When the Oil Era Ends
What if all the fossil fuels stopped being used? All of a sudden the taps were switched off in the oil rigs, the gas rigs and coal mines would grind to a halt. There would be pandemonium, economic crisis, things would never be the same! Yes. Right. A few month ago perhaps you would have trouble imagining it. Your ability to imagine it would be dependent on how much disaster movies strike your fancy. Are you feeling it now? Is that not exactly where we are at the moment? In an altered world, bent out of shape from everything that we have learnt to recognise. How would that differ from this. How would that crisis be different from all others?
The Fall of States
It would actually be quite different, and it would in no way be sunshine and roses, let’s not kid ourselves. Let me start by saying that I cannot tell the future. All I am saying here is based on the principals that are at work today. The two most dangerous developments to look out for would be the fall of states and the lack of electricity. If oil, coal and gas were to stop being sold some states in particular would would be in serious trouble. These are the states who’s entire economy is built on selling the raw material. All the states in the Arab world would need to work very hard not to crumble, because these powers are all built on oil in some way. Where Saudi Arabia and Iran are built on oil production directly, the spiderwebs of geopolitics that these states play props up the regimes that do their bidding, from Egypt to Iraq. When states fall, it usually turns ugly. We have seen it in Syria, and earlier in Iraq. An end to oil could spread the same kind of factional war and breed fanaticism across the entire region. Other petro-states around the world like Venezuela and Angola would be at risk of breaking up as well. However the big one to watch would be the fall of Russia. Russia gets 52 percent of its federal budget from oil sales, and it has virtually no other exports, I bet you cannot name a single Russian brand that has nothing to do with fossil fuels. The correlation between growth in the Russian economy and oil price are almost 99 per cent. The country is completely in the hands of the hydrocarbon oligarchy, Putin’s regime would be nothing without them. Possibly what would follow the fall of oil for them would be the breakup of the federation and the world would have to scramble to make sure that their nuclear arsenal didn’t fall into the hands of terrorists.
What of the fossil fuel producers in the western world? Australia, alone in the western orbit to bizarrely have a massive 10 percent of its exports based in coal, is the biggest coal exporter in the world, with a new massive mine being built near the Great Barrier Reef. Norway is a major oil producer, has 18 percent of their GDP tied to oil, while Canada and the USA has 8 percent each. However, how a sudden stop to this production would affect advanced and complicated economies is a trickier question. Some researchers argue that in western economies raw material production tends to hold back other sectors of the economy, sucking up subsidies, inflating currencies and at the end of the day employing relatively few people.
So much for the producers, what about the consumers?
All over the world people would suffer blackouts, many of the worlds’ economic powers like China, India, Germany and parts of the US would also have to deal with them. The Middle East could be hit particularly severely because of the lack of renewable infrastructure. Blackouts in turn lead to a loss of economic output and states would scramble to first use the electricity that there is to power the functions of the state, government, army, police and hospitals. That, in turn, means that our lives would be turned upside down.
Just imagine how a world without TV, internet och even a light to turn on after nightfall would be. It’s a dreary thought I must admit. People would be frightened, and many might turn to crime for their needs to be met. Similarly, just as it is at the moment, most travel would be impossible. Fossil fuelled cars, planes and ships would grind to a halt, some supply chains would be broken and food shortages could arise. There is no need to describe that part of the scenario, just turn on your TV.
What Would They Do?
Some governments may take up the idiotic practice of going back to burning wood or bio fuel, which would of course threaten the worlds forests. Physics, however, tells us that this is not a solution. The advantage of fossil fuels is that they are made up of organic materials that have been compressed for millions of years. A litre of oil from the oil well is made up of a stunning 25 tons of organic material and to make petrol from this takes four times that, or 100 tons. This means that whatever organic material you take, be it wood or bio-fuel, you need 100 tons of material to get the same energy as 4 litres of oil from the ground. Because of this staggering ratio, it cannot replace coal, oil or gas for long. A welcome development for countries who extensively use landfills would be the burning of trash, such as is already being done in many parts of Europe, i.e. burning waste to create electricity. However, this too would be an industry in decline because plastics come from petroleum and would start being in short supply, much to the relief of our oceans. The subsequent elimination of plastic opens up a whole shift in the economy while companies struggle to find alternatives for everything from bottles and bags to polyester clothing.
Not everything would come to a standstill. Scandinavia, Iceland, the UK, Portugal, Costa Rica, Uruguay and California to name a few, are places that would have reliable electricity. Alone in the Arab world, Morocco would be better off than most with 35 percent of its energy coming from solar power. In these places trains and subways would keep rolling. Norway and parts of China and California even have enough electric cars to keep people moving. Although the world would be fundamentally broken, we can be sure that in less than a day of no electricity, the scramble for solar cells would be intense. The sun is the one form of energy that is more or less ubiquitous so most people in the entire world would need to put them on their roofs. Some places very near the poles are unsuited for solar panels, but these places tend to have other renewable sources like those that rely on water or wind. The world’s deserts would become an attractive resource as solar arrays would need to be placed on all of them, carrying electricity a long way off to the population centres.
Some of the poorest places in the world, like Yemen and Eritrea, are the places that the World Economic Forum has suggested to be the best place for large scale solar investment, so some centres of power would inevitably be turned upside down. Wind power would see a massive boom, although we hope it would be out to sea as the damage on bird populations on land would be harsh, especially in a bio diverse place like Israel. The damming of rivers is nearly at full capacity already and there are few natural rivers left to dam. Nuclear power cannot be considered a fossil fuel since it has no greenhouse emissions, which is why Bill Gates keeps investing in them. In this scenario it would keep running, which would greatly benefit countries like France and South Korea.
So nuclear would be turned up to the maximum in order to make up for coal and gas. The advantage nuclear power has over coal in terms of pure energy output is similar to the advantage coal has over wood. The problem nuclear would have in our scenario is that it takes time to build a nuclear power plant, sometimes decades, while at the moment it takes 90 days to install solar panels because of bureaucracy but in our scenario we are guessing people don’t want to live without power for that long.
So there would be much bloodshed, pain and hardship in a world that immediately turned off all fossil fuels. Perhaps it would be as terrible as a world war. Certainly worse than the world at a standstill that we are going through now. No one would want it to be like that. However, I don’t see much here that would be a civilisation destroyer. It would really be an outlier if that were the case, something to do with nuclear bombs, like ISIS getting hold of Russia’s or Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal together with the know-how and the codes to use them.
The Real Civilisation Destroyer
The thing that can be a civilisation destroyer is a rapidly heating climate. Every month dramatic scientific reports come out with worse news for our climate. This week we are learning from a major study published in Nature that parts of ecosystem of the tropical oceans might collapse as early as the 2030’s. Which means no fish to eat, which means no food for many of the people that live there. We know that the Amazon rain-forest is close to a tipping point that may see the whole forest disappear and turn into savanna. Dying forests mean accelerated heating. We know that the permafrost is melting, creating giant craters all over Siberia, releasing the methane below. Methane means accelerated heating. Antarctica is melting at a rate that threatens radical sea level rise. Temperatures may well soar into what would be unlivable areas all over the world, especially the Middle East. Among the threats to humanity it is truly a clear and present danger, getting worse every year if the emissions don’t start falling rapidly.
The truth is that the use of fossil fuels will more or less stop this century anyway, perhaps triggering the scenario outlined above. How do we know? Because stopping the fossil fuel use is the only way to stop the heating. The earlier we make this shift the more heating we can stop, but the more heating we will have the more urgent the question will become. If we continue as we are doing now, making a few changes without real sacrifices and electing people who lie to us about it, we will see dramatic increase in heating. However, in a dramatically altered world, say the hellscape 3 degrees of heating, we will still want to stop further heating. At 3 degrees of heating, with hundreds of millions of climate refugees, many coastal cities underwater and widespread hunger, politicians would still have to do something to stop the heating to save what is left of civilisation, and this something would still be to stop using fossil fuels. How much of civilisation will they sacrifice on the way there? That is entirely up to all of us.
A Better Way Forward?
If we could just recognise fossil fuels and the oligarchs that lie behind them as the enemies of humanity that they are, we can adapt, and adapt quickly. Not overnight but over a decade. Indeed we must. The fall of oil, coal and gas could be as dramatic as the fall of Kodak, instead of as dramatic as a world war. This is not to underestimate the level of the challenge. This year we will possibly have a drop in emissions due to Covid 19 by about 4 per cent according to Carbon Brief. They need to be falling by 4–7 per cent annually throughout the 2020’s in order to keep the temperature bellow 1.5 degrees of heating that the IPCC has said will cause dangerous, irreversible damage to the planet. So this much of a drop in emissions or more, continuously, every year for ten years and then staying there. This needs massive intervention.
Some politicians are of course, in the pockets of the fossil fuel industry, like Trump, or Morrisson in Australia. Some politicians are more or less fronts for the same industry, with their families and fortunes winning or losing from the sale of the stuff, like King Salman or Putin. However, for the sake of fairness, we have to admit that there is another type. A type of politician who has a hard time selling radical policy change to the voters. You want a happy, positive message, not the doom and gloom of catastrophe! I believe we can do both. Yes, we do need to see the scale of the problem, to ”talk about a crisis as a crisis” as Greta Thunberg likes to say, but we also need a story that sells this better future. Not the ”happy talk” nonsense that the fossil fuel industry itself likes to talk about, where they sell oil and gas on one hand yet talk about a ”diverse energy future”. No, not that, we certainly need to start to see these companies as the enemy, just real dreams we can believe in.
A transfer of the estimated 5.2 trillion dollars in subsidies that the IMF estimates that the fossil fuel industry receives each year to the renewable sector would go a long way into making this a reality. Generally, the hope lies in Europe, the only place where emissions are falling steadily, although still far too slowly. While the American oligarchs in coordination with the government focus on bailing out airlines and choking America with lower fuel standards the EU is focusing on a Green Deal. The fall of coal outside China and India is moving fast. Belgium and Austria have totally switched off the dirtiest fossil fuel, while the UK and other countries are on their way there. The only good news from the USA is also the steady decline of coal. Equally aggressive cuts to oil and gas need to be made even before coal is entirely out of the picture.
The challenge is in our imagination, as much as anything else. We can imagine some of this, now that the world stands still. A period of less travel while the airline industry works out how to fly planes without fossil fuels, while car engines are replaced with batteries, while solar power becomes ubiquitous. The clean air you see right now above New Dehli and Los Angeles right now could become standard as the 7 million dead per year that the WHO estimates that air pollution creates would instead be alive. A standstill of hope instead of a standstill of darkness.
Imagination is what defines us as a species. All the imagination that has been brought to bear in our high tech world could be used. The cell phone has replaced the need for a beeper, a landline, a camera and an encyclopedia. Now we must replace our transport, our energy and our food production. Its a big task, but it can be done.
So can we imagine a better world? Where high speed trains rather than air-planes transport us, where silent, shared electric vehicles are used rather than fossil powered cars, cities are built close to our places of work with free, electrified public transport. Where buildings are built around massive wood beams rather than concrete. Where agriculture is regenerative, where meat is grown in labs and plastic not used in packaging. Where vast expanses of nature, on land and at sea, are rewilded and lost species reintroduced. If we can imagine it, it can happen.
Future generations could both live and be proud of us — the generation that made the right choice.
Charts on how the world is doing on energy transition:
David Wallice-Wells on An Uninhabitable Earth:
WEF on the best countries in Europe on renewable energy:
The economic impact of coal in Australia: