Oil Limits and Climate Change

They say that every cloud has a silver lining. If future energy consumption (which is mostly fossil fuel) drops because of a financial collapse brought on by high oil prices and other limits, then, at least in theory, climate change should be less of a problem.  One of the important variables in climate change models is the amount of  carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels that enters the atmosphere. In a recent post (Peak Oil Demand is Already a Huge Problem), I showed the following estimate of future energy consumption.

Figure 1. One view of future energy consumption for the world as a whole. History is based on BP's 2012 Statistical Review of World Energy.

Figure 1. One view of future energy consumption for the world as a whole. History is based on BP’s 2012 Statistical Review of World Energy.

I explained in that post that oil limits are different from what most people expect. Oil limits are price limits. Indirectly because of these price limits, fuel consumption of all sorts (not just oil) will decline in the near future. The problem will be greater job loss and an inability to afford products of many kinds, including those made with fossil fuels. Financial collapse, particularly of governments, and a long-term decline in population are also part of this scenario.

My estimate of CO2 generation by fossil fuels in the 21st century is only about one-quarter of the amount (range midpoint) assumed in the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Report. When differences in estimates of an important variable are this far apart, one starts reaching the “Garbage in, garbage out” problem. This is a persistent problem for all modelers. Even if the climate model is perfect apart from its estimate of future CO2 fossil fuel use, and even if anthropogenic issues are implicated as a cause of recent climate changes, the model with its incorrect estimate of future fossil fuel energy consumption can still be unhelpful for determining needed future actions.

A comparison of energy consumption estimates is shown in Figure 2. My estimate of energy consumption (similar to that in Figure 1) is shown as the Collapse scenario.

Figure 2. Comparison of Energy Consumption Estimates. Climate high and Climate low are based on Figure 1 of this Oil Drum post by DeSousa and Mearns. "Peak oil" is based on  a 2013 estimate by  Energy Watch Group.  Collapse is my estimate, associated with Figure 1 of this post. In all of the estimates, there is an implicit assumption that the fuel mix stays relatively constant.

Figure 2. Comparison of Energy Consumption Estimates. Climate high and Climate low are based on Figure 1 of this Oil Drum post by DeSousa and Mearns. “Peak oil” is based on a 2013 estimate by Energy Watch Group. Collapse is my estimate, associated with Figure 1 of this post. In all of the estimates, there is an implicit assumption that the fuel mix stays relatively constant.

Figure 2 Explanation

The Collapse Scenario in Figure 2 is my estimate of future energy consumption, using amounts similar to Figure 1 of this post. It is based on the assumption that financial limits are what brings down the system. As the system is brought down, our capability to provide many basic services, such as our ability to maintain roads and electric transmission lines, disappears. Thus, we become unable to maintain the complex systems needed to extract oil and gas and coal, and because of this, are unable to maintain current energy supplies. Even renewables will become a problem, because we need fossil fuels to create new renewable energy generation. We also need fossil fuels to maintain the lines used to transmit the electricity, and to provide back-up generation.

If the problem we are facing is financial collapse, biomass can be expected to behave differently than other renewable energy resources. If people are poorer, there will be great demand for wood for heating, and perhaps for creating metals and glass. In fact, there is evidence that Greece is turning to wood burning already. (Greece is an early example of a country approaching the financial problems we expect world wide.) Thus, under the Collapse Scenario, a likely problem is deforestation.

The Peak Oil Scenario shown in Figure 2 is based on a 2013 estimate by the Energy Watch Group. The assumption in estimates using “Peak Oil” ways of evaluating supplies is that geological constraints determine supply. The question of price doesn’t come into the analysis; instead curve fitting techniques are used. If oil supplies decline, the assumption is made that natural gas and coal extraction will to some extent rise to offset the oil decline.

Many who support the peak oil method of calculating expected availability of future fuel supplies are advocates of a ramp-up of wind and solar PV. One reason use of these resources is supported is because fossil fuels are seen to be limited, and renewables might act as “fossil fuel extenders”. I personally am concerned about adding intermittent renewables to the grid in large quantities. Doing so is likely to shorten the lifespan of the grid, if the intermittent renewables introduce greater cost and complexity.

I believe that peak oil estimates are overstated because they do not consider the economics of depleting fossil fuel supplies. Oil consumption by importers starts to decline if price is high–something that happens long before world oil supply actually starts to decline. James Hamilton has shown that 10 out of 11 US recessions since World War II were associated with oil price spikes. (Recession tends to lead to less consumption of many products, including oil.) At the same time, oil exporters need high prices, and have financial problems if price or production declines too much. If exporters do not get enough revenue from oil exports, some of them collapse. See my post How Oil Exporters Reach Financial Collapse.

The Climate High and Climate Low estimates are based on carbon amounts shown in Figure 1 of this 2008 Oil Drum post by De Sousa and Mearns. In converting these carbon estimates to energy consumption estimates, I implicitly assumed that the carbon intensity of energy use would remain unchanged–that is, improvements resulting from  more use of natural gas and renewables use would be offset by increases in coal consumption. This assumption is probably not what the IPCC would make. Their “Low Estimate” would probably assume greater use of renewables and natural gas than their High Estimate, so that the actual energy available in their Low Estimate would be closer to the energy available in their High Estimate than what my graph would suggest. The  2007 IPCC report does not give much detail, except to generally discuss their reasoning.

The IPCC’s basic assumptions seem to be:

1. Demand is the basic determiner of supply. In the view of the IPCC, there is lots of oil, gas, and coal in the ground (see Figure 4.2 of Working Group III Report). It is assumed that we can get these fuels out, essentially as fast as we want. No consideration is given of diminishing returns, and the resulting likely run-up in both needed investment funds and  price to the user. (See Our Investment Sinkhole Problem.)

2. Because the IPCC report misses the issue of diminishing returns and resulting higher price, it assumes that demand can keep on ramping up pretty much indefinitely. In the real word, demand is what customers can afford to buy. This is already declining for the US, Europe and Japan, with the high oil prices experienced in recent years.

Figure 3. Oil consumption by part of the world, based on EIA data. 2012 world consumption data estimated based on world "all liquids" production amounts.

Figure 3. Oil consumption by part of the world, based on EIA data. 2012 world consumption data estimated based on world “all liquids” production amounts.

Overview of IPCC 2007 Report

As I see it, there are three important aspects  of the 2007 IPCC analysis:

1. The Climate Model. This is the part of the report that says, if CO2 is such and such, and other forcings are so much, the effect on the climate is this amount. I personally do not have expertise to evaluate this part of the report. I note, however, that at least some climate scientists seem to be back-pedalling on how much impact is expected from a given amount of carbon. A letter published in Nature Geoscience on May 19, 2013, titled Energy Budget Constraints on Climate Response indicates that the climate effects of a given set of forcings seems to be lower than the 2007 IPCC report suggested. This letter, together with explanatory information is available free for download, with registration.

2. The Estimates of Fossil Fuels going into the Model. It is this part of the model that seems to be seriously in error. The carbon added during the 21st century in the Collapse Scenario is only about 25% of what the IPCC estimates use (averaging the high and low) . De Sousa and Mearns calculate that their Peak Oil estimates would keep CO2 emissions below 450 parts per million. My Collapse Scenario estimates are considerably below De Sousa and Mearn’s Peak Oil estimates, so would in theory produce lower yet CO2 impacts.

3. What to Do About the Problem. I think this part of IPCC report has a serious problem as well. The report, as it is published, is not about How to Reduce CO2 Emissions. If this had been the goal, the report would likely have talked about reducing population, eating less meat, making manufactured goods that last longer, and standardizing goods, so that it is not necessary to buy new goods, just replacement parts. Instead, the IPCC 2007 report provides a wish list of ways we might keep Business as Usual (BAU) going, using techniques that might reduce fossil fuel use with little pain to the business community and consumers.

A big part of the problem with the analysis of what to do about the problem is that the researchers putting together the analysis do not understand the way the current system works. According to Newton’s Third Law of Motion, “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” Unfortunately, there is something very similar when one tries to make energy substitutions. A researcher might assume that substitution of higher-priced renewable energy for lower-priced fossil fuel energy would reduce world carbon emissions, but this is true only if second and third order effects don’t undo the supposed benefit. Higher-priced fuels make a country less competitive in the world marketplace, and give an advantage to countries using coal for their generation. Adding a carbon tax has similar unplanned effects.

Figure 4. Actual world carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels, as shown in BP's 2012 Statistical Review of World Energy. Fitted line is expected trend in emissions, based on actual trend in emissions from 1987-1997, equal to about 1.0% per year.

Figure 4. Actual world carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels, as shown in BP’s 2012 Statistical Review of World Energy. Fitted line is expected trend in emissions, based on actual trend in emissions from 1987-1997, equal to about 1.0% per year.

When JG Wentworth took a look at actual CO2 emissions, they find that they have risen remarkably since the Kyoto Protocol was ratified in 1997 (Figure 3, above). (See my posts, Twelve Reasons Why Globalization is a Huge Problem and Climate Change: The Standard Fixes Don’t Work.)

One of the implicit assumptions in the IPCC report is that continued growth in a finite world makes sense, and can be expected to continue until 2100. In fact, we are reaching limits of many kinds.

Figure 5. Various types of limits we are now reaching

Figure 5. Various types of limits we are now reaching

In fact, modelers should be considering all of the limits simultaneously. Modeling any one limit on Figure 5 by itself will produce results that will suggest that that limit is a huge problem, that perhaps can be fixed. To a significant extent, there are workarounds for many of these problems, including more research on antibiotics, desalination of water, and intermittent renewables to substitute for some fossil fuels. The problem with each of these workarounds is that they all involve higher cost, and thus tend to create financial problems, especially for governments that try to fix the problems. Thus, the real issue is a likely near-term financial problem. This financial problem can be expected to lead to economic shrinkage which will by itself help mitigate several of the problems, including climate change.

Given the multiple limits we are reaching, I think we need to step back. Energy is truly needed to create products and services of all kinds. The IPCC is claiming that with a few tweaks, economic growth of the type we have grown to expect can continue until the year 2100.  This assertion is clearly false, with or without the tweaks they are advocating.

We need to be figuring out how to live with a world that is rapidly changing for the worse, in terms of energy availability. I am not sure climate change should be our Number 1 concern, because the CO2 part of the problem is likely to mostly take care of itself. Instead, we need to be looking at how we can make the best use possible of energy sources we have. We also need to be cutting back on the real source of demand–population growth.

Perhaps we need to be thinking about different options than we have been thinking about to date–for example, making supply chains shorter and bringing production closer to the end-user. We might want to make such a change in an attempt to sustain production for longer, whether or not this has an adverse CO2 effect, viewed from today’s peculiar perspective: Only manufacturing which results in local CO2 production seems to be viewed as “bad;” exporting coal to China, or importing goods manufactured using coal from China/ India is not viewed as a problem.  Having economists with a mindset of BAU forever and helping businesses get ahead, doesn’t necessarily produce the best results from the point of view of taking care of the existing population. Perhaps we should be looking at our current problems from a broader perspective than the IPCC report suggests.

About Gail Tverberg

My name is Gail Tverberg. I am an actuary interested in finite world issues - oil depletion, natural gas depletion, water shortages, and climate change. Oil limits look very different from what most expect, with high prices leading to recession, and low prices leading to inadequate supply.
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159 Responses to Oil Limits and Climate Change

  1. Pingback: This is the best case scenario » Why Aren't You Outraged?

  2. Gielsj says:

    I disagree because we are already are at 400 ppm and seeing horrible changes already, Arctic/glacier ice melt, ocean acidification, seasonal and specie movement, extreme weather events, and food production limits.
    It we rely on this outlook we are doomed. 350 ppm, as Dr James Hansen advocates, seems to be a more realistic safe limit. If we maintain business as usual, even with the financial collapse will surely pass 450 ppm and reach 500 ppm without a break maybe just a few decades later.
    Sorry, there is no silver lining.

    • Leo Smith says:

      If you examine all of those ‘horrible effects;’ in detail you will find that none of them are actually happening.

      On the other hand there is a horrible effect that is happening;. Energy prices are through the bleedin’ roof and winters are getting colder again.

    • It is possible that we are already past a tipping point. But I don’t see anything more than collapse that we can do. The earth will recover; it is just that there is a possibility that humans may not be a part of the longer-term picture. Of course, that was a possibility before, even without climate change–see What would it take to get to a Steady State economy? I don’t think there is a whole lot more than collapse that can be done to bring CO2 emissions down.

      • Scott says:

        If our influence was gone from the Earth meaning most of us gone then, Yes, the Earth will recover, fish teaming again in the oceans in about ten or twenty or so years I would guess, but I hope a few of us are here to see it. Although this collapse will be hard to live through, but I do believe many will live if on Islands or in the woods. It is a sad and happy story on one side we have all the death and on the other a new Eden born.

        • xabier says:


          I feel fairly detached about climate change: if it’s a serious and rapidly advancing as some models suggest, well, there’s nothing one can do personally to alter it. The prospects of a ruined Earth are upsetting, but it’s beyond one’s control.

          Our governments are clearly set full-steam ahead on their destructive course, so all one can do is try to lead a good and sane life and prepare for any smaller shocks that might come along,and to help one’s family and friends if possible.

          But our seats on the train are booked………

  3. Don Stewart says:

    Dear Gail and Others
    Las Canadas is an interesting cooperative farm near Veracruz, Mexico. They have set out to solve all the problems posed to them by Peak Oil and Climate Change. Here is the Google translated statement of what they are about. You can put it back in Spanish if you read that language:


    As they say elsewhere, they made a lot of mistakes at the beginning. Then they met David Holmgren, the Australian Permaculturist, on his tour of Mexico and now they have a very clear vision and work program.

    I find that the mangled translation is quite interesting. I have to fill in the blanks. I almost always know what they are talking about. In many ways, it is better than listening with one ear because I think I know what is coming next. It keeps me alert and attentive.

    So…is Peak Oil or is Climate Change or is Financial Collapse the issue we should be focusing on? It looks like the folks at Las Canadas can survive all of them.

    Don Stewart
    PS If you would like a video tour of Las Canadas with Eric Toensmeier, of Miracle Lot fame, you can buy his DVD called Perennial Vegetable Gardening. You first get a tour of his backyard in Holyoke, MA, then Las Canadas, then the ECHO farm in Ft. Myers, FL.

    • It sounds like they are doing quite well on sustainability.

      They advocate single child families. The article points out that a lot of what is claimed to be “green” doesn’t more far enough in the right direction.

      They plan to use wood for their fuel needs. That probably “works” where they are located, if they don’t decide that they need to create metals using charcoal. It also helps that they are in a warm climate.

    • xabier says:


      A very interesting site, thanks.

  4. Seems science has moved on from shell’s reasonable postulate…400 ppm is already enough to fry us all:
    …’the graph gets the gist of what will happen in the Arctic under a business-as-usual scenario, but the graph’s trend line might have another shape because of the +8 °C happening later than in 2100, and it’s for Lake El’gygytgyn that is away from the Siberian coast. The Arctic could get much warmer still.’

    • Leo Smith says:

      The Arctic could get much warmer, but all the signs are that it is actually getting colder.

      • La Curée says:

        Your statement id designed to sow doubt & confusion.
        What oil company / branch of the US gov. do you work for or are you a free range nutter?

        • Leo Smith says:

          I am a retired engineer with no former existing or future connection to any industry. That’s merely your bigotry showing.

          Never mind. It doesn’t matter. The temperature gauges will show in due course. Mind you – they might have been MADE by a large company with connections to an energy company. OMFG who can you trust? Not even your tinfoil hat (made my a company that used masses of energy to make the aluminium) can be trusted! It’s all over. The forces of corporate doom are upon you!

  5. xabier says:

    People here might be interested to know (mayb not?!) that in the late 19th c, a very fine English writer called Richard Jefferies wrote a futuristic novel called ‘After London’, in which he foresaw the collapse of modern industrial civilisation into a filthy cess-pit of its own making – London, which was then the ‘world city’, sinking into a poisoned marsh – and the reburgeoning of the natural world. It’s a very rare book, I was lucky enough to find a copy in an out-of-the-way bookshop. He was, to judge from his memoirs, a depressive, but I’ve found that such people often see some things rather more clearly than others. Perhaps it was a vision of the future and we will not wreck everything after all?

    • yt75 says:

      Thanks for the pointer, sounds interesting, and it is available as a free ebook from the Gutenberg project :

    • Scott says:

      Hello Xabier, Too bad more are not reading this blog, because I see stories like thousands of people flocking to buy motor homes. I guess they will make good camping huts, but they are poorly insulated not like the adobes we discussed. My point is most do not see any fuel problem.

      • xabier says:


        No, most can’t see the problems and the wider issues.

        Maybe if they are running short of cash or are unemployed they might get angry and look for a political party to blame, or bankers or immigrants, etc, but if all’s well personally they can’t see the bigger picture and are happy to spend.

        And that’s just what the MSM are encouraging them to do.

        It’s good in a way, as it keeps the wheels of the economy turning for that bit longer.

        Meanwhile, we can dig our gardens……

        • Scott says:

          Hello Xabier, This is an interesting article about Greece, is possession 99 percent of the law?

          Tell us about Spain where you live, are the records more in order? I think they most likely are. If multiple deeds can be recorded, there can be much fraud and multiple loans for one parcel pledged for a loan(s) . Corruption and collapse will ensue. This is flaw in their system that will allow collapse sooner?

          • xabier says:


            (I only live part time in Spain – mostly in England – but 99% of my family are there.) There has been some fraud in Spain relating to land ownership – someone I knew (outsiders) got caught out by that, and you do have to be careful particularly with rural land which might have multiple owners. Greece is another world when it comes to fraud, is my impression….

            But the big problem was local mayors reclassifying land as ‘urban’ and granting building permits when they shouldn’t have done – the process of demolishing these properties has started. Mostly foreigners have been caught out here. That’s your whole investment gone.

            The real nightmare, financially, for Spain is the over-valuing of land and property, and the excess building – about a million empty properties that no-one wants. They are mostly very badly built, so I suppose the problem will solve itself soon enough….! Spain blew a property bubble and over-built, different to Britain which just blew the bubble, but built very little.

            To give you an idea of the extent over-valuing: a city authority bought a plot of land for development for about 30 million euros: it’s just been re-valued at 9 million, and that’s optimistic as no-one wants to do anything with it now. Property still has a long way to go down in Spain, incredible as it may seem, and the property market was central to so much employment – firms supplying doors, bathroom fittings, tiles, etc, as well as the actual builders. Kids used to walk straight out of school to the building sites and factories – no longer. All the eggs were put in one basket, and it was dropped.

            So consider all this, what it means for Spanish and other European banks, the high unemployment levels, and you will see why I take Gail’s emphasis on near-term financial collapse very seriously. Europe does seem to be only at the beginning of its troubles.

    • Scott says:

      Rumor has it that Gail was camped out all night to be the first to buy one of those giant new models of the latest motor giant school bus sized motor homes, just Kidding Gail! But, Americans are doing that again as the news is reporting the recession is over and they are building lots of them again. These huge school bus sized monster camping machines that mostly have to stay on the big highways. They are financing them mostly at about 5 percent I imagine. Some people I know are buying huge new cars, no clue of any energy concerns there. I think they are mistaken.

    • It looks to me as though After London by Richard Jefferies is available online – Free.

      • xabier says:

        I only mentioned him as a kind of footnote to all of this : he seems to be the first imaginative writer ever to consider the idea of the collapse of industrial Britain, the poisoning effects of that collapse and the death of the cities, and the regrowth of nature away from them – plus a reversion to the Middle Ages.

        In his novel, some people lead pretty acceptable lives after collapse, others experience only war and barbarism. Kunstler eat your heart out: Jefferies got there first!

        He also wrote good essays on the sufferings of the rural labourers and their exploitation by land-owners. He’s one of the best nature writers in English, and he understood the farming of the time being a farmer’s son (but too dreamy and mystical to take the farm on.)

        • Lizzy says:

          Salut, tout le monde,
          A book I found wonderful was Margaret Atwood’s “The Year of the Flood”, about people surviving – sort of – in a future after the end of the world as we know it. It’s fiction, but seems so realistic. Xabier, I have ordered the Merchant of Prato from our local bookseller here. (I try to buy locally where I can. I really disapprove of Amazon, to be honest… Sorry if that sounds righteous!) I read a book a few years ago too that was apparently scandalous “The City of Light.” by Jacob D’Ancona. It is the translation of a book/diary written in the 13th century by a Jewish merchant who travelled to China, well before Marco Polo. The ‘scandalous’ part is that some experts, not all, think it is all fake. I really enjoyed it.
          The Chinese in those days had the same complaints and worries as you hear today: youth being disrespectful of their elders, people carrying arms – knives – in the street. It was a great read.

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  8. kiwichick says:

    couple of points

    a ) geothermal and wave are NOT intermittent

    b ) human priorities are food and water first, followed by shelter, clothing and warmth

    c ) as noted goverments will ration and control to provide for above @ the cost of all else : the exception being defence and security

    • Joe Clarkson says:

      Regarding item b) in kiwichick’s post: human priorities are related to how quickly a deprivation is fatal. In order of importance: Breathable air; protection from extreme heat or cold; water; food. If we assume that we will continue to have air and that everyone has enough clothing to keep from freezing to death in winter, then water and food will indeed become top priorities.

      Gail’s contention that financial collapse would cause reduced usage of natural resources, including fossil fuels is supported by recent history. The financial crisis of 2008 caused a recession in almost all OECD countries, which resulted in their reduced consumption of most resources, including oil.

      A true financial collapse, wherein money becomes useless, would severely constrain activity in the “real economy” of resource production and conversion to consumable goods. A non-market based command economy might keep most people alive, but their consumption of resources would drop rapidly as a result of lack of supply. I also can’t see how rationing could be avoided.

      • Scott says:

        Hello Joe, Yes, winter could be very hard for many especially in the city and since many city dwellers are not adapted to living without services and do not have the skills to manage without the modern world. Some people in the cities are used to camping and take big trips and other are not and may not have the skills to survive under these circumstances. Personally, I would take my chances in the woods with small cabin any day taking in a few basic supplies and food into even a cave (I would prefer the cabin though) or adobe. But the truth is I will take my chances living in my small community where people help one another.

        This indeed could be a big population adjustment if the major cities run out of power and food even for a week. But instead more likely, a slow decline, power brown-outs, food shortages and things slowly getting harder to find seem to be in the future for many areas, I do think some areas will fair better for a time though but in time all will feel the pain of the financial problems along depleted resources, food, water and energy and failed state.

      • xabier says:


        Lots to agree with there!

        Taking a wide perspective on things, we can also see that or the first time in human existence we have, since the creation of huge cities with mass sewerage and power systems, turned our cities into enormous and very complicated machines: once those systems fail we have death-traps, nothing more: cholera, typhoid will claim the inhabitants.

        Previously, cities and towns have been densely populated, but have not functioned in this way from the mechanical point if view. The power has to keep flowing in a fairly regular way and the replacement parts continue to arrive from where ever they are produced or….poof!

        Whereas, living in the country or a low-density suburb with enough land around each house, one has at least the chance of rainwater collection and storage, and safe disposal of human waste – neither using any power at all. Water can also be purified with boiling and one of those top-quality filters. In our great cities, neither is an option for the inhabitants. Nor can one possibly store much food in a ‘studio apartment’ to cope with irregular food supply. As an aside, I would doubt that many people in modern cities have adequate clothing for a no-heating situation.

    • Leo Smith says:

      wave is intermittent, as any surfer will tell you.

      Geothermal unless you are sitting on a magma plume only last about 20 years before you have cooled a whole sphere of crust where you extracted your heat.

      Yet more pie in the sky solutions suitable only for People Who Cant Do Sums Or Research.

    • a. I have never said that geothermal was intermittent. It is a pretty good resource. I don’t think I have talked about wave. Tidal is intermittent.
      b. Humans also need to cook some of their food, or sterilize water, unless they are in a very unusually part of the world.
      c. The problem is collapsing governments. They cannot provide more than they can afford.

  9. Hi Gail, enjoy the party.
    …’the graph gets the gist of what will happen in the Arctic under a business-as-usual scenario, but the graph’s trend line might have another shape because of the +8 °C happening later than in 2100, and it’s for Lake El’gygytgyn that is away from the Siberian coast. The Arctic could get much warmer still.’
    400 ppm is more than enough to fry us according to the latest evidence, playing catchup.

    • I agree that if we really have passed “tipping points,” then it is possible that there is nothing we can do to fix the problem. But sitting and worrying does nothing either.

  10. Billem says:

    Gail is correct – Iconoclast is wrong. Finance succeeds on *prediction* of good and bad. Gail is right that a financial collapse in anticipation of oil collapse may SAVE US !!!

    • Ikonoclast says:

      It’s always easy to say “may”. A fleet of spaceships from a benign alien civilization “may” save us. What is the probability of the “may” event?

      • Scott says:

        Hey that was my story about the aliens rescuing us! Since I saw the UFO in 1976, I am a believer! Such speed and power unlike anything on Earth – there must be some fleet of nice aliens wanting to pick us up. I would like to stay however and have most of the others leave so I could observe the Earth healing from all the damage.

        Seriously, I am open to that and there is much out there written and accounts about how they are already here and know about our problems.

        Maybe the better batteries and the power plants powered by their hyper-drive systems would save us aside from the fleets of alien ships landing and taking us away to that garden planet out there, a nice thought isn’t it?

        This brings me to the point – I think more people believe in what I just said rather than if you told them about peak oil and gas and oil was going to run out. Also it very likely that more people believe in ghosts and spirits than in peak oil or collapse we discuss on this site. I have had great difficulty getting many of my friends to believe in the finite planet theme.

        • xabier says:


          You are very right about that. I’ve given up even mentioning these things in passing to people: one person even asked if I’d joined some kind of cult when I mentioned perhaps storing some food and water for emergencies!

          But tell someone you know of a great investment, or a ghost story, and they might be all ears……….

          ‘None so blind as them that won’t see’ ,as the English proverb goes.

  11. Mel Tisdale says:

    There is one aspect of this post that needs very careful consideration. We as a species are busy, if somewhat belatedly, trying to solve the peak oil problem. One major area of endeavour is energy storage, mainly in the form of improved batteries for vehicles and the like in order to improve transportation and, one suspects, to extend the length of time military drones and remote controlled weapons can operate in theatre.

    If there is a significant breakthrough in this area, there will be a demand for more electricity, which could easily mean an increase in coal burning in order to meet that demand. If that happens, then pop goes the byproduct of solving climate change. Of course, that all depends on the grid being able to carry the increased load, which I doubt can be automatically assumed..

    Climate change is too important an issue to be put at risk from what is ostensibly a good thing, namely the development of improved energy storage. It must be kept on the front burner so that come what may, it is addressed as a problem in its own right, even if the solution piggybacks on the collapse of industrial production for some, if not all of the time.

    Quite frankly, I can see no real alternative to the rapid development of a fleet of new nuclear power plants, preferably using LFTR technology, but I am no expert in the field and so would welcome an informed public debate on the issue. (Preferably without disruption by the Greens wailing “We’re all going to die!”) Our children and grandchildren deserve that much at least. I would rather saddle my family with the problem of what to do with the small amounts of nuclear waste that LFTR produces than saddle them with starvation, which looks to be on the cards as things stand.

    • Scott says:

      Mel, It has been awhile since we heard from you, good post and I have found your comments interesting in the past. It just keeps coming back to the same problem, either more modern nuclear plants or burn up that lump of Coal that Gail spoke about.

      A new battery technology certainly would be helpful right here at this point in time of our dilemma. If we had a better electric storage vessel that would problem solver. Surely the military needs etc that you discussed are at work and there must be the best minds at work on trying to find new battery technologies.

      I wonder what they will be made of though. And, whether we have enough of it.

      Lithium in good supply which is currently used in most batteries, but these new batteries may require some other rare mineral. This other material may be expensive and not sustainable, we will see. If a significantly better battery storage can be developed using plentiful and readily available materials that would be a good thing right now.

      The other storage option that I brought up in other post was converting electricity to Hydrogen which can be stored in tanks, but once again very volatile and has small molecules which need special super tight seals to prevent leaks. It has a smaller molecule than any gas or oil based energy, but it burns perfectly clean. Once again can afford the investment all the tanks etc a whole new structure to power our cars. It could put people to work if we could print enough money or something.

      Also perhaps someday – Thorium will become a safer nuclear option and these little Thorium plants can provide power to all of our “little villages”. Am I dreaming again?, I don’t know

    • Leo Smith says:

      Spot on. Its the only low cost primary energy source left. That doesn’t utterly destroy the environment deploying it.

      I have nearly written a ‘personal paper’ (i.e. not intended for publication in any journal) detailing the key issues to transforming a western society to full nuclear power. The changes are massive, but it is technically end economically feasible, I reckon.

      No other solution is, at current population levels.

    • Batteries also seem to require materials from diverse sources, and lead to materials that ought to be recycled, but often are not. Some materials are toxic.

      One issue my husband and I ran into recently is the proliferation of different kinds of batteries. If the particular kind of battery a person needs is not available, a device is essentially no good.

      I think one of the big issues with energy storage for the grid is cost. Ideally, it should be pretty much cost free. Also, there is usually an energy loss on storage and retrieval. This adds to costs as well. Since peoples salaries don’t go up at the same time, these added costs become very hard to pay for.

      • Leo Smith says:

        At the massive capacities required for even overnight storage of electricity, there simply is no technology available beyond modulating or pumping very large hydro installations.

        It doesn’t take much to calculate how long e.g. Lake Mead and the dam at the end could supply the USA with electricity. Its not very long.

  12. Good evening, extraordinary summary of what is happening. What are we waiting to implement a natality policy limited to one child per family country wide?

    • Leo Smith says:

      We tried, but the court of human rights ruled that it was racist, and it was a traditional right of ethnic minorities to have large families in order to create the sort of overpopulated conditions of extreme poverty low educational standards and illiteracy and reliance on faith based thinking that they emigrated from. :-)

    • Governments don’t like one-child policies, but they might help our problem.

  13. Andy says:

    One thing not covered so much in this context is what exactly will happen to the trees? Humans will substitute as much energy as possible, and it is only because of oil and coal that we still have whales and trees. The loss of trees, will directly increase CO2 and reduce sequestration, and also indirectly as all the stored carbon in the forest floors is released, and exposed soil also releases it’s stored carbon.

    This may not cause a huge amount of warming, but in terms of climate change I imagine the climate will be much changed. Happy days.

  14. ed says:

    Gail, thank you for covering this taboo topic. Professor Kjell Aleklett at Uppsala University also makes this point. There is not enough stuff to burn to match the UN model.

    Ed Pell

  15. Pingback: Oil Limits and Climate Change | evolveSUSTAIN

  16. Bill S. says:

    And those clowns in Washington are giving out permits to export LNG, when the liquefaction and transportation processes wastes nearly 25% of the gas before it does any useful work.

  17. John says:

    It’d be nice if we could shorten supply chains, but then we wouldn’t be producing things where they are most efficiently produced. Seems like shortening supply chains would result in increased energy consumed per unit produced, and make things worse?

    Or maybe you’re saying we shorten the supply chain by leaving the production centers in place, and moving the communities to them?

    • Leo Smith says:

      We already have shortened supply chains considerably using Internet based dis-intermediation.

      Well in the UK, anyway.

      • Scott says:

        That is the first good thing we can do is shorten the supply lines and learn to live a little simpler. Some places far away that are used to your money will suffer though at first but they will need to start consuming what ever it is they are making.

    • We are going to have to produce a whole lot less, but what we produce will need to be basics–food, water, and clothing and shoes, particularly. I expect that more human energy will need to be used in making these items, driving up the cost. It is not clear that more of other types of energy need to be used. We used to make clothing without fossil fuels, and can do that again, if we ned to. People can knit sweaters from wool, for example.

      • xabier says:


        Regarding a ‘world made by hand.’ Time-scales would change hugely, but the structures could still be complex.

        I’ve just been reading about an Italian merchant in the 14th century: among other things he dealt in cloth. His life teaches us much. Even then, he was able to buy the wool in one country, ship it overseas to another to be made into cloth, to another to be dyed, and then maybe sent to another to be sold. So in a way, he was ‘globalized.’

        His profits on each transaction were modest, and the whole cycle took several years from the purchase of the wool. But it was a system that worked, come plague, come war: a very impressive achievement, when you consider how long even a letter to an agent would take to arrive at his head office!

        When he had trouble finding servants after the plague, he had them shipped in from Eastern Europe, like most of the rich in Italy (who also bought slaves). So even the labour market,as it were, was international.

        With true hand-production, everything would slow down beyond what most people can imagine today, but the networks could still be far-reaching.

        It’s worth noting that due to the plague and constant little wars, he always kept a year’s supply of dried and preserved food, and wine of course, in his main house. He had gardens out of town to supply his needs, too (his town garden was just for show).

        Supermarkets have made us forget this one essential strategy to go with the knocks that life will certainly deal us. Governments also want us to buy consumer goods and ‘entertainment and leisure’ rather than that we provide for our essential needs before all other things. This man from a ‘primitive’and violent age knew better.

        • Lizzy says:

          Xabier, What’s the name if the book? I love reading books like that. I read a good book The Concert about life in Albania (won the Man Booker International Prize by Ismail Kadare). Just the little snippets about life where things are made to order, not on hand all the timel. I was talking with my mother about how the idea of living and working in a world without all the mod-cons is so scary. Then she remembered that growing up in ’30s NZ was pretty basic. Yes, there was ample food and raw goods, but they washed their clothes by hand. Made their own bread. Wore thick jumpers in winter.

          • xabier says:


            The book about the merchant is ‘The Merchant of Prato’ by Iris Origo.

            He left a full archive of his business and personal letters, and even had his wife taught to read and write, so they give a full picture of the times, his business, his house, his servant problems, what living through the Plague was like, etc.

            It’s an incredible book. I would say the best one on the Middle Ages I have ever read, just because of the detail and the fact that he was a merchant, not a king or knight.

            • Used copies of “The Merchant of Prato” are available on Amazon quite inexpensively.

            • Scott says:

              Thanks, I just ordered a used copy at Amazon “The Merchant of Prato” and we can discuss it after I read it. I like to read these stories of the old days anyway and I am sure it will be good. There are things you can learn from the old stories that may help us in the future.

          • xabier says:


            If you don’t watch TV, there’s plenty of time to do things by hand, as I’ve found out! It’s not as impossible as people now think, although it is harder. That sort of world was only yesterday.

            I work with my hands too, in a luxury craft, and even very skilled work can be done quite quickly, but just not on a huge scale as with industrialism. Perception of time and value change, too.

            And what you make actually LASTS….. in my case, easily for 500 years if cared for.

            I’d rather spend a ‘short’ life making good things, than a long one consuming rubbish made by abused slaves far away from me.

        • Yes, there was long distance exchange of goods by boat a very long time ago–not much shipped over land, though. I expect the wealthier individuals got most of the benefit of long-distance shipments. The Bible is full of examples of long journeys by boat (and even some long journeys by land).

          • xabier says:


            Amazing what could be done using mules for transport, as well as waterways.

            My Spanish ancestors lived in a town which had no water access, and in the Middle Ages it was one of the richest and most beautiful towns in Europe.

            It was also on a pilgrimage route, so business was combined with religion in an interesting way. Many people came on pilgrimage and never went home, so ideas and skills spread that way.

            The town wasn’t suited to industrialization, so now it’s a dead place with lots of people on welfare, and lots of beautiful buildings form 800 years ago: merchants houses and palaces. A typical European story: no industry and not quite right for tourism, and the place dies.

            • I can believe,”A typical European story: no industry and not quite right for tourism, and the place dies.” It happens in the US, too. What happens when tourism dies, and industry becomes much harder to do?

  18. yt75 says:

    And about the IPCC input scenarios, to me the situation can be summarized as follows :
    1) The IPCC is a scientific committee from its beginning
    2) It’s area of expertise is climate science, and especially regarding the consequences of human activity on the climate (CO2 but not only)
    3) however its scientific expertise is not, and was never meant to be, the usable hydrocarbons reserves, and even less the possible associated usable flows (or extraction rate)
    4) so for this it uses more “general tendancies” scenarios, in line with other international agencies forecasts reagrding “economic growth” especially.
    5) if there is an official international agency responsible for the evaluation of reserves and possible flow, that would be the IEA
    6) But the IEA has never been (was never meant to be) a “scientific committee”, it is more the “syndicate” of rich countires(OECD) major importers, and its first mission was in fact to manage strategic stocks after the first oil shock, exactly what is written on the IEA history page :
    7) moreover one can safely say that its publications are (and have been for a long time) under direct political pressure :
    8) So that there is absolutely no “official agency” responsible for “reserves and possible flow” estimation in a “scientific at best” way.
    9) Best source for “scientific at best reserves and flow estimation” clearly are organisations such as the ASPO
    10) But more or less under some kind of “omerta” in official circles….

    • That is a good summary. Of course, if you believe that the world is past climate tipping points, we could have a problem no matter what we do. I’m not sure we know the tipping points well.

  19. yt75 says:

    Thanks for another great overview.

    About the limits regarding oil(regarding the flow of oil, or mb/d), think we can indeed say that we are facing two limits or “walls” in parallel, the one being the “extractible under current technology limit”, and the second one “the price we can afford”.

    Jean Laherrère has a nice way to represent that in his last synthesis in below graph :

    (vertical one is the usual “peak oil” wall, the horizontal one the “what we can afford” wall, or economic wall).
    Complete paper :

    Also to be noted a recent post from Matt mUshalik on the same subject :

  20. Don Stewart says:

    Dear Gail
    My suspicion is that if investors begin to take your ideas seriously, then the market value of energy companies will collapse, the companies will collapse, the value of pension fund assets will be severely wounded, and executives will be selling pencils and apples on street corners.

    Don Stewart

    • ReverseDeveloper says:

      We have had some refinery disasters in our region over the last few years. Scuttlebutt from the steamfitters is that the pipes are full of sleeve patches, stopgap repairs, because they are not shutting down for full repairs. They are running at capacity rather than upgrading existing sites or building new plants ( environmental hurdles to build new). The execs already know the game is up. The investors who know all think they will get out in time. The beneficiaries of both camps, and the pols too, are busy buying land in wine country, boring caves into the hills, ostensibly for barrel aging. Not! They are all ready to hunker down. It is plain to see from the tour route.

      The little people, the homeless, the kids who cannot pay their student loans, they all know what is up. Yet our leaders will not speak up because it would be political suicide to do so. The responsible among us in this country are ready to make sacrifices if called upon to do so. The problem is that some feel they have too much to lose. As if they were going to take it with them into their wine cave, and rise like Jesus after industrial society has been crucified to be worshiped for their foresight and vision. We all know it’s just a bid to save their own privilege.

      • xabier says:


        If that’s what’s happening among the vineyards it’s interesting: since the Cold War there seems to have been a fantasy that the elite could sit out a storm in some kind of deep shelter, and then emerge to govern once more (in Britain, the advice to the mass of people was to hide under doors and tables in event of nuclear war!). But what would be there for them to govern?

        Our cities are obviously potential death-traps, so digging out one’s own ‘safe-cave’ instead of a safe-room would be a logical step, next to acquiring an island.

        There is one problem with the very rich: they have an excessive belief in the power of money (of course, experience has taught them that most people can be bought in some way), so they will tend to exploit anything to the limit in a cynical way, believing they can always then move on to the next opportunity. Up until now, new opportunities have always come along. It’s rather like thinking yourself to be immortal.

    • Leo Smith says:

      “executives will be selling pencils and apples on street corners.”….Every cloud has a silver lining…

    • It could be that the values collapse. But with Quantitative Easing, anything looks like a better investment than bonds, so prices tend to run up.

  21. Michael Lloyd says:

    There is an argument that it is the cumulative carbon emissions that are the critical factor and not the current rate.

    See http://www.trillionthtonne.org

  22. Ikonoclast says:

    Peak Earl is correct. There is so much global warming built in already that rapidly dropping CO2 emissions right now would not stop the earth’s average temperature rising for hundreds of years yet.

    The only fact that counts in this context is the actual tonnage of CO2 going into the atmosphere each year and this is still going up. Peak Oil just leads to more coal consumption. We can see this too in the figures. Financial constraints do not matter. They are not real. Only real constraints matter.

    Financial collapse is a result not a cause. Gail is getting sidetracked into thinking financial collapse is causational in this matter. It is not. Real resource collapse is causational. Financial collapse follows as an effect. When investments cannot pay off, due to resource constraints, the financial collapse occurs to wipe out money that now has nothing real to buy. That’s a vast simplification of course but in essence that is it.

    There may be a phase where resource collapse and financial collapse reinforce each other. However, if vital national production fails due to financial collapse, the government will step in and mandate certain things happening. It will be like a war economy. The government can and will conscript labour, commandeer resources and nationalise enterprises to keep basic infrastructure and services running. At that point, the constraints will be real (material and energy limits) and not financial.

    Gail seems to think oligarchic financial capitalism is the only way a modern society can be run. Well, it aint so. There are other ways.

    But having said that, the ulitmate destination still looks very grim. We are just arguing what pathway (A or B) that will take us there. It’s academic really.

    • davekimble2 says:

      > rapidly dropping CO2 emissions right now would not stop the earth’s average temperature rising for hundreds of years yet.

      Not so. CO2 in the atmosphere dissolves into seawater at a rate proportional to the difference in the concentrations, and the oceans are nowhere near their CO2 capacity, so they are acting, and will continue to act, as a CO2 sink. If the adding of CO2 to the atmosphere was to be slowed to a rate below the rate at which CO2 currently moves from atmosphere to seawater, atmospheric concentrations will decrease, and the temperature effect will reduce.

      Once dissolved in seawater, the CO2 has two effects. One is acidification, which has bad implications for SOME shell-forming species – these are the ones that don’t have a strong genetic make-up for CO2 stripping, and they could go extinct. But most shell-forming species have been around for a very long time, and have coped with bigger CO2 fluctuations than we are seeing now. The best of those genes will be selected by evolution once more, and they will flourish, exploiting the ecological gap left by their weaker cousins.

      The second effect is the deposition of dead shell-forming species onto the sea floor, where the carbon is sequestered and ultimately becomes limestone. This reduces the concentration of CO2 in the seawater, enabling it to absorb more CO2 from the atmosphere.

      As with all modelling, it is only as good as the data input, but it is fairly well understood these days. And the models say the oceans acting as a carbon sink are currently dealing with half of the CO2 humans have generated, and would start to reduce the temperature effect within 25 years. As time passes and the atmospheric and oceanic concentrations become closer, the sink effect will tail off, and will still be measurable in 1,000 years, but the effect will be really slight by then.

      All of that is not to say that we don’t have to worry, because there might be “unknown unknowns” with serious consequences, but it doesn’t make sense to worry too much about the unknown. All will become clear when the revised models of IPCC-AR5 are applied to the RCP 2.6 data set. It probably won’t make the news headlines, because all the other RCPs are MUCH more scary, but they won’t happen because fossil fuels are not infinite.

      • Tony says:

        There is a natural background rate of CO2 release (e.g. from volcanic activity) and the earth more or less reached an equilibrium between CO2 sources and CO2 sinks (with some variability, of course). What humans are putting into the atmosphere (either directly or indirectly through deforestation and other practices) is in addition to this background rate and is what has caused the energy imbalance that is warming the planet. This will continue, even if all emissions ceased today, until there is an energy balance. Without feedbacks, we would then expect temperatures to slowly decline, until CO2 reaches is previous level. However, NOAA and, I think, the UK Met Office have stated that the warming will be locked in for 1000 years, so even if all emissions stopped today, the earth would continue to warm for a while and then stay warmer for hundreds of years. An additional point is that the warming rate would likely increase in the short term as more sunlight got through a declining aerosols level.

        I agree with those who think climate change is the biggest issue, though I would tend to expand that to environmental degradation generally. Indeed, any attempt to try to keep industrial societies going by alternative means (even if that were possible) would just continue the environmental degradation.

        I’m afraid it’s heads we lose and tails we lose. We’re going to have to figure some way to get through the bottleneck because there is no way to avoid it.

        • Leo Smith says:

          Climate change is insignificant and at the moment totally decoupled from CO2. what is really scary is losing energy supplies. Its WAY more serious for human life than the piddling changes in climate we have had, that are increasingly seen as unrelated to CO2.

        • “I’m afraid it’s heads we lose and tails we lose.”

          I think that pretty much sums up our problem.

    • You need to look at what happened in the past. It was financial collapse that brought down societies.

    • sponia says:

      This sounds like it’s really just two different ways of looking at the same thing.
      Somewhere I once read that ‘Oil and Gold can’t move in the same direction’. I update this to: Oil and Dollars can’t move in the same direction. Each one is part of the energy loop to the other. We use Energy to make Goods to sell for Money which we use to buy more Energy…..
      If you break the loop, at any place in the cycle, the flow in the entire circuit shuts off.

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  24. Scott says:

    The ocean acidification is really a big deal since so much food will be at risk. Much of the world depends on the oceans, have we really poisoned the Pacific Ocean? Well yes looks like 80 percent of the fish are gone since our grandfathers days, hard to believe and sad.

  25. Scott says:

    Less than half full?
    Thanks Gail, this post hit on everything we have discussed on the other blogs from the Bees to the Oil depletion. It is a slow change headed towards disaster. It would be nice if we could go back to the village lifestyle. but hard to do with 8 billion of us. I have yet to see a chart showing world oil field depletion and I guess such a chart would only be any ones best guess anyway, but if the chart existed I bet the glass would be less than half full.

  26. Perk Earl says:

    People have the idea once CO2 emissions drop our problems with climate change begin to reduce. Unfortunately, there is a 30-40 year lag time from the time of CO2 emissions and their full effect on climate occur, known as thermal inertia. In other words we could halt all emissions tomorrow (even though the economy would collapse), and we would still have to wait 30-40 years to experience the full effect of emissions already spewed into the atmosphere (via ocean warming and its effect on climate). Also, once we stop emitting aerosols (tiny particles that block sunlight from contrails, and burning FF, manuf. soot, etc.), world temperature will rise about 1C, from reduced ‘dimming’, which in turn will have positive feedbacks, increasing methane and CO2 releases from the arctic sea bed and arctic circle soil that was previously tundra).

    Forget about the idea of stopping the climate from continuing to change and shifting to a different, harsher gear, because that’s baked in. We will have to ride that one out and hope we can adapt.

    About all we can do is move towards renewables, but like you wrote above, it’s more expensive at a time OECD govt’s are straining to keep the infrastructure we already have in good repair.

    • Renewables need to have fossil fuels as their base, as well as being more expensive, so I don’t see them doing much.

      I have heard that removal of global dimming is a problem, as well as the lag in the full effect on the economy. But I don’t think we can really do much more (than collapse will do) to fix the situation.

      • Scott says:

        Very True Gail, let us keep that in mind that renewable and solar etc. need fossil fuels as their base. A big part of the problem set. A good reason to preserve what is left so we can build them.

  27. davekimble2 says:

    You will be pleased to hear that the next IPCC report, AR5, due out next year has a completely revised method of inputting the data that the model then uses to forecast future temperatures. These data-sets are to be known as “Representative Concentration Pathways” (RCPs) and are described at http://tntcat.iiasa.ac.at:8787/RcpDb/dsd?Action=htmlpage&page=welcome .

    The aim is to make the creation of data-sets more flexible. The lowest scenario listed at that URL is RCP 2.6, by the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, described as being ‘a so-called “peak” scenario’ and seems to correspond quite closely with the EWG-2013 scenario, and “is based on the publication by Van Vuuren et al. (2007).”

    I expect RCP 2.6 will produce a peak temperature of about +1.3°C, peaking well before 2050, and decreasing thereafter as further ocean sinking occurs. Whether the planet can withstand that sort of treatment is still in question.

    I expect before that occurs however, the energy-driven, growth-driven globalised system will have collapsed, rendering even RCP 2.6 redundant.

  28. I will be leaving tomorrow morning for the Age of Limits 2013 conference. Because of this, I will probably will not be able to respond quickly to comments.

    Also, Reverse Engineer asked me to announce that the Doomstead Diner is providing coverage of the conference. The conference actually started tonight, with regular talks starting in the morning. This is the direct link to Age of Limits 2013 on the Doomstead Diner blog.

Comments are closed.