(The same article is also published in Melbourne’s newpaper The Age (same publisher as Sydney Morning Herald), but with a different title –Emissions scenarios are based on flawed assumptions, says energy expert)
November 27, 2010
HERE’S cold comfort. It would be impossible, according to the Swedish energy expert Kjell Aleklett, for us to emit enough greenhouse gas to warm the planet by six degrees: we don’t have enough oil, coal or gas to burn.
”All the emissions scenarios that have been put forward over the last 10 years are wrong,” says Aleklett, professor of physics at the University of Uppsala and the world president of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil.
The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change business as usual forecast to 2100, which would result in six degrees of warming, assumes worldwide production of coal could rise 10 times higher than today.
”That can never happen,” says Aleklett, who is on an Australian speaking tour this month and was recently heard on the ABC’s Science Show.
Aleklett says coal production will peak about 2030, and China is peaking about now.
”Ninety per cent of all coal reserves in the world can be found in six countries: the US, India, China, Russia, South Africa and, of course, Australia.
”The whole carbon dioxide emissions problem is only six countries,” he says. ”Those are the drug dealers when it comes to selling coal. If these six countries would stop selling coal there’d be no problem at all.”
Aleklett has been working with a Newcastle University team studying peak fossil fuel production, led by Geoffrey Evans and culminating in a doctoral thesis by the engineer Steve Mohr, summarised on the Oil Drum website (and previewed here last year). Taking into account supply and demand, Mohr’s ”best guess” puts peak oil production in 2011-12, peak coal production by 2019 and peak gas production between 2028 and 2047.
Aleklett says the Newcastle team is doing ”a great job … we get the same numbers.” In the March issue of Energy Policy , he said oil production peaked in 2008. ”We know that 2009 was lower, and it looks as if 2010 will be lower again,” he says.
The concept of a peak – maximum production – does not mean a date after which the world soon runs out of fossil fuels. It’s about flow rates. ”We are not running out,” Aleklett says. ”But we have a limit to supply. What we’re running out of is the possibility of increased usage.”
Aleklett, a long-time critic of the International Energy Agency’s forecasts, is looking increasingly on-the-money as demand figures have been wound back in the agency’s 2010 World Energy Outlook, released this month.
It stopped short of calling a peak in oil production but did lower its consumption forecasts.
Last year it stressed the importance of oil for economic growth and concluded that 106 million barrels a day would be required by 2030, 20 million higher than today.
In 2010 the IEA predicts only 99 million barrels a day by 2035 and avoids any discussion of economic growth. ”We can interpret this as meaning desired economic growth is not possible,” Aleklett says. He means it.
Aleklett believes high oil prices – they peaked at $US147 in 2008 – helped trigger the global financial crisis, when oil-dependent home owners in the outer suburbs of America’s cities began defaulting on their loans.
Peak oil will limit economic growth: the IEA now sees oil consumption in Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries falling by 15 per cent by 2035. OECD nations, including Australia, will have to revise down their future consumption estimates.
The Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics has yet to bring its forecasts into line with those of the IEA. But Australia’s own oil production is declining rapidly; by the end of the decade we could be reliant on imports for 80 per cent of our consumption, says the former Shell Australia and Australian Coal Association executive Ian Dunlop. Where will that oil come from? Can we outbid the likes of China and India?
”The government’s assumption there will always be oil available on the market is complete nonsense,” he says. ”Unless we’re willing to pay a fortune.”
BHP Billiton’s latest quarterly crude oil production figures showed drops across the board, propped up only by the new Pyrenees field in Western Australia.
ABARE’s Energy Resource Assessment last year listed just two other new Australian oil projects, including the Thai operator PTTEP’s Montara/Skua field – the site of last year’s disastrous spill.
The Australian spokesman for the Association for the Study of Peak Oil, Phil Hart, says ABARE is in ”economic fairyland”, believing demand will always lead to supply. The same problem underpins the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change scenarios, which are modelled by economists who ”assume business as usual is possible”.
Ultimately it is irrelevant whether we have enough fossil fuels to hit six degrees of warming. Global temperatures are already too high at 0.8 degrees above pre-industrial levels, and climate change is already dangerous.
Recent Potsdam Institute analysis concluded 75 per cent of the world’s fossil fuel reserves must be left in the ground if we are to keep warming to two degrees. ”There’s more than enough coal, oil and gas to get us into trouble,” says Hart. We need to stop burning fossil fuels now (and, the implication is, avoid wasting billions on carbon capture and storage, which uses extra energy and will only accelerate resource depletion).
The ramifications are profound: we need to electrify transport, and shift from private to public transport. Aviation may be a sunset industry. No more toll roads with wildly optimistic demand projections. No more hideously expensive airports.
Does the federal government get it? Aleklett says politicians should welcome the concept of peak oil, which is physical reality: ”Peak oil should be politicians’ best friend. It is something they cannot fix.”