Peak oil, peak coal, peak gas and projected fossil fuel use

It is interesting how much difference there is between targets and projections. The United Kingdom has an ambitious target to cut greenhouse gases by 80% by 2050. For this figure to be realistic we have got to cut them by 60% by 2030, because the easiest gains in emissions reduction come first. Of course there is little sign of the United Kingdom making any emission reductions for the time being, but that is another story.

The targets are one thing, but the projections of fossil fuel usage indicate that it will be impossible to reach any significant emission reduction target, and that is very depressing.

If there is enough oil, coal and natural gas to go round (and that is a big “if”) projections reported in Nature indicate a 45% increase in fossil fuel use by 2030, notwithstanding the targets. If fossil fuel use increases by 45% then carbon emissions will increase by 45%, because there is no proven way of sequestrating the carbon that is likely to be discovered and adopted by 2030.

It is possible that we will run out of our usual sources of fossil fuel and have to resort to the more unusual sources. Best estimates indicate that at the present rate of consumption we have enough oil for 40 years, but there may be more oil in tar sands and other places where to extract it will emit far more carbon dioxide than traditional drilling.

Oil reserves are notoriously difficult to estimate; one source thinks that oil may have peaked in 2005. At the current rate of consumption there is enough natural gas for 60 years, according to the International Energy Authority. Again, estimates are difficult to make, because natural gas is a precious resource to nations that have it, and it probably suits them to fog the figures. Coal reserves are estimated at 450 giga tonnes by one method – about half the amount that the market expects, and again at current rates of consumption there is enough for sixty years.

David Rutledge, an electrical engineer at the California Institute of Technology, calculates that coal might have already peaked. Those estimates of coal, gas and oil will not last as long as the time scale I have given, because the time scale is at current consumption and there are good grounds for believing that consumption will increase by 45% over the next 21 years. The scale of the shortage of fossil fuel will only become apparent in the market; right now there is less energy used for industrial processes, as most countries are in recession, so fossil fuel is not as much in demand as before.

However with the forecast growth in fossil fuel it is clear that the world as a whole has to reduce its fossil fuel consumption by 45% by 2030, just to keep the emissions levels rising at around 2 parts per million per annum.

By the way uranium stocks will probably peak in the next ten years, as more nations turn on more and more nuclear reactors. It may be possible to use thorium on a world wide scale, and if so, there is unlikley nto be a thprium peak for a hundred years, but the technology is still in its infancy and amy never be adopted across the world.

We are “addicted” to fossil fuel, not because we love the stuff but because it is cheap compared with renewables. Like all addictions, it contains the seeds of our own destruction, and we are watering and fertilising those very seeds that will grow to destroy us.

2 Responses

  1. Hi Robert, I was just wondering the source you used for this statement : ”Coal reserves are estimated at 450 giga tonnes by one method – about half the amount that the market expects, and again at current rates of consumption there is enough for sixty years.”

    The reason for this is that I’m doing a project in one of my university classes and i’m trying to make a database of fossil fuel reserves (current and projected). Any help would be really helpful.

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