Peak Oil: RIP

The idea that seized the imaginations of the bien pensant chattering classes in the Noughties – “Peak Oil” – is no longer relevant. So says the commodities team at Citigroup, and policy-makers would be wise to examine the trends they’ve identified.

“Peak Oil” is the point at which the production of conventional crude oil begins an irreversible decline. The effect of this, some say, is that scarcity-induced prices rises would require huge changes in modern industrial societies. For some, Peak Oil was the call of Mother Earth herself, requiring a return to pre-industrial lifestyles. One example of this response is the “Transition Towns” network, a middle-class phenomenon in commuter belt towns in the UK.

But in a must-read research note [PDF] issued this month (which is also implicitly critical of the industry) this is premature.

Thanks to “unconventional” oil and gas, which can be tapped thanks to technological advances, Peak Oil is dead.
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Shale ignorance

Is it time to decouple “Climate Change” from the Department of Energy and Climate Change? If it was the plain old “Department of Energy” again, it might spend more time researching new fuel sources.

Is it time to decouple “Climate Change” from the Department of Energy and Climate Change? If it was the plain old “Department of Energy” again, it might spend more time researching new fuel sources. Two peers last week took aim at the department because its latest energy blueprints are ignoring the potential impact of shale gas.

The government is “re-consulting” (in its own words) on national energy blueprints, also known as the Revised Draft National Policy Statements, up to 2050. But one of the Lords expressed surprise during the gathering that the latest didn’t mention shale at all.

“There is the possibility that potentially abundant supplies of unconventional gas will result in considerably lower gas prices,” said Lord Reay, continuing:

“The Government apparently cannot find space in several hundred pages of their energy national policy statements to acknowledge the existence of this potentially game-changing development. Gas is now cheap, the price having decoupled from the oil price, and it is going to be accessible in many countries worldwide, not least in Europe. “It emits 50 per cent to 70 per cent less carbon than coal, with the result that when the previous ‘dash for gas’ took place in the 1990s and gas to some extent took over from coal, our power station carbon emissions fell overall by some 30 per cent.”
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Why recycling is rubbish

In a utopian report, the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) says the UK needs £20bn additional spending on recycling infrastructure over the next decade. The recommendation is made in a report today that proposes “unlocking value locked up in the UK’s current waste” – which sounds great – but the report fails to tell us whether the value unlocked will exceed £20bn. Alas, no attempt at all is made to quantity the costs and benefits of the recommendations – which are grand indeed.

Localism met gesture politics, and authorities rushed through mandatory recycling targets, even though these offered only “short-term benefits to a few groups – politicians, public relations consultants, environmental organisations, waste-handling corporations” and imposed a serious opportunity cost, “diverting money from genuine social and environmental problems”.

No new public money is likely for waste infrastructure once the current PFI-funded projects are complete, which worries the engineering trade group. It has expressed concerns that current technologies are immature and unreliable, which can only deter investors. But, in a splendid bit of utopian speculation, the State of the Nation report proposes that by 2050, “the circular economy is a reality and the waste industry has fully converted into a materials supply sector”.

This is a lofty ambition: only 9 per cent of British waste comes from households to begin with. And, the ICE notes ominously, China may stop taking our recycling as it advances economically. The engineers also advocate new tiers of administration to co-ordinate waste management.
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Utopians, then and now

 A hundred years ago, the socialist utopians had a vision of what they called “a world without want”. The Zero Carbon Trust published its vision of Britain in 2030 earlier this month, and it’s one where people’s “wants” will substantially increase. Particularly anyone wanting, say, a lamb chop with rosemary and garlic, or a Shepherd’s Pie.

 

The Trust wants British livestock be reduced to 20 per cent of current levels, and since shipping in frozen meat is carbon intensive, and verboten, you’ll have to do without. Or be a Lord to afford one.

 

This one example is just one of the random miseries to be inflicted on the population as part of the Trust’s proposed “New Energy Policy”, a collection of ideas assembled with the scattergun enthusiasm of the Taliban.

 

Let me give you another example of how what was once an idealistic progressive impulse can turned into what we might justifiably call an “austerity jihad”. After 1917, Trotsky had grand plans for mass transit – this would no longer be the preserve of an elite. The proletariat would travel far and wide, at low cost, and in great comfort. Not only that, but he envisaged room in Soviet train carriages for a string quartet. And a lectern. Travel would broaden the mind, Trotsky believed, in so many ways.

 

But back to the Zero Carbon Britain of 2030, we see that all domestic air travel will be banned, and all travel they deem unnecessary will also be impossible. This is not a group that thinks of Maglev Trains, speeding between London and Glasgow at over 300mph are a good idea. Mobility will pretty much return to C17 standards, where you had to hitch a lift from a passing horse.

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Ad industry: You write the cheques, we’ll drown the puppies

The UK advertising industry has bravely decided it can continue to accept millions of pounds from the state to create alarming climate advertisements, despite inaccuracies and a storm of complaints from parents. The principled decision, from the admen’s self-regulatory body the ASA, follows 939 complaints about the UK energy ministry DECC’s “Drowning Dog” prime time TV and cinema ad (aka “Bedtime Story”) , which cost £6m, and four related posters.

Critics aren’t happy, and point out that the chair of the ASA, Lord Chris Smith of Finsbury, also chairs the Environment Agency, and is currently working closely with DECC.
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On Climategate

at The Register

This piece originally had a much longer section summing up the state of climate “science” – which the CRU leak has verified. The peculiar nature of the problem is why anecdote and modelling play such an important part in the persuasion business.

Scientific theories fall by the wayside when they fail to be the give us the most convincing explanation of the evidence. The onus is therefore on the supporters of the theory to make the demonstrations, not for opponents to ‘trump’ them, and come up with one better. Otherwise we’d still be discussing the distribution of phlogiston, or the particular qualities of ectoplasm.

Prior to 1980, the dominant factor influencing modulations in climate was thought to be the sun. This makes sense, since our primary energy source (unless you happen to live by a volcano vent) is the sun. If the current vogue for greenhouse gases loses favour, the result will not be a dangerous unstable rip in the fabric of space time. It’s simply likely that the consensus will, in the absence of a more compelling explanation, revert to solar influences.

(Ironically Hubert Lamb, the father of climatology who left the Met Office to found CRU in 1972, remained sceptical of the greenhouse gas theory until the end).

Now every scientific challenges is unique, but the manmade global warming hypothesis poses several specific problems for even the most honest scientist. The real battleground is over aspects of the ‘energy budget’ model – and convincing people means overcoming a number of challenges. The theory posits that small increases in CO2 concentrations (advocates prefer the phrase ‘well-mixed greenhouse gases’) have significant amplification effects. It’s accepted that a doubling of CO2 introduces very little warmth into the system – less than a degree centigrade, which is quite toasty and leaves us someway short of Thermageddon. Increasing the CO2 concentration doesn’t make an appreciable difference; since absorption is logarithmic, it doesn’t matter after a certain point.

So positive feedbacks play a central role in the hypothesis, which suggests that with more clouds, more energy is ‘trapped’, permafrost melts, methane is released, and so on, all increasing temperatures further. Global Warming theory rests on these strong positive feedbacks. If the earth absorbs larger amounts of CO2 than predicted – then the theory fails. If the earth radiates more out to space, then it fails. If the negative feedbacks outweigh the positive feedbacks, then the theory fails. As you may tell by now, demonstrating that greenhouse gases play some kind of role in the climate is not difficult. Demonstrating that they play the dominant role is.

Additionally, and to the perennial amazement of newcomers to the field, there is no ‘fingerprint’ or telltale signal that anthropogenically produced gases are the primary forcing factor. A few candidates have briefly starred in the role – C-14 isotopes, or signs of a ‘hotspot’ under the stratosphere – but these are rarely cited now. The ‘smoking pistols’ have proved to be ambiguous, or missing in action. With the human component just a small part (5 per cent) of CO2, and CO2 a small (5 per cent) part of the overall greenhouse gas mix, the challenge is clear.

Hence the increasing dependence, since 1980, of a range of anecdotal evidence, and computer modelling. In instances where simple empirical tests are sufficient to provide a theory, neither is needed. But science has now moved into what critics call a ‘post modern’ phase. In 2001, the IPCC published its Third Assessment Report and observed:

“Our knowledge about the processes, and feedback mechanisms determining them, must be significantly improved in order to extract early signs of such changes from model simulations and observations.”

So, while expressing quite frankly the state of the science, the IPCC was giving increasing weight to computer models as it was to observations. Modelling was beginning to eclipse empirical evidence.

So reasonable doubt exists whether something as significant as clouds are a positive or negative feedback. The Fourth Annual Assessment acknowledged that the “Level of scientific understandings” of non-Greenhouse forcings was low. That was charitable, the science hasn’t really been done yet.

Now it’s clear from the CRU exchanges – particularly between the Wigley and Trenberth “Where did the Warming go?” dialog – that the energy budget isn’t scientifically understood at all.

Not Proven is a reasonable verdict.

The bogus logic of 'sustainability'

NEF co-author Saamah Abadallah

Did you know people in Haiti, Burma and Armenia are all better off than in Britain? And the Congo is happier than the USA? That’s what the London think-tank New Economic Foundation reckons in its second “Happy Planet” rankings. But even NEF admits that its “happiness” rating or HPI doesn’t really measure human happiness, and that it’s sacrificing truthiness for the publicity its reports can generate.

Like the notorious Carbon Calculator, the Happy Planet Index is an advocacy tool for limiting, rather than promoting, human health and happiness, and it too is based on the idea of an ecological “footprint”. This Neo-Malthusian concept was developed by population-control advocate William Rees, a professor at British Columbia University, and his splendidly-named pupil Mathis Wackernagel. The latter has since turned it into a successful consultancy business.

NEF uses older surveys where people expressed happiness, multiplies it by life expectancy, and divides it by the “footprint”. Factors such as crime, freedom, or infant mortality rates are not considered.

So not surprisingly, given this skew, the “Happiness Index” produces some very odd results. The last survey was topped by the Republic of Vanautu. The south sea nation has a population of just over 200,000 and an infant mortality rate of one in 20 – about 10 times that of the UK.

The authors urge industrialised economies urgently need to become more like the underdeveloped. In human terms, that would mean over 300,000 unnecessary child deaths in the UK each year. Such is the price of happiness, NEF argues.

NEF also frowns on India and China for improving the material welfare of their people. Accompanying the report is a spreadsheet which hindcasts the NEF “happiness” figure retrospectively. It tells us that since 1990, China and India’s “HPI rating” has fallen.

In the latest survey Costa Rica tops the poll, and Vanautu has dropped out completely. Jamaica ranks third, Columbia is at six, Bhutan (with 74 deaths per 1,000 live births) and Laos (89 per 1,000) is in the Top 20 – far higher than any OECD country.

It’s too bizarre even for some anti-capitalist environmentalists. Writing on his blog, the activist Derek Wall, author of Babylon and Beyond: The Economics of Anti-capitalist, Anti-globalist and Radical Green Movements observes that:

“Colombia comes in at number six on the index out of 143 countries… yet death squads commonly clear peasants from the land for biofuels. Doesn’t sound that good a place to me.”

“But maybe I am just one of those old fashioned left greens who worries about little things like human rights and the environment?”

Meet the Carbon Cult, Derek.

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BBC's science: 'Evangelical, shallow and sparse'

The BBC’s environmental coverage has come under fire from a former science correspondent. Award-winning author and journalist David Whitehouse says the corporation risks public ridicule – or worse – with what he calls “an evangelical, inconsistent climate change reporting and its narrow, shallow and sparse reporting on other scientific issues.”

Whitehouse relates how he was ticked off for taking a cautious approach to apocalyptic predictions when a link between BSE in cattle (“Mad Cow Disease”) and vCJD in humans was accepted by government officials in 1996. Those predictions “…rested on a cascade of debateable assumptions being fed into a computer model that had been tweaked to hindcast previous data,” he writes.

“My approach was not favoured by the BBC at the time and I was severely criticised in 1998 and told I was wrong and not reporting the BSE/vCJD story correctly.”

The Beeb wasn’t alone. With bloodthirsty glee, the Observer newspaper at the time predicted millions infected, crematoria full of smoking human remains – and the government handing out suicide pills to the public. Whitehouse feels his caution is now vindicated. The number of cases traced to vCJD in the UK is now 163 – and the only suicides were farmers who had feared their livelihoods destroyed.

Writes Whitehouse:

“Reporting the consensus about climate change…is not synonymous with good science reporting. The BBC is at an important point. It has been narrow minded about climate change for many years and they have become at the very least a cliché and at worst lampooned as being predictable and biased by a public that doesn’t believe them anymore.”

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The BBC, Thermageddon, and a Giant Snake

a giant snake

Listeners to BBC World Service’s Science in Action program got a nasty surprise last week. In the midst of a discussion about the large snake fossil, a scientist dropped this bombshell:

“The Planet has heated and cooled repeatedly throughout its history. What we’re doing is the rate at which we’re heating the planet is many orders of magnitude faster than any natural process – and is moving too fast for natural systems to respond.”

Hearing this, I did what any normal person would do: grab all the bags of frozen peas I could find in the ice compartment of my refridgerator, and hunker down behind the sofa to wait for Thermageddon.

Hours passed. My life flashed before my eyes a few times, and a few times more. But then I noticed that the house was still there, and so was the neighbourhood. And so was I!

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