BP's recently released "BP Energy Outlook 2030" report claims that a dramatic rise in new unconventional sources of oil -- tight oil, tar sands and NGLs -- will solve the "peak oil" problem. These new sources of "oil" are primed to gush forth and allow the world to burn lots more oil for decades to come. BP's chief executive Bob Dudley said bluntly:
"Fears over oil running out – to which BP has never subscribed – appear increasingly groundless."
And it's not just oil. According to BP, a combination of powerful new extraction technologies, growing populations and extremely weak climate policies mean humanity is on track to excavate and burn lots more fossil fuels of all kinds by 2030: 15% more oil, 26% more coal and 46% more methane (aka natural gas). In fact, policies still so strongly favour fossil fuels that BP predicts that two-thirds of all new energy over the next two decades will be supplied by increased fossil fuel burning.
Off the climate cliff
Unfortunately for just about everyone, this "most likely" energy comes with one very big downside. If we do burn that much fossil fuel we will crank the global thermostat up 4OC. And that, scientists say, will inflict climate misery on humanity for thousands of years. Out of the peak oil frying pan and into the raging climate fire. Sorry kids.
How bad is 4OC?
So far the world has warmed around 0.8OC. Already dramatic climate changes are emerging, often decades ahead of worst-case expectations. Extreme droughts, deluges, flooding, storms, crop losses, heat, forest die-off, coral death and ice melting are already well underway. The polar jet stream is weakening and getting "stuck" more often causing unusual storm tracks and long-lasting droughts.
The consensus of the climate science is that all these things get worse and new extremes will emerge as the world warms. Beyond 2 OC however the changes grow in seriousness and tipping points are likely to be crossed. Nearly every nation on earth has pledged to avoid crossing this 2OC barrier because of the dire threats to civilization that are expected to emerge.
Unfortunately, hitting 4OC seems to be where our fossil fueled energy system is leading humanity even if everyone keeps all our best climate promises so far.
The World Bank calls 4OC both "devastating" and exactly where we are heading. They are so concerned about this that they recently published a report titled: "Turn Down the Heat: Why a 4°C Warmer World Must be Avoided" with the hope that it would "shock us into action." It warns "the world is barreling down a path to heat up by 4 degrees at the end of the century if the global community fails to act on climate change, triggering a cascade of cataclysmic changes" including "extreme heat-waves, declining global food stocks, loss of ecosystems and biodiversity, and life-threatening sea level rise." World Bank President Jim Yong Kim recently wrote in the Washington Post that:
"the world needs a bold global approach to help avoid the climate catastrophe it faces today … If there is no action soon, the future will become bleak … With every investment we make and every action we take, we should have in mind the threat of an even warmer world … "
Lord Nicholas Stern who authored the groundbreaking UK government report in 2006 now says he "got it wrong on climate change – it's far, far worse" and now the world is clearly hurtling toward 4OC or even 5OC:
"This is potentially so dangerous that we have to act strongly. Do we want to play Russian roulette with two bullets or one? These risks for many people are existential."
And now, for the first time I've ever seen, a global fossil fuel corporation is releasing its emissions analysis that confirms our "most likely" future is indeed a devastating 4OC. Of all the dire warning that are pouring forth these days the most unsettling to me is the fact that a purveyor of climate pollution is admitting we are in deep, deep trouble.
Just to be clear, BP's predicted emissions come out of their global economic energy model's "most likely" energy path. This is based on the world's various new technologies, energy policies and climate efforts. This is definitely not a worst-case scenario or even business as usual. In fact their models:
"assume continued tightening in policies to address climate change."
A 4OC disaster is what humanity ends up with if everyone keeps all their announced climate promises. Guess what? Very few nations have managed to keep their climate promises so far.
For example, Prime Minister Stephen Harper promised that Canada would cut emissions 17 percent by 2020. But his own government projections say we will miss that target by a long ways. The primary reason is the rapid expansion of the Alberta tar sands which still have no effective climate pollution limitations of any kind on their pollution.
So, if we want to be honest with ourselves, 4OC is looking optimistic. When "catastrophe" is your optimistic future one has to wonder. I have volunteered years of my life now to try to raise awareness of the looming the climate crisis for exactly this reason: at the provincial, national and international levels we are off the rails and heading for disaster.
If you want to see a "business as usual" scenario, the IEA publishes one. They say it leads to 6OC "catastrophe." That is a world of science fiction misery with collapsing ecosystems and food supply.
And that isn't even a worst-case scenario where humanity dials back on climate action in the face of economic hardships. That leads to an unimaginable 8OC or worse.
The shifting climate psychology
To me, one of the most fascinating aspects of the new BP report is watching a fossil fuel corporation come to grips with their own data showing their industry is creating a long-term catastrophe for humanity.
I suppose it is a sign of just how out-of-control we have let the climate threat become that a major oil company is now publishing their internal confirmation that we are hurtling off a disastrous 4OC climate cliff. And yet despite making the choice to publish the raw data, BP struggles to say anything meaningful about it.
For example, you won't find anywhere in the BP report just what kind of world their emissions data points to. To determine that it points to a 4OC hotter future requires a climate geek -- like me -- to compare BP's raw data to the International Energy Agency's (IEA) 4OC scenario. It is almost as if the critical page in their report fell out on the printing room floor. Here is my version of the "missing page" from the BP report:
The folks at BP know this but apparently couldn't bring themselves to say the simple truth: "we are most likely on track for 4OC of warming."
Instead they resort to a few vague hints about what is coming. For example, after pages and pages and pages of colourful charts about all aspects of global energy they literally wait until the very last page (pg 78) to provide their climate pollution data. They provide a drab-grey line chart of global climate pollution through 2030. (Spoiler alert: up, up, up). I had to use a ruler to determine that they expect emissions to hit 39 billion tonnes of CO2 in 2030. The chart did come with this explanation however:
"Carbon emissions from energy use continue to grow, increasing by 26% … We assume continued tightening in policies to address climate change, yet emissions remain well above the required path to stabilise the concentration of greenhouse gases at the level recommended by scientists (450 ppm)."
My guess is that most readers, if they get that far, will not have a good grasp of how things like "450 ppm" or "39 GtCO2" or "increasing by 26%" translates into disastrous climate change.
BP does end their report saying that climate change remains one of the two great "challenges" and that they support "the widespread pricing of carbon emissions."
Unconventional liquid fuels vs. peak oil
On the issue of "peak oil" the BP analysis does seems to show a plateau -- if not peak -- in conventional oil. On top of this plateau they say a surge in "unconventional oil" is primed to pile on and so allow a 15 per cent increase in oil burning. Here is info from one of BP's charts that I re-arranged to focus on just the predicted change in fossil fuel oil supplies:
The chart shows that the increase in conventional oil production out of Iraq and OPEC nations will barely keep up with declining supplies elsewhere. This appears to be a sort of conventional oil "plateau" in supply.
On top of this, three forms of "unconventional oil" are predicted to make up almost all the increase in liquid fossil fuel supply through 2030:
- Tight oil. This new source is predicted to surge to prominence and account for about half the increase in global fossil oil supply by 2030. Tight oil is extracted by fracking shale to release the trapped oil, similar to the growth in fracking to produce fossil methane (aka "natural gas"). The center of the "tight oil" industry is in the USA. The methane flares from these fields can be seen from space.
- Oil sands. Explosive growth in excavating carbon out of tar sands deposits is predicted to supply another big chunk.
- NGL. Increases in Natural Gas Liquids (NGLs) are predicted to make up the final wallop of increased fossil oil supplies.