Sunday, August 14, 2011

Peak Oil and Climate Change: time for some remodeling?

I have been slowly working my way through the 9th annual Association for the Study of Peak Oil & Gas (ASPO) conference, which has graciously provided most of the conference presentations in video format online for free, here.

There are many good talks to watch, a few standout presentations that I have seen so far being: Paul Stevens, Darren Bezdek, Jeff Rubin, Erik Townsend, and David Murphy.

However, what really caught my eye was the Wednesday April 27 2011 morning session presentations by Kjell Aleklett, Uppsala University Sweden and President of ASPO, and Jean-Pascal van Ypersele, Professor at Université catholique de Louvain France and Vice-chair of the  IPCC, and, the discussion period to follow.

If the relationship between peak oil, or, peak fossil fuels, and climate change has ever troubled you, then you should try to watch these presentations and the supporting materials (in .pdf format).

Aleklett’s presentation
Aleklett’s presentation, titled, “The ASPO Perspective on Fossil Fuels” included an overview of evidence for peaking fossil fuels (oil, gas, coal) based on Aleklett et al.’s bottom-up approach of looking at the rates of discovery of new oil, gas and coal finds, and from this, extrapolating future production rates.  By Aleklett’s reckoning, production rates of all of three: oil, gas, or coal are peaking  now, or will peak in the next 20-30 years.  Moreover, unconventional production from oil shale, oil sands, natural gas liquids etc..., can only make up a small fraction of the declines, and consequentially there will still be a steep net decline in production rates.   The implications of this for the economy and food production are not good, to say the least.  Aleklett doesn’t pull any punches and talks about mass starvation.

Aleklett then points out the vast discrepancy between of his group’s analysis, predicting peaks in oil, gas and coal productions rates, and the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) predictions of a so-called “business as usual”  scenarios.

For instance, the IEA, despite the evidence of a steep decline in the number of new oil wells being discovered since the 1960s, continues to predict that crude oil production will remain flat or increase slightly from present levels of production.   In large measure, the continued increasing or flat production predicted by the IEA is supposedly due to “oil field yet to be found” although the unconventional sources are given much more weigh that does Alekett. Analogous predictions are made by the IEA for gas and coal.

Aleklett thinks that the IEA’s claims with respect to future fossil fuel production, to put it nicely, are “far-fetched.” 

Towards the end of the talk Aleklett points out that the IPCC’s global warming scenarios are all based upon the IEA’s claimed “business as usual” production numbers.  Consequently the IPCC global warming scenarios, to the extent that they require the burning of these assumed amounts of fossil fuels are equally far-fetched. 

Here’s one example for oil production: it is apparent that the IPCC assumes far greater amounts of oil will be available to be burnt than Aleklett’s analysis suggests.  You can view Aleklett’s presentation or slide materials to see that there are similar large discrepancies between the IPCC and Aleklett’s future gas and coal production scenarios. 

As Aleklett puts it during his talk, none of the IPCC’s scenarios can happen.

Aleklett points out the paradox between the economist’s view, the environmentalist’s view and the peak fossil fuel view.  Economists say we need more energy use to grow the economy—but this must mean more fossil fuel use.  If there is economic demand, the fossil fuels will appear, they say.  Environmentalists say we need to reduce fossil fuel use to prevent global warming—but population growth means that more food needs to be produced, but this also requires more fossil fuel energy use. 

Aleklett believes, as I do, that the economist’s and environmentalist’s views both hide the real problem.  The world does not have enough energy for predicted future global population increases.  And without fossil fuels by 2050, Aleklett says, the bulk of the global population will die away.  

I agree that this is a likely scenario, and maybe this will happen before 2050 (Part 10: Peak oil exports, peak oil and implications for population change).

Ypersele’s presentation
Unfortunately, the video of van Ypersele’s presentation, titled, “Climate Change and Fossil Fuel Depletion” is not made available, but his slides are available for viewing.  I will just focus on a slide that shows the IPCC’s assumed used and remaining oil, gas and coal resources. 

That tiny little stack in the middle there (black circle) is the combined emissions from oil, gas and coal from 1860 to 1998—which is the data used for the IPCC’s 2001 climate modelling scenarios.  The three separate stacks to the left (red circle) are the IPCC’s assumed future amounts of oil, gas, and coal available to burn in this century.

The figure below is a more detailed look at this same chart, in which I estimate the amount of the oil, gas and coal assumed by the IPCC to be available, relative to the amount already used.  To make the comparison clearer I moved the stacked boxes of combined oil gas and coal already used and laid them next to the IPCC’s assumed amount yet to be used.

Yes, that's right, according to this chart, the IPCC assumes that the world has 6x more oil, 11x more gas and 9x more coal left to burn compared to what has already been used from 1860-1998.  I think that as vice-chair of the IPCC, van Ypersele would know if there was a more up todate model available than this.

Well, if this is true, then all you peak oilers are a bunch of nutters and you can just stop worrying.  Instead, you should be worrying about global warming, because, look at all that additional carbon that is going to be thrown into the atmosphere over the next century. 

On the other hand, if these assumed amounts of future oil, gas, and coal are, well, totally ridiculous, then all you climate changers out there are a brunch of nutters and you can just stop worrying about it.  Instead, you should be worried about peak oil, gas and coal and the devastating effects that this will have on the economy and more importantly, food production over the next 10-20 years.

The Discussion Panel
Finally, we come to the discussion panel which included Pierre Mauriaud (from TOTAL), van Ypersele, Aleklett and Colin Campbell.  You really should watch—it is quite good: 

Aleklett  The A2 scenario can never happen because, for instance, the coal production will not be increased 10x by 2100 (I estimated 11x in the above figure), and there is no possibility whatsoever to come up to those carbon dioxide emission that you have being talked about using the A2 scenario. So when you talk about A2 "I don't believe what you are saying." We need to have real numbers to discuss. When IPCC say business as usual is a possibility, then people who don't understand about climate change will not do anything and this harms the energy situation.

van Ypersele  I am not a scenario specialist, please come and give your views to the IPCC.  I don't care about the A2 scenario actually...even with B1 there is too much carbon released to keep under 2 degrees. 

Aleklett  Even B1 assumes too high a level of fossil fuel emission scenario.  Politicians must understand that business as usual is not possible and we don't have enough fossil fuels for global food production  "There is not enough energy for global food production—we will starve to death ... before the climate [change] will hit us."  Food production is the number one priority

van Ypersele   We are paying the price of those non-mitigation scenarios because of a decision made in the end 1990s by the governments in the IPCC and influences, by some governments more than others, not to look at mitigation scenarios—all of the climate change scenario had to be non-mitigation business as usual scenarios—and that is unfortunate.

The climate change community has been anchored with these scenarios, which is unfortunate because its only a subset of all possible scenarios.  A new family of scenarios that includes climate mitigation and stabilization scenarios are being developed.

That last bit about new more realistic scenarios being developed is interesting to hear and heartening.  If these new scenarios ever see the light of day—then you know what buzz-words to look for.  “Mitigation scenario” will be the code word for “peak fossil fuel scenario.” 

This is analogous to the IEA’s use of the term “undiscovered oil” as a tacit acknowledgement of “peak oil.”   

This is also not the first time that I have heard about pressure and influence being exerted on the IEA and IPCC, most likely coming from the USA (see e.g., The Implications and Fallout of the IEA "Leaks").  

Just why is peak oil or peak fossil fuel “That-Which-Must-Not-Be-Named?"  

I think that terms like, “mitigation scenario” or “undiscovered oil” have the connotation that governments actually are on top of, and have some control over, what is going on.  

Governments must not be seen as not being in control, because that would cause you everyday common folk to panic.  

Back in 2009 (comment 21 in The Implications and Fallout of the IEA "Leaks") I suggested that perhaps it makes “political” sense for the IEA’s funding source (i.e., the OECD member governments, who also fund the IPCC) to support “low-carbon emission” policies, driven by concerns about climate change, with the assumption that a business as usual fossil fuel production scenario is still possible, because it is easier to get a consensus between countries, and it implies control over the situation.  

“See, look how we have successfully managed to mitigate further global warming by decreasing the consumption of fossil fuels, thereby saving the world,” governments can loudly proclaim.  When in reality, fossil fuel consumption declined because fossil fuel production had declined, and production declined because the world is on the downside of peak oil, and soon to be peak gas and peak coal.  

This reminds me of President Obama’s pledge to reduce the USA dependence on foreign oil.  As the global market for exportable oil rapidly declines during this decade, he, or a future President, can claim a great victory, and a campaign promise fulfilled (see Estimating the End of Global Petroleum Exports Part 4 future global net export trends).

Similarly, if one is trying to organize a consensus of people to participate in a mass movement to transition to a new economic and societal paradigm, then it is best to just ignore the contradictions between peaking fossil fuels and climate change, as modeled by the IPCC, and try to find the commonalities between the two—reduced energy consumption, localization of industry and food production.   Still, this strategy may back-fire if it turns out that that one of the premises of the mass movement was based on "far-fetched" assumptions which turn out to be an order-of-magnitude off.

For the record, I am not a peak oil denier, climate change denier, tea bagger, liberal fanatic or whatever other derogatory term you want to call me, in order to reassure yourself of your own particular "true belief."

For the record, my hunch is that man-made carbon emissions probably can significantly influence the climate—how much by, I don’t know.   I haven’t explored the climate change models used by the IPCC directly, and I am not likely to do so, so this will remain a hunch.  

Maybe it doesn’t matter if Aleklett is right, that all of the IPCC’s scenarios are wildly overestimating future manmade carbon emissions.  For instance, maybe we are already past a so-called tipping point for a “methane time bomb” to go off in the arctic (see The methane time bomb).  If that is the case, and the die is already cast, then maybe we will need all the energy we can get for mankind to survive.  

To me it seem more likely, however, that fossil fuel production will be “mitigated,” but the mitigation will not have much to do with the IPCC scenarios or government policies.  

“Mitigation” will occur because we have reached peak oil, and in the next twenty to thirty years, peaking gas and coal.   People, voters, will not be too interested in hearing about low-carbon emission policies when they are unemployed, when they are freezing in the winter or boiling in the summer, because there are inadequate gas and coal-fired electricity plants, when they can’t travel like they used to, because the price of gasoline is high, or there is gasoline rationing, and when they are starving because the petroleum based food system has broken down.  

What effect will the “mitigation” associated with peak fossil fuels have on climate change?  Good question, I wish that the IPCC was trying to answer that question.  Maybe some day they will. 

If my comments have left you angry because someone dare doubt the IPCC’s predictions of impending climate change doom, or, peak oil’s predictions of impending doom, then in closing, I offer the following for your consideration:

It is the true believer’s ability to “shut his eyes and stop his ears” to facts that do not deserve to be either seen or heard which is the source of his unequaled fortitude and constancy. He cannot be frightened by danger nor disheartened by obstacles nor baffled by contradictions because he denies their existence. Strength of faith .... manifests itself not in moving mountains but in not seeing mountains to move. And it is the certitude of his infallible doctrine that renders the true believer impervious to the uncertainties, surprises and the unpleasant realities of the world around him.

from The True Believer, Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements, Eric Hoffer, 1951, Cp 13(56)


  1. Good point, it deserves more publicity. Would it be possible to do a more thorough analysis and publish it in some peer reviewed journal so that the IPCC people can pick it up and adjust their models?

    On the other hand it seems that we might need more some equivalent of the IPCC for peak oil...

  2. The positive impact of IPCC´s work might be a bigger focus on energy gathered outside of the carbon cycle, thus helping to mitigate the peak oil problem.

    After all it´s the two sides of the same coin - peak oil is the "in" side, climate change the "out".

    As Richard Heinberg pointed out - what humans are doing is in principle similar to what yeast does after discovering a huge supply of sugar: they multiply until either the sugar is gone, or they die off in their own shit, which is alcohol.

    Wine or beer drinkers basically enjoy the latter type of collapse of a yeast civilization.


  3. Anonymous, I think that Aleklett published this:

    As a side bar, during his talk, Aleklett mentions that the "peer reviewers" required him to put 100% error bars on his estimates of oil, gas and coal production and URR, probably just to decrease the paper's creditablity. "Peer reviewed" can also mean "filtered."

    JK, yes, this is why the Hubbert equation seems to work pretty well for modeling either yeast or human behavior...perhaps there is not much difference when large population groups are being considered.

    The interesting thing, for me, will be to see if the IPCC is ALLOWED to publish a climate change prediction model that uses, as its input data, the kinds of production declines in oil gas and coal and URRs that Akelett and others have predicted.

  4. Hi Crash Watcher,

    the link for Aleklett's paper doesn't seem to work, maybe it was already put down...?

    Why do you think IPCC wouldn't be allowed to change the models? Where would the pressure come from?

    One thing is sure - climate change sceptics will not be the ones pushing this story forward, as they seem to be mostly interested in defending the status quo.

  5. Anonymous, you are right! I just downloaded that article about a week ago, and now the link is dead for me too. Maybe it is just a temporary maintenance issue.

    The article's title is: "Validity of the fossil fuel production outlooks in the IPCC Emission Scenarios" by Hook et al., Natural Resources Research, Volume 19, Issue 2, June 2010, Pages 63-81 doi:10.1007/s11053-010-9113-1

    There was also short write-up about the article here:

    I think that it is possible that the IPCC may not be allowed to report a model based on a peak fossil fuel scenario for the same reasons that existed in the late 1990s, and referred to by van Ypersele during the aspo 9 discussion session: influence ("pressure") from the major funding bodies (probably the USA) to only consider a non-mitigation (aka "business as usual") model.

    Yes, most CC sceptics may also want there to be "business as usual" as far as fossil fuel production is concerned, so they may not want to see this scenario run by the IPCC either.

    Hardcore CC advocates probably don't want to see a peak fossil fuel scenario run by the IPCC either, if this would diminish the relative importance of CC.

    Perhaps the only group interested in seeing this scenario run would be a relatively small number of peak fossil fuel advocates that are neither hard core CC advocates nor hard core CC sceptics.

    We are really talking about politics here, not science, so who knows how this will play out?

    On the brighter side, things have changed since the 1990s, in that some governments and industry groups have openly talked about peak oil in the last few years, so I am still hopeful.

  6. In a way peak oil is good news in the sense that humans will have less "power" to destroy their environment.

    As you've pointed out, under the peak oil scenario a dieoff is very likely, but chances are that humans would survive as a species, since they did survive without oil for quite a while already.

    On the other hand if one of the weak links in the system of the environment, as identified in the excellent analysis done by Johan Rockstrom, gets crushed, humans as a species might vanish.

    As climate change is one of the weak links, underestimating the danger poses a risk that is an order of magnitude higher, than underestimating peak oil.

    On the other hand climate change might be ultimately the lesser of the problems we face, as there are 2 other weak links where the threshold might have been crossed:

  7. Anonymous, I would not judge as to whether or not this is “good news or bad news”—many people will likely suffer starvation and death, and they will probably not go down quietly.

    Thanks for the reference to Rockstrom’s entertaining talk. I certainly agree that something else besides peaking fossil fuels may happen that could crush civilization and cause a die-off.

    The only point of disagreement I have is that when Rockstrom says “it is time to bend the curve” it implies that “we” actually have some control over this, and, implies that there is just one “we,” and, that “we” have a consensus view of what to do and what will work.

    I think that this is unrealistic.

    In my opinion, all of those pressured “boundaries” that Rockstrom speaks of (including climate change) are symptoms that are appearing now because of a base cause: the fossil fuel energy that has been available to drive population growth and a high material consumption life-style. When that fossil fuel energy goes away, the pressure on the boundaries will lessen because the population and high consumption life-style will decline.


Your comments, questions and suggestions are welcome! However, comments with cursing or ad hominem attacks will be removed.