Preface: This thread is NOT about the existence of climate change. I, personally, believe it exists and would, for the purpose of this debate, like everyone who participates to assume that climate change is a reality. I would also like to assume that the releasing of carbon into the atmosphere is a primary cause of this global climate change through the greenhouse effect. I would like to assume that the IPCC report is correct in making this connection. Please, all, assume that anthropogenic climate change is a reality for the purpose of this debate.
(By making these assumptions, I really hope this debate does not dissolve into a cite war to various blogs about whether the snow fall in Greenland is greater this year than last or that temperatures in Antarctica are dropping or that the model used by a certain scientist did not take into account the reflectivity of penguin poop and the increased insolation due the gravitational effects liberal arrogance.)
This thread is about peak oil. For this debate I would like participants to assume that the supply of petroleum on this planet is finite. I would rather not get side-tracked about doom and gloom scenarios of peak oil or even about how much oil and coal is left. I, personally, think the market, i.e. human ingenuity, will bring other energy sources online to compensate for falling reserves of petroleum and higher energy prices. I think humanity will prevail (assuming we don’t kill ourselves off in some other way).
What I would like to discuss in this thread is the effect of finite fossil fuel reserves on anthropogenic climate change and whether reducing carbon production makes any sense when trying to control said climate change.
One final note: These thoughts are not original and are based mainly on some presentations I found by an engineering professor at Caltech (the presentation is linked below). I have been thinking about these ideas on and off for several years and I cannot find any logical errors. As a scientist and a liberal leaning centrist, the arguments make sense and really make me doubt the effectiveness of Kyoto-like plans to reduce rates of carbon production with regard to halting or slowing global climate change.
[li] The world’s supply of fossil fuels is finite. Furthermore, at current consumption rates we will run out of oil in the next 50 to 150 years. Coal will be gone in 100 to 250 years. [/li]
Currently, the world’s “proven” oil reserves stand at 1.3x10^12 barrels. Current consumption is around 85 million barrels per day. If we assume that these are solid numbers, and assume these rates remain constant this gives us about 42 years of oil. Of course, oil consumption rates are increasing in the emerging economies of China and India. To offset this demand, we will surely become more energy efficient and presumably find new reserves (under the polar ice maybe?), but I still believe that 150 years is a good outside estimate and 50-90 years is probable.
For coal the numbers are bigger, but the situation is the same. Coal is a finite resource and we will run out of it sooner or later. Currently there are ~900 billion short tons (10^9) of proven coal reserves (Note: Excel File) and we are using about 6.7 billion short tons per year (Note: Another Excel File). This gives us about 135 years at current rates. Again, let’s assume that 200 years is a good conservative estimate. For simplicity, let’s also ignore natural gas. The story is similar, the numbers larger. Regardless of what the actual numbers are, we will run out of natural gas sometime in the next millennium.
(Side note: As far as I can tell, none of the IPCC simulations took into account the finite amount of fossil fuel reserves, am I wrong on this point? JShore?)
[li]Carbon will be released as we burn these fossil fuels mostly in the form of carbon dioxide. For coal we will release 1.83 kg of CO2 for every kg of coal burned. This number can be reduced by scrubbers, carbon sequestration techniques, etc… but these techniques don’t really come into play when we are debating whether we should reduce petroleum consumption. Similar numbers could be produced for natural gas and oil, but it really isn’t important on how much is released as long as we agree that carbon will be released.[/li][li]Carbon dioxide, released during the burning of fossil fuels, is a green house gas that causes global warming when released into the atmosphere (again, let’s assume this is true). The carbon dioxide released will be removed from the atmosphere over time, but it takes a long time for this to happen. While the time-constant of removal is complicated and depends on many different processes, none of the processes remove the carbon from the atmosphere at anything near the rates we are adding it. According to one study, the removal of 80% of the released carbon will take at least 1000 years after all release stops. Assuming this time constant is accurate, it will take around 430 years to remove half the carbon added to the atmosphere to date even if we stopped releasing carbon tomorrow. [/li]
With this time constant for atmospheric carbon removal, our current rates of petroleum consumption, and the finite amount of petroleum we have left, it will really make very little difference with regards to climate change if we reduce our rates to 1990 levels. In fact, it will make very little difference to climate change if we globally halve our consumption rates. Whether we burn the remaining petroleum in 200 years or 400 years does not matter from a climate change point of view when it will take around 1400 years to remove 90% of it from the atmosphere. Because of this, any calls to cut petroleum consumption due to climate change are misplaced.
[/ol]Am I missing something?
Assuming climate change is a reality and is caused in large part by our releasing large quantities of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and assuming that fossil fuels reserves are finite and will only last ~ 200 years at current rates, why should we reduce consumption and make this number 300 years when it will take about 1000 years to reverse the affects of any carbon we release? What is the driving force behind global agreements like Kyoto or (presumably) Copenhagen to reduce carbon emissions? If we are trying to reduce climate change, we are probably going to be ineffective. If my arguments are not flawed, we might as well continue as we are going as we won’t really see any positive climate change benefit unless we reduce the rates by at least a factor of 10, a factor that is not supportable given our economy and political situations…
This is the presentation this debate is based on:
Hubbert’s Peak, The Coal Question, and Climate Change by Dave Rutledge
Of course, I believe we should cut petroleum consumption for other reasons, the most obvious reason being the petrochemical industry. Plastics are a wonderful thing and I hope they are as cheap and plentiful in my great grandchildren’s time as they are now. I would also like to avoid the smog, acid rain, oil spills and other environmental costs of petroleum consumption. Another reason to stop: we are going to have to switch to other energy sources sooner or later, why not now while we have a buffer? I am sure I could come up with other valid arguments given a few minutes, but climate change does not seem to be a good reason to reduce consumption unless we are talking about a drastic reduction in consumption rates…
Prof. Lucifer Gorgonzola Butts