(Collier, M. 2016. Athabasca Oil Sands, Alberta, Canada. Stanford News, Dec. 20th. As conventional oil supplies are becoming depleted, unconventional sources, such as ‘tar sands’ [with an EROI of 3:1 or less3], despite their cost and difficulty of extraction and processing, are being increasingly exploited).

Problems

Section
8. Assist Energy Descent and Transition
Page
8.3

Although fossil fuels have been a boon for most of us in one way or another, they have several major problems, not least that that they are finite and highly polluting.

Figure 2-1 below portrays world production for one of the fossil fuels – oil – and it is interesting that conventional supplies began to flatten out between 1980 and 20101. In keeping with classical economics, an increase in scarcity and cost in conventional supplies led to a search for alternatives, and some substitution occurred with the tapping of previously harder-to-obtain and more expensive ‘unconventional’ supplies, such as tar sands or oil shale, but these, too, appear to have peaked and are now declining.

 

Another graph adapted from the Association for the Study of Peak Oil(ibid.) tracks the relationship between conventional oil production, discovery, and projected future discovery, and shows that discovery peaked in the 1960s, that production is peaking now, and that future discoveries will tail away until around 2050. The key message is the gap between discovery/resource and production, and this gap appeared in the early 1980s and has been growing wider ever since; this means depletion.

(Grantham. 2011. Discovery, Production and Resources Conventional Oil 1930-2050. Adapted from Assoc. for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas)

 

Again, classical economics will say that as conventional and unconventional oil supplies become smaller and harder and more expensive to obtain, substitution will occur, in this case to other fossil fuels, such as coal and gas. This has happened and will happen, but it delays the problem only, it does not solve it, as the adjacent graph 5-2 demonstrates2. As mentioned, the oil peak is happening now, and the shift to gas and coal of the last fifty years will also peak in the decade 2030-40 and then decline. (Re nuclear and renewables, we will address them later in Section 8). Granted, not all of this decline will be due to resource depletion (e.g. coal reserves are still very large Note 1), as cost, accessibility, competition, reduced growth and investment, etc., will all contribute to reduced demand, but ultimately, there is just so much available and affordable oil, coal and gas to hand, and our ever-increasing desire for more growth and consumption is driving us to the useful limits of these finite resources Note 2.  Our response to this reality will be explored in webpages 8.4-8.6.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(Collier, M. 2016. Athabasca Oil Sands, Alberta, Canada. Stanford News, Dec. 20th. As conventional oil supplies are becoming depleted, unconventional sources, such as ‘tar sands’ [with an EROI of 3:1 or less3], despite their cost and difficulty of extraction and processing, are being increasingly exploited).

 

(ii) Polluting

Fossil fuels have been a well-known cause of various forms of serious pollution for a long time: lead emissions and respiratory problems from particulates are just two examples. Thankfully, the situation re both these pollutants has improved considerably, particularly for lead pollution (down from 15 micrograms to 2 micrograms in blood of US children2), and particulate levels have declined, but are still far too high in Developing Countries (see Section ‘State of the Environment’, graph SPM 4 E).

Our main concern here will be the pollution of greenhouse gases, which is intimately tied to the burning of fossil fuels.

(Climate Central. 2020. Global Temperature and CO2 Concentrations. [See also Section 10.3])

The relationship between CO2 emissions and temperature rise is so well known as to be almost superfluous, but I think it is worth emphasising again, as per the very clear graph provided by Climate Central. Similarly, it is well known that most CO2 and equivalent emissions are from the burning of fossil fuels, as per the pie chart below.

(Adapted from IPCC. 2007. Fossil Fuels and Climate Change).

Figures vary, but it is usually estimated that around two-thirds of the driver of climate change comes from the burning of fossil fuels. (In addition, important additional drivers come from deforestation – 17% – addressed in Section 7, ‘Habitat’, and agricultural practices – 14% – addressed in Section 2, ‘Consumption’).

It is now well established that the burning of fossil fuels leads to large-scale emissions of CO2 and that these emissions are the primary driver of modern-day climate change. What, then, is the trend in fossil-fuel use and emissions? Are we, either through climate concern or scarcity, or other inhibitors like investment, decreasing our energy consumption and use of fossil fuels?

The short, overall answer to this, is ‘no’. As the graph by Smil4 demonstrates, energy consumption has shown an extraordinary increase over the last 60-70 years and shows little sign of slackening, despite the rise of renewables, slight changes in ‘the mix’, and various efficiencies. (This will be explored in greater detail on the next webpage – 8.4).

 

To put some figures to the graph, The World Counts5 reports that global energy use has increased by about a third since 2000 and grew by 2.9% in 2018 alone (a doubling period of just 24 years!). This is a phenomenal rate of increase in anyone’s language.

 

1 Grantham, J. 2011. Time to wake up: Days of Abundant Resources are Over. April, GMO Quarterly Letter.

2 EPA, 2003. Lead: America’s Children and the Environment: Measures of Contaminants, Body Burdens and Illnesses. Feb., 2nd edn., Washington D.C.

3 Murphy, T. 2021. Energy and Human Ambitions on a Finite Planet. eScholarship/UCA, San Diego, USA.

4 Smil, V. 2017. Energy Transitions: Global and National Perspectives. ABC-Clio, LLC, Santa Barbara, USA.

5 The World Counts. 2022. Global Energy Consumption Only Going Up. https://www.theworldcounts.com/challenges/climate-change/energy/global-energy-consumption/story 

6 IMF. 2022. Climate Change: Fossil Fuel Subsidies. Fossil Fuel Subsidies (imf.org) .

Note 1. But are currently extracted using machinery powered by oil-derived fuel. So, as oil becomes scarcer, our ability to extract coal becomes harder unless we turn coal into oil or hydrogen; both processes are extremely GHG intensive.

Note 2. But low EROI extraction can occur only with taxpayer subsidy. Indeed, government subsidies to fossil fuel industries is the only thing that allows some forms of extraction to persist6.

Explore Other Energy Descent and Transition

8.1 Introduction

Rather than start chronologically, examining our extraordinary growth in energy use and the benefits and problems this has entailed, I will start with the present day as the current energy uncertainty and instability throw light on our immediate e...

8.2 Background

  Our current energy largesse is an extraordinary ‘gift’, an unprecedented gift of the ages; millions of years to produce and from millions of years ago. Coal, oil and gas, forming under forests, swamps and seas in the Carboniferous or Tri...

8.3 Problems

Although fossil fuels have been a boon for most of us in one way or another, they have several major problems, not least that that they are finite and highly polluting. Figure 2-1 below portrays world production for one of the fossil fuels – oi...

8.4 Responses: 1. Classical Economics and Business as Usual

Predominantly, this is the response to resource limitations and climate change around the world at the moment. After fierce resistance to the notion of climate change, and that fossil fuels were at all limited or a major cause of climate disruptio...

8.5 Responses: 2. Substitution with Renewables

Renewable energy is a huge and complex topic that we can but touch on. This said, we are lucky to have some first-rate communicators and clear thinkers to guide us through the maze, and Dave Borlase from ‘Just Have a Think’ is certainly one of the...

8.6 Responses: 3. Decreased Consumption and Deep Structural Change

As alluded to in 8.5, there is a group loosely positioned within the ‘renewables camp’, but sees it as just part of the solution to the problems of finite energy resources and pollution/climate change. This group perceives the enormity of the prob...

8.7 How Individuals can Assist, Plan, Commence Transition

As mentioned in 8.6, Jason Bradford believes that we will have to transition to a very different, more rural, society with far more localised and less energy-dependent food production. To commence this process he thinks we need to familiarise ours...

8.8 Successful Low-Energy, Renewable Energy, Projects and Groups

I have endeavoured to provide examples of responses at different scales (e.g. individual/household, town/village, nation), with different emphases (e.g. food or power), origins (e.g. collapse or transition), and technologies (e.g. the very simple ...

Explore Other Sections

1. Build the Nature-Human Relationship
1. Build the Nature-Human Relationship 1.1 Articles 1.2 Art Installations 1.3 Books 1.4 Buildings 1.5 Film, Documentaries, Podcasts 1.6 Music 1.7 Paintings 1.8 Photographs 1.9 Poems 1.10 Spiritual Responses
1/11

1. Build the Nature-Human Relationship

This section is designed to foster appreciation and insight that will – hopefully – lead to novel ways to build a better relationship between human beings and Nature. This section is also atypical ...
2. Reduce Consumption
2. Reduce Consumption

2. Reduce Consumption

I hope Reneé Descartes would forgive us for saying that, at least for the modern world, he was wrong.  When, in 1637, he said: “I think, therefore I am”, he could not have anticipated that the majo...
3. Replace God of Growth with God of Quality
3. Replace God of Growth with God of Quality

3. Replace God of Growth with God of Quality

In a supposedly secular age there has arisen a global religion and god like never before, a religion whose reach and power makes every other belief system before it seem pitiful and insignificant: ...
4. Work, Volunteer, Act for the Environment
4. Work, Volunteer, Act for the Environment

4. Work, Volunteer, Act for the Environment

What we do in our day-to-day lives can have great impact. Section Four divides up these actions into three groups – Work (4.2 & 4.3), Volunteering (4.4), and Action, e.g. voting, protesting, et...
5. Reduce Population
5. Reduce Population

5. Reduce Population

Even on top of Mt. Everest, in one of the remotest, most difficult places on earth, there is a great traffic-jam of people jostling for position. And yet, ever more vociferously, we deny that overp...
6. Ensure Media Acknowledgement of Environmental Context
6. Ensure Media Acknowledgement of Environmental Context

6. Ensure Media Acknowledgement of Environmental Context

The media is one of the three, great ‘poles’ of power in the world (alongside political and corporate power) and how they frame and present ‘the environment’ has a profound effect on how we respond...
7. Stop Further Loss of Natural Habitat and Species
7. Stop Further Loss of Natural Habitat and Species

7. Stop Further Loss of Natural Habitat and Species

New York is an exciting, mesmerising place. Human culture is extraordinary and often wonderful. Our powers of transformation of the natural world seem limitless. The trouble is, we don’t seem to be...
8. Assist Energy Descent and Transition
8. Assist Energy Descent and Transition

8. Assist Energy Descent and Transition

Our current energy largesse is an extraordinary ‘gift’, an unprecedented gift of the ages; millions of years to produce and from millions of years ago. Coal, oil and gas, forming...
9. Support New, Environmentally-Aware, Economic Systems
9. Support New, Environmentally-Aware, Economic Systems

9. Support New, Environmentally-Aware, Economic Systems

Just as with the previous section – ‘Energy’ – which is, inescapably, all about fossil fuels so pre-eminent and extraordinary has been their dominance and transformation of the world in the last 20...
10. Reduce Wastes to the Rate of Natural Assimilation
10. Reduce Wastes to the Rate of Natural Assimilation

10. Reduce Wastes to the Rate of Natural Assimilation

Section 10 will attempt to organise this enormous topic by addressing the context and status of pollution in 10.2, before focussing in on air pollution; particularly greenhouse gas pollution and cl...