Modern Life Is Probably Screwed by Peak Oil, But It's Not Too Late to Avoid Mass Starvation
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I don't know when global oil supplies will start to decline. I do know that another resource has already peaked and gone into freefall: the credibility of the body that's meant to assess them. Last week two whistleblowers from the International Energy Agency alleged that it has deliberately upgraded its estimate of the world's oil supplies in order not to frighten the markets. Three days later, a paper published by researchers at Uppsala University in Sweden showed that the IEA's forecasts must be wrong, because it assumes a rate of extraction that appears to be impossible. The agency's assessment of the state of global oil supplies is beginning to look as reliable as Mr Greenspan's blandishments about the health of the financial markets.
If the whistleblowers are right, we should be stockpiling ammunition. If we are taken by surprise; if we have failed to replace oil before the supply peaks then crashes, the global economy is stuffed. But nothing the whistleblowers said has scared me as much as the conversation I had last week with a Pembrokeshire farmer.
Wyn Evans, who runs a mixed farm of 170 acres, has been trying to reduce his dependency on fossil fuels since 1977. He has installed an anaerobic digester, a wind turbine, solar panels and a ground-sourced heat pump. He has sought wherever possible to replace diesel with his own electricity. Instead of using his tractor to spread slurry, he pumps it from the digester onto nearby fields. He's replaced his tractor-driven irrigation system with an electric one, and set up a new system for drying hay indoors, which means he has to turn it in the field only once. Whatever else he does is likely to produce smaller savings. But these innovations have reduced his use of diesel by only around 25%.
According to farm scientists at Cornell University, cultivating one hectare of maize in the United States requires 40 litres of petrol and 75 litres of diesel. The amazing productivity of modern farm labour has been purchased at the cost of a dependency on oil. Unless farmers can change the way it's grown, a permanent oil shock would price food out of the mouths of many of the world's people. Any responsible government would be asking urgent questions about how long we have got.
Instead, most of them delegate this job to the International Energy Agency. I've been bellyaching about the British government's refusal to make contingency plans for the possibility that oil might peak by 2020 for the past two years, and I'm beginning to feel like a madman with a sandwich board. Perhaps I am, but how lucky do you feel? The new World Energy Outlook published by the IEA last week expects the global demand for oil to rise from 85m barrels a day in 2008 to 105m in 2030. Oil production will rise to 103m barrels, it says, and biofuels will make up the shortfall. If we want the oil, it will materialise.
The agency does caution that conventional oil is likely to "approach a plateau" towards the end of this period, but there's no hint of the graver warning that the IEA's chief economist issued when I interviewed him last year: "we still expect that it will come around 2020 to a plateau … I think time is not on our side here." Almost every year the agency has been forced to downgrade its forecast for the daily supply of oil in 2030: from 123m barrels in 2004, to 120m in 2005, 116m in 2007, 106m in 2008 and 103m this year. But according to one of the whistleblowers, "even today's number is much higher than can be justified and the IEA knows this."