What Peak Oil Can Do for Climate Change

November 23, 2009 at 9:30 am
Contributed by: Chris

For Green Chip Stocks last week, I offered some insights from the peak oil study that should inform climate policy.

What Peak Oil Can Do for Climate Change

Follow the Yellow Brick Road

By Chris Nelder
Friday, November 20th, 2009

With all eyes focused on the Copenhagen climate summit in less than three weeks, perhaps its time for the peakists to find a new purpose.

The reason is simple. Money isn’t interested in problems; it’s only interested in solutions. And wherever capital goes is where the changes will be made.

The public also has little appetite for unpleasant stories, even true ones. The message is: Don’t tell us what we can’t consume — tell us what we can consume. Tell us our grid power costs are going to go up because of climate change and we’ll fight it. But help us buy efficiency improvements and renewables that will pay for themselves in fuel savings, and we’ll support it all the way.

A new Pew study on “apocalypse fatigue” highlights the problem nicely. The public’s confidence in the global warming problem has fallen sharply this year, even as momentum built toward Copenhagen.

Guilt and deprivation simply don’t sell like opportunity does.

That’s why trillions of dollars are pouring into cleantech annually, while the peak oil community continues to go begging for a few dollars to staff a small office and keep a web server running, all while battling a constant onslaught of misinformation placed in the top mainstream media by very deep-pocketed vested interests.

That’s why I said last week that the IEA was shrewd to turn its annual World Energy Outlook into a stalking horse, masquerading its alarm about peak oil as an earnest appeal to address climate change.

It’s also why I applaud Chevron’s new commitment to offer mentoring, resources, and financial support to the Cleantech Open through its $240 million venture capital arm. Chevron has long held the lead among its peers, I think, for engaging with the public on the energy challenges ahead with their “Will You Join Us?” campaign.

Oil industry, take note: That’s how you bridge the great divide between the Greens and the Browns — by putting some oil industry profits into the solutions for a world after cheap and easy oil.

Here are a few key concepts from the peak oil study that should inform climate policy.

All of the Above

First, solving the energy crisis isn’t an either Green or Brown proposition, but all of the above. There is a dangerous paradox here that the peakists can help the world avoid.

Climate activists need to realize that the renewable energy revolution can only be built on the back of fossil fuels. It will take vast amounts of oil, gas, and coal to mine raw ores, crush them, transport them, smelt them down and turn them into stock, transport them again, and turn them into end-products, then transport them again. We have no idea how to do all that without petroleum fuels, gas, and coking coal.

Therefore, in order to build a vast new infrastructure of solar and wind generation, ubiquitous rail transport, plug-in and natural gas vehicles, the next-generation grid, and so on, and do it at a reasonable price, we’ll have to ensure that fossil fuels receive vigorous and sustained investment.

Here’s a rough, rule-of-thumb way of expressing the supply dilemma: We have to fill a 25% gap in 25 years, a 50% gap in 50 years, and we need to be off fossil fuels completely by the end of the century.

Here’s another rule of thumb: Starting two to four years from now, the world will need to build the equivalent of all the world’s existing renewable energy capacity every year just to compensate for the decline of oil.

Meeting that challenge with renewables and efficiency would solve the emissions problem as a side effect, only it would do so by harnessing the profit motive — not by penalizing production. That’s how capitalism works best.

If we allow climate policy to pour cold water on the fire of fossil fuels, we would extinguish the growth in renewables too. Failing to maintain a steady supply of fossil fuels, even as they peak and decline, their prices rise, and their availability shrinks, would subject the cleantech industry to devastating boom and bust cycles.

Count on Less Fuel. . . and Less CO2

It’s fairly astonishing, but none of the climate change models take the peaking of any fossil fuels into account. They all project — over a period of 30 years or more! — fairly simple growth curves for population and the global economy, assuming that sufficient oil, gas and coal will be available to satisfy demand at historically normal prices.

As the peakists know, nothing could be further from the truth.

If my current understanding of the situation is even close to correct — peak oil circa 2005-2012; peak gas 2015-2020 and peak coal 2025-2030 — then the climate models are not accurately modeling 78% of the global energy supply over the next 30 years.

Accordingly, the CO2 projections must be wrong. Ultimately, the population-based forecasts must also be wrong. The peak oil study can help correct these glaring flaws by offering better data to the CO2 emissions models.

Easier to Switch than Fight

In resisting the policy focus on climate change and resisting the truth about peak oil, the fossil fuel industry has become its own worst enemy.

By perceiving these issues as threats, the Browns have created a vicious cycle. Fighting the renewable energy revolution sows public opposition, adds cost, and delays the deployment of renewables, which makes the CO2 problem worse. The worse the CO2 problem gets, the more it costs them.

If instead the Browns acknowledged that the future of fossil fuels will be increasingly difficult and expensive, and that CO2 is a problem they need to own, it would feed a virtuous cycle.

Peak-adjusted fuel models would lower the projected CO2 emissions, reducing the cost of mitigation and buying a bit more time for the transition to renewables. It would give the energy industry a clear mandate to invest more in renewables, and do so in a measured, less disruptive way. In turn, the accelerated adoption of renewables would reduce CO2 projections and feed further investment, reducing CO2 even more.

Hopefully, the peakists can help the fossil fuel industry come to terms with a decarbonized future, and in so doing, ensure its long term survival.

Incentivize, Don’t Penalize

Perhaps the most important way that the peakists can help the climate change cause is by changing the focus to what goes into the engine, instead of what comes out of the tailpipe.

As I have argued, incentivizing renewable energy solutions would be far more effective than penalizing fossil fuel producers. As an example, consider carbon capture and sequestration (CCS).

CCS remains an infant technology. As a recent article in Scientific American pointed out, there is currently only one commercial project in the world that does CCS (the 1,300 megawatt coal-fired Mountaineer Power Plant in West Virginia), and it captures a lousy 1.5% percent of its emissions.

Before CCS can be scaled up, there are also significant issues to be solved in finding sufficient storage capacity, transporting the CO2 to the storage sinks, and doing it all at an acceptable price.

Worse, if CCS is ever deployed at scale, the cap-and-trade approach to CO2 emissions would push the technology toward cement factories and natural gas-fired power plants before coal-fired plants, because of the additional cost and complexity of filtering out CO2 from coal plant effluent.

The CCS process alone will consume an estimated 30% of the energy a “clean coal” plant produces, and add up to 78% to the cost of the produced power. Should the technology catch on, its added costs and reduction in output would likely arrive at the worst time: just as oil goes into its long decline.

Emphasizing CO2 emissions in policy, therefore, has several undesirable outcomes: It doesn’t address coal plants satisfactorily; it raises costs substantially; it reduces overall power output; and it engenders resistance from the energy industry.

By contrast, focusing on the renewable generation side — what goes into the engine — results in increasing amounts of power that was clean to begin with, at ever-declining costs, and could create a long-term growth opportunity for the energy industry.

Follow The Yellow Brick Road

One needs to look no further than the backpedaling in anticipation of the Copenhagen summit to see the fundamental problem. The meeting is now essentially pre-programmed for failure, thanks to a continuing deadlock between developed and developing nations over who will shoulder the responsibility for future emissions.

It doesn’t help that President Obama has refused to commit to binding emissions targets internationally before Congress passes domestic emissions legislation, and that the U.S. Senate has now decided not act on its bills until the spring.

Commenting on the climate bill, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D., MO) said, “It’s really big, really, really hard, and is going to make a lot of people mad.”

I think that’s true, and it should tell us something: It’s a whole lot easier to find the financing and business support to roll out millions of little solar systems and insulation upgrades and more efficient vehicles, and so on, than it is to get a world full of politicians to agree on anything. Even after you get that agreement, you still have to build the solar systems and cars and install the insulation.

At best, the summit will probably result in non-binding political agreements. But I prefer to take a longer view of the climate change movement.

It doesn’t really matter if Copenhagen is deemed a failure or a success. And it doesn’t really matter if we take a backwards approach to the renewable energy revolution.

The only thing that matters is that the world continues to make progress in the right direction. Here, the peakists have an important role to play.

Somewhere over the rainbow, down a long and winding Yellow Brick Road, is energy’s Emerald City, and we’ll need the pragmatic peakists to lead us there. With their help, the Greens can get their heads out of the clouds, the Browns can move their rusting limbs again and learn some compassion for the earth, and the policymakers can find some courage.

Until next time,

Chris

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2 Comments

  1. Finally, some intelligent thought on the subject: peak oil is a much more useful fulcrum for creating a descent economy than climate change, and the climate change models lack accurate assumptions. Other reasons for our singular focus on climate change include the idea that current corporations can see no gains in less consumption and the focus on renewables, which would exclude most of them. And the powerful financial elites see climate derivatives as a replacement arena for profit-making. The pursuit of wealth and the massive surplus of energy creates strengthening autocatalytic loops that are counter-productive to the system.

    Our economy is based on production, and to maintain some coherency, descent needs to focus on production for a new economy rather than paper games and penalties that would arise out of climate change derivatives. Peak oil effects on the economy are much more imminent, catastrophic, and real. IMO, the whole climate change hype is a red herring, or perhaps a more acceptable focus for our defuse denialist fears about the end of our empire.

    Comment by Iaato — November 23, 2009 @ 11:33 am

  2. Fantastic post. The current global approach to energy is incredibly simple minded and we need more nuanced approaches. Some positives have come out of the focus on climate change over the last few years, on a wide scale people have begun to recognize that industrial processes have negatively impacted the environment and are starting to take actions to internalize those externalities. Unfortunately all the favored solutions are high-tech and require massive amounts of energy to deploy. By focusing on one single waste stream of human civilization we are about to throw all our remaining resources towards propping up a system that does a lot more harm than just emitting CO2, removing all available excess energy that could be devoted to preparing for a low energy future. I want to be optimistic but I’m not seeing a lot of reasons to have a positive outlook for the future.

    Comment by Justin Ritchie — November 24, 2009 @ 11:59 am

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