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The Intertwining of Peak Oil and Climate Change

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 climate change. It is as if people have discovered terrain which is somehow ‘theirs’, which they intend to gallantly defend against all-comers. I have spoken to a number of leading climate change activists who are doing great work on climate change, but who regularly want to downplay the peak oil issue. George Monbiot has expressed caution about emphasising the peak oil argument, fearing it will legitimise the case for biofuels, increased coal use, tar sands 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 in Lampeter. However, in a subsequent article he revisited peak oil, examining the UK Government’s predictions for increases in road transport, and asking what might power those cars, finding that, unbelievably “no report has ever been commissioned by the British Government on the issue of whether or not there is enough oil to sustain its transport programme.”

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.”

I disagree. I will argue in this section that I don’t think we can keep them separate, and that doing so does nothing to assist our development of realistic and potentially successful responses. Jeremy Leggett calls them the “Two Great Oversights of Our Times” 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 lifestyles 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 about 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 us beyond the Oil Age, or we can use it to justify clinging to fossil fuels at all costs. 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 impacts than oil was – the turning of coal into liquid fuels, tar sands, biodiesel and so on. If we don’t fill the gap with conservation and a concerted programme of relocalisation (a concept explored in depth below), and if we refuse collectively to acknowledge the reality of energy descent (the downward trend in the net energy underpinning society), we will rapidly drive ourselves beyond the climatic tipping points and will unleash climate hell. If we see climate change as a separate and distinct issue from peak oil, we risk creating a world of lower emissions 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 of 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 requirements of apartment living. So, from a climate change perspective we can argue that New York is a good model 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.

Click the image for a larger view.

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 play in our future, and the sooner we can stop using them the better. It is key that both climate change and peak oil are given an equal degree of importance in any decision-making processes. It is interesting to observe that climate change is rapidly being taken on board by corporations, and increasingly by governments. Marks and Spencer now add labels to their clothes which say “If It’s Not Dirty, Wash at 30,” and supermarkets are falling over each other to be seen to be greener than their competitors. 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. Apart from the Swedish and possibly the Irish Governments, 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 emissions is coming largely from the top downwards; while responses to peak oil, due to its being less palatable to government and industry, appear to be coming more from the 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 collapsed economy is the scenario we really want to avoid, and we separate these two issues at our peril. Perhaps one could also argue that while climate change offers globalised economies the possibility of gradual adaptation to a lower carbon way of continuing globalised international trade, peak oil asks much tougher, and possibly unanswerable, questions.

The figure above tries to set out what happens when peak oil and climate change are looked at together rather than in isolation.

This is an excerpt from The Transition Handbook: From oil dependency to local resilience by Rob Hopkins. It has been adapted for the Web.

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