Fossil fuels are ultimately a finite resource – the definition of non-renewable energy. Burning of these fuels – coal, oil and gas – is the main driver of climate change. So could the peak of fossil fuels help mitigate warming?
The short answer is maybe … but perhaps not how you might think.
In a paper published this month in the journal Fuel, my colleagues and I suggest that limits to fossil fuel availability might take climate Armageddon off the table, although we will still need to keep some fossil fuels in the ground for the best chance of keeping warming below 2C.
But more importantly, the peak of Chinese coal use is changing the face of global alternative energy industry development, and is soon likely to impact on international positioning for a low-emissions future.
Now for the long answer.Predicting climate change
Predicting future climate change is dogged by two fundamental uncertainties: the dosage of greenhouse gas that human civilisation will add to the atmosphere, and how Earth’s climate and feedback systems will respond to it.
In the absence of a crystal ball for the future of emissions, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has adopted a scenario-based approach which highlights four representative concentration pathways (or RCPs). These are named after how much extra heating they add to the earth (in watts per square metre).
From these scenarios the IPCC has developed temperature scenarios. So the RCP2.6 scenario is expected to restrict climate change to below 2C, whereas RCP8.5 represents catastrophic climate change of around 4C by the end of this century, rising to perhaps 8C in the ensuing centuries.Fossil fuels forecast
The key thing to note here is that the emissions scenarios are demand-focused scenarios that have been developed to reflect possibilities for potential fossil fuel consumption. They explore a range of scenarios that include increasing global population and living standards, as well as the possible impact of new alternative energy technologies and global emissions-reduction agreements.
Instead of examining demand scenarios for fossil fuels, our work has focused on supply constraints to future fossil fuel production. Our work is not a forecast of future fossil fuel production and consumption, but rather seeks to determine the upper bounds of the geological resource and how it might be brought to market using normal supply and demand interactions.
We developed three projections based on different estimates of these Ultimately Recoverable Resources (URR). URR is the proportion of total fossil fuel resources that can be viably extracted now, and in the future (this accounts for some resources that are technologically inaccessible now becoming extractable in the future). The low case used the most pessimistic literature resource availability estimates, whereas the high case used the most optimistic estimates.
We also included a “best guess” estimate by choosing country-level resource values that we considered most likely. We then compared the resulting emissions profiles for the three upper bounds to the published IPCC emissions scenarios, as shown in the figure below.
In comparison to the published emissions scenarios, we found that it was very unlikely that enough fossil fuels could be brought to market to deliver the RCP8.5 scenario and we would recommend that this be removed from the IPCC scenarios in future assessment reports.
Mining out the optimistic fossil fuel supply base could perhaps deliver the RCP6 scenario, however, our best guess limit to fossil fuel availability caps the upper limit of emissions exposure to the RCP4.5 scenario (roughly equivalent to a median estimate of 2C warming).
But even under the low resource availability scenario, it will be necessary to leave some fossil fuels untapped if we are to meet the conditions for the RCP2.6 scenario or lower (to have more than a 90% chance of avoiding 2C temperature rise).
To sum up, our supply side assessment suggests that even if the climate Armageddon of the RPC8.5 scenario were desirable, it is unlikely that enough new fossil fuel resources could be discovered in time and brought to market to deliver it. To be clear, there is still much to worry about with the RPC4.5 and RPC6 scenarios which are still possible at the limits of likely fossil fuel resources.
So a simple reflection on global fossil fuel limitation won’t save us … but nations don’t face peak fuels at the same time. A country-level analysis of peak fuels suggests the possibility of a very different future.How China could shake the world
As part of our assessment we looked closely at the fossil fuel production projections for four countries including China, Canada, the United States and Australia. Of these, China is by far the most intriguing.
China has little in the way of oil and gas resources and so has established its remarkable industrial growth on exploiting its substantial coal resources. Our projections indicate that the rapid expansion in Chinese coal mining is rapidly depleting this resource, with Chinese peak coal imminent in the mid-2020s under even the high fossil fuel scenario, as seen in the projections below.
China is well aware of this and is currently scrambling to cap coal consumption and develop alternative energy projects and industries. Its leaders understand that the alternative energy sector is really an advanced manufacturing sector, and have moved to position themselves strategically as the world leader in solar, wind, hydro, battery and nuclear technology construction and manufacturing.
As fossil fuels start to fail China as a path to economic and energy security, China will join other regions in a similar position, such as the European Union nations, which have largely depleted their fossil fuel reserves.
For these nations focused on alternative energy investment for energy and economic security, global action on climate change is strategically aligned with their industrial strength. We can therefore expect them to pressure for increasing global action as a method of improving their strategic global trading position. We may see the beginnings of this transition at this year’s international climate talks in Paris this year, but it will take a few more years for the Chinese shift to play out as they exploit the remainder of their coal resource and gain confidence in the ability of their alternative energy sector to scale.
The question then becomes “can the USA manufacturing sector afford to be out of these global alternative energy markets?”. Our guess is “no” and a global tipping point will have been reached in the alternative energy switch.
This is perhaps the most profound way that peak fuels may contribute to a low-emissions future.
Gary Ellem has previously received funding from the Federal Government Researchers in Business scheme to work in the biofuels sector.
Events some 40,000 to 60,000 years ago marked a critical juncture in the Australian continent’s history. This is when humans first arrived and also the time when many huge beasts, known as megafauna, seem to have disappeared. So what caused their demise: humans, a changing climate, or both?
The debate has been both long and polarised. Some blame changes in the prehistoric climate; others point to overhunting by the first Australians, or habitat burning by humans which drastically altered the landscape.
The “human-mediated” explanations depend to an extent on the climate having remained stable over the period in question. But we have found evidence that gigantic lakes in central Australia were drying out at the time – a crucial new climate factor that probably hastened the megafauna’s demise.A watery world
Our research shows that before about 50,000 years ago, much of Australia’s interior was a very different place to the scatter of salt-crusted lakes and sand ridges seen today. By analysing ancient shorelines fringing Lake Eyre and Lake Frome, two of Australia’s largest inland lakes, we found evidence of a “time of plenty”, when perennial inland rivers fed huge, permanent mega-lakes.
The scene probably featured more vegetation than today, large herbivores and diverse aquatic ecosystems spanning hundreds of kilometres of teeming estuaries and rivers. Lake Eyre itself stood 25 m deep and with a volume of some 380 cubic kilometres (roughly 700 Sydney Harbours).
These inland mega-lakes were fed by big rivers such as Cooper Creek and the Diamantina River, which pumped large volumes of water into the continental interior every year to fill the lakes to the levels shown by the position of their ancient beaches. Mega-Lake Eyre held roughly ten times the water volume achievable under today’s wettest climate, and if present now would rank among the ten largest lakes (in area) on Earth. This truly was the inland sea that proved so elusive to Charles Sturt and other 19th-century colonial explorers.
Genyornis might have struggled with life alongside the drying lakes. Nobu Tamura/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY
Surely, too, it was not a bad place to live for the giant but now extinct bird, Genyornis newtoni, whose eggshell fragments are scattered across the lake shore, and indeed over much of Australia. By analysing such eggshells, as well as those of emus, researchers have previously reconstructed the dietary preferences of both species over the past 140,000 years. They found evidence of a drastic shift between 50,000 and 45,000 years ago, and reasoned that newly arrived fire-wielding humans altered the vegetation in a way that suited emus and not Genyornis, which then disappeared.
But that was before the discovery of the catastrophic drying phase, which was recorded at the same time in both of the lakes we investigated. We found that the environment was already changing by the time the first Australians arrived. The overflowing mega-lakes of pre-50,000 years ago had begun to shrink, and reliable supplies of freshwater were in a state of collapse. This was a time of environmental upheaval, and the roots of the episodic boom-to-bust ecosystems that we see today.
As for the demise of Genyornis, we suggest a far simpler explanation: these giant birds were unable to adapt to the loss of huge expanses of lakeshore and riverine habitat, coupled with the shift to dryland plants. The demise of the other megafauna is less precisely dated, but they too must have been affected by such a catastrophic environmental shift.
Lake Eyre in 2014: empty more often than not. Dr Jan-Hendrik May
So was the arrival of humans on the continent at about the same time a contributing factor or coincidence? Our findings cast new perspective on events in Australia and bring climate change squarely into the timeframe — just as it has long been part of the debate in Eurasia and the Americas. Although direct evidence of people killing megafauna has not yet emerged in Australia, it may be only a matter of time before a big discovery is made. But of course, the argument for primarily human-driven extinction must rest on more than just coincident timing.
Climate change must now be considered a key factor in the Australian extinction debate. Credible new work will need to spell out how ecosystems adapted to shifting climate variability in combination with human impacts. As we point out in our paper, the global debate is moving away from single-cause explanations.
In light of our new findings, we hope that here too a more nuanced view will emerge regarding the interplay between Australia’s prehistoric climate, its first human inhabitants, and the demise of its megafauna.
Tim Cohen received funding from the Australian Research Council to undertake this work through a Discovery Project (grant DP130104023).
Gerald Nanson's research was funded by the Australian Research Council (grants DP1096911, DP130104023).
John Jansen was funded through a UK Natural Environment Research Council (grant NE/EO14143/1) while undertaking this research.
Joshua Larsen receives funding from the Australian Research Council, government agencies, and private industry.
Today, we’re one step closer to a final rejection of Keystone XL — President Obama has vetoed Congress’ bill that would have forced him to approve the pipeline.
It’s not the same as rejecting the pipeline, but it is a big deal: it’s just the third time this President has vetoed a bill. He wouldn’t be taking this step if not for the extraordinary work you’ve done to push him to take this issue seriously. A few years ago, he was barely acknowledging the pipeline, and now he’s talking about climate change often, and Keystone is one of the top issues in Washington.
This is history in the making — and it’s because of you.
Now it’s time to make our closing argument to the President. He has the power, the information and the opportunity to reject the pipeline now.
Today dozens of movement leaders, economists, musicians and filmmakers — folks like Bill McKibben, Willie Nelson, Mark Ruffalo, Julianne Moore, Patti Smith and others — just released a Unity Letter ahead of the President’s final decision.
Here is the full letter, including some of the other signers whose names you might recognize.
The only thing it’s missing is your name at the bottom. I’m hoping (hoping!) that this will be our final message to the President about Keystone XL. The more unified we are, the clearer the message will be. Click here to read and add your name to the Unity Letter against Keystone XL: 350.org/unityletter/
I want to say this again because it’s important: people power has brought us to this point. Whatever the President decides, we have done what we set out to accomplish — build a movement able to force President Obama to take the climate crisis seriously.
With thousands of people standing beside us, I’m confident we can move the President to reject the pipeline once and for all. I hope you can sign with me, and be there with us as we make our mark on history.
Yours in unity,
Barack Obama cements legacy as the first climate-aware president
Yesterday, President Barack Obama became the first president who has taken a stand to stop climate change.
Actually, that isn’t quite true. President Obama took that stand from his first step into the White House. He has put into place a series of initiatives that actually give us a chance at stopping the most serious consequences of climate change. Much of his actions have gone with little public notice. That changed yesterday with his veto of the ill-proposed Keystone XL pipeline.
The Clean Power Plan and the rejection of Keystone XL go hand in hand in a national policy to reduce our carbon emissions. On one hand, Clean Power Plan is an ambitious proposal to significantly reduce carbon emissions from our existing energy system; while on the other, rejecting tar sands infrastructure projects like Keystone XL ensures that we don’t undermine those reductions by bringing in new, dirtier fuel sources.
Future generations suffering from the consequences of our inaction will be bewildered that the legislative body of the richest country in the world could devote so little effort to ameliorating the climate problem and so much effort to making it worse.Continue reading...
A successful EU climate pledge must look beyond emissions within Europe and include collaborative proposals to reduce pollution in developing nations as well
Today the EU will unveil its latest commitment to fighting climate change – a pledge to cut internal emissions by at least 40% by 2030. The new target represents a good step forward, a hard-fought political compromise at a time of considerable economic difficulty.
The EU hopes to leverage this pledge at December’s climate talks in Paris, when Europe will press other nations to forge a new agreement to reduce global climate pollution 60% by 2050. Yet, the EU’s climate plan has a critical flaw: it is incomplete. The EU’s regulations would only reduce emissions within Europe, whereas success on climate depends on Europe also taking steps to cut pollution outside of Europe as well.Continue reading...
On the day after US President Obama, in a notoriously challenging domestic political context for climate action, vetoed a major fossil fuel infrastructure project, the EU has announced its ‘Energy Union’ vision and commitment kicking off the UN climate talks’ country pledges process. Prepare to be underwhelmed.
The move is failing to deliver the emissions cuts proposal required to be in line with science and justice, and represents a missed opportunity to amplify positive climate action already happening in the bloc.
The proposed emissions reduction figure by the EU, as unambitious as it is, masks an even more worrying continued reliance on fossil fuel-friendly policies, particularly evident in its most recent investment plan (the so-called Juncker plan in Brussels circles).
Up to €69 billion of Member States’ contributions over the next two years could be going to high-carbon projects, including €16 billion towards coal and €26 billion in gas and oil pipeline infrastructure. The UK sends a strong signal for the beginning of a major coal phase out in the region? The EU says: let’s fund some more. Warnings around stranded assets and the moral imperative to stop funding climate disaster? The EU says: let’s double down on fossil fuel infrastructure.
Emma Hughes, from Platform London, commented on the announcement: “Juncker’s investment offensive is a disaster for the climate. The EU plans to throw public money at hundreds of dirty projects like the Euro-Caspian Mega Pipeline which, if built, would pump over a billion tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere during the next forty years – locking us into both fossil fuels and the brutal Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan regimes.”
The EU can’t claim the role of climate leader and stick to its commitment to 2° warming with one foot timidly in the direction of a clean energy future and the other fully in the past.
Throughout the rest of the year we will need a broad regional movement of people to generate and sustain pressure for bold climate action, and to show that climate leadership and continued support of fossil fuels are fundamentally incompatible positions for political leaders to take ahead of the UN climate talks in Paris. Only then the vast gap between talk and action will be bridged.
CORRECTIONS (22:08 CET): Figures are total investment values of projects proposed by Member States, rather than Member States contributions, as incorrectly noted. Also, 2015-17 totals for high-carbon energy are €29bn, whereas the total of €69bn refers to 2015-2017 and beyond. Other numbers need to be adapted accordingly as well. For more up to date info, please consult the E3G fact sheet on the Juncker plan.
Water shortage in Brazil’s largest city is forcing some to hoard and recycle water as levels in the Cantareira reservoir fall to 6% of its total capacityContinue reading...
The New South Wales government’s announcement on Sunday that it will introduce a container deposit scheme in 2017 is the latest chapter in a tale that is longer and more controversial than many people realise.
It is more than 35 years since the then South Australian Premier Don Dunstan introduced legislation to require a 5c deposit to be paid on certain beverage containers, to encourage a greater recovery of used containers. The voluntary deposit schemes that supported reusable beer and soft drink bottles had fallen away as a result of the rise of single-use aluminium cans and plastic bottles. Littering increased, attracting the attention of the nascent environmental movement. I have a colleague who marched down Adelaide’s North Terrace at the time, in a “ban the can” rally.
Dunstan’s decision followed similar moves by the Oregon and Washington state governments in the US. Shortly afterwards the NSW government expressed interest, and was poised to follow South Australia’s lead.
But the beverage industry, concerned by the growing regulatory tide, acted swiftly to head this off in NSW. The arrangements that it negotiated have persisted in various forms ever since. The beverage and packaging industry have, over the years, provided modest funding for litter-reduction campaigns or initiatives to reduce packaging, in exchange for governments resisting calls to introduce a system which puts responsibility for recycling cans and bottles on the companies that make them. These industries have even helped some environmental and anti-litter groups to enlist support for campaigns against a container deposit scheme.Picking up the issue
In 2000 I was commissioned by the then NSW environment minister Bob Debus to conduct an independent review of container deposit legislation. I concluded that there were significant net benefits arising from its implementation, a result that was mirrored by a similar study in the United States around the same time.
The debate raised several interesting issues, not least the power and influence over public policy that some industry sectors were clearly capable of wielding.
Fast forward to last weekend, when NSW Premier Mike Baird and environment minister Rob Stokes announced their turnaround, despite strong lobbying by the beverage and packaging industry.Decades of inertia
In the late 1970s, when South Australia took the lead, littering was the main issue. By the early 1990s the focus had shifted to reducing landfill and encouraging recycling. By the turn of the century, when we conducted our review, there was a recognition that the main benefits of recovering and reusing more containers was in helping to reduce the environmental damage done by manufacturing with raw materials.
This view was bolstered in 2001 by a major study, commissioned by the packaging industry, of the highly successful kerbside recycling system. It showed that even the relatively costly overheads associated with household kerbside recovery were justified by the economic benefits of avoiding these kinds of environmental issues.
Our study concluded that, if the recovery rate were doubled from around 45% by collecting the empty containers of drinks consumed away from home, then these benefits would be mirrored and even increased. This stands in contrast to other studies which only look at part of the picture, either by considering only the reduction in litter, or by failing to take into account the significant economic benefits in avoiding the unnecessary production of new materials.
Despite our review’s favourable findings, there was another stumbling block: the Mutual Recognition Act, which aims to ensure free trade in goods and services between states and has been used to prevent (for example) the ACT banning the sale of battery farmed eggs.
This Act was the basis for the challenge by Coca-Cola Amatil to the Northern Territory’s proposed container deposit scheme. It wasn’t until August 2013 that an exemption was granted, similar to the one that South Australia enjoys. It appears highly likely that the ACT will follow NSW’s lead, and that other states will also implement similar schemes. Tasmania and Western Australia have also reviewed the idea.Lessons learned
For those with a professional interest in public policy, there is much to learn from this case study about the influence of the powerful lobby group that combines the soft drink, brewing and retail sectors. Initially, it negotiated with state governments to fund litter-reduction activities (“Do the right thing”) on the explicit understanding that container deposits would not be introduced, then later pushing schemes that pushed the responsibility onto ratepayers or were just voluntary, such as the Australian Packaging Covenant.
Yet most of these same companies operate in jurisdictions in Europe, the United States and Canada, where they quite satisfactorily work with deposit and refund schemes, in many cases running the system, making a margin on both the full and the empty containers. Perhaps the Australian industry’s reticence is borne of a fear that container deposits might open the way for more regulation down the track – of sugar and obesity, alcohol and violence, or more stringent product labelling.
It appears that, some 40 years after the first attempts, NSW will have deposits on drink containers, correcting a long-standing market failure and doubling the environmental benefits by doubling the recovery rate. At last, a greater responsibility will be placed on the producers and consumers of recyclable products to ensure that they are indeed recycled.
Reform can be slow, and it can be surprisingly controversial, but it can happen.
Stuart White was commissioned in 2000-2001 to undertake an independent review of container deposit legislation by the (then) NSW Minister for the Environment.