Decarbonizing – fast or slow?

I am trying to get a clearer fix on the issues of energy and atmosphere – which loom as a crucial chapter for the Rough Guide, and one which will be hard to get to grips with.

This will, as elsewhere, aim at broad brush summary, and one could argue that, amid the near-inexhaustible flow of commentary and analysis, there is consensus about some things.

One is that decarbonising energy supply is a good thing because a) we need to do something about the atmospheric effects of fossil fuels and b) our favorite fossil fuel is not going to last much longer.

Not a problem defending either of those propositions in general, I think. But much harder to navigate through all the disagreements about how much time we may have to deal with either, and which is the most pressing reason for action.

Two examples: Rob Hopkins, author of the new Transition Towns Handbook, is firmly in the peak oil camp. As his foreword writer (Richard Heinberg) puts it: “as fossil fuels go into decline, we will see a century of contraction in consumption levels that could cause the global economy to implode, undermining the survival prospects for the next generation.” Hopkins concurs, and thinks this will happen soon.

Putting aside the fact that this dramatic sound bite lumps fossil fuels together, there is clearly something in the peak oil argument. And Hopkins argues, essentially, that it is tactically useful because it persuades people of the urgency of the situation more effectively than just talking about climate change. “It has been my experience… that peak oil… can do more to engage and involve people and communities than climate change.”

Other example. Vaclav Smil, who seems to offer judicious reviews of more topics than any one academic can usually manage, calls peak oil warnings the product of an “apocalyptic cult”. More temperately, in Energy at the Crossroads, he argues that “the timing of oil’s global demise depends not only on the unknown quantity of ultimately recoverable crude oil resources (which has been, so far, repeatedly underestimated) but also on the future demand whose growth they have usually exaggerated and that is determined by a complex interplay of energy substitutions, technical advances, government policies, and environmental considerations.”

And in any case his long historical view is strikingly optimistic because:
“whatever the actual course of future oil extraction may be, there is no reason – historical, economical, or technical – to interpret the demise of today’s [2003] cheap oil as a harbinger of unmanageable civilizational difficulties. Energy transitions have been among the most important processes of technical evolution: they were driving our inventiveness, shaping the modern industrial, and postindustrial, civilization, and leaving their deep imprints on the structure and productivity of economies as well as on the organization and welfare of societies. …”

there are local and sectoral costs and problems, but

“historical perspectives show that every one of these transitions – from biomass fuels to coal, from coal to oil, from oil to natural gas, from direct use of fuels to electricity – has brought tremendous benefits to society as a whole. So far, every one of these transitions has been accomplished not only without damaging global economic performance, but with eleavating economies and societies to new levels of productivity and affluence, and with improving quality of the environment. Se even if we were too experience an early global decline of conventional oil production we should see this as an opportunity rather than a catastrophe. Energy transitions have always presented astounding benefits for producers of new supplies, and historical experience also makes it clear that from a consumer’s perspective there is nothing to be feared about the end of an energy era”.

In the end, his position is not too far from Hopkins, because he sees biospheric considerations as paramount, and accepts that atmospheric CO2 must be stabilised. It would be fair to say that he sounds less urgent about it all though – or maybe just realistic. Serious energy transitions take decades, maybe generations.

This seems persuasive, but might it just leave one reassured about peak oil but more worried about climate?

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