It is going to take a monumental change in thinking and habits in order to reduce our dependance on oil as an energy source. At the point of peak production we will find ourselves scrambling to compete for what fuel supplies remain. How will we deal with this crisis? The Energy Information Agency predicts we will reach this point sometime in the next few decades, at which point petroleum will be far too expensive to use as a transportation fuel source. We are going to have to make some serious personal lifestyle choices in order to avoid a complete economic breakdown. Will we have the collective motivation to make these important changes?
» Source: The Guardian Unlimited
The other day I found myself on the M25. In, of course, a traffic jam. There was a traffic queue on the other side of the motorway too, pointing in the other direction and not really going anywhere either. I had a sudden insight at that moment: in 50 years’ time, this scene - of fossil fuel-driven cars and trucks stuck stationary on this motorway - won’t happen. There won’t be that many vehicles with that fuel.
Don’t believe me? It’s not because the oil is going to run out, but because we’ll pass the point where we’re finding more than we’re using. Which will mean that we’re burning diminishing reserves.
The US government’s Energy Information Agency last year forecast that world demand for oil will grow by 54% in the first 25 years of this century; to meet that, by 2025 oil-producing countries will have to supply 44 million barrels of oil extra every day. (The world used 82m barrels per day in the first quarter of last year.)
But there is only a finite number of dinosaurs and other creatures from millions of years ago to be crushed into coal and oil. The International Energy Agency, which collects data from oil products, expects peak oil production somewhere between 2013 and 2037, after which production will fall by 3% annually.
Which adds up to very expensive barrels of oil 50 years from now, given that we’ll be scrapping with China and India and the US for oil supplies. Look at the price of oil today: at 80p per litre, if your car manages 30 miles per (imperial) gallon - which it won’t in a traffic jam, but be generous - then you’re spending 12 pence per mile, and that’s ignoring the cost of insurance and road tax and repairs. That’s a lot. So there’ll either be fewer cars, or they’ll be powered differently.
Now, knowing human nature, one has to feel that people are going to be very reluctant to let go of their cars. Public transport is a wonderful idea, spoilt only by the fact that humans are irredeemably selfish: we’re delighted for other people to take public transport so the roads are clearer for us.
So, we have a scenario where fossil fuels are much more expensive and electric cars are commonplace rather than remarkable. That suggests shorter journeys (since battery technology has tried and tried for years, but won’t get pushed to the limits until one can only use electric) and the price of electricity begins to matter too. By then, some government will have had to bite the bullet about where our power should come from.
A combination of pragmatism and politics suggests that nuclear power is going to be important 50 years hence. Pragmatic, because as Brian Cox, a research fellow at the University of Manchester, pointed out on the Guardian Science podcast a few weeks ago, energy conservation just won’t close the gap; nuclear power is the only way to give us greedy people enough power to run our cars, computers, lights, ovens and so on.
And it’s interesting to find that most other scientists take the same view. It’s political, because one doesn’t really want to rely on Russia for our gas supply decades hence. I’m not expecting nuclear-powered cars. But it’s clear that things can’t go on like this. And what will get us out of the jam we’re in?
Technology, obviously. We know how to make nuclear power stations; we know how to make effective batteries; we know how to make a world where we don’t measure our journeys by the distance between petrol stations, but between power points. The question is, will we have the will to do it, or will everyone just keep chugging along behind each other?
The other realisation that struck me that day was that changing the way that we think about cars and fuel isn’t like - as that cliché goes - turning around a supertanker, because a supertanker has a single captain in charge who directs the course.
Instead, there are millions of us making little choices about whether we buy an electric car or a fossil-fuelled one. It’s a supertanker made up of millions of little boats. And they’re all following the boat in front. Trouble is, we’re all going in a circle. When, precisely, will we change course?