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Last Updated: Thursday, 29 March 2007, 18:33 GMT 19:33 UK
End of oil heralds climate pain
David Strahan
David Strahan

Many people think that running out of oil, or "peak oil", would be good for the climate. In his new book The Last Oil Shock, David Strahan begs to differ; he suggests it may bring catastrophe.

Oil well in silhouette. Image: AP
Many industry figures now accept the oil slide will begin soon
It is becoming increasingly clear that global oil production will soon go into terminal decline, with potentially devastating economic consequences.

Although the idea of peak oil has traditionally been ridiculed by the industry, now even some of the world's most senior oilmen concede the case.

Last year Thierry Desmarest, chairman of Total, the world's fourth largest oil company, declared that production would peak by around 2020.

He urged governments to find ways to suppress oil demand growth and put off the witching hour.

Other forecasters are convinced the peak date is even closer.

But many environmentalists continue to resist the idea.

Some seem to suspect that anybody who argues that oil production is set to fall must be a closet climate change denier with a secret agenda.

It is quite possible to run out of oil and pollute the planet to destruction simultaneously

Others, like Stephen Tindale of Greenpeace, instinctively distrust forecasts of an imminent peak, but wish fervently that it would come soon.

"Let's hope that the oil does run out", he told me, "and that the world has to develop alternatives to oil seriously quickly, and from a climate point of view that would be an excellent outcome."

Neither position could be more wrong.

Dirty growth

It is mathematically impossible that peak oil will solve climate change.

Although oil is the biggest single source of energy-related greenhouse gases, coal and gas combined are bigger still, and the expected growth in their emissions would overwhelm any reduction from oil.

As I demonstrate in The Last Oil Shock using the International Energy Agency's "business-as-usual" forecast, even if oil production peaks in 2010 and immediately starts to fall at 3% a year, total emissions would still rise by 25%, reaching 32 billion tonnes in 2030.

Yet by that time, we need to be well on the way to at least a 60% cut in emissions.

Book cover. Image: John Murray/David Strahan
Oil depletion has the capacity to worsen emissions and destroy the wealth needed to fight global warming
So it 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.

Land fill

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.

Price sores

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

Filling station. Image: Getty
When prices rise, will the political will to fight climate change wilt?
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.

David Strahan is an investigative journalist and documentary film-maker

The Last Oil Shock: A Survival Guide to the Imminent Extinction of Petroleum Man is published by John Murray

The Green Room is a series of opinion articles on environmental issues running weekly on the BBC news website

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

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