climate change - peak oil

‘Taken together, climate change and peak oil make a nearly airtight argument. We should reduce our dependency on fossil fuels for the sake of future generations and the rest of the biosphere; but even if we choose not to do so because of the costs involved, the most important of those fossil fuels will soon become more scarce and expensive anyway, so complacency is simply not an option.'

Richard Heinberg


this text is an extract from the 'The Transition Handbook' of Rob Hopkins


One of the more absurd phenomena to emerge in recent years is that there are climate change activists who dismiss the peak oil argument, and peak oil activists who downplay climte change. It is as if people have discovered terrain which is somehow ‘theirs', which they intend to gallantly defend against all-comers. Georg Monbiot for example has expressed caution about emphasising the peak oil argument, fearing it will legitimise the case for biofuels, increased coal use, tar sand extraction and other climatically catastrophic approaches, ‘We don't have to invoke peak oil at all to see the sense and the logic in the transition approach, because even if the peak oil problem doesn't exist in any form, climate change does,' he told a public meeting. Tony Juniper of Friends of the Earth acknowledges that peak oil is a real challenge: ‘We do need to have the peak oil question in mind, because, irrespective of what we do about climate change, there is going to be an additional shock that's going to be economically significant, if not quite dangerous, coming from the oil price shooting up at some point very likely in the not-too-distant future.' He concludes, however, by saying: 'So the two are related but I think we have to keep them separate in terms of how we present them and deal with them because otherwise we create inadvertently damaging responses.'


But keeping climate change and peak oil separate does nothing to assist our development of realistic and potentially successful responses. Jeremy Leggett calls them the ‘Two Great Oversights of Our Time' and, to borrow from al Gore, peak oil is as much an Inconvenient Truth for climate change campaigners as climate change is for everyone else. Both, of course, are symptoms of a society hopelessly addicted to fossil fuels and the lifestyle they make possible. It is, however, too simplistic to assert that peak oil will mean climate change will be brought under control because we will run out of access to affordable liquid fuels; the situation is much more complex.

We do have a choice how we respond to peak oil. We can use it as an argument for developing solutions that actually put in place infrastructure that will support beyond the Oil Age, or we can use it to justify clinging to fossil fuels at all cost. The danger is, as Monbiot argues, that the gap which emerges as liquid fuels decline in availability will be filled with other fuels each far worse in terms of their climate impact than oil was.


Actually, even the current reserves of oil alone are more than enough to take us into full blown climate chaos. Natural gas, often touted for its supposed ecological benefits, is not much better. A glance at the total global coal reserves is enough to induce despair. Any strategy to address climate change must by definition involve the phase out of these fossil fuels, and ‘just transition' strategies need to be negotiated immediately.


For example, any increase in the production of Canadian oil sands, Venezuelan extra-heavy oil, and Rocky Mountain shale oil will entail energy-intensive activities at staggering levels, sure to emit vast amounts of CO2, which might more than cancel out any gains from climate protective activities. In addition, increased biofuels production risks the diversion of vast tracts of arable land from the crucial cultivation of basic food staples to the manufacture of transportation fuel. If, as is likely, oil prices continue to rise, expect it to be ever more attractive for farmers to grow more corn and other crops for eventual conversion to transportation fuels, which means rises in food costs that could price basics out of the range of the very poor, while stretching working families to the limit.


If we don't fill the gap between the need and the availability of fossil fuels with conservation and a concerted programme of relocalisation, and if we refuse collectively to acknowledge the reality of energy decent (the downward trend in the net energy underpinning society), we will rapidly drive ourselves beyond the climate topping points and will unleash climate hell and other disastrous series of events.


But additionally, if we see climate change as a separate and distinct issue from peak oil, we risk creating a world of lower emission but one which is, in terms of oil vulnerability, just as fragile as today's - if not more so - as energy prices rise.
A good example for this is New York, which recently emerged in a study as having one of the lowest per capita CO2 emissions of any large Western city, less than a third of the per capita US average. This is due to the density of living, the walkability, good public transport and the low heating requirement of apartment living. So, from a climate perspective we can argue that New York is a good mode of low carbon living we would all do well to emulate. Now let's weave peak oil into that mix. What happens to New York in the event of a power shortage, or when the price of importing food starts to rise sharply? New York experienced such a power cut in August 2003, and although it only lasted for a day, its impact was keenly felt. While New York may have a small carbon footprint, it has little or no resilience to declining oil supplies.

Climate change says we should change. Whereas peak oil says we will be forced to change. Both categorically state that fossil fuels have no role to pay in the future, and the sooner we can stop using them the better. It is key that both climate change and peak oil are given equal degree of importance in any decision-making processes. It is interesting to observe that climate change is rapidly being taken on broad by corporations, and increasingly by governments.


Supermarkets are falling over each other to be seen to be greener than their competitors and companies try to greenwash their economy. This is well illustrated by BP's solar-powered petrol stations, targeted on diverting attention from its responsibility for the climate change impacts resulting from the production and provision of the fossil fuels being sold there. One Shell Renewables representative at a recent conference admitted that despite Shell's perceived leadership role in renewables, the ratio of investment in renewables to oil & gas by his company is roughly 100 to 1 annually.


However, the idea of maintaining the global economy and just reducing its carbon output each year is attractive, and is now being seen as central to staying ahead of the competition. But apart from the Swedish and possibly the Irish Government, no government or corporation is yet really addressing or even acknowledging peak oil, at least publicly, because their business models will struggle greatly to adapt to it. For this reason the drive for reducing carbon emission is coming largely from the top down-wards, while responses to peak oil, due to its being less palatable to government and industry, appear to be coming more from bottom up.


It is also important to point out that unless we plan in advance for peak oil, and adopt measures such as the Oil Depletion Protocol proposed by Colin Campbell and Richard Heinberg, the recession caused by runaway oil prices will blow responses to climate change out of the water. Responding to climate change on an adequate scale requires a lot of money and an unprecedented degree of global co-operation. An economic recession - or worse, collapse - will make keeping the lights on our priority, and tackling climate change will slide rapidly down our list of priorities. Facing runaway climate change with a collapse d economy is the scenario we really want to avoid, and we separate these two issues at our peril.


It is important to look at climate change and peak oil rather together than in isolation. The Hirsch Report argues that we can mitigate peak oil with a crash programme of squeezing oil out of everything we can get in our hands. On the other hand, the Stern Report believes that climate mitigation and global economic growth are both possible and compatible. It does, however, completely ignore peak oil, stating that ‘there is enough fossil fuel in the ground to meet world consumption demand at reasonable cost until at least 2050'. But when the two are combined, our options for the future look verx different, that when we combine the two, the rebuilding of resilience is important as cutting carbon emission.



Rob Hopkins (2008): The Transition Handbook: from oil dependency to local resilience, Green Books, p.36-38


Michael T. Klare, Goodbye to Cheap Oil (, 11. June 2009)