Our civilizational predicament: Doubling economic activity and energy use while cutting emissions by half

Graph of Global economic activity, energy use, and greenhouse gas emissions, 1CE to 2015CE.
Global economic activity, energy use, and carbon dioxide emissions, 1CE to 2015CE.

My friends sometimes suggest that I’m too pessimistic.  I’m not.  Rather, I’d suggest that everyone else is too optimistic.  Or, more precisely, I live in a society where people are discouraged from thinking rigorously about our predicament.  The graph above sets out our civilizational predicament, and it hints at the massive scale of the transformation that climate change requires us to accomplish in the coming decade or two.

The main point of the graph above is this: Long-term data shows that the size and speed of our global mega-civilization is precisely correlated with energy use, and energy use is precisely correlated with greenhouse gas emissions.  We have multiplied the size of our global economy and our living standards by using more energy, and this increased energy use has led us to emit more carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

The graph plots three key civilizational metrics: economic activity, energy use, and carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.  The graph covers the past 2015 years, the period from 1 CE (aka 1 AD) to 2015 CE.  The blue line depicts the size of the global economy.  The units are trillions of US dollars, adjusted for inflation.  The green diamond-shaped markers show global energy use, with all energy converted to a common measure: barrels of oil equivalent.  And the red circles show global CO2 emissions, in terms of tonnes of carbon.

Though it is seldom stated explicitly, most government and business leaders and most citizens are proceeding under the assumption that the economic growth line in the graph can continue to spike upward.  This will require the energy line to also climb skyward.  But our leaders are suggesting that the emissions line can be wrenched downward.  When people are “optimistic” about climate change, they are optimistic about doing something that has never been done before: maintaining the upward arc of the economic and energy trendlines, but somehow unhooking the emissions trendline and bending it downward, toward zero.  I worry that this will be very hard.  Most important, it will be impossibly hard unless we are realistic about what we are trying to do, and about the challenges and disruptions ahead.

We must not despair, but neither should we permit ourselves unfounded optimism.  There is a line from a great movie—the Cohen Brother’s “Miller’s Crossing”—in which the lead character, a gangster played by Gabriel Byrne, says “I’d worry a lot less if I thought you were worrying enough.”

Graph sources: GDP: Angus Maddison, The World Economy, Volume 1: A Millennial Perspective (Paris: Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, 2001)

GHGs: Boden, T.A., Marland, G., and Andres R.J., “Global, Regional, and National Fossil-Fuel CO2 Emissions,” Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center (CDIAC), Oak Ridge National Laboratory, U.S. Department of Energy, Oak Ridge, Tenn., U.S.A.

Energy consumption: Vaclav Smil, Energy in Nature and Society: General Energetics of Complex Systems (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2008); British Petroleum, BP Statistical Review of World Energy: June 2016 (London: British Petroleum, 2016); pre-1500 energy levels estimated by the author based on data in Smil.

Cheap oil? Long-term US and Canadian crude oil prices

Graph of US and Canadian crude oil prices, historic, 1860 to 2016
US and Canadian crude oil prices, historical, 1860-2016

Many corporate spokespeople, government officials, economists, and journalists are repeating a very odd line: “oil prices are low.” Others talk of “cheap oil,” “plunging prices,” and a “crash.” Here’s one example, a 2016 headline from Maclean’s: “Life at $20 a barrel: What the oil crash means for Canada.”

I will argue that talk of “low oil prices” ignores history, misconstrues energy’s role in making civilizations, and confuses our efforts to build resilient, sustainable, climate-stabilizing economies. The graph above and the table below put recent oil prices into their long-term context. The graph covers the 156-year period from the first large-scale production of petroleum oil to the present: 1860 to 2016. It shows US average crude oil prices and Canadian prices for light sweet crude and heavy tarsands crude. For comparability, all figures are in US dollars and adjusted for inflation.

This table helps us interpret the data in the graph by showing average prices for each decade.

Canada and US crude oil prices, decade-averages, US dollars, adjusted for inflation
Canada and US crude oil prices, decade-averages, inflation-adjusted US dollars

Here’s what the graph and table can tell us about current “low oil prices.”

1. The graph shows that the very high 2003-2014 prices are an anomaly.

2. The $80 average price in the 2010s is the highest since the 1870s.

3. Even with recent declines, oil prices remain above the levels that held during the century from 1875 to 1975.

4. While prices have averaged $80 in the 2010s, the average price in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s was below $30. The greatest period of economic growth in global history, the postwar US boom, was accomplished with very cheap oil. As the cost of oil goes up, the cost of civilization goes up. If energy prices rise too high, we may no longer be able to afford to continue to build or even maintain our sprawling mega-civilization.

5. Many say that Canadian prices are particularly low relative to US or world prices. That isn’t the case. It’s not that Canadian oil is priced lower than US oil; rather, Canadian heavy (tar sands) oil is priced lower than US and Canadian light oil. The values in the table show this. The graph also shows this in the close correlation of US average oil prices with Canadian light oil prices. The right-wing think-tank The Fraser Institute explains that heavy oil from the tarsands and similar sources is priced lower because such oil “is more costly to transport by pipeline …. Further, the heavier the crude oil …, the lower its value to a refiner as it will either require more processing or yield a higher percentage of lower-valued by-products such as heavy fuel oil. Complex crudes containing more sulphur also generally cost more to refine than low-sulphur crudes. For these reasons, oil refiners are willing to pay more for light, low-sulphur crude oil.”

6. Western Canadians are particularly sensitive to “low oil prices” because our economy is dependent upon some of the highest-cost oil production systems in the world: the tar sands. We are the high-cost producers.

As the International Energy Agency (IEA) said recently, “Attempting to understand how the oil market will look during the next five years is today a task of enormous complexity.” I certainly cannot predict oil prices. And I’m not advocating lower prices. Just the opposite. As someone deeply concerned by climate change, I hope that oil prices rise and stay high, and that governments impose taxes on carbon emissions to push the cost of burning fossil fuels higher still. Nonetheless, we need to dispassionately interpret the data if we are to have any hope of directing our future and our economy. We need to be able to discern when energy prices are low and when they are not.

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Graph Sources: Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP), Statistical Handbookfor Canada’s Upstream Petroleum Industry (October, 2016); and US Energy Information Administration (EIA), U.S. Crude Oil First Purchase Price

 

Turning fossil fuels into fertilizer into food into us: Historic nitrogen fertilizer consumption

Graph of historic global fertilizer use, including nitrogen fertilizer, 1850-2015
Global consumption of nitrogen fertilizer and other fertilizers, historic, 1850 to 2015

Last week’s blog post (Feeding the World) showed that farmers worldwide had, since 1950, quadrupled grain production. How is this possible? The answer is fertilizer; more specifically, nitrogen fertilizer. This graph shows global fertilizer use. In 1950, farmers applied less than 5 million tonnes of nitrogen (measured in terms of actual nutrient, not fertilizer product). In 2015, farmers applied more than 110 million tonnes. We managed to increase grain output fourfold largely by increasing nitrogen inputs 23-fold.

Nitrogen fertilizer is a fossil fuel product, made primarily from natural gas. One can think of a modern nitrogen fertilizer factory as having a large natural gas pipeline feeding into one end and a large pipe coming out the other carrying ammonia, a nitrogen-rich gas. To produce, transport, and apply one tonne of nitrogen fertilizer requires an amount of energy equal to almost two tonnes of gasoline. One reason we have been able to increase grain production fourfold since 1950, and human population threefold, is that we found a way to turn fossil fuels into plant nutrients into enlarged food supplies into us. With fertilizers, we can convert hydrocarbons into carbohydrates.

Dr. Vaclav Smil is an expert on the material flows, nutrient cycles, and energy transformations that underpin natural and human systems. He believes that without the capacity to turn fossil fuels into nitrogen fertilizers into enlarged harvests, nearly half the 7.4 billion people now on Earth could not be fed and could not exist. Smil calls factory-made nitrogen “the solution to one of the key limiting factors on the growth of modern civilization.” This blog highlights the many ways humans have managed to remove the limiting factors to the growth of modern civilization.

Finally, 1950 was long ago. Surely rapid increases in fertilizer consumption must have tapered off in recent years. That isn’t the case. Canadian consumption is rising especially rapidly. A look at Statistics Canada data (CANSIM 001-0069) reveals that Canadian nitrogen fertilizer consumption has increased 65 percent over the past decade (2006 to 2016). Like many countries, Canada is boosting food output by increasing the use of energy-intensive agricultural inputs.

Graph sources: Vaclav Smil, Enriching the Earth; UN FAO, FAOSTAT; International Fertilizer Industry Association, IFADATA; and Clark Gellings and Kelly Parmenter, “Energy Efficiency in Fertilizer Production and Use.”