been recommending for 20 years or more…: to engage in a shift away from the Matrix, and toward being a responsible self-reliant producer for your household and community, to shift a significant portion of assets out of the Matrix economy, and move them into building household and community resilience. Such actions not only put you in a more secure position, they also, if engaged by perhaps 10% of the population of affluent countries, might be just what’s needed to shift our economies away from the perpetual growth paradigm we’ve been suffering since at least the end of WWII , and is now only hanging on via an unsustainable debt bubble…….  The collapse of the current bubble economy will be ugly.  However, given that current growth is no longer fuelled by oil but only being made possible by rising debt, we are not doing ourselves (or anybody else) any favours by perpetuating it.  As David has previously pointed out in Future Scenarios:

…without radical behavioural and organizational change that would threaten the foundations of our growth economy, greenhouse gas emissions along with other environmental impacts will not decline. Economic recession is the only proven mechanism for a rapid reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and may now be the only real hope for maintaining the earth in a habitable state.

David makes the case that even though it might be too late for the Green Tech scenario to materialise, it may, just

David Holmgren

David Holmgren

may, still be possible to avoid the worst effects of the Brown Tech scenario (a 4 to 6 degree “Climate Cooker” Lifeboats scenario).

A severe global economic collapse might switch off enough GGE to begin reversing climate change, so that the Earth Steward scenario of bioregional economies based on frugal rural agrarian living, assisted by resources salvaged from the collapsed global economy and the defunct national governments, could possibly emerge in the long term future……..

It’s not a rose coloured future, I grant you…..  The last 10 pages or so, however, I found to be quite invigorating (even in the current heat wave), and opened up some possibilities for positive engagement….  Topics discussed are ‘Nested Scenarios’ (different scenarios co-existing at different scales); Investment and Divestment; Formal and Informal Economies; Alternative and Non-monetary Economies; Labour and Skill Vs Fossil Fuel and Technology; Brown Tech Possibilities; Actors at the Fringe; and Not Financial Terrorists (but Terra-ists with hands in the soil).  There are also tons of great footnotes/links worth following up on……

David is one of the few people around with his head screwed on properly, and like much of the rest of his writings, this is essential reading for those of us trying to make sense of whatever long term future we may have to face, or how we can best make a positive difference.

Today though, I learned a new word….:  exhaustipated.  Too tired to give a shit!  Maybe tomorrow when it’s supposed to cool down and rain……  Enjoy the read, I did….





“There is no time”

12 12 2013

The Fire This Time

 

A guest post by Dave Pollard

 

3Es-Table

A few days ago I watched the documentary Chasing Ice, as part of our local Transition initiative’s film series. What really struck me in the film was the narrator’s four word comment about 1/3 through the film when he was discussing what we can/should do about arctic melting and runaway climate change:

“There is no time.”

Just that. He meant that there is no time for us to continue to do what we have been doing — the politicking, stalling, denial, endless debate and research. But what these four words mean to me, and I think at a visceral and perhaps subconscious level what they now mean to many people who are informed about what is happening in our world, is that there is no time for us to pull back from collapse, no time to avoid or even mitigate runaway climate change and the emergence, later this century, of a climate on Earth as different (7-8oC) from today’s (though in the opposite direction) as the climate during the most recent glacial maxima (colloquially, “Ice Ages”) 20 and 140 and 260 and 340 and 440 thousand years ago.

During these “Ice Ages” much of the planet’s land mass was covered in ice an average of 2 km thick, and the regions adjacent to the ice-covered areas suffered constant windstorms that transformed them into scrub and desert, and beyond that desert, what are now semi-tropical areas were covered in boreal forest. Equatorial areas then, in addition to being much cooler than today, see-sawed between prolonged periods of monsoon-like rains and periods of extended drought.

What will our planet be like with 7-8 degrees of warming in the next few decades? Weather will likely be more extreme (more flooding, desertification and fires, and, later, much higher sea levels) and much more turbulent, but instead of only the equatorial areas being habitable by significant human numbers, as happened during the “Ice Ages”, only the polar areas, with whatever vegetation will have emerged there in that short time, will likely be habitable in the coming “Fire Age”.

The Fire This Time.

There is no time for us to avert this. But there is time to imagine potential future scenarios and how we might react to them, to increase our resilience to the large-scale changes to our way of living it will bring, and to prepare ourselves for them (intellectually, emotionally, and capacity-wise that is — for the coming Long Emergency, hoarding assets and building bunkers is not a viable strategy).

What complicates the future scenario for our planet is that we are also nearing End Games in our global economic and energy/resource systems, as I diagrammed in my post last month. Neither system is sustainable for more than a few more years, a few decades at most, and both systems affect the rate of atmospheric pollution and hence the extent and timing of runaway climate change.

I’m writing a series of articles that explains all this in more detail for the fledgling Sustainability Showcase magazine, but the chart above summarizes the interrelationship of our economic, resource/energy, and climate/ecological systems, and how ‘collapse’ (i.e. dramatic and uncontrolled unbalancing and change, with largely unpredictable consequences) of any of these systems would likely affect the other two. Here’s the prognosis in a nutshell:

 Best case (Eisenstein) scenario: Shift to Sharing Economy precipitates near-term, gradual collapse of the industrial growth economy, which will leave some of Earth’s energy and resources in the ground and delay and slightly lessen runaway climate change. [Or similarly, major early unexpected impacts of climate change (e.g. pandemic) precipitate near-term, gradual economic collapse, with the same results.]

Worst case (Ehrenfeld) scenario: Politicians ratchet up the economy to extend industrial growth a little longer, exhaust energy and other resources faster and more completely, then use nukes to try to mitigate energy exhaustion, all leading to faster and more severe runaway climate change and total economic collapse and energy/resource exhaustion.

All scenarios end with runaway climate change. This is kind of hard to comprehend, but once you realize how delicate the balance is that has kept our planet in a brief paradisiacal near-stasis climate for several millennia, and how often runaway climate change has happened in our planet’s past (for many reasons, mostly unknown), it’s not too hard to accept. We’ve just unwittingly accelerated the process this time.

There will be large scale species extinction — it’s already begun and it’s also not a new phenomenon on this planet. Life will go on. Some like it hot. There will be a steady exodus toward the poles by many species, with varying degrees of success. What will evolve in the planet’s new super-hot, super-stormy zones is anyone’s guess.

From that perspective, the timing of the collapse of this civilization’s unstable, global, oil-and-growth dependent industrial economy, and whether we plunder the last of the easily-accessible energy, soil, water, minerals, forests and other resources (a billion years’ worth of accumulated riches) before the climate destabilizes, may seem a bit moot. But it will be very important for our immediate descendants, and for many living today.

As the table above shows, we have little say in (or control over) how all this unfolds. But we have a little. The sooner we bring down our rapacious and wasteful economy, the less severe and longer delayed ecological collapse will be — and the more resources will be left for post-collapse life.

We can (and some say should) help precipitate that economic take-down, through direct action against its most grievous activities — tar sands, nukes, deepwater, shale, mountaintop removal, rainforest razing, ‘blood’ mining, factory farming, forced/slave labour etc. And we can precipitate it by walking away from that teetering economy and shifting our activities to that of the sharing economy — by using, gifting and conserving local, organic, low-energy, durable goods and services in community with each other, without the use of fiat currencies.

Beyond that, there’s not much we can do to prepare for The Fire This Time, except learn some useful new skills, learn how to build (and live in) community (anywhere), get and stay healthy, and cultivate what we might call a resilient, adaptable attitude. Some of the qualities I think might be part of such an ‘attitude’ — a way of being in the world — are (in no particular order) being:

  • generous
  • self-aware and self-knowledgeable
  • attentive (“present”)
  • curious and imaginative (they’re not the same thing)
  • able to let go (open, forgiving, patient, even ‘stoic’)
  • challenging (able to think critically)
  • self-expressive and articulate
  • appreciative and grateful
  • playful, joyful, and able to see beauty everywhere
  • able to relish simple pleasures
  • contemplative, gentle, and at peace

We can’t be these things if we’re not, of course, and the stresses of our modern lives make it hard to be them. But, joyful pessimist that I am, I believe most of these qualities are in most of our natures, if we can find space for them, and let them come out. Adversity tends to bring out the best in us, and we’re now in the headwinds of a maelstrom.

It’s hopeless, but we’ll be fine. One day, everything will be free.