Fossil fuels can be described as "ancient sunlight", because they represent energy captured from the sun by photosynthesis in ancient plants. By using fossil fuels during the industrial age we have increased the amount of energy available to us enormously.
Coal is the fossilised remains of ancient forests. Many of these forests built up layers of peat on the forest floor. Over millions of years, this peat became compressed by layers of sediment above, and turned slowly into carbon-rich coal. A prime coal-forming era was the Carboniferous period (300-360 million years ago), which was named after the extensive coal beds found in Western Europe. 48% of the electricity produced worldwide comes from coal.
Oil unlike coal is formed in the sea. The dead remains of plankton accumulate in bottom sediments, where they are eventually buried at great depths and heated up by geothermal processes. The oil reserves in Saudi and Iraq were mostly formed during the Jurassic era (200-145 million years ago). An incredible eighty million barrels of oil are consumed globally each day - that is nearly a thousand barrels per second.
Gas is "overcooked oil", which is why oil and gas fields tend to be so closely associated.
In 1956 M King Hubbert, a Shell geologist showed mathematically that exploitation of any oilfield follows a predictable "bell curve" trend, which is slow to take off, rises steeply, flattens and then descends again steeply. He accurately predicted that US domestic oil production would peak around 1970. In the UK the first North Sea discovery was in 1969, discoveries peaked in 1973 and the UK passed its production peak in 1999. All around the world oil production is peaking.
It is estimated that half of all oil that was laid down in the earth has been extracted. We have currently used about 1 Trillion barrels of the 2 Trillion barrels available
The problem is that we are running out of cheap oil. The light oil that was near the surface has been largely exhausted. Drilling in ever-more inhospitable environments such as the Arctic, Antarctic and deep seas in order to extract oil will continue the destruction of pristine environments and add to global warming.
According to the Association for the Study of Peak Oil (ASPO) world oil peak is likely to occur sometime between 2008 and 2010. Some analysts believe we may have already passed the peak and are currently on an uneven plateau. It seems certain however that within a few years, the effects of oil peak will begin to be felt as for the first time in history the amount of available energy in the world begins to decline. ASPO calculate the rate of decline after peak to be about 2% per year. That doesn't sound to drastic, but the reduction in production arrives at the point where developing economies are planning to boom, and the rich-world's economies run on the idea of growth and promotion of con-sumerism.
In unstable market sectors, which are now almost wholly dependent on crude oil - principally transport and farming - will falter and contract.
Bankers Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley have indicated that the price of crude oil is likely to rise to $200 or above. The last five recessions in the US were all preceded by a rise in the oil price. However, such is the likely disruption to the global markets that the economy will be disrupted in ways never before seen or understood. As a consequence the price of oil will continue to fluctuate, but the underlying problem of fossil fuel use will remain.
We are entering an economic depression, or from an environmental viewpoint a new period of carbon reality not experienced by any other generation. The idea that economic ‘recovery' is possible ignores the environ-mental issues that are converging around us. The global economy cannot keep growing, All wealthy nations are ‘energy obese' and only a plan to power down will enable us to live good lives.
Powering down does not mean deprivation, or a return to hardships of the past.
In the United States, just 4% of the world's population consume 43% of the world's oil. Americans currently burn 21 million barrels of oil a day, roughly half of which is imported. As the country's domestic crude production is falling (estimated at 12% over the next decade), imported oil will have to provide at least two thirds of demand by 2020. If the Chinese emulate the US they will require more oil than the current global oil consumption.
Instead of being obliged to invest in renewable energy and energy conservation measures. Shell, BP and other oil companies are engaged in plans to extract oil from tar sands and other energy intensive extraction processes.
The tar sands business, by which crude oil is produced through highly carbon and water-intensive extraction and treatment procedures, risks taking the world into an irreversible warming scenario. Shell and other industry leaders have pledged to spend more than £63 billion by 2015 to develop these new sources of Canadian and other pristine wilderness territories.
Given that climate change, caused by burning fossil fuel is heating the planet, this might appear to be a good thing, but the problem is that currently our lives have become hard- wired to the oil economy
Cars and lorries service our sprawling suburbs and practically every consumer object we use is related to the oil and petroleum industry. We need to be planning how to organise our lives to respond to the end of oil challenge. A large percentage of oil is used for transport, yet it is not just about fuel.
A giant chemical industry relies on oil as its feedstock, and without it many of the products we now take for granted will be gone. Roads, pesticides, fertiliser, computer casings, TV's, CDs DvDs, toys, furniture, paints, and medicines, you name it. Everything needs to be redesigned.
The carbon reality is that we can never come out of ‘recession' because the economy simply cannot grow without a growth in energy
For every 1-calorie of energy in our food we have burned 10 calories of fossil fuel energy in farm machinery, fertiliser, pesticides and packaging.
In the modern world, the average food item has travelled between 1,000 and 1,500 miles before it arrives on our plates. If you want a definition of "unsustainable", there it is. This situation simply cannot continue, and one of the most pressing responses we need to start is growing our food closer to home using organic and low-energy intensive methods.
In fact, the use of fossil fuels to produce food is the single most important factor in the rapid explosion in the human population since the industrial era began. In the 1850s, world population was approximately 1.7 billion, now it is over 6.5 billion but with food production under serious threat from energy decline, and climatic events, we can only speculate as to what may be the likely population levels fifty years from now.
Peak Oil presents an unrivalled opportunity to embrace the reality that environmentalists have known for over forty years - that the Industrial Growth Society is unsustainable and therefore will come to an end.
Society is rapidly approaching its final opportunity to create a stable and equitable heritage for this and future generations. We have a ten year window of opportunity to implement ideas and structures that do not rely on an endless supply of cheap oil but can provide a high quality of life, that is socially just and ecologically sustainable.
There are already many initiatives around the world involved in creating locally self-reliant communities.
Peak Oil presents an enormous challenge to us all, but if we respond now we may yet be looking forward to a more harmonious future. Much of what we take for granted will disappear, but much of what we currently live amongst is poisonous, and noisy, anti-social and unrewarding
The shift is significant, we must move from the historic financial system into an economy sensitive to carbon. In tomorrow's economy, decisions on every level - personal, business and governmental will need to be driven by the imperative to conserve carbon.
"Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius - and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction"
Hubbertpeak. This website names after Dr. M. King Hubbert, provides data, analysis and recommendations regarding the rate of global oil extraction. www.hubbertpeak.com
Get involved in the Transition Movement
The transition initiative has published a handbook that enables local communities to become resilient to some of the challenges that face us. Get a copy, make those plans, do what you can and have as much fun as possible.
The Transition Handbook
Transition Towns Movement - an evolving exploration into the head, heart and hands of energy descent. Transition Initiative - www.transitionculture.org
Further information and useful resources
- The Electric Wallpaper Company - The End of Surburbia - PO Box 13, Paris
ON N3L 3ES, Canda. www.endofsuburbia.com
- Climate Outreach & Information Network - 16b Cherwell Street, Oxford, OX4 1BG. Tel: 01865 727911 www.coinet.org.uk
- Permaculture Publications - Hyden House Ltd., The sustainability centre,
East Meon, Hampshire, GU32 1HR. Tel: 01730 823311. www.permaculture.co.uk
- Greenpeace - Canonbury Villas, Islington, London, N1 2PN. Tel: 0207 8658100
- Centre for Alternative Technology - Machnynlleth, Powys, SY20 9AZ. Tel: 01654 702339. www.cat.org.uk
- Powerswitch - P. O. Box 178 Carshalton, SM5 2XY.
Tel: 0208 1232500 www.PowerSwitch.org.uk
Learn more and get involved with stop climate chaos and oppose coal-fired energy generation
"I can't understand why there aren't rings of young people blocking bulldozers and preventing them from constructing coal-fired power plants."
"The new power station planned for Kingsnorth will output more CO2 each
year than the whole of Ghana"
(a population of over 20 million!)
World Development Movement
Kingsnorth coal power station is located in Kent. Energy company EON are planning to replace the existing coal power station with a new one. The Kingsnorth coal station would be the first coal fired power plant built in the UK for over 25 years, and a significant step backwards in the UK's commitment to fight climate change. The decision to build new coal power stations would lock Britain into highly polluting energy generation for the next 40-50 years. 50 million tonnes of CO2 will be emitted each year if the seven proposed new coal plants are built. If Britain is to cut its emissions by at least 80% by 2050, the seven planned new coal plants alone will wipe out half of the UK's ‘carbon budget'.
There is no such thing as ‘clean coal' a term used all too often when new coal power is proposed, burning coal is the most polluting way of generating electricity. That is not to say that new coal power stations will not be ‘cleaner' then old coal power stations but they can never be classed as a ‘clean' technology
The burning of coal is very polluting. Like oil, coal contains sulphur that gives off sulphur dioxide when it is burnt. In the atmosphere, this becomes sulphuric acid, an irritant for the lungs and the main component of "acid rain", so harmful to forests. The burning of coal also gives off oxides of nitrogen (NOx) which can contribute the production of ground level ozone and respiratory problems.
Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) is used to justify claims of the coal industry being clean and green however, it is a prototype practice of capturing CO2 and storing it underground to avoid it entering the atmosphere. The Royal Society has made a clear proposal that any new coal plant must capture 90% of their CO2 emissions by 2020, or have their operating permits revoked. However, the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (BERR), states that the UK will not see commercial deployment of CCS until the 2020. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's claim that CCS will only be realistically deployed around the world in the second half of the century and at present no coal plant anywhere in the world has carbon capture technology. Owing to the vast fuel requirements, the quantity of toxic pollutants and waste generated from fossil fuel plants dwarfs the quantities from other energy options. In general, the pollution depends on the impurity level of the fuel, with natural gas cleaner than oil and oil cleaner than coal. A 1000 MW(e) (average sized) coal plant without abatement technology produces annually an average of some 44,000 tonnes of sulphur oxides and 22,000 tonnes of nitrous oxides that are dispersed into the atmosphere. Additionally, there are 320 000 tonnes of ash containing 400 tonnes of heavy metals - arsenic, cadmium, cobalt, lead, mercury, nickel and vanadium.
The odd and widely ignored truth is that routine radioactive discharges from coal burning are greater than those produced by nuclear plants. Coal contains trace amounts of radioactive elements (uranium and thorium). Though these are present at much lower levels than in nuclear fuel, a lot more coal is burned, which means that total emissions are greater. The journal Scientific American published an article, which revealed that levels of ionising radiation in the bones of people living around coal plants are up to six times higher than the levels in people living around atomic power stations.
In addition to all this, a single 1000 MW(e) coal plant emits around 6,000,000 tonnes annually of CO2 into the atmosphere. Coal is incredibly carbon intense producing twice the carbon emissions per unit of electricity as gas.
"The single greatest threat to the climate comes from burning coal. Coal-fired generation is historically responsible for most of the fossil-fuel CO2 in the air today - responsible for about half of all carbon dioxide emissions globally."
Jim Hansen, leading US climate scientist
- Stop Climate Chaos - 2 Chapel Place, London, EC2A 3DQ
Tel: 0207 729 8732 - www.stopclimatechaos.org
Briefing funded by the Norfolk Independent Waste Trust and Cobb Charity