Jeremy Leggett. Peak Oil, climate change, and the daunting arithmetic of carbon fuels.
The Fifth International Conference of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas (ASPO-5) July 18-19 2006 in San Rossore, Italy.
By the time Jeremy Leggett stepped up to the podium, I was starting to wonder whether I was the only person in the conference who had ever heard of climate change. We had heard Hirsch telling us with a straight face that we should dig up all the tar sands and turn all the coal into petrol, and Bauquis arguing that we needed 3,000 new nuclear power plants. I am used to people arguing for climate change solutions with no peak oil awareness but rarely the other way round. Leggett told it like it is, and convincingly and with great urgency weaved the argument that peak oil and climate change are in fact, two sides of the same problem. You can see the Powerpoint of his talk here.
“This talk will look at peak oil in the context of climate change, the conflagration of two huge problems, what we might think of as the Two Great Oversights of our times. They are certainly the two biggest problems we face, and they have an interesting set of comparisons. The biggest single difference is that excepting the USA, there is pretty much a consensus on climate change now, whereas peak oil is still a minority view, although it is certainly less so thanks to the work of ASPO. It has moved from being a hobbyist issue to a more general one.
Part of my work is advising the Government. I don’t know of a single UK Government official who is worried about it. The main linking theme is that the survival technologies are the same, alternative energy and efficiency, which need to be fast tracked. We need to be able to trigger the survival reflex.
4.5 billion years ago there was carbon without life. Then the atmosphere began to change. Oil was created 150 and 90 million years ago. I would like to offer a history of our recent past.
1859. Man drills oil for the first time, in Pennsylvania.
1914. World by this stage is already running on oil.
1930. Peak year of discovery in US48, although no-one knew it at the time.
1956. Hubbert predicts that lower-48 US oil production will peak in 1971.
1965. Peak of world oil discovery.
1973. The first oil crisis hit, a huge shock despite being only a 9% drop, by then we also knew that Hubbert was right.
1978. The second oil crisis, triggered by the Iranian Revolution. Led to a real fear of depression, but 3 things came to our rescue, fresh oil supplies coming in, new reserves and no long food supply chains, none of which we have to fall back on this time round.
1981. The crisis was over and it was a peak year for the construction of refineries, rigs and pipelines.
1985. Doubts begin. You mean we’re not sure? The OPEC upwards revisions.
1989. Jim Hansen, climate scientist of NASA tells a Congressional committee “it is time to say that global warming is here”. It was a year of droughts and fires, but he was vilified and got no support. Also in this year the IPCC released its first authoritative report. Margaret Thatcher said “this is a report that will change our lives, instead of crying out for oil it will one day be crying out for water”.
1990. World Climate Change conference, every daily paper carried headlines relating to the subject, such as “Race to Save our World”.
1992. The energy around climate change had largely dissipated by now. At the Rio Summit 160 world leaders discussed climate change but produced a climate convention with no teeth. They concluded “we must stabilise them at levels that pose no threat and be able to feed ourselves, our ecosystems, our economies”. The US was the only nation that didn’t want legally binding targets.
1995. The second IPCC report revealed horrific temperature curves. The majority of climate scientists agreed. All the major research centres and academics, hundreds of people agree a consensus.
1996. Leggett left his career in the oil industry. This was also the year that BP quit the Carbon Club (a cabal of oil companies who worked together to derail the climate negotiations). Lord Browne of BP gave a speech in which he recognised climate change and BPs role in sorting it out. Ironically, without BP there would be no Kyoto Protocol. Shell also quit the Carbon Club. The main one to still resist is Exxon Mobil, who are guilty of grotesque corporate irresponsibility. The Kyoto negotiations attract more journalists than the Gulf War.
1997. Colin Campbell and Jean Laherrere publish their article “The End of the Age of Oil” in Scientific American.
2001. The suicide machine grinds on. Time cover “Exxon Unleashed” the same year as the third IPCC report.
2003. The hottest summer on record. The climate change negotiations fall apart. Kyoto is only just signed despite George Bush taking the US out of the agreement. The heatwave summer beganto turn around public opinion in relation to climate change. Many thousands of people die in the French heatwave.
2004. A notable turn around in the media. We can see it as the year that the media started to take climate change seriously. It was also the year that business started to take it seriously. It was also the year that Shell was caught telling lies and had to downgrade its reserves by a quarter. It did this because it was under tremendous pressure to replace reserves.
2005. The G8 met to discuss two key issues, climate change and Third World debt. Hurricane Katrina had a huge effect. It was fed by unusually warm waters in the Mexican Gulf. Time magazine cover read “Global Warming – be worried, be very worried”. If Time Magazine is telling you to be worried….
2006. Expections of future production are that oil will peak in 2008 plus or minus 2 years. Will the unconventional reserves come to our rescue? But really they won’t help. Oil has now reached a high of $78 a barrel. Climate change is increasing rapidly. What will all of this do to our economy?
The tipping point in terms of climate is 2°C above pre-industrial levels. This is the point of no return. We look set to go soaring through that. We need a mass withdrawl from carbon emissions. We must leave the coal in the ground. The bottom line is that coal is the killer. We have plenty of it, and we do have the option of seeing if every Government research lab IN THE WORLD is wrong. If we panic and use coal it will be our epitaph.
I do think that we have a fighting chance as there is an understanding that we will go the way of the alternatives. Do I think we’ll make it? We in the renewables industry are too small, we have been suppressed for too long. The dislocation will happen, it is the choices we make after the dislocation that will influence the kind of future we leave for our children.