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‘Ideas finish the Age of Oil’

We are systematically decarbonising our energy system for 25 years or more now. The Age of Oil comes to a natural end during the next decades. Coal already peaked in the 1920s. Low Carbon Economy already is in the making. And CO2 no longer exists as a problem. Therefore we need to shift our focus from carbon to non carbon. We’re talking about natural gas and nuclear energy as substitutes for oil and coal in the short time, as a kind of bridge leading towards the real goal: a No fossil fuel Economy. Will renewables like solar energy, wind power and bio-fuels pickup 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 operated to obtain a sustainable regional development.

Written by Frank van Empel

We are living in-between trouble and creativity. Crisis runs all over the place: in the air, in housing, building, stocks, money, jobs, salaries, and oil. Environmental questions are first stage. We’re running out of oil and gas, the papers say. And 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. We are just as oblivious about another invisible development: the tables are turning as we speak. 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 the society. We are moving in a direction where people see environmental and social challenges no longer as risks, but as opportunities. We slowly and reluctantly enter a new era of growth, prosperity, and progress, without harming the environment, with a growing biodiversity, a more equal income distribution in the world, happiness, peace, you name it.

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 fusion power: the sun on earth. ‘Ideas finish the Age of Oil,’ Sears concludes.

Problems come and go. Nobody talks about acid rain anymore, and the same will be true for CO2 in the near future. 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?  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.  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.

Writing a vision document about low carbon economies in a European context is not an easy job, especially not if the context is changing so fast and problems are solved without the interference of politicians, policymakers, special interest groups, et cetera. Moreover the vision document is meant for regions that are as diverse as the seven regions of the POWER program.  The common ground is actually the dependency on oil, gas and coal, plus – partly as a consequence – huge emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gasses, that maybe (or not) responsible for global warming. But as already stated, this will be a non-problem soon.

This conclusion is confusing and frustrating in times where lagging politicians and their helping hands propose strong and costly measures. They want to throw a lot of public money capturing and storaging CO2, and already have introduced an emission trade system, that soon will be obsolete. Of course it may be good to change our lifestyle, to eat vegetarian food instead of costly meat, to bike and walk, but for other reasons. The battle of Thought between the so-called ‘deniers’ and ‘believers’ of climate change is outdated before it reaches its climax. What rests is the notion that systems correct themselves and 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 roll out of the climate scrum and they are here to stay. Again: for other reasons than climate change.

Mid-december 2009, somewhere in-between trouble and creativity, former movie star (now Governor of California) Arnold Schwarzenegger attended the climate conference in Copenhagen. He offered to host a summit for “sub-national governments” such as California and London to tackle climate change on a regional level. ‘If national governments fail to agree,’ the ‘action climate hero’ said, ‘the rest of the world must take action at a “sub-national level”.’ The message is clear: we as a region want to be free to do what we want to do, nevertheless the problems.

Mr. Schwarzenegger, a convinced ‘Believer’: ‘I believe technology and economic focus will overtake the politics and regulatory efforts of national governments. We are beginning on a historic great transformation, a new economic foundation for the 21st Century and beyond.’

The Governor of the Sunshine State claimed that states like California are already moving forward. ‘We in California do not wait for Washington or Beijing or Kyoto. We are moving forward and making great progress.’

According to him the world continues fighting global warming regardless the outcomes of the summit. Governor Schwarzenegger: ‘The worlds’ governments alone cannot make the kind of progress needed on global climate change, they need everyone working. They need the cities, the states, the provinces and the regions. They need the corporations, the scientists, the individuals to create the determination and action for movement.’

Remarkably how oft Mr. Schwarzenegger uses the word ‘region’. This word alone has more meaning than ten times ‘climate change’, which is a passe partout for every environmental question. Region stems from the Latin verb regere: ‘to rule’. Indeed, ruling by regions may very well be the case. In a non-linear and complex world classical hierarchy governance and top-down directives are hopelessly inadequate. As is The State governing by laws, rules, directives and procedures. The new business & political model is based on self-organization, innovation, regionalization and entrepreneurship.

The latest trend shows a rising amount of regions eager to make the transition to a low carbon economy, that, as already been said, already is in the making.  In this context low carbon economy is just an instrument and sustainable development is – much more important – the goal!

Let’s take a look at what sustainable development really means. The core of sustainability is equal development of People, Planet and Profit . The key principles are smart, sharing and transparency. It requires a different and holistic look at the world surrounding us. Sustainable development starts with letting go. Once we realize that everything changes all the time, there is nothing we try to hold on to.  Technology and the efficient use of resources already lie at the heart of EU-policy. The regions have to grow into a new role and become facilitator and companion of the civilians and organizations in the area. Some regions experiment with new methods of decision-making and different ways to give direction to people and companies.

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 has 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 is based on and contains carbon. Every cell in every living organism on the planet is based on 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.

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  strike back with words grilled in sour undertones, which speak for themselves:

Copenhagen recognized the case for keeping

the rise in temperature below 2 degrees, but

failed to produce a binding agreement …

…Leaving leaders with tarnished reputations…

… and allowing doubt to prevail in the debate about global warming.

Both sides try to pinpoint flaws in scientific reports and batter the arguments of their opponents. The discussion is completely politicized and chaotic. It’s all about power, not about content. A respectable Denier, the Australian Prof. Ian Plimer, writer of Heaven+Earth: ‘The public debate over global warming will never be settled by reason and evidence. The complexities of climate are too great for casual understanding based on seven-second television grabs. The unknowns and uncertainties provide too much scope for subjective preference. Few people arrive at belief by diligent effort to understand and evaluate. Most choose belief because it is emotionally satisfying.’

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.

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 will be huge. Times won’t get that hard. 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.  ‘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.’

In-between trouble and creativity is a timezone that may take 30 or 40 years. During those in-between years of an oil age that comes to an end and a real new main source (beyond the well known renewables), that still has to be developed, the discussions seem obligato. Who abstracts from the political angles and the sheer nonsense of mud throwing, in this in-between timezone, is left to form an opinion on two fundamental issues of the slowly fading concept ‘low carbon economy’:

1. Low carbon means less carbon dioxide(CO2)and other greenhouse gas emissions;

2. Low carbon means no oil – or almost no oil – and coal for energy production (oil and coal both are carbon containers).

The main part of climate thinkers and actors go for the double. The EU and the G8 focus for the short and medium term on climate change.  In July 2009 both the EU and the G8 announced an objective of greenhouse gas emissions of 80% below 1990 levels by 2050. We’ve mentioned earlier that the natural correction mechanism for a great part causes this favourable opportunity. In October 2009 the EU increased the ambition: 80-95% below the 1990 level by 2050. The formulation of this ambition was immediately followed by the development of pathways and roads. Roadmap 2050 par example, designed by the European Climate Foundation. On average, the ECF found out, a low carbon policy in the EU requires:

1. Installation of about 5.000 square kilometers of solar panels over forty years, that’s 0,1% of the EU-surface, of which 50% on roofs.

2. New installation and replacement of 100.000 windmills.

3. The addition of significant new transmission capacity with several thousands of kilometers of new inter-regional transmission infrastructure.

Price tag: €30-50 billion a year!

The essence of a low carbon region is what a low carbon region might be: the power or potential of the area. It’s a dynamic concept. And open to improvement: even the name can be changed into a less confusing and politicized title. Low carbon economy suggests the story is about CO2 reduction and global warming, but as a matter of fact, it is about investing structural and strong in photo voltaic cells, offshore wind energy, biomass, electric vehicles, fuel cells and other renewable sources, production and storage. And, last but not least: in innovation. The Creativity Revolution, that’s going to bring us completely new technologies.

That’s futurology. First we have to warn the responsible politicians, their helping hands and the citizens who pay the bill. Whereas investments in capturing and storing CO2 in empty gas pockets, as well as financing the implementation of a complex, emission rights trading system, cost the taxpayer lots of money for disputable methods to solve a problem, that solves itself.

May 2010

© Frank van Empel

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