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Peak Oil, Peak Coal, Peak Deforestation, Peak Emissions…. and Why They’re Not Nearly Enough

Enviroment

Recent data related to our global emissions of heat-trapping gases suggest that humanity may have reached a turning point, or even several. We may be moving from increasing emissions, to peaking and starting to decline. We could be close to such peaks, or even have passed it, for several of the main sources of greenhouse gases, including coal and deforestation—perhaps even for humanity’s total emissions.

If so, this would be a momentous occasion, reversing centuries of growing global warming pollution. But before we start celebrating, we should realize that peaking is not nearly enough.

Before looking at the data, it’s useful to remember that even if you have reached a turning point, things could turn again. “Peak oil,” an animated subject of discussion a decade or so ago, provides an excellent example. The argument was based on the peak in U.S. oil production in 1970, which was predicted by geologist M. King Hubbert in 1956. If the same thing was imminent for the planet as a whole, not just for the U.S., it was thought to imply the End of Civilization as We Know It.

Well, we didn’t find out whether it would or not, because oil production dropped but then began to increase again, including for the U.S. In fact, it’s now essentially at the same level as that 1970 peak. Here’s the U.S. data from 1900 to 2015:

U.S. oil production, 1900-2015, thousands of barrels per day. Source: Energy Information Administration, https://www.eia.gov/dnav/pet/pet_crd_crpdn_adc_mbblpd_a.htm

U.S. oil production, 1900-2015, thousands of barrels per day. Source: Energy Information Administration

I actually remember having heard M. King Hubbert give a lecture on this trend, when I was an undergraduate at Yale, and wondering how he could predict the future of oil using the normal distribution. (I had just taken a mathematical statistics course, and knew that the normal distribution is generally fit to frequency distributions, not to time series as Hubbert was doing.) But I was a mere undergraduate and figured he was the expert and that I didn’t understand the issue nearly as well as he did. Looking back, maybe I did.)

With this as a warning about the dangers of predicting peaks, let’s press on nonetheless. In March the International Energy Agency (IEA) has released their estimate of global energy-related CO2 emissions—which make up the large majority of global warming pollution—and they seem to indicate a levelling-off in the past two years:

Energy-related carbon dioxide emissions -- global total in Gt CO2/year. Source: International Energy Agency, http://www.iea.org/newsroomandevents/pressreleases/2016/march/decoupling-of-global-emissions-and-economic-growth-confirmed.html

Energy-related carbon dioxide emissions — global total in Gt CO2/year. Source: International Energy Agency

Such a “pause” (to use a loaded word) is not by any means unprecedented—see the arrows for the late 70s, early 90s and the Great Recession of 2008—but the IEA pointed out that this time, it’s happening without an economic shock, at a time of continued growth. Thus, we may be seeing the beginning of a “decoupling” of global warming pollution from the global economy.

This trend is related to the indication that such decoupling is happening with respect to coal in China, which is the world’s biggest emitter. Qi and colleagues have compared the relation between GDP and coal consumption in China to that in the U.K. (where it peaked in 1956) and in the U.S. (an apparent peak in 2007):

Coal consumption vs. per-capita GDP for China, the UK and the US (log-log scale). Source: Qi et al. 2016, Nature Climate Change, Figure 3. http://www.nature.com/ngeo/journal/v9/n8/full/ngeo2777.html

Coal consumption vs. per-capita GDP for China, the UK and the US (log-log scale). Source: Qi et al. 2016, Nature Climate Change, Figure 3.

The energy sector, and within it, coal, are the biggest sources of heat-trapping emissions, but the land sector (basically forests and agriculture) accounts for nearly ¼ of the total. Here too, there’s new data concerning peaking, published by the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO):

Greenhouse gas emissions from agricultural and deforestation, 1990-2014 (Gt CO2eq/year). Source: University of Minnesota, Institute on the Environment and FAO, http://environment.umn.edu/news/ione-collaborates-with-fao-on-agriculture-emissions-report/

Greenhouse gas emissions from agricultural and deforestation, 1990-2014 (Gt CO2eq/year). Source: University of Minnesota, Institute on the Environment and FAO

 

With respect to deforestation, it’s increasingly clear that we’ve passed a peak (although its exact date—somewhere between the late 1990s and the early 2010s—varies a lot depending on which data set you use). As with energy, there’s good evidence for decoupling, with rapid reductions in deforestation emissions while the economy was growing in Brazil and other tropical countries.

On the other hand, for direct emissions from agriculture (“agricultural management” in the graph above—particularly from cattle, some from nitrogen fertilization, and to a lesser extent from paddy rice), there’s no sign at all of peaking, with emissions continuing to rise slowly but steadily. The same goes for fossil fuels other than coal (oil, natural gas). So there are important sectors where there’s relatively little indication of progress so far, and these could easily make the overall emissions total reverse course again.

Nonetheless, the pieces of evidence for peaking, and more importantly for the decoupling emissions from economic growth, are encouraging signs. But it’s worth remembering that reaching a peak in global warming emissions is not nearly enough to solve our climate problem. To stop global warming—to make the temperature stop increasing —we need to peak and then reduce emissions rapidly, to a level below the absorption of carbon dioxide by  sequestration of the biosphere. And to stabilize the temperature at a reasonable level—1.5 or 2 degrees—this has to happen within just a few decades.

So, the signs of peaking, and particularly the indications that they are due to the decoupling of emissions from the economy, are welcome signs of a potentially historic change. But what we actually need to do is a whole lot more.



14 Comments on "Peak Oil, Peak Coal, Peak Deforestation, Peak Emissions…. and Why They’re Not Nearly Enough"

  1. Davy on Sun, 28th Aug 2016 7:02 am 

    Typical lack of understanding by someone who is supposed to be really smart. Peaking of a complex and energy intensive civilization is destructive. We are stuck in a catch 22. It is as simple and as complex as that. We are trapped without a get out of jail card. There is no cake and eating it. Less emissions mean less activity with means decay, decline, deflation, dysfunction, and death. These are the 5 D‘s of doom. We are heading for a systematic brake up. Part of that is our effort to make things better by reducing emissions. Part of these emission reductions are not our efforts at all they are just decay and decline looking positive.

    We are practicing denial at the highest levels with our efforts at degrowth of emissions. We are telling ourselves we are getting more efficient. We are telling ourselves we are downsizing dirty and building up clean. That denial is the delusion of no consequences and trade-offs. We want to think this way at the same time populations continues to explode. With population we want to think it is leveling off but that is just more denial and delusion. Any population growth now is dangerous considering our macro existential catch 22. Any mouth we add makes us exponentially more at risk.

    This article is just hopium dressed up with science. We get some fancy graphs to make us feel hopeful. We see a picture painted of a civilization maybe heading in the right direction when the reality is we are painting a picture of a civilization reaching its pinnacle and now starting its dive into the 5 D’s of doom. This is the classic and tragic denial at the highest level of a civilization. This has been present in most of the previous civilizations that collapsed. We are even worse because we think we are better and smarter than those previous civilizations. The fact is we are only so much better at denial than any previous civilization.

  2. bug on Sun, 28th Aug 2016 8:25 am 

    Davy, well said, giant catch 22 is what we are locked in.
    The best and funny part is listening to many people saying “we are smart humans we will figure this out, just watch”,
    as the plung. Hopium,denial is and are humans have.

  3. onlooker on Sun, 28th Aug 2016 9:59 am 

    Well said Davy. Truly a predicament without any solution. We have been busy trying to avert consequences and in so getting deeper into overshoot. We deemed, we could circumvent the laws of nature, we could plunder and exploit nature without consequences. We were ignorant and delusional all along. We are living mortal beings subject to the laws of life and dependent upon functioning ecosystems for our survival. We cannot now play God and fix all this. We cannot create water out of thin air, or arable soil, or an new energy infrastructure etc. Our planet is wounded and all living beings are paying the price and we will also and a big price at that.

  4. penury on Sun, 28th Aug 2016 10:07 am 

    The preceding comments say it very well, I just want to add my agreement.

  5. peakyeast on Sun, 28th Aug 2016 11:57 am 

    Concerning the deforestation argument…

    I obviously dont understand anything..

    Before huge numbers of humans inhabited Denmark – 99% were forests. Today we have about 2%. Hurrah – we dont have deforestation anymore. It has stopped – how fantastic… Never mind it is because nothing is left, but those tiny patches that are used industrially.

    Probably the same will be said concerning concerning fishing..

    Hurraah – the catch of blue fin tuna has plummited. We have really solved this problem now…

    Yes in the way we humans solve problems: We destroy, burn and abuse any resource until its all but gone. And then we declare success and congratulate ourselves on how good we are at restricting ourselves and protecting nature.

  6. Apneaman on Sun, 28th Aug 2016 12:07 pm 

    Looks like there is hope after all.

    Millions at risk as deadly fungal infections acquire drug resistance

    Researchers believe widespread use of fungicides on crops is reducing effectiveness of frontline medicines

    https://www.theguardian.com/society/2016/aug/27/millions-at-risk-as-deadly-fungal-infections-acquire-drug-resistance

  7. Jerry McManus on Sun, 28th Aug 2016 5:07 pm 

    I snorted coffee through my nose when I realized that the author had referred to Hubbert’s analysis as a “normal distribution”.

    Good Golly, Miss Molly! What blatant and profound ignorance!

    Anyone with even a rudimentary grasp of the subject knows that Hubbert fit a logistics curve (not to be confused with the similar Gaussian curve) to the time series data of oil production and discovery.

    Which, of course, has absolutely NOTHING to do with the normal distribution, a statistical analysis tool otherwise known as the “bell curve”.

    What a bunch of maroons!
    – Bugs Bunny

  8. penury on Sun, 28th Aug 2016 5:14 pm 

    With multiple sources for substitutes the fact that use has declined may be a function of ease of replacement or of price. As choices are reduced due to price or lack these declines may be reversed. Humans will continue to use all resources even after a reduction in the economy and/or population.

  9. Sissyfuss on Sun, 28th Aug 2016 7:41 pm 

    I’ll recognize peak emissions when the Keeling Curve starts to regress but then again, with a 40 yr lag time on emmisions’ effects there’s nowhere to go but up.

  10. rockman on Sun, 28th Aug 2016 11:02 pm 

    “…and knew that the normal distribution is generally fit to frequency distributions, not to time series as Hubbert was doing.” Apparently he didn’t play close attention to the lecture. Hubert’s distribution WAS BASED UPON frequency…the frequency of the trends that made up the population of his stats. A population whose development did have a time component. Just another “expert” who doesn’t understand that model. Or does and just misrepresents it to aid his particular spin.

    The problem the writter has is similar to folks that expect production rate “cliffs” to develop ALMOST IMMEDIATELY after a peak is reached. Forget the recent near peak approach of US oil production. From when US production peaked to prior to the shale boom the country has produced over 70 BILLION BBLS OF OIL. That is a sh*tload of post-peak GHG produced. And I won’t bother to add up the GHG generated from coal and NG consumed in the country post PO nor that generated by our imports.

    The other potential huge flaw in !ogic is the assumption that as the energy delivery from oil and NG diminishes the world’s coal resources will be ignored. Just as high oil prices spurred the development of previously noncommercial shale resources why would we not see a similar dynamic due to the increasing value of coal as other energy sources deplete? To prevent further climate change? That didn’t halt the spending of $trillions on the shales and Deep Waterr plays. Why would we expect the future energy consumers to react differently?

  11. Kenz300 on Mon, 29th Aug 2016 6:20 am 

    Too many people……….create too much pollution and demand too many resources….

    China made great progress in moving its people out of poverty…….one reason was slowing population growth…..

    Too many people demand too many resources……yet the worlds population grows by 80 million every year…..

    How many charities are dealing with the same problems they were dealing with 10 or 20 years ago with no end in sight. Every problem is made worse by the worlds growing population.

    If you can not provide for yourself you can not provide for a child.

    CLIMATE CHANGE, declining fish stocks, droughts, floods, air water and land pollution, poverty, water and food shortages, unemployment all stem from the worlds worst environmental problem……. OVER POPULATION.

    Yet the world adds 80 million more mouths to feed, clothe, house and provide energy and water for every year… this is unsustainable… and is a big part of the Climate Change problem

    Birth Control Permanent Methods: Learn About Effectiveness

    http://www.emedicinehealth.com/birth_control_permanent_methods/article_em.htm

  12. HARM on Mon, 29th Aug 2016 1:45 pm 

    “Anyone with even a rudimentary grasp of the subject knows that Hubbert fit a logistics curve (not to be confused with the similar Gaussian curve) to the time series data of oil production and discovery.”

    Yeah, right on! I mean only a total MORON wouldn’t know the difference between a logistics and a Gaussian curve! Totally obvious to non-scientist types, amiright??

    *Ahem* Well glad that’s cleared up now (adjusts collar nervously). Anyhoo, time for me to do a little research…

  13. Sissyfuss on Mon, 29th Aug 2016 4:47 pm 

    First do no harm.

  14. HARM on Mon, 29th Aug 2016 6:47 pm 

    @Sissyfuss,

    LOL

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