The implosion of investment in Canadian energy, most recently the cancellation of the Teck Frontier oilsands mine and Warren Buffett bailing on Quebec’s giant Énergie Saguenay LNG plant, brings home that if all this airy talk of transitioning away from fossil fuels actually lands, it will land on us very hard. (Mind you poor shy Canada finally got the world’s attention, if it’s any consolation.) As Anjli Raval warns in a major piece in The Financial Times, other countries are expanding their capacity as we crush ours because “The world runs on oil.” It accounts for 34% of world energy consumption, followed by its hydrocarbon cousins coal (27%) and natural gas (24%). But, as climate activists are often reminded in vain about their own lifestyles and protest accessories, “the fossil fuel has also quietly seeped into other aspects of our lives: from paint, washing detergents and nail polish to plastic packaging, medical equipment, mattress foams, clothing and coatings for television screens. Last year, global demand reached a record 100 million barrels a day”. And in Canada we’re part of the demand. Just increasingly not the supply.
Raval’s piece is not triumphal. Far from it. She says oil is bad. Bad bad bad. “Even as our thirst for oil seems insatiable, it is becoming politically and environmentally toxic. As the world wakes up to the catastrophic impact of climate change, from rising sea levels and drought to wildfires and crop failure, scientists have warned of a need to rapidly shift away from fossil fuels. Yet when it comes to oil demand, there is little sign of this happening. Our usage has jumped 62 per cent over the course of a few decades — up from 61.6 million b/d in 1986.” Almost as if we didn’t believe all that talk we keep… emitting.
Raval says “How the world can provide abundant energy supplies while dramatically reducing emissions has become one of the defining issues of our time. The challenge is huge. In order to keep global warming ‘well below’ a 2 C increase, the IEA says the world would need to stomach a fall in oil consumption to 67 million b/d by 2040. Environment analysts argue that we need to learn to survive on far lower levels — about 10 million b/d — and ultimately remove it from our energy system entirely.” Ah. Analysts. Cousins of experts.
If the challenge is huge, the response is not. She notes that “Governments are beginning to take some action, from incentivizing the purchase of low emissions vehicles to funding cleaner energy research.” But doing actual stuff that might matter is a lot harder because, wait for it, oil is vital. “While coal and gas are starting to be displaced by lower-cost renewables in electricity generation, oil has a stranglehold over the transport sector, and the petrochemicals industry is a fast-growing consumer of refined products. Aside from the commercial interests of oil-producer nations and corporations, there is a practical question: How will the world function without a material on which we depend so deeply?... Throughout history, energy has been at the heart of how civilizations have prospered.”
In keeping with the realism of half of the piece, she’s very clear that crude oil did wonders to advance prosperity, a sentiment with which we entirely agree. Then she goes unreal: “Yet humanity’s improved well-being has come at the expense of the planet’s. The earth has warmed by 1 C since pre-industrial times and is likely to heat up by another 2 C by the turn of the century — overshooting the targets of the 2015 Paris climate agreement.”
If so, what happens? Well, we all might sort of die. “A 2018 UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report showed warming beyond 1.5 C risked irreversible changes — from the mass extinction of species to extreme weather and ecosystem changes that threaten global stability.” Scary yet vague. We’re not quite ready to open the sixth seal. But we still commend the piece because it is quite realistic about the situation if not the future.
“Even after the world began moving from coal to other fuels, coal did not disappear. With the emergence of each new source, we have simply added it to the mix rather than replace old ones.” And she quotes Greta Thunberg (who else?) on the urgency of getting not to “net” zero but “real zero”. (Sort of like Canada’s energy industry the way things are going.) But Raval warns, “Cars, trucks and other road vehicles make up more than 40 per cent of global oil usage. When you add in aircraft, ships and trains, transport accounts for about 60 per cent. So any attempt to reduce our oil habit hinges on this sector.” Buildings and industry are also big, so pretty much the stuff that we do that makes us warm, fed and happy or at least entertained. So maybe we can go for “offsets such as planting trees.” It’s gonna take quite a few.
Next Raval makes a daffy claim indeed. She quotes “Jason Bordoff, who heads the Centre on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University” that “Ultimately, the world has to make value judgments about what temperature target it wants to hit.” Value judgements?
To hear the great and good tell it, we already did. We know what temperature target we want to hit. And we’re also arrogant enough to think we don’t just know the ideal temperature (for some reason it’s what we had in 1950, not 1850 or 1150), we also know how to hit it. Except for the tricky bit where we risk turning First World countries into Third World countries and kill vast numbers in Third World countries gone Fourth World by shutting off their path out of poverty because otherwise bad things will happen.
No really. Raval says “The world’s addiction to oil is often compared with tobacco. But while smoking is something people can choose to do, using energy is not…. Yet the cost of climate change could be far greater — and the world is running out of time.”
The piece does at least make plain just how high the cost of giving up oil would be in theory unless and until we find something better. Meanwhile in Canada we’re toying with demonstrating it in practice.