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We are confronting another huge challenge and, like climate change, it has been encroaching for years. In concert with global warming, and in an unholy alliance, comes the decline of oil and gas.
For thousands of years slaves and cheap labour supported civilisation but, following the Industrial Revolution, humanity began to thrive on stored solar energy contained in coal, oil and gas. Used for transport, heat and cold, and materials too, notably concrete, metals, plastics and fertilisers, fossil fuels have increased human capacity a hundred fold and our standard of living, indeed our capacity to stay alive, now depends on them as we burn through 16 billion of tonnes a year, releasing double that weight of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in the process. But, although huge volumes remain in the ground the easy pickings are long gone. The new stuff is deeper in the earth, deeper under water, and in remoter, more formidable environments.
Still, this is not the whole story. This is not where the real challenge lies.
Over the last 50 years, as demand for oil and gas soared and supply routes multiplied, ever more sophisticated equipment was required for extraction, processing and transport all of which needed energy, and lots of it. As a consequence the Energy Return on Investment (EROI); the ratio of the amount of energy delivered from a resource to the amount used to obtain that resource, has fallen precipitously and is still falling.
The EROI, this is the challenge.
Of course there is no doubt, at least for most of us, that burning fossil fuels damages our environment. We face an existential threat to the world’s current climate balance on which 8 billion people relies. So, while the net energy content from fossil fuels dwindles, we must find new cleaner sources which also require substantial amounts of energy to exploit and other things too such as uranium, graphite and rare metals, for magnets, batteries, and electronics.
Less net energy, scarce materials, resource nationalisation, high costs and inflation. It is a recipe for human hardship and, of course, resource wars. And what are we doing to counteract this perfect storm? In regards to EROI, not much at all.
The energy and transport industries are developing alternatives, experimenting with carbon capture and converting to electrified transport. But some organisations are making things worse, attempting to ‘stop oil’ and damage economies in countries most active in mitigating the problems. A reduction in the financial strength of commercial organisations and governments reduces their capacity to pay for new technology and infrastructure and other strategies to mitigate the effect of a changing climate.
We should all feel free to persuade (or force) humans to use less energy for leisure activities but careless attempts to cut essential supplies through bans and boycotts can kill people more quickly and efficiently than climate change ever could. Make no mistake ‘clean’ energy supplies are still insufficient to meet our needs. Only by retaining fossil fuels in controlled decline while expanding renewable and mitigation strategies can human death and destruction be, perhaps, avoided.
Falling EROI is happening. Climate change is happening. But surely we should also work to provide sufficient energy for all our 8 billion people. Like it or not, fossil fuels remain fundamental to the existence of our crowded human world.
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