While Peak Oil has remained a concept at the fringe of public debate and policy, climate change has gathered speed as the key environmental issue demanding attention alongside more traditional concerns about economics and security. The creation of the IPCC in 1988 reflected the scientific consensus in the mid 1980’s that increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide was caused by human emissions but the realisation that climate change was already happening began to take shape in the 1990’s and by 2007 even political leaders in the USA and Australia (who had become infamous for denying climate change) began to accept it as a reality. It has been the increase in drought and extreme weather events more than increases in average temperatures or subtle ecological changes that have spurred the political and public realisation that climate change is already happening. The focus has shifted from impacts on nature to impacts on humanity.
Strategies for reducing greenhouse gas emissions have become almost synonymous with the sustainability concept. New financial instruments such as carbon trading have developed despite the uncertainty about international agreements to underpin and sustain them. Renewable energy sources have grown significantly especially in countries with the most progressive responses to climate change. At the same time geological sequestration of carbon dioxide has been strongly promoted as a way to allow coal-fired power stations to continue to provide the bulk of the world’s electric power without creating climate chaos. The nuclear industry has been recast as an environmental saviour. Despite all the focus on the issue, the emissions of greenhouse gases world wide has continued to parallel economic growth. Consequently the emissions increases have been higher than even the worst case (business as usual) scenarios produced in the earlier reports by the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change).
The most recent evidence on climate change is showing that the rate of onset of warming in the Arctic19See the review of recent evidence by Carbon Equity, The Big Melt: Lessons from the Arctic summer of 2007 (pdf). make the IPCC’s fourth report look incompetent in its failure to be alarmist enough. Greenland ice cap melting and sea ice retreat are occurring now far faster than expected. This new evidence has been ignored by the IPCC’s ponderous processes for its reports. James Hansen’s research suggests that sea level rises could be 5 metres by 2100 rather than the 0.5m used in the IPCC’s fourth report. This suggests that the onset of severe impacts from climate change is now inevitable, even if there is a huge world-wide effort at mitigation.
Hansen’s report suggests that the onset of severe impacts from climate change are now inevitable even if there is a huge world wide effort at mitigation.
There is also very little evidence that mitigation within the context of modern affluent society will radically reduce greenhouse gas emission in any case. Most of the increases in efficiency and other gains through technology have been countered by increases in emissions elsewhere. This may appear to be due to the small scale and spread of these gains but there is a more fundamental problem that is known to systems theorists as the “rebound effect” or the “Jevons’ paradox”. A gain in resource efficiency in one part of a system is immediately used to drive growth in another part. For example, the savings made in reducing house heating costs is typically being spent on something like an overseas holiday by a householder.
Economic recession is the only proven mechanism for a rapid reduction of greenhouse gas emissions
This suggests that without radical behavioural and organisational change that would threaten the foundations of our growth economy, greenhouse gas emissions along with other environmental impacts will not decline. Economic recession is the only proven mechanism for a rapid reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and may now be the only real hope for maintaining the earth in a habitable state.
Further, most of the proposals for mitigation from Kyoto to the feverish efforts to construct post Kyoto solutions have been framed in ignorance of Peak Oil. As Richard Heinberg has argued recently,20See Richard Heinberg’s Big Melt Meets Big Empty, 2007. proposals to cap carbon emissions annually, and allowing them to be traded, rely on the rights to pollute being scarce relative to the availability of the fuel. Actual scarcity of fuel may make such schemes irrelevant.