VIEWPOINT: Civilisation Has a Future Beyond Oil

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By Stefan Schurig* in Hamburg

Each generation takes care of its descendants: This basic tenet is ignored when it comes to the energy systems deployed by most of the industrialised nations. The western lifestyle today is based almost exclusively on fossil fuels. This will have to change if we want to pass on a more-or-less intact world to the generations to come. Not sometime in the distant future but now!

The discovery of fossil fuels cleared the path for industrialisation with the automation and acceleration of work processes. It ignited a self-perpetuating cycle of burning fossil fuels to build bigger machines to drill for more oil, gas and coal to gain capacity for an even bigger technical exhaustion of fossil fuels. The availability of previously unknown quantities of oil, gas and coal triggered electrification, mobility, mass production, speed, large-scale infrastructure measures, etc.

Between 1950 and the year 2000 alone the global demand for fossil fuels went up by 500% with devastating consequences for the environment -- the rapidly increasing emissions of greenhouse gases that cause climate chaos as well as the pollution of the air and our flora and fauna. Since oil prices are rising again a more deeper look into this fossil fuel and its impact on our societies deserves attention.


In the last 200 years oil has become one of the most dominant factors of western societies. It is used as a source of energy as well as a raw material in the manufacturing of plastics and fertilizers. In 1920, 95 million tons of oil were produced annually around the world. This number reached 500 million tons by 1950, a billion tons in 1960, and an average annual production of around 3 billion tons in the 1990s, according to crude oil statistics of the International Energy Agency (IEA).

The problems of the oil industry, however, are massive at every single component of the supply chain. It starts with the upstream business where oil is being explored and extracted from the earth crust. Stunned like a rabbit by car headlights we had to witness the incapacity of BP to quickly react at the Deepwater Horizon accident in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, a disaster unfolding before our eyes over weeks and weeks.

The impacts of the oil spill on the people, economy and environment of Gulf coastal states will persist for decades. And unless we change course it is much likely that deep sea drilling will cause more of these devastating accidents like in the Gulf of Mexico since the bulk of the global oil reservoirs sits thousands of meters under sea level.

Also, most of the places where oil has been produced are remote areas either in the ocean or desert regions of the world. The transport routes and methods are as important as the production. Since the first oil tanker began shipping oil in 1878 in the Caspian Sea, the capacity of the worlds maritime tanker fleet has grown remarkably.

As of 2005, about 2.4 billion tons of oil -- roughly 62% of all the oil produced -- were shipped by maritime transportation. The remaining 38% either used mainly pipelines, trains or trucks. More than 100 million tons of oil are shipped each day by tankers.

Between 1984 and 2008 every year there were some 9,000 tons of discharges and spillage of dispersed oil only in the North Sea and the Northeast Atlantic, according to the OSPAR (Convention for the protection of the marine environment of the North-East Atlantic).

Since oil is of strategic importance for the global economy, it has always been an object of geopolitical conflicts too. Several geopolitical confrontations were closely related to oil or had serious impacts on oil supply and prices.


Not only had the recent wars in the Persian Gulf but also the two World Wars underlined the strategic importance of oil. Almost all military vehicles were equipped with oil combustion engines. The Second World War in particular was dominated by oil as a key weapon for armoured and air forces. The decision of the United States to establish an oil embargo on Japan which was reliant on the U. S. by some 80% in 1941 triggered the war in the Pacific.

The oil industry still is oligopolistic both in its supply, demand, control and in its functional and geographical concentration. The demand is controlled by a few very large multinational conglomerates, each having a production and distribution system composed of refineries, storage facilities, distribution centres and at the end of the supply chain, gas stations.

The supply is controlled by a few countries where the oil industry is often nationalized or by the OPEC umbrella, which holds 79% of worlds crude oil reserves and 44% of worlds crude oil production.

In addition to the environmental and geopolitical problems it is quite likely that global oil reserves will run out far before politicians have managed to put in place alternative and inexhaustible resources. The point in time when the maximum rate of global oil production is reached and after which the production begins to decline (peak oil) is by no means a futuristic scenario. Quite the opposite: We may have even passed it.
Oil supplies are running out fast, warned the British newspaper The Independent already in summer 2009. The worlds capacity to meet projected future oil demand is in fact at a tipping point, according to research by the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment at Oxford University.

A report by the German military (Bundeswehr) from January 2010 suggests that there is some probability that peak oil will occur around the year 2010 and that the impact on security is expected to be felt 15 to 30 years later.

The Bundeswehr study even raises fears for the survival of democracy itself. Parts of the population could perceive the upheaval triggered by peak oil as a general systemic crisis. This would create room for ideological and extremist alternatives to existing forms of government.


But as mentioned above, the total dependence on oil and other fossil fuels such as coal and gas also inevitably impact climate change with its perilous consequences for agriculture as well as for cities and thus for the thousands of lives and livelihoods. These harmful consequences are suffered above all by the countries of South America, Asia and Africa.

Disastrous harvest failures caused by drought and increasing soil infertility imply the loss of means of existence for many farmers already today -- with disastrous implications for the lifestyle and culture of the rural population. People are migrating to cities to survive. Social structures and cultures established over centuries are disintegrating.


The good news however is that there are alternatives to fossil fuel life styles. The industrialised nations which are mainly responsible for the problems described above must act resolutely by way of encouraging massive push for renewable energy and energy efficiency, renewable energy access in developing countries, forest protection and support of organic agriculture.

Alternative policy proposals need to be integrated, need to encourage innovation, need be easily understood, and need to promote resilience and rapid change. We must build economies that serve the people -- rather than people serving economies -- and economies that internalise environmental costs. Markets are good servants but bad masters.

Also we must start taxing the bad, not the good. A shift from labour to resource taxes is a pre-condition for a shift to a sustainable, energy-efficient economy.

Solar and other renewable energies can deliver abundant long-term energy for all, if we stop rejecting projects for short-term cost reasons. The German Renewable Energies Act, the so called Feed-in-tariff is a good example of how a well designed policy can unleash the renewable energy uptake and make these technologies competitive.

The legislation resulted into a 15% share of Germanys total electricity demand only within 10 years. 300,000 jobs were created and Germany became a world leader in this innovative technology sector, holding out fresh opportunities to thousands of small electricity suppliers.

This is a good example of giving power to the people in the best sense.

A stable climate is part of the foundation of our lives and livelihoods. Climate disasters are threatening the freedom, security and rights of all future generations. But solutions are available.

In fact we can decide today to create an earth community built on sharing best technologies, reciprocity and co-operation. We can transform our production and consumption systems, based on the circular loop cradle-to-cradle models already developed. The human species has shown that it actually can take care of its descendants. Let us listen to those who have seen the future path for energy already many decades ago.

Let us recall what Thomas Edison, the American inventor and scientist (1847-1931), told his friend Henry Ford. We are like tenant farmers chopping down the fence around our house for fuel when we should be using Natures inexhaustible sources of energy -- sun, wind and tide. ... Id put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we dont have to wait until oil and coal run out before we tackle that.

*Stefan Schurig is Director Climate Energy, World Future Council Foundation in Hamburg, Germany.

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