Climate Change and the Coming Energy Crisis (article)

A University of Toronto forum in December addressed the urgent issues of climate change and peak oil.

Imagine this situation: Two of your dearest friends, a retired couple, have just returned from vacationing on a remote, sparsely populated island on another continent. They invite you to dinner and announce their surprising plans. They intend to move to that country with their grown children, reduce their consumption, grow their own food, and help their grandchildren survive the terrible years ahead.

Within ten or twenty years, they believe, Canada will be a miserable place to live because of fuel shortages. The price of oil will skyrocket. Houses will be unheated, and hardly any cars, planes, tractors, or trucks will be moving. The economy will be paralyzed. Millions will starve or freeze in poverty, especially in northern cities. Violence will prevail as marauders try to seize the necessities of survival. That’s why your friends have decided to leave.

At first you feel shocked, then angry. You try to argue with them, but you don’t have enough evidence. They know ten times as much about environmental matters as you. They are smart, rational people — prominent citizens, warm and generous friends — the best people anywhere. If they believe all this stuff, you’d better study up on it yourself.

So you begin reading about “peak oil” — the coming decline of oil production, which is almost certain to occur, if indeed it has not already begun. How will it affect our lives? Will there be wars over fuel? Or will starving raiders from the cities loot the granaries of farmers around the world? This is a peace issue too!

Your reading does not confirm the worst fears of your friends. According to most experts, there are numerous alternative fuels, if we are collectively smart enough to develop them in time.

Yet you become convinced that grave difficulties are inevitable, caused not so much by “peak oil” as by climate change. Though oil depletion may not be an insurmountable problem, greenhouse gases (GHG) will be. Climate change, more than oil shortage, will jeopardize human survival, though the two issues are clearly linked. Our reckless use of petroleum has increased carbon dioxide levels, which with other greenhouse gases in the air are changing weather around the world. We’d still have to quit burning oil, even if there were no shortage of it — the sooner, indeed, the better.

You learn that the “peak oil” analysts are a different group from the scientists who study climate change, nor do they have much to do with each other, though climate and fossil fuels are aspects of the same problem. But the two groups do agree on this policy: We must develop alternative, renewable sources of fuel as soon as possible and radically reduce carbon dioxide emissions. In fact, it’s too late to prevent disaster, though we can still limit its impact by acting wisely and quickly.

Now you wonder how to priorize the possible policies. Needing to hear a dialogue between members of those two environmental communities, you reason that many other people must also need to hear it. So you go to your peace NGO, and offer to organize a public forum on the subject within a month. They agree to sponsor it.

This is not just fiction; it’s my own experience. The forum took place at the University of Toronto on December 1, 2006, under the auspices of Science for Peace, with an audience of hundreds. Later I’ll review the highlights of the day, but first let me share some facts about climate change that I learned while preparing for it. Here I’ll draw on data from the David Suzuki Foundation, which reflects a scientific consensus.

What I learned about Climate Change

Canada is probably the worst offender among nations in terms of emitting greenhouse gases on a per capita basis. Although the United States has not signed the Kyoto Protocol, various US state governments are cutting emissions, whereas in Canada emissions actually have been increasing. Here some of the first bad consequences of climate change are already emerging in forests (the pine beetle) and the Arctic.

There are several different greenhouse gases — methane, nitrous oxide, fluorinated and chlorinated gases, and ground-level ozone — but the most important is carbon dioxide, CO2. The increasing concentration of atmospheric CO2 comes from burning coal, oil, and natural gas, plus deforestation.

In 1988 an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was created, to produce reports by hundreds of eminent climate scientists. Its fourth report will come out shortly, but the third one (in 2001) stated:

“If no explicit action is taken to curb GHG emissions from human activities, the global average surface temperature is projected to increase by 1.4 to 5.8 degrees C between 1990 and 2100…”

In 1994, a treaty, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) became international law and has since been ratified by virtually all nations. It requires all industrialized countries to mitigate climate change by reducing emission of GHGs and by protecting its GHG sinks and reservoirs — forests and bodies of water that store carbon.

Yet this treaty has barely begun to be implemented. About 0.6 degrees C of global warming has occurred since it became law, with consequences that are beginning to be visible, including in the increasing number of forest fires.

How much warmer can the world get without creating grave risks to the planet’s ecosystems? Scientists generally consider 2 degrees C as the upper limit of tolerable temperature increase. To keep the planetary heating within that limit, it will be necessary to restrict the amount of atmospheric CO2 to 400 parts per million by volume (ppmv). Throughout most of human history the CO2 stayed close to 280 ppmv but by 2004 it had increased to 377 ppmv — the highest level in at least 420,000 years. It is increasing now by about 1.8 ppmv every year.

How much must we reduce CO2 emissions to stop the buildup of its concentration in the atmosphere? Different estimates vary. Britain has set a goal for the year 2050 of reducing CO2 emissions by 60%, while France intends emission reductions of 75-80% by that time. California has set a target of 80% reduction by 2050.

In Canada the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy is supposed to develop long-term energy goals. Its current models anticipate reducing Canada’s GHG emissions 60% below the present level by 2050. The David Suzuki Foundation and the Pembina Institute, on the other hand, urge the government to adopt a more ambitious target — 80% reduction by 2050. In reality, however, Canada’s emissions increased 24% between 1990 and 2003.

Sharp reductions are feasible with technologies that already exist. As the European Renewable Energy Council has shown, 82% of the world’s electricity and 48% of its total primary energy could come from renewable sources by 2040. Nor are these changes unduly expensive. Though there will be significant costs in conserving energy, developing greater efficiency, and generating renewable energy, these changes will reduce operating costs, thereby creating savings for energy consumers.

Four Controversial Points of View

If you listen to discussions of climate change and “peak oil” issues you will hear people expressing four different views. First, there is denial. Many people do not expect any problems, either because they are misinformed or committed to an overly reassuring economic theory or religious doctrine. The scientific evidence shakes such denying persons when they actually confront it.

Second, there’s concern about impending climate change. All scientists hold this perspective, which I will discuss further below. They insist that if we don’t cut the emissions of GHG by up to 80 percent, the planet will cook and many millions of species — possibly including our own — will perish. The way to reduce greenhouse gases is to reduce the use of fossil fuel energy and switch to renewable sources, such as wind, solar, geothermal, or biomass.

Third, there’s the “peak oil” perspective. This group points out that we’re depleting the world’s reserves of oil and other fossil fuels. Of course, “peak oil” itself is not a theory but rather an impending certainty. What is controversial is not the looming decrease of oil production but rather the expectation of peak oil theorists that this decrease will create economic and social chaos.

They point out that all renewable sources of energy yield low levels of “net energy.” A certain amount of energy is necessary to extract more energy, but some sources are far richer than others. For example, an excellent oil well may have a net energy yield of 100 — that is, it will produce one hundred units of energy for each unit required to find it, drill, transport and refine it. At the other extreme, ethanol made from corn may have a net energy yield of less than 1.5.

The “peak oil” theorists point out that all renewable fuels have lower net energy, so we will be unable to do as much work with them as now. We may even be unable to keep our families well-fed or our homes warm in winter. While the peak oil theorists recognize the threats posed by global climate change, they worry just as much about impending energy shortages.

Fourth, there is the ecological sustainability perspective. It combines both of the preceding two concerns with an additional worry about the sustainability of ecological systems. This view, which is the most pessimistic of the four, addresses both the climate change threats and the looming energy shortage, but it is unsatisfied with the usual solution to those problems: the prompt and widespread adoption of renewable fuels.

Instead, it argues that all energy use is inherently disruptive to the planet, even if it comes from solar or wind power. The use of energy always affects the environment. All work, and even our biological functioning, affects the world physically, often to the detriment of other species. We cannot avoid having such impacts, and the more of us there are, the worse are our effects on the planet.

Fortunately, nature is resilient and absorbs most impacts delivered by humankind — at least until now — but there are “tipping points” beyond which recovery is impossible. Thus James Lovelock, the biologist who introduced the theory that our planet is “Gaia,” a unified, self-regulating organism, now maintains that it is reaching irreversibility, and that most species will become extinct. Far more is required to save the planet from all these problems than merely ceasing to emit greenhouse gases.

Our challenge is to appraise the evidence on all four of these perspectives and develop appropriate strategies. The Science for Peace forum explored all of these views except the first. (No expert denies that climate change is a problem.)

The forum

The program began with a showing of Al Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth. Next a panel of experts analyzed climate change and energy, then answered questions from the floor. These panelists were Professor Richard Peltier, a climatologist in the physics department at University of Toronto; Jim Lemon, professor emeritus of geography, University of Toronto; Danny Harvey, professor of geography at University of Toronto; and Dr. Mark Winfield of the Pembina Institute.

In the evening another panel gave talks about possible responses. These speakers were Dr. Jose Etcheverry, of the David Suzuki Foundation; Dr. Jack Santa Barbara, of the Sustainable Scale Project; David V.J. Bell, professor emeritus and former dean of the faculty of environmental studies, York University; and Dr. John Bacher, author of Petrotyranny and researcher with the Preservation of Agricultural Lands Society. The panelists did not debate.

Gore’s film provided an excellent introduction to the climate issue. It showed beautiful but disturbing images of environments impacted by CO2: the Arctic, Greenland, Antarctica, as well as certain ecological disasters such as the Aral Sea, which has dried up because the rivers that had fed it were diverted for irrigation purposes.

Gore travels the world, investigating climate change on the ground and giving his slide show (at least 1,000 times). He has even gone under the Arctic icecap in a nuclear submarine, and reports that the thickness of that ice has declined by 40 percent in 40 years. Similarly, a large Antarctic ice shelf has fallen off into the ocean.

Such changes set off more changes. For example, icecaps reflect light, so that 90 percent of the incoming rays bounce back. If the ice melts, however, the light rays hit water instead, which absorbs instead of reflecting them, thereby retaining more of the heat and raising the ocean’s temperature. If the western ice shelf in Antarctica melts, it will raise the sea level worldwide by 20 feet.

Gore shows maps of various part of the world that will be flooded by the rising seas. For example, around Calcutta alone there are 60 million people whose homes will be underwater. Most of Manhattan will go too.

These observations and predictions are not controversial among scientists. One study analyzed 928 articles about global warming in peer reviewed scientific journals. Not one of them questioned the validity of predicted climate change. Yet in the popular press, this topic is treated as a debatable theory. More than half of a sample of 636 such articles assumed it was questionable whether global warming is a problem.

Gore attributes this public obliviousness to two factors: a normal reluctance to react strongly to slow, gradual changes (the “boiling frog phenomenon”) plus misinformation disseminated by businesses whose interests depend on fossil fuels.

Professor Peltier, who is working on the fourth report of the IPCC, brought us up to date with evidence collected since Gore’s film was produced. He showed data collected by the GRACE satellite system — two “mini-Greyhound buses” flying together in the same orbit. The distance between them is measured with extreme precision. As they move over Greenland, if ice is decreasing, the “buses” move slightly farther apart but if ice is increasing, they move closer together.

“This satellite has been in space only 4.5 years,” said Peltier. “We have already observed a doubling of the rate at which all the ice in Greenland is being lost. The expectation is that this rate will continue to increase, but we are not yet precise in our predictions.”

Like the 928 articles in peer reviewed journals, the scientists on the panel all agreed about the dire prospects of climate change. However, only two of them, Professor Lemon and Dr. Santa Barbara, expressed concern about peak oil, though of course this outcome was essentially pre-determined by the choices I made when inviting speakers. Professor Harvey said,

“On the peak oil issue I am not particularly worried. There are all sorts of solutions to the pickle of energy that we are getting ourselves into, if we act now and intelligently. There is no shortage of renewable energy and no shortage of ways to use it.

“On the global warming issue, I would say that the human race is in big trouble, but if we act quickly and intelligently, and cooperate, the solution from the human point of view is still possible. However, the prospect is bleaker for other species, such as the one or two million organisms that depend on coral reefs. There is very little we can do to avoid a one to two degree warming and coral reefs are unlikely to survive.

“Tropical rainforests are sensitive to rainfall. The average climate may become more like El NiƱo, which spells drought in the Amazon and Indonesia. The implication: that the Amazon will be grassland by the 2080s. One or two million species will be gone. As for global diversity, we must expect one-fifth to one-third species extinction by 2050. So this is a pivotal point in the history of life on this planet.”

A member of the audience asked about Ontario’s preparations for alternative energy such as wind. Dr. Winfield explained that the current electrical grid is designed around large, centralized facilities — three nuclear plants, three coal plants, and hydroelectric facilities at Niagara and Cornwall. New planning is the responsibility of the Ontario Power Authority, which is mandated to produce a twenty-year electricity plan. However, Winfield seemed doubtful about the outcome. He said, “The problem is, if you construct a plan around a limited number of large, centralized generating facilities, you put an 800-pound gorilla into the room, which in effect determines everything else. The answer comes back, ‘We have to organize the grid around these facilities. Then if we have any money left over, we might think about renewables and everything else.’”

Professor Lemon, an avowedly pessimistic peak oil theorist, was skeptical about the possibilities of alternative fuels — or even nuclear power, which he admitted he had avoided mentioning. Even uranium is going to be depleted in a few decades, he said. The only solution he could recommend was for people to stop having babies. The problems all come from human population growth.

In contrast, Dr. Etcheverry was full of cheery news about technological advances. He focused mostly on windmills, but pointed out the steep growth curve of investment in all forms of alternative energy. “Venture capitalists haven’t seen curves like that since the cellphone and laptop were becoming popular,” he added.

“The world leaders in renewables are Germany and Spain. Every year they are installing more capacity — 1500 megawatts — than we have today in this whole country. The good news is that the technology has evolved greatly. When Germany got started in 1991 or ’92, the average wind turbine was about 100 kilowatts. … Today, when Ontario is finally getting serious about renewable energy, the average size is about 5,000 kilowatts. Today it’s easier and cheaper to become a world leader in renewables.”

Etcheverry mentioned the problem of intermittency in generating wind and solar power. Yet he showed that there are already technological solutions. When the wind is blowing, you use it. When you are warned that it is not blowing, you use the water behind the dams to produce electricity. Spaniards are doing this accurately. Forecasting has come a long way in the last five years.

He mentioned other new forms of storage too, such as the vanadium flow battery. When you have wind electricity you store it in one of the vanadium tanks. When you don’t have electricity, there’s a proton exchange membrane and electricity comes to the other side. Such batteries could be located in hospitals or school basements to provide electrical storage in a decentralized, distributed manner.

Dr. Santa Barbara spoke after Etcheverry, and his expectations seemed guarded. He reminded us that fossil fuels are unique energy sources, with high energy densities and a very high net energy ratio. “As the total amount of net energy declines, “ he said, “we will have less energy to do work. This means less energy to construct the new renewable energy systems that will be needed….Simply making technology better does not ensure that our impact on ecosystems will be sustainable.”

Still, Santa Barbara reminded us that it is entirely possible to have a satisfying life while consuming far less of the world’s resources than most of us do today. Above the threshold of about $10,000 per year, people are no happier when they consume more.

The last two speakers also offered positive suggestions. John Bacher urged that, instead of letting the price of fuel determine who shall have access to scarce fuel, governments should implement a rationing system such as used in World War II. (George Monbiot also proposes rationing in his book, Heat.)

Finally, Professor Bell reported on the recommendations of the National Round Table on which he serves. This body is appointed by the federal government. “The most important finding,” he said, “is that there can be a domestic solution to making significant greenhouse gas reductions by mid-century.”

This requires far more efficiency than at present. Thus the plan envisions retrofitting all existing buildings and raising standards for all new buildings, starting in 2010. It requires that cars in 2050 have an average efficiency of 3 liters/100km and that twice as many people be taking transit. Trucks will be three times more efficient than today.

As for electricity, the plan calls for large increases in renewables, including great increases in wind technology, clean coal involving sequestration, and very large increases in cogeneration.

After hearing these presentations, the audience lined up to offer their own thoughts about climate change and sustainability. There is, frankly, no room for great optimism. We face perilous times, and many species will not long survive. Yet, if the commitment of citizens worldwide is comparable to that of the forum’s participants, life for our own species may yet be good.

This report appeared in Peace Magazine, Jan-Mar 2007.