What’s our carbon budget?

March 24th, 2012 atam Posted in Climate change, General, Peak oil | No Comments »

Say you have a tube of toothpaste. What do you do with it when it’s finished?

Whether you’re the messy type who’s used to squeezing out the toothpaste anywhere along the tube or a tidy person who likes to start from the end and work your way towards the cap, there’s usually still quite a lot of toothpaste left by the time the last easy bit is squeezed out from near the cap.

A lot of people (especially those who brush their teeth with the tap running) will then throw the tube away. Those with a waste-not-want-not mentality though would try a bit of ‘ironing’ on the tube, to force out what’s left inside. The tube will then last a few days more before running out, but certainly not the couple of months you get out of a new tube.

Our situation with regards to oil is similar – except that this planet is the tube; you can’t go out and get another tube when it’s all squeezed out. Recently peak oil sceptics have been cocking a snoop at the doom-mongers, pointing at the success of fracking to raise the US’s oil output. Setting aside the environmental damage caused by this method of extracting oil or gas, the problem with their sense of triumph is the fact that this is rather like ironing out the last bit of toothpaste – which is why, rather than the steady supply of an oil field with considerable reserves left, fracking typically yields a certain amount for a short period before production drops dramatically.

Of course, if you really really want to get every last bit of toothpaste out, you can cut the tube open and scrape it out – and there may yet be the technology that will top fracking and deep-water drilling to extract the last drop of oil. But will it be worth it, environmentally and socially?

Already the price of oil is trending upwards despite the economic uncertainty surrounding the world and people everywhere are once again protesting against high fuel prices.

But the trouble with our oil addiction is not only that very soon the rate of production will cease to keep pace with rising demand, but also the fact that the carbon emissions associated with the fossil fuel will make this planet a little too hot to handle unless we cut back.

James Leaton of the Carbon Tracker Initiative offers an illuminating perspective in a recent article, in which he asked “How much ‘unburnable’ carbon is there on the world’s stock exchanges?”

By “unburnable”, he means the amount of fossil fuels that we can’t afford to utilise because doing so will create enough greenhouse gases to push climate change beyond a rise of 2ºC. His organisation worked out that the world’s listed companies own more fossil fuels than can be burned between now and 2050 if there is to be an 80% chance of climate change not going beyond 2ºC.

You can see Mr Leaton’s point just by looking at the kind of companies with plans to list in Hong Kong: Sunshine Oilsands, Kinetic Mines, Husky Energy… The Hong Kong Stock Exchange is actively courting commodities firms in competition against established commodities trading centres like London. Looked at a different way, HKEx is actively promoting the government’s vision of Hong Kong as a financial centre by exacerbating climate change.

So if the world’s not choked by peak oil by 2015, it will be by greenhouse gases not much later. We need to do much more than pay lip service to “low-carbon living” to avoid the impending disaster.


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