Submitted by Arthur Dahl on 5. June 2011 - 18:45
e-learning centre on sustainable development


Heading: Development    Topic: Energy

The energy sector, the driving force for modern civilization, now threatens to lead it into crisis. Our industrial economy was built on cheap energy, and our systems of transportation, communications, trade and agriculture, in fact our whole consumer lifestyle, all depend on high inputs of energy. Not only are Western countries profligate with energy, the emerging economies of Asia with half the world population want to follow the same model. As a result, energy demand is rising rapidly and the supply is shrinking. Adaptation will be extremely expensive. Western material civilization as we know it is unsustainable.

Already a decade ago, it was predicted that global oil production would peak in a decade or two, when falling production would then drive prices up rapidly. There was a hope that changes in technology such as a rapid shift to electric vehicles would occur sufficiently rapidly to reduce the demand for oil, assuming that non-fossil energy sources were used to meet the increased demand for electricity (MacKenzie, J., 1996). Unfortunately, there seems little chance that technological change can occur sufficiently rapidly to save Western economies from severe shocks.

The energy situation is even worse in developing countries. Two thirds of future growth in energy demand is expected to come from developing countries where at least 1.6 billion people are without access to electricity in their homes. Over half the people still rely on biofuel, including wood, dung and agricultural wastes, for cooking and heating, most of which is burnt indoors. Between 10 and 20 per cent of the fuel used in households on biomass stoves is not fully burnt, triggering a wide range of harmful air-borne pollutants. As a result, indoor air pollution of fine particles from fuels like charcoal is ranked in the top ten causes of mortality, causing up to 2.4 million premature deaths a year from respiratory problems and heart attacks. In homes burning biomass, particle levels can be between 300 to 3,000 microgrammes per cubic metre, when the EU guideline is 40 µg/m3 (UNEP 2006).

Science has established a number of facts relevant to the energy challenge. Second Law of Thermodynamics shows that energy is always running down or increasing in entropy. This is a one way process with no return. It is also evident that all resources are limited on a finite planet, and human civilization has now reached those planetary limits. In these circumstances, growth cannot continue indefinitely. The human population is expected (barring surprises – war, famine, pestilence) to reach 9 billion in mid-century and then decline, so energy demand must increase in the decades ahead. The planet must have some limit to its human carrying capacity, but this depends on the number of people and their standard of living, with a trade-off between the two.

We are therefore reaching the end of the fossil fuel era. Consumption of fossil fuels continues to grow at 1.1% per year. At present consumption rates, reserves of oil are estimated by many informed observers to last about 40 years, gas 67 years and coal 164 years. While published reserves can increase through new discoveries (although these are declining) and new extraction technologies, there are other constraints such as investment cost, environmental impacts and insecurity in supply.

Oil provides 40% of the world's primary energy, and world oil use is growing rapidly at 1.1%/year. The growth rate is 1.3% for OECD countries, 2.8% in Latin America, 5.4% in India, and 7.5% in China. From 2001-2020, world oil consumption will rise 56%, with OPEC production doubling. Non-OPEC production has already peaked. Any such growth in consumption will reduce the time remaining reserves will last.

How much oil is there? Geologists have estimated the ultimate recoverable reserve at 2000 Bb, from which the cumulative production to date has been 980 Bb, leaving reserves of 827 Bb and another 153 Bb which we have yet to find. It has been demonstrated that oil production peaks and starts to decline at half of the recoverable resource, since extracting the remaining oil becomes increasingly difficult and expensive. This would put the global peak in oil production at about 2008-2010. Post-peak production will then fall at about 2.7% per year, dropping 75% in 30 years. There are other reserves such as the Athabaska tar sands in Canada (300Bb) and Orinoco heavy oil in Venezuela (300Bb), but they face severe extraction problems, and even if fully exploited would only equal 22 years of current consumption.

Oil is not the only fossil fuel. There are larger reserves of coal, but there is high mining impact, it has less energy density, and burning it causes high air pollution and CO2 emissions. Natural gas is less polluting, but the reserves are also limited. Some experts talk about methane hydrates in ocean sediments, but extracting them from deep in the ocean presents difficulties, and methane is a potent greenhouse gas, so any leaks will add to global warming.

When we consider our dependence on oil, it is frightening to consider what its rising price and then disappearance implies. We depend on oil for:
- road transport, shipping, aviation
- chemical feedstocks, plastics and synthetics
- much industrial production
- agricultural fertilizers
- mechanized agriculture
- a major part of our electricity generation
- heating and cooling, lighting
- our town planning and suburban lifestyle reflect cheap oil
- global trade and food distribution
The massive investment in present infrastructure in all these fields creates great resistance to change.

Even more fundamentally, there is a close correlation between cheap energy and the world population. 80% of global energy comes from fossil fuels, and the world population has expanded sixfold exactly in parallel with oil production. Can the world maintain such a population without cheap energy? What will happen if it cannot?

There is another big question. Even if we could exploit every fossil fuel reserve, do we really want to? The impacts of climate change are so great that we may need to stop burning fossil fuels before they run out.

The biosphere of this planet is a delicately balanced system, with conditions for life created by life. The complex systems and feedback mechanisms of the planet, like the climate system, are poorly understood. Humanity now captures one quarter of the Earth's primary productivity, which is all the solar energy captured by plants. Despite the global scale of our impacts,we lack management mechanisms for the environment at the planetary scale.

The carbon cycle links the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, all organic matter, the carbonate in limestone, and the carbon in fossil fuels. Fuel oil produces 2.9 tonnes of CO2 from burning 1 tonne of oil equivalent (toe), while natural gas produces 2.1 tonnes CO2 per toe, and coal produces 3.8 tonnes CO2 per toe. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas.

Greenhouse gases (not only carbon dioxide, but methane, water vapour, etc.) trap heat in the atmosphere. The CO2level in the atmosphere is rising rapidly as we burn fossil fuels. More heat in the atmosphere changes the air circulation and climate. The effects will be highly variable around the world, and are not easily predictable. The latest evidence suggests that the worst predictions about climate change may be realized. The Gulf Stream has recently slowed by 30%. Greenland glaciers have doubled their rate of flow due to rising temperatures in the Arctic, and half of the permafrost in the Arctic is expected to melt by 2050 and 90% before 2100. Major parts of the Arctic Ocean were ice-free in 2005 for the first time. The rate of sea level rise has doubled over the last 150 years to 2 mm per year. The west Antarctic ice sheet has recently started sliding into the sea at a rate that will raise sea level by a further 4 mm per year. We may be approaching a tipping point where runaway climate change would be catastrophic.

Governments have made plans for controlling greenhouse gases, but these have not been effective. The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change was signed at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992. Its Kyoto Protocol on the reduction of greenhouse gases called on industrialized countries to return their emissions to 1990 levels by 2012. However CO2 emissions rose 4.5% in 2004 to 27.5 billion tonnes, 26% higher than 1990. China and India have doubled CO2 production since 1990, US increased by 20% and Australia by 40%. The US released 5.8, China 4.5, Europe 3.3, and India 1.1 billion tonnes of CO2 in 2004.

Related topics: Ethics and the energy challenge; Climate change


MacKenzie, James. 1996. World Resources Institute report, April 1996. Cited in "Scraping the barrel". New Scientist, 20 April 1996, and Matthews, Jessica. "The two-alarm energy crisis". Washington Post, 19 February 1996.

UNEP. 2006. GEO Year Book 2006.

Article last updated 26 February 2006

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