FROM CARBON TO SOLAR
Some flashbacks from the past forty years, and some dreams for the next forty.
ENGLAND WIN THE World Cup. I watch agog in black and white, twelve years old, blissfully unaware that the world is completely dependent on a commodity over which nations routinely wage war, and that the global industry for which I will one day be a servant has already discovered the most oil in a year that it ever will.
The first oil shock. I am at university, studying geology, learning how to find oil. A Saudi energy minister dominates the news bulletins as the price of oil climbs through the roof. Queues a mile long form at filling stations. Talk of economic disaster, and maybe even nuclear war. The Saudis, who produce the most oil, are angry with the US, which consumes the most oil, about the Israel thing. The Saudi King has waved his oil weapon, a tap, which he can turn on or off at will. The world looks over the precipice.
Global oil supply falls only 9%, but a grim recession follows nonetheless.
I graduate and narrowly avoid working for Mobil. Instead, I go to Oxford to sweat my way to a Ph.D., researching the rocks of ancient oceans. My supervisor is W. Stuart McKerrow, an inspirational man. One of my mentors is Ron Oxburgh, future Chair of Shell, then a mere Oxford don. Men like these teach me to look at the big picture.
The Royal School of Mines at the Imperial College of Science and Technology is looking for a lecturer in Earth history. I apply, and get the job. I am twenty-four, a single parent, impoverished, cycling around Oxford with a happy daughter behind me in a child seat. I take the train to London each day now, and drink coffee with colleagues far older then me, many of whom have held high office in oil and mining companies. Like them, I begin an immensely lucrative sideline in consulting for the big energy companies.
The shah who rules Iran is deposed by an ayatollah. The oil price soars again. Iraq invades its neighbour, imagining it is weak, seeking to grab some more oil. The oil price tops US$80 a barrel, in modern terms. The Second Oil Crisis is worse than the first, lasting into 1981.
Now it is boom-time in oiltown. The industry has never made so much money. When were the most drill rigs ever? 1981. The most tankers? 1981. You get the picture. The industry has never since invested so much in trying to find more oil and get it to market.
The Saudis up the pump rate, new oil comes on the market from the North Slope of Alaska and the North Sea, and oil is released from stockpiles. Suddenly there is a glut. The price falls, and we enter a long period of low prices. It will last into the next century. We will become used to it.
I am researching the oil source rocks of ancient oceans, with funding from BP, Shell and others. In the midst of another grim recession, I am wealthy now. Worrying papers start appearing in the scientific journals, about the future impact of greenhouse gases caused by the increasingly profligate fossil-fuel burning of recent decades. I read the results of the first climate models run on supercomputers. I know enough about the bottom part of the climate system - the oceans - to make the connections at once. The rates of global temperature rise estimated for a business-as-usual world will mean ecological and economic disaster.
I quit. I can't stand the guilt of training servants for Big Oil and Coal any longer, let alone taking their petro-cash. I expect to be the first of a host leaving the fossil-fuel industries. I am to be sadly disappointed.
I join Greenpeace, and reprogramme myself as an environmental campaigner. From one of the most conservative universities in the world to one of the most radical environmental groups. Culture shock. I wind up working solely on climate, at and around the international climate negotiations. I become the acceptable face of Greenpeace, a scientist with a suit, mixing with other scientists who are part of the IPCC, the newly created Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
The first IPCC Scientific Assessment issues a stark warning which hits every front page in the UK. "Race to save our world" yells one of the headlines. Almost every government sends a minister to a World Climate Conference in Geneva that year.
After three years of constant negotiations, I have seen things I can scarcely credit. Lobbyists from oil, coal, and a range of companies with mainstream energy interests doing everything they can to torpedo the negotiations. The carbon club, as I call them now, have obfuscated, distorted science, and openly orchestrated wrecking tactics by OPEC (Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) governments. At the Rio Earth Summit, finally, a treaty is signed, but it has no teeth. The first Bush Administration, willing listeners to the men from Exxon, Mobil, Texaco, BP, Shell and the rest, have made sure of that.
The Second IPCC Scientific Assessment. Worse news. Now the climate scientists think, by massive consensus, that the first footprint of human enhancement of the greenhouse effect has appeared in the sand. Renewed urgency at the negotiations. By now the carbon club's tactics are increasingly desperate. They are lying, demonstrably. At the 1995 climate summit in Berlin, governments agree that there will be a treaty with time-tables for emissions reductions, and at the 1996 summit in Geneva they further agree that the targets must be significant, and legally binding.
All eyes on the Kyoto climate summit. The carbon club's campaign plumbs new depths: television ads in the US saying that cutting emissions will wreck the world's number one economy. The reverse is true. Not acting: that's how to wreck the US economy, not to mention the global one.
BP finally breaks ranks, and quits the carbon club's main lobby group, the Global Climate Coalition. We have to act, CEO John Browne tells an audience at Stanford University. BP will be spending a bit more cash on solar energy to make the point.
The impact of BP's conversion is profound. Shell soon follows. Nobody can now claim that 'business' opposes a climate treaty. We want one, say BP and Shell. Bring it on.
I believe BP's sea change to be the single main reason that governments were able to negotiate the Kyoto Protocol. The Protocol calls for emissions reductions by industrialised countries summing to 8% by a window of 2008-12. It's a start. No more.
I leave Greenpeace and set up a renewable energy company, solar- century. I no longer look to governments for leadership in solving the problem. Maybe some combination of business and consumers can provide leadership. I want to create a commercial microcosm of the kind of business that the world needs large numbers of. I choose solar photovoltaics. I don't view solar as a universal panacea; merely as an important member of a large family of low-carbon renewable and efficient energy technologies, all of which will have to grow explosively if we are to survive climate change.
I move into the UK's first solar roof-tile home. I cut the carbon dioxide emissions from my home by over a tonne with a full refit of electricity-efficient appliances. The solar roof then generates more electricity than the home uses with constant occupancy, saving a further half-tonne. The average UK household produces six tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions a year. A 60% cut in greenhouse-gas emissions is the minimum needed to stabilise atmospheric concentrations, according to the IPCC. In round figures, that means a six-tonne home needs to cut by four tonnes, to two tonnes. The first two tonnes of the four are easily achieved with simple heat-saving measures. Add the one and a half tonnes I achieved with electricity savings and solar supply, and you are almost there. That's how easy it is. The government could change the building regulations to require this kind of action. More than half the nation's emissions come directly and indirectly from buildings.
The newly elected US President, George Bush Junior, pulls the US out of the Kyoto Protocol. The rest of the world erupts in protest. At the Marrakech climate summit, outraged governments elect to go ahead with Kyoto without the US.
The UK Energy White Paper sets a national target of 60% cuts in greenhouse-gas emissions, albeit not until 2050, and concludes that renewables and efficiency can make the necessary cuts to hit the target. Nuclear is put on hold for five years.
Spoiling a burst of optimism that he might now provide the missing leadership on climate, Prime Minister Tony Blair decides to join in with the US in its thinly disguised oil-grab in Iraq.
The hottest summer since records began descends on Europe, ruining crops, killing thousands. Finally, among the war-hero stories, global warming makes the headlines on a regular basis.
We are becoming used to the Pentagon's smart bombs dropping on civilians, but then Shell drops a bombshell of its own. We are sorry, dear financial regulators, but we don't seem to have as much, er, oil as we said we have.
The biggest scandal in British corporate history duly unfolds. Why, I ask myself? I'd better check out what is going on. This is very important. The world is assuming it can run growing economies on growing supplies of generally cheap oil for several decades to come. If it can't, and supplies have peaked, all bets are off in the energy field.
The war in Iraq is not going well. Some rather unreasonable people are attacking the oil infrastructure, we hear. For this and other reasons, the oil price starts climbing. It crosses US$40. Then US$45.
My company is doing quite well. Blair visits it one sunny morning in September. He wants to give a speech in the afternoon announcing that the G8 Summit next year, which he chairs, will have global warming as one of its two main themes. Sniffer dogs and a dour chief superintendent from the anti-terrorism branch descend on our office, followed by the man himself, with the national media in tow. Several passionate young solarcenturians tell the prime minister, with cameras and tape recorders rolling, what they expect of their government when it comes to building solar markets so they can compete with the Germans and Japanese. Blair listens, and tells them it is important for government to lead. You know, convincingly.
I have finished digging into the peak oil debate. The peak of production will happen this decade, I conclude. 98% probability level. I am writing a popular book about the problem and how it will conflate with global warming. The bad news is that I can't see how we escape an economic crash. The good news is that the tools needed for weaning society off its oil addiction can be the same as those needed for heading off the worst of the climate change threat - provided panicking governments and companies don't pile back into coal, or try and melt twenty million barrels a day from tar sands, and the like.
The G8 Summit comes and goes, with Bush as intransigent as ever and Blair forgetful of his promises to the young solarcenturians. Deep in the summit statement is a significant passage, asking the Saudis to please be a little more transparent about exactly how much oil they really have.
That's July. Then in August the most likely person in the world to know the truth, Saudi Aramco's former head of exploration and production, comes out and tells The New York Times that Saudi Arabia will never pump twenty million barrels a day, as the world is expecting. Indeed, he says, it will find lifting output from ten-and-a-half to twelve difficult.
By now the mainstream financial institutions are becoming interested in peak oil. Nothwithstanding, peak oil has yet to make much of an impression on the traders who fix the oil price. But they have plenty of other worries to keep the price high, from Vladimir Putin's machinations in the East to Hugo Chavez's manoeuvres in the West, via many another problem in between.
Then Hurricane Katrina hits New Orleans, shuts down much of the Gulf of Mexico's production, mashes a few refineries, and the oil price tops US$70. Global warming is beginning to conflate with peak oil.
The bad news on climate is coming thick and fast now. Loss of Arctic ice is so serious that scientists are talking about a point of no return. The Gulf Stream is found to be slowing. Still the US tries to kill the Kyoto Protocol at the annual climate summit, in Montreal. They trigger such global outrage they are forced to retreat. The sorry game of slow negotiation will go on. Targets will be set beyond the 2008-12 Kyoto commitment period.
Petroleum Intelligence Week sees records in Kuwait saying the country has only half the oil it officially claims. President Bush throws gasoline on the oil-price fire by admitting the obvious in his State of the Union address: that America is oil-addicted and has to kick the habit. More wobbles in the markets. The price jumps above US$75.
Serious investor interest in solar and other renewables has grown steadily during the previous year. Now it soars. Several solar companies float and achieve billion-dollar market caps. All of a sudden, the survival technologies are hot properties. My microcosm is one of them. We have turned ourselves into one of the fastest-growing UK companies. Our solar combined-heat-and-power roof wins best overall new product at Interbuild, the main trade show of the UK construction industry. Perhaps we can be a bit more than a microcosm? Whatever, there are now many companies like us. The future looks - how shall I put it? - interesting.
Can the world have rebuilt its economies with survival technologies by then? Can the world be run on renewables and efficiency entirely, including transport? Yes and yes. Well before. These are disruptive technologies. They can explode into markets faster than most people imagine.
We will find out who is right about peak oil before the decade is out. For all those who hold the view that history is the key to destiny, the discontinuities will be seismic. Well before 2046, I predict, the world will be floating on a sea of solar and other cleantech energy technologies. Oil shocks, oil wars, and all the other dismal paraphernalia of the hydrocarbon age will seem so very ... twentieth century.