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The economy is decarbonising for about 25 years now, after more than 200 years of carbonising. Other tables are turning too. Call it ecolution, a development of the economy in a direction where profits go hand in hand with social and environmental responsibility of citizens, government officials and businessmen.

by Frank van Empel

During the more than two centuries since Adam Smith wrote An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations – 1776 – the UK, followed by other countries in North-West Europe – experienced a transition from a social state whose material and energy requirements were satisfied mainly from renewable resources to the present industrial state that is overwhelmingly dependent upon non-renewable resources, especially coal and oil. Both contain carbon, which affects emissions. As a consequence the whole energy system carbonised.

Since the mid-seventies the carbon carpet slowly rolled back. Society moves in the direction of a low carbon economy. A development that has two sides:

  1. Carbon systematically plays a less dominant role in energy generation;
  2. A diminishing stake in the generation of electricity causes less pollution and also less global warming, if not global cooling.

Mankind is systematically decarbonising its energy system for 25 years or more now. The Age of Oil comes to a natural end during the next decades. It goes slowly, step by step. But in its effects, it isn’t less than a revolution. From 1880 until now the growth in annual crude oil production increased spectacularly. The production doubled about every 10 years. A child can reason this cannot go on forever. M. King Hubbert too. He stated about 20 years ago that it is evident ‘that the maximum number of doublings that any biological population or industrial component can experience is but a few tens’.[1] On the basis of this insight he made a rough calculation: the peak in the production of oil would be reached between 1990 and 2000. In the 30-year period 1965-2025 80% of oil reserves will be consumed.

Coal already peaked in the 1920s. So, according to King Hubberts arithmetic Low Carbon Economy already is a fact. Society moves in the direction of a ‘No Fossil Fuel Economy’, therefore we need to shift our focus from carbon to non-carbon. We will have to talk about natural gas and nuclear energy as substitutes for oil and coal in the short run, forming a bridge towards the real goal: a No Fossil Fuel Economy. Will renewables like solar-energy, wind power and bio-fuels pick up fast enough to feed all our energy consuming machines and a growing number of people in the World? That’s the question. Immediately followed by this one: which new ideas can be imagined and put to operation to obtain a sustainable regional development?


  1. CO2 is not the problem, the ‘problem’ is that we’re running out of oil.
  2. We should direct all our efforts toward improving the direct uses of solar-energy – the only clean and essentially unlimited source.[2] We also can try to copy the sun – the physicist’s greatest dream: controlled thermonuclear reaction.
  3. Investments in renewable energy systems are adding value to the economy, ecology and society.
  4. Business should be about more than money. Government should be about more than rules.


The financial crisis of 2007/2008 is sweeping its tail. Some parts of the economy – housing, building, banking – are still in deep trouble, but stocks go up again and positivism is gaining ground. Nation states and banks are ready to blow away their debts by renewed economic growth. Environmental questions are stalled for a while, like we used to do. Scientists scare us with stories about climate change and other ghostlike phenomena we cannot see, like CO2 in the atmosphere and the degradation of biodiversity. Climate change and biodiversity both are topics that call attention for a more fundamental problem. M. King Hubbert calls it a cultural problem. ‘During the last two centuries,’ he writes, ‘we have known nothing but exponential growth and in parallel we have evolved what amounts to an exponential-growth culture, a culture so heavily dependent upon the continuance of exponential growth for its stability that it is incapable of reckoning with problems of nongrowth.’[3] If there is no money coming in people, businessmen and government officials lend it. Live now, pay later.

The tensions between growth of world population, economic growth and environmental & social problems (pollution, poverty, lack of drinking water, climate change, etc) are not new. In 1965 already, Dr. Edward Teller pointed out that since the Industrial Revolution the tremendous consumption of carbon fuels has resulted in an increased concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Since this gas increases the heat retention of the atmosphere, thus raising the average temperature, it may well be that the ultimate effect of the Industrial Revolution will be the melting of the polar ice cap and the inundation of large parts of the world. ‘Unintentional destruction,’ this process is called. Air and water pollution, deforestation, soil erosion, noise… are manifestations of the same growth hangover.

Since 1965 we’ve had the Club of Rome, Rio, Kyoto, Copenhagen, Cancun. We talked and talked and talked, but almost no concrete measures have been taken by nation states. On a smaller scale however individuals changed their attitude, houses were isolated from the cold outside, wind-farms changed the classical Dutch landscape, etc. On a regional and local level all kinds of experiments were organised. So, there is some hope that ecology is going to play a bigger role during the next hausse. The tables are turning. There is a paradigm shift going on in how people (as well as the organizations where they work) think about their relationship with the environment and society. We are moving in a direction where people see environmental and social challenges no longer as risks, but as opportunities. More and more companies are on a social or environmental mission, on top of healthy profits. Governments decentralise, deregulate and facilitate.

Decarbonisation trend

One turning table has to do with oil. For the last 25 years the role of oil as an energy source is becoming less and less significant per year. Since 2006, oil production diminishes in absolute quantities too. It looks like we can start planning for the end of oil. Nothing is really new. Before the peak of oil, 25 years ago, we had the peak of coal in the 1920s and the peak of wood in the 1820s. According to vice president and research coordinator at Shell International, Richard Sears, natural gas, nuclear and renewables will gradually take over the still dominant roles of oil and coal in the energy system. ‘We’re systematically decarbonizing our energy systems,’ Sears says on a video that can be found on TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design). In the long run he expects technological breakthroughs in ‘rearranging the molecule system’ of materials.

Another innovation may be controlled thermonuclear reaction: the sun on earth. Other technological solutions: tidal and geothermal energies, hydrocarbon fuel, and the so called breeder reactor, which, with the aid of uranium 235, may ‘extract’ the energy of the fertile but not fissionable elements, uranium 238 and thorium 232. ‘Ideas finish the Age of Oil,’ Sears concludes.

Problems come and go. Nobody talks about acid rain anymore, and the same will be true in the near future for the end of oil and climate change as a consequence of CO2 emissions. This is not the merit of politicians, although they may claim it as a success, but a solution by nature itself. Problems seem to be solved magically.

Here’s another one. Why is everybody talking about global warming, while global temperatures according to the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have not increased since 1998 and there has been no significant warming since 1995?[4] To put it strong: there is no problem called global warming. It stopped in 1998. The last two years of global cooling (2007, 2008) erased nearly thirty years of temperature increase. 2008 was an exceptionally cold year.[5] 2009 was cold, 2010 rather hot. If we take the long-term view, geologists tell us, currently we live in an ice age that started 37 million years ago. In the meantime the Earth’s climate has changed with cycles of warming and cooling.


People tend to discuss environmental issues from a negative point of view. The discourse is about pollution, shortage of clean water and food, poverty, decreasing biodiversity, greenhouse effect and climate change. The biggest crook in the house of Misery & Trouble bears the codename CO2, the symbol of decline and entropy. People talk about CO2 as if it’s a poisonous gas. Something very, very bad and nasty. Well, it isn’t. It is a colorless, odorless, non-poisonous ‘growth stimulator’. In fact it is more basic to life than sex. It is plant food, and it drives the whole food chain. All life, every cell in every living organism on the planet is based on and contains carbon. Bacteria, algae and plants remove CO2 from the air and water and store it in their tissues. Together with water vapor, CO2 keeps our planet warm, preventing it from being covered in ice, from becoming too hot or devoid of liquid water.[6]

The battle of Thought between the so-called ‘deniers and sceptics’ on one side and the ‘believers’ of climate change on the other, is outdated before it reaches its climax. But even if the debate is over, still it is important and urgent to change our lifestyles. We will have to stop plundering nature, eat vegetarian food instead of costly meat, bike and walk before driving, use fewer materials and less not renewable energy sources. This is urgent for other reasons than climate change: namely for the health of the human supporting system and therefore the health and continuation of the human race.

The discussion whether or not CO2 emissions are caused by human activities and damage the climate and thus the Earth is delusive and dangerous.

In the perspective of ‘the Deniers’ climate change defenders use the issue to create new business, like emission trade and carbon capture & storage, as well as to enforce more legislation and thus ‘to obtain more power over the masses they try to frighten into obedience’. According to some Deniers the issue ‘has become a strict religion, which endures no questions or criticism. Zero tolerance for dissent. They have become suspect because they entered politics. Power and wealth for some and oppression for others are the outcome of their advocacy’.

The Believers[7] strike back with words grilled in sour undertones. Both sides try to pinpoint flaws in scientific reports and batter the arguments of their opponents. On one point they agree: their opinions on politics and politicians (see B).

Copenhagen (Dec 2009) recognized the case for keeping the rise in temperature below 2 degrees, but failed to produce a binding agreement …

…Leaving leaders with tarnished reputations…

Cancun Summit (Dec 2010) – Conclusion? They have now selected the paint for the deckchairs on the titanic?

Am I too cynical? I am sure a great deal of hard work has been done, but I worry that nothing binding has been agreed and it is all a lot of hot air (please excuse the pun!). Will countries actually do anything as a result?[8]

The polarization – whether greenhouse gasses are or are not damaging the planet – is dangerous, because it puts the spot on the wrong place and has become a struggle for power and money. The stakes are high. Today in the European Union the primary energy supply is 80% dependent on fossil fuels. Economic growth and prosperity, one can argue, have been built on oil, coal and gas.

It’s very important that regional opinion leaders learn to see through all manipulation and power lifting. That’s the highway to a learning region.

Energy has made Europe strong. At the same time it is Europe’s Achilles’ heel. Over 50% of the energy supply is mined outside the EU. The situation will worsen when oil and gas wells dry up. Without a transition the EU – especially in the short run – gets more and more dependent on instable monarchies and dictatorial regimes in the Middle East, Africa, et cetera. Thus making the EU still more vulnerable to energy supply disruptions from outside the union and to volatility in energy prices. The solution to this problem may be the entry into the EU of oil- and gasrich Russia. This isn’t science fiction. On the contrary! Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has said that he does not rule out the creation of a currency union between the Russian Federation and the European Union some time in the future. He was speaking during a joint news conference following his talks with the German Chancellor Angela Merkel, at the end of November 2010. As to this kind of currency union, he said, we understand, of course, that any currency union is a result of the combination of economies, of economic development. Things should grow ripe, the Russian Prime Minister said.[9]

One thing is for sure: energy is a condition for economic growth. Without energy all machines, cars, electrical devices, and more, come to a standstill. The consequences can be huge. But don’t panic. For the next forty years there will be enough energy, especially if people and organisations will bring more efficiency in their use of energy. ‘More Energy, Less Carbon Dioxide,’ is the name of the game at Shell.

The oil company has developed two scenarios: Scramble and Blueprints. ‘The main difference is in the degree of cooperation between companies, governments and people,’ Richard Sears explains.[10] ‘In Scramble everyone acts independently trying to solve their own supply/demand or environmental problem, whereas in Blueprints there is a greater sense of cooperating to find workable solutions for everyone. By acting together under Blueprints, the outcome is more likely an earlier transition to alternative energy sources.’

Systems tend to correct themselves and solve problems, like we’ve seen with oil and the CO2 issue. Another notion is that life supporting systems are too complex to be mastered on a central level by a government, the European Commission or the United Nations. Regionalism, decentralization, self-organization and citizenship are some coined concepts that dressed as leather eggs roll out of the climate scrum.

[1] M. King Hubbert, Exponential Growth as a Transient Phenomenon in Human History, in Valuing the Earth, edited by Herman E. Daly and Kenneth N. Townsend, MIT 1993, pp 117.

[2] Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, Selections from ‘Energy and Economic Myths’, in Valuing the Earth, pp 103.

[3] M. King Hubbert, Valuing the Earth, pp 125. We talk about exponential growth when a factor like production or population doubles and redoubles in the successive ratios of 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, etc.

[4] Ian Plimer, Heaven and Earth, global warming, the missing science, Taylor Trade Publishing, Lanham Maryland, New York, 2009, p 437/438.

[5] Ian Plimer, page 25/26.

[6] Ian Plimer, Heaven and Earth, p 411.

[7] European Climate Foundation (ECF), Roadmap 2050, Volume 3A, p 11.

[8] The three statements are reactions on a blog from an environmentalist (Copenhagen) and a businessman (Cancun).

[9] www.freerepublic.com, posted on Nov 27, 2010 and several newspapers.

[10] Washington Post Viewpoint, http://discuss.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/zforum/05/sears_2.htm

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