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The world is confronting a second huge challenge and, like global warming, it has been encroaching for years. In concert with climate change, in fact in an unholy alliance, comes a decline in EROI.

For over two thousand years slaves supported civilisation but, following the Industrial Revolution, humanity began to depend on stored solar energy from coal and then from oil and gas. Used for transport, heat and cold, and materials too (concrete, metals, plastics and fertilisers), oil and gas have increased human capacity a hundred fold. They have become fundamental to our standard of living, indeed our capacity to stay alive.

But, although huge volumes remain in the ground, the easy pickings are long gone. New reserves are deeper in the earth, deeper under water, and in remoter more formidable environments. Meanwhile, as demand for oil and gas has soared and supply routes multiplied, ever more sophisticated equipment has been required for their extraction, processing and transport all of which needs energy, and lots of it. As a consequence the EROI, an acronym for the Energy Return on Investment (the ratio of the amount of energy delivered from a resource to the amount used to obtain that resource) has fallen precipitously.

Of course there is no doubt, at least for most of us, that burning oil and gas has damaged our environment and we are facing an existential threat to the world’s current climate balance on which 8 billion people depend. We must use less even as the EROI dwindles but new cleaner sources also require substantial amounts of energy to exploit and other things like graphite and rare metals, for magnets, batteries, and electronics.

Thus, along with a changing climate, we have less net energy and scarce materials too, leading to resource nationalisation, high costs and inflation - 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 very much at all. The energy and transport industries try to develop cost-effective alternatives, convert to electrified transport and experiment with carbon capture while other organisations make things worse, attempting to ‘stop oil’ and damage economies expressly in the countries most active in tackling the challenges. A reduction in the financial strength of commercial organisations and governments can only reduce the capacity to pay for new technology and infrastructure, and strategies to mitigate the effect of a changing climate.

Climate change is happening and a crowded world is trying to cope. But we should also try to continue to provide sufficient energy for all 8 billion people to live safely when ‘clean’ energy supplies remain insufficient to meet our needs. Only by retaining oil and gas in a controlled phase-out can some human death and destruction be, perhaps, avoided.

And when demand eventually does drop over an extended period as a result of net zero targets (although there is no sign of this happening yet) the high cost producers will be hit first. Companies and countries with high cost oil and low EROI (i.e. most of them outside the Middle East and North America), need to plan the transition more than ever.

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The phase-out of oil and gas

We currently burn through 16 billion tonnes of fossil fuels a year releasing double that weight of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in the process.