Running out of oil could worsen climate change, author says

In The Last Oil Shock , David Strahan says it is quite possible to run out of oil and pollute the planet to destruction simultaneously.

Using the International Energy Agency's forecast, Strahan suggests even if oil production peaks in 2010 and immediately starts to fall at 3% a year, emissions would still rise by 25%, reaching 32 billion tonnes in 2030. Peak oil could even make emissions worse if it drives us to exploit the wrong kinds of fuel.

Strahan, writing in The Green Room, a weekly environmental column on BBC, says burning rainforest and peatlands to create palm oil plantations for biofuels releases vast amounts of CO2, and has already made Indonesia the world's third biggest emitter after the US and China.

Synthetic transport fuels emit even more carbon on a well-to-wheels basis than conventional crude; and when the feedstock is coal, emissions double.

When oil production starts to fall, moreover, soaring crude prices could trigger a depression deeper than the 1930s, and collapsing stock markets cripple ability to finance the clean energy infrastructure we need.

As 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.


Perseverance is the key to continued destruction. Yes, we’ll run out of oil, but why let that little issue stop us. We’ve faced obstacles to our modern way of living before, haven’t we? There are still many ways to fuel our vehicles and continue with the destructive lifestyle we’ve become accustomed to. It’s all a matter of priorities really. Yes, we’ll lose forests, and the air will get thicker, and we may need to move to higher ground, but we’ll keep on truckin’. We’ll stick with our enormous food swaps, and large scale industrial farming, or course (or we’ll put the livelihoods of at least a few dozen corporate heads at risk), and simply switch to biofuels. After all, the world has to come to an end at some point.

Only a publicist would have you believe that there is something new in the argument that there are is more than enough fossil fuels to raise atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases to dangerous levels even if the oil disappears overnight. See, for example, the relatively conservative Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change: “Increasing scarcity of fossil fuels will not stop emissions growth in time. The stocks of hydrocarbons that are profitable to extract (under current policies) are more than enough to take the world to levels of CO2 concentrations well beyond 750ppm, with very dangerous consequences for climate change impacts” (part III, page 169). Note, too, that these are fuels that are profitable “under current policies”. That is, even without additional policy and investment beyond “business as usual” to realise efficiency gains, the fuels could still be extracted and combusted without the world economy grinding to a halt as David Strathan suggests.