Will Peak Oil Save us from Global Warming?

Sharon May 21st, 2007

There’s a swedish article over at energy bulletin worth having a look at:#29845.html. In it, Kjell Aleklett of Uppsala University argues that we simply don’t have enough carbon to burn to bring about the worst case scenarios of global warming, and that the energy crisis will prevent the outside temperature increases.

I know I’ll be watching the responses to this piece, because I’m certainly no climate scientist. In many ways I’d be thrilled to see that Aleklett was correct - I think dealing with peak oil but not with global warming is a much more manageable situation.

On the other hand, I have my doubts, particularly because Aleklett’s arguments are based on the IPCC numbers, which are terrifically conservative. The thing is, the Potsdam Institute estimates that our best chance of keeping temperatures below the critical 2 degree threshold means keeping the parts per million of atmospheric carbon below 440 (at which point have 2 out of 3 odds - not that great - of maintaining the lower temperatures). But the IPCC estimate is that we are now at 469 ppm - that is, in order to stabilize the climate we have to lower the atmospheric carbon levels dramatically, because we’re already over the line. The IPCC, being a political document, holds the 500 ppm line, but the facts don’t back this up. At 500 ppm, we have only a 30% chance of avoiding the critical 2 degrees of warming.

Now Aleklett is right that we probably do have to hold atmospheric carbon levels for some time in order to have a dramatic warming effect, but I think his article, because of its focus on the IPCC, underestimates the time we need to be burning carbon. Even if the direst predictions are right - that oil is past peak, natural gas is about to peak and coal will do so within the next 10-15 years, that means at least another decade of heavy carbon energy use, including a great deal of coal. While it is true that the IPCC models show long term human carbon contributions, what may matter most is simply having enough carbon long enough to get the earth into an irrevocable cycle. In fact, emissions rates are rising much faster than the IPCC report indicates - a paper published today by scientists at the Global Carbon Project shows that the rate of emissions increase tripled between 2000 and 2004 http://www.theage.com.au/articles/2007/05/22/1179601340054.html. We’re burning more carbon, faster, than the IPCC or anyone expected, which means that the IPCC models are dangerously conservative, and Aleklett’s analysis is impacted by that.

Now the reason we’re trying to hold things below the 2 degree mark is this - climate change has an ugly tendency to accellerate on its own, but most of the things that cause it to snowball are left out of the IPCC report because they are controversial. No one knows exactly how much methane the seas might release, or the soils. So for the most part, the IPCC models leave out the worst possible consequences - that we might already or soon be past the point of no return, at which the earth simply takes over. By setting his baseline against the very conservative IPCC report, which includes comparatively few of the factors that might cause accelleration, Aleklett ignores the reality that we may get to the worst case scenarios even given peak oil.

Now were these factors merely speculative, there would be a case for Aleklett’s arguments. But while the exact impact of these factors is not known, most of them represent *observed* phenomena - not speculation about what might happen, but things that are already occurring. That is, this week a report was released that showed that the southern oceans are now saturated and ceasing to absorb carbon http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/RTGAM.20070517.wocean0517/BNStory/Science/home
Last year, British scientists began to observe soils releasing their carbon, and artic researches spotted bubbles of methane newly released by northern seas. And of course, the rainforests are already heating up, catching fire and burning - tens of thousands of acres have done so in the last year.

Is Aleklett’s analysis possible? It is. Is it complete - I don’t think so. For example, none of these take into account the issue of global dimming, which by itself might be enough to push the climate over the edge. Nobel winning professor Paul Creutzen estimates that if global dimming - the particulate emissions that cut the sun’s impact on the earth - were taken out, temperature rises would be between 7 and 10 - on the apocalyptic end of things. Global dimming is a particularly important factor if Aleklett is right, because those particulate emissions that are keeping the sun from heating up the planet even more are also products of fossil energy consumption - that is, as we are priced out of fossil energy, or begin to radically conserve, the sun’s heating effect is likely to increase dramatically. Even demand destruction is likely to accellerate global warming - one of those rock and a hard places things.

What Aleklett’s essay seems to me to imply is something that worries me a great deal - we may have time to up our emissions, but not enough time to get them down. Think about it this way - let us say that Aleklett is correct, and that all three major fossil sources will have peaked by the end of the next decade, and energy prices will get off their undulating plateaus shortly and begin to rise even more radically. What does that do to the world economy? What does that do to our daily lives? And how likely is it that we will then begin a major build out of renewable energy, infrastructure changes, etc…?

The thing is, switching over, even to a very limited and low energy society (one which is largely human powered), much less the “we can have it all with renewables fantasy that most people cling to” - is a hugely energy and money intensive project, much more so that simply going on the way we are. And it depends on our basic ability to keep the economic balls up in the air - that is, having enough capital to invest in even basic public transport, letting our hospitals run on renewables and reinsulating our houses depends on the economy going forward. And right now, our current, debt based economy going forward depends on the economy continuing to grow, which requires a ton of energy.

It is much less energy and capital intensive to simply go on the way we are, letting the market gradually price people out of things like gas and electricity. So if we’re as close to the end, there’s a good chance that we can keep things going as long as we don’t try and mess with it too much, but we’ll have a tough time starting big projects - that is, we have the ability to keep burning the carbon, but not the ability to stop burning it in a productive way.

Aleklett is absolutely right that an analysis of the impact of peak oil on global warming is absolutely necessary, and reliable energy numbers are necessary. I have my doubts that he’s right that peak oil will stave off global warming, though.


12 Responses to “Will Peak Oil Save us from Global Warming?”

  1. Olorin809on 22 May 2007 at 12:01 am

    excellent commentery on your part, Sharon. yours is one of the few I have read that covers all of the “big three” problems. I am not able to give you an informed oppinion as to the accuracy of Aleklett`s piece (or your`s either), sorry.

  2. GK4on 22 May 2007 at 12:18 am

    I doubt that coal will peak any time soon, what with a trillion tonnes left. However, since a lot of it is in hard-to-dig places, maybe more of its future will be through underground coal gasification with associated carbon capture and storage, instead of the usual digging.

    See Monbiot’s _Heat_ (Canadian edition), page 209, for reasons why peak oil won’t be our climate change savior, and could make things worse.

    And see _Heat_ pages 82-86, which cites information about coal, including this article: http://www.planetark.com/dailynewsstory.cfm/newsid/34152/story.htm

  3. RASon 22 May 2007 at 12:22 am

    Hey Sharon,
    Aleklett’s argument seems to be in large part a rehash of the old “we don’t have to do anything because it will sort itself out” line of reasoning. I do think he may be right on the timing of the Peaks; the projections I’ve been seeing with increasing frequency lately point to that. But I also don’t think that Peak Oil, Coal and Natural Gas will save our butts from climate change -not without serious mitigation efforts.

  4. jewishfarmeron 22 May 2007 at 3:20 pm

    G4, I think your data (and Monbiot’s) is a bit out of date, at least in regard to coal. Have you seen the data from the EWG and IFE? There estimates are based on the downgrades that have happened over the last few decades, and the second report largely confirms the first. Richard Heinberg just posted a summary piece, but the original re-estimates are not there.


    I also think Monbiot is simply overestimating the impact of non-traditional oil sources - that’s one part of his book I do disagree wtih - and an important part (I’ve got a full scale review in progress) because most of his solutions are energy intensive ones that assume we can build a lot of clean coal plants.

    Monbiot is very valuable in many ways, but not, I think here.


  5. sylviahon 22 May 2007 at 3:20 pm

    I’m starting to wonder if you’re actually human. How can you run a farm (isn’t this planting season?), raise four boys (I’ve only got one, but I can extrapolate and guess at how much work that is) and write a post or two every day that is insightful, informative, and pretty much free of spelling errors? No sleep?

  6. mimuluson 22 May 2007 at 4:57 pm

    I am with sylviah, how do you do it sharon?!

    Great post, and if I was your neighbor, I would ride my bike over with a casserole for dinner and clean your house so you could keep up your marvelous online work.

  7. jewishfarmeron 22 May 2007 at 5:19 pm

    Thanks for the sweet comments - there’s really no magic to how I do it. I get all this done by:

    a. being a slob - you don’t want to see my house.

    b. being easily distracted - I go out to the garden and think about one thing, then wander back in and write a little, go back to the garden…

    c. Having a husband who is doing much of the child care this summer so that I can write my books, blog and garden (he’ll help in the garden but he’d rather play with the kids).

    d. Being behind on everything all the time ;-).

    There’s nothing too it - just lower your standards way, way, way down…;-).

    Thanks again,


  8. GK4on 22 May 2007 at 5:55 pm


    I looked over the Heinberg article you cited, as well as the PDF’s from there. I think they are right as far as getting actual rocks out of the ground.

    But I was talking about turning the underground coal into a gas and tapping that supply. Use this to power electric generation plants, which also remove most of the CO2 from their exhaust and pump it back into the ground. You get electricity which is quite useful for many things, including manufacturing wind turbines. A second process could get you liquid fuels, but if all you are running are ambulances and firetrucks, you won’t need very much of that.

    With limits on allowable CO2 emissions binding on everyone, we would have to sip coal gas or syngas. And sipping stretches out the supply. We couldn’t run the current industrial economy on that for very long, but we could still use it for a long time in our more modest future lifestyle.

    I seem to recall that Monbiot didn’t like the idea of getting liquid fuels from tar sands and whatnot, but I’ll have to check the book again, and I don’t see what that has to do with coal gasification.

  9. jewishfarmeron 22 May 2007 at 7:56 pm

    GK4, I think you are far more optimistic than I that we can sequester the carbon from gasified coal. The technology is more speculative than not, unlikely to be successful in some regions - much of New England, for example, is solid granite - problematic in earthquake zones, and, according to the Rand Institute Analysis, has leakage rates ranging from 1-8%, which are unacceptably high. So until we have sustained, solid evidence that we can truly sequester coal, gasification or liquification are both just as troubling as coal usage in general. A recent MIT study cited a large number of contra-indicated factors that have to be technologically overcome, including the problem of acidification, contamination of water tables and leakage rates that are at this point quite high in experimentation.

    I know less about in-ground gasification, but I was under the impression that that, too, was far from proven technology, and is highly energy intensive. I haven’t seen enough reliable figures on its EROEI. To my mind, the basic problem is that arranging such a system, including proximate electric plants right over coal deposits has many of the same problems that any other descent strategy has - it is money and energy intensive, and we’re not doing it yet. I’m not at all convinced that we’ll reconfigure the grid rapidly enough.

    You may be right about Monbiot - my husband has wandered off with my copy of _Heat_ - I do know he believes that further exploration will offset declines, though, and that seems totally unlikely to me, given that discovery peaked many, many years ago.


  10. uluon 22 May 2007 at 8:41 pm

    Kjell really p••sed me off, he should stick to what he knows something about.
    I sent this last night to a mailing group:


    Aleklett doesn’t mention tipping points, positive feedbacks, albedo changes or large-scale methane/CO2 releases from permafrost, peatlands, forests and other lands, nor the dimming effects contributed to airborne particulates released by -increasing- fossil fuel combustion.

    His article is therefore seriously flawed; we know all these things play a part. The fact that we don’t know exactly which part, is the sole reason to leave them out of our models, something that harms the models’ scientific value, instead of enhancing it. Aleklett should know and consider this.

    His title: “Global warming exaggerrated”, is simply not true. Taking a report and subtracting a few numbers left and right doesn’t make you an expert on the matter discussed. Obviously Aleklett is no such expert, which implies it might be wiser for him to refrain from stating opinions. Stick to Peak Oil?!

    Anyone with one working braincell can see that the IPCC report may very well underestimate climate change, and perhaps by a lot. The IPCC methodology requires consensus among some 2000 scientists, and even then the findings face subsequent reviews by the likes of Karl Rove and the Saudi and Chinese governments.

    But you have to appreciate someone who tries to make his “exaggeration” point by saying that the US will soon be burning less energy-intense coal. How that would lead to less emissions, Kjell only knows.

    One thing that we can be certain of when looking at climate science is that present models tend to underestimate the consequences of our fossil fuel consumption. We can derive this conclusion from the fact that a huge number of publications and reports note that changes arrive faster than previously estimated.

    The numbers and algorithms used are flawed, most likely because uncertain factors are simply not incorporated in models. Sometimes this may be or seem justifiable, but not always. For instance, the future CO2 uptake of Canada’s, and Siberia’s, boreal forests is now so much in doubt that it’s time to consider changing models. In the IPCC setting, that is not likely to happen.

    PS sequestration is, quite literally, a pipe dream, useful in only maybe 0.05% of all emissions.

  11. Kiashuon 23 May 2007 at 8:28 am

    The story of Lake Nyos makes me sceptical about the good sense of trying to “bury” zillions of tonnes of CO2 underground… the planet Earth is not a big gas tank, it has little leaks we call “volcanoes” and “springs” and “faultlines” and so on.

  12. feonixrifton 22 Jun 2007 at 5:50 am

    There is discussion of the oil reserves having been generated by giant dead zones in the sea from previous (slower) warming periods. If that’s the case, burning the whole of even one set of those would send us right back to that. Fast.

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