Monday, April 02, 2007

The Post-Peak Path Of Least Resistance
Past Peak

I don't think the end of cheap oil will mean that things completely grind to a halt à la James Kunstler. But what seems like good news may actually be bad news. Very bad news. Why?

Humans, like other organisms, generally take the path of least (short-term) resistance. It's our nature. In the Peak Oil context, the path of least resistance won't be to change how we organize cities and suburbs; or to switch to public transportation; or even to drive significantly smaller, more efficient vehicles. Nor will it be most of the other alternatives that could meaningfully reduce the demand for liquid fuels.

Instead, the path of least resistance will be to substitute other liquid fuels for gasoline and diesel, those other fuels probably being ethanol made from plant matter and, most alarmingly, synthetic fuel made from coal. There is an enormous amount of coal remaining, and if we put all of that carbon in the atmosphere the results will be deadly.

As people flail about for ways to cope with increasing shortfalls in oil production, they will act hurriedly, thoughtlessly, and they will almost certainly exacerbate global warming, perhaps catastrophically. That will be the path of least resistance.

In a BBC op-ed, author David Strahan makes a similar point. Excerpts:

[I]t is quite possible to run out of oil and pollute the planet to destruction simultaneously.
In fact peak oil could even make emissions worse if it drives us to exploit the wrong kinds of fuel.

Burning rainforest and peatlands to create palm oil plantations for biofuels releases vast amounts of CO2, and has already made Indonesia, according to some ways of calculating it, the world's third biggest emitter after the US and China.

Synthetic transport fuels made from natural gas using the Fischer-Tropsch process emit even more carbon on a well-to-wheels basis than conventional crude; and when the feedstock is coal, the emissions double.

None of these alternatives are likely to fill the gap left by conventional crude — at least, not in time.

But because they are so much more carbon intensive, it is quite easy to conjure scenarios in which we still suffer fuel shortages while emitting even more CO2 than in the current business-as-usual forecast — the worst of all possible worlds.

Although these fuels are likely to prove inadequate, we may be driven to use them because cleaner alternatives are even more inadequate, for a variety of reasons.

Biofuels can be produced sustainably and with real CO2 reductions, but in the industrialised world there simply isn't the land.

In the developing world, however, there are vast swathes of land which could be put to sugar cane in a sustainable fashion; but the scale of the task of replacing crude oil would still be monumental.

I calculate that to substitute the fuel lost through a post-peak oil production annual decline of 3% would mean planting about 200,000 sq km — equivalent to the land area of Cuba, Sri Lanka and Papua New Guinea — every year.

Alternatively, if we decided to run Britain's road transport system, say, on cleanly produced hydrogen — electrolysing water using non-CO2-emitting forms of generation — our options would be:

67 Sizewell B nuclear power stations

a solar array covering every inch of Norfolk and Derbyshire combined

or a wind farm bigger than the entire southwest region of England.

When oil production starts to fall, the economic impacts could well be devastating.

Soaring crude prices could tip the world into a depression deeper than that of the 1930s, and collapsing stock markets cripple our ability to finance the expensive clean energy infrastructure we need.

As the unemployment lines grow, the political will to tackle climate change may be sapped by the need to keep the lights burning as cheaply as possible.

Many environmentalists seem to dismiss or ignore peak oil because they simply cannot see it as significant when compared to climate change.

But this is to miss the point.

Oil depletion is deadly serious in its own right, but it also has the capacity both to worsen emissions and destroy the wealth needed to fight global warming.

For this reason - among others - it too has the power to destroy our civilisation. [Emphasis added]

Desperate people do desperate things. Fuel shortages will be an immediate, concrete problem staring people in the face. Global warming will seem, by comparison, an abstraction somewhere off in the future. And it will be easy for people to rationalize that their little contribution to global warming is an insignificant drop in a very big bucket; meanwhile, they need a way to get to work, to shop, to heat their homes. They are going to want fuel; they're not going to care much where it comes from.

Of course, there are significant wild cards in any attempts to project the future. Biotechnology and nanotechnology, especially, have the potential to radically transform the equation. (And also to create their own brand of havoc.) But the next couple of decades are pivotal, and the sheer scale of the problem means that new technologies may arrive too late. Enormous damage is already being done, right now, in the race to produce biofuels. The colossal scale of the world's thirst for fuel pretty much guarantees that in the race for profits all sorts of bad ideas will be pushed into large-scale use without due regard for the consequences. We suffer from a kind of technological monoculture and a monoculture of the mind that causes us to risk way too much on a few throws of the dice.

If we act without thinking, we're guaranteed to follow the path of least (short-term) resistance. But it's the wrong path. It remains to be seen if humans are smart enough to forego short-term convenience to gain long-term survival. Are we?