If there are 3 trillion barrels left, we should have the time to find alternatives to oil. If there are only 1 trillion, then we are in trouble.by Jeremy Leggett / December 17, 2005 / Leave a comment
23rd October 2005
There are two reasons why we must get out of oil, and at first sight they are contradictory. One: it is running out. Two: we cannot afford to burn it.
So when will it run out? Much rests on when the “topping-out point”—the peak of production-occurs. The US department of energy and most oil companies tell us it is a long way off. These “late toppers” believe that 2-2.7 trillion barrels of conventional oil are left in known deposits and predictable discoveries. At the other end of the spectrum are the “early toppers,” such as the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas, who reckon on more like 1 trillion barrels. In societies dependent on growing supplies of cheap oil, the difference is seismic.
If there are 2-2.7 trillion barrels left, the topping-out point lies somewhere in the 2030s and we have time to prepare. If there are 1 trillion barrels left, the topping-out point is as close as 2008, plus or minus two years, and there is not enough time to make the transition from oil to alternatives without economic trauma.
This way of looking at oil, of course, assumes we can go on burning it for as long as we find and pump it, and many geologists, most economists, and almost all financial analysts assume this to be the case. They are wrong. We can’t. The reason is global warming. Unmitigated warming is capable of kicking us into a new depression, never mind its effect on ecosystems. The core question is: can we replace oil and the other fossil fuels at just the right pace to avoid economic calamity as a result of oil shock, climate shock or both?
Small-scale examples show what could have been done to displace fossil fuel use since the 1990s. Woking council has cut CO2 emissions by 77 per cent since 1990, using a hybrid strategy of local electricity generation, solar power and energy efficiency. The government view is that with this approach, “we could achieve a virtually zero-carbon energy system in the long term… this is technologically and…