Sunday, November 11, 2007

Peak oil meets climate change

Irish Times: Two frightening trends stand out from the annual report published this week by the International Energy Agency (IEA).

Warning about a crude oil supply crunch before 2015 involving an abrupt price increase, it says oil markets everywhere will become more sensitive than ever to Middle East disruptions, including political developments in Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. And the IEA calculates that, on unchanged policies, total global emissions of carbon dioxide will rise from 27 billion tonnes in 2005 to 42 billion tonnes in 2030. That level would see world temperatures rise six degrees centrigrade by then - an utterly unsustainable increase that is also avoidable.

These two trends thus bear out the stark warning given by Dr Jeremy Leggett this week in an Academy Times lecture in Dublin boldly entitled Half Gone: Peak Oil meets Climate Change. A former oil industry consultant and Greenpeace campaigner, he said the combination of the two "is going to hit society with a big, seismic shock . . . I hope I am wrong, but I don't believe we can avoid the third great oil crisis. We will be mobilising as though for war". Uncannily, this week's financial and economic headlines bear him out. Markets are exercised by the prospect of the international oil price reaching $100, driven by huge increased demand from China and India. Along with the growing competition from alternative biofuel production, this stokes up food prices and general inflation and contributes to uncertainties about interest rates and the current worldwide share and banking credit turmoil.

It is salutary to recall that the international oil price was $16 a barrel in 1999. That is the essential background for understanding some of the geopolitical changes since then. Foremost among them has been the resurgence of Russia over those years, coinciding exactly with President Vladimir Putin's rise to power. Russia is now the world's second largest oil producer after Saudi Arabia, ahead of the United States, Iran and China. But as the IEA report makes clear, the Middle East region remains central, notwithstanding its political volatility. This is underlined in remarks made by a former Saudi ambassador to the US, who says an attack on Iran would make "the whole Gulf an inferno of exploding fuel tanks and shot-up facilities", which would "shoot up the price of oil astronomically".

Given how the possibility of such a US attack has moved so far on to the international agenda, it is high time these likely consequences were taken far more seriously than has been the case so far. It would bring an oil crunch perilously near. The prospect of global warming on the scale suggested over the next two decades is even more frightening. A six degree increase is three times more than scientists say the earth can withstand without irreversible and runaway environmental degradation.

Energy and climate change are now directly affecting the world's peace and prosperity. We have only a short time to cut oil dependence and slash carbon emissions.

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