Casaubon's Book

In thousands of ways, UN policy helps shape how we respond to emerging crises, from basic poverty to world political events, from food to climate change and population. What is emerging, however, is that UN analyses are increasingly diverging from reality – as they attempt to describe our future, they have failed to adequately (or at all) take into account that most basic of all considerations, material limits on energy resources.

The UN is one of the most powerful organizations in the world influencing international policy – the IPCC, the Populaton Council, the FAO – their work informs how governments and NGOs address a host of issues from women’s rights to civil conflict, from water resources to world hunger. And while the UN has been a leader in study and inclusion of factors often ignored or understated by individual governments – they have taken the lead on climate change, warned of the coming water conflicts, etc… and led the way in a host of areas.

Unfortunately, the UN has not been a leader on peak oil or energy depletion. Consider the IPCC’s assumptions about available fossil fuels in the ground – they completely ignore the emergence of geological limits. While many people have attempted to correct this, and some members of the IPCC and many of the climate change community have recognized that the geological limits that we face on oil and other fossil fuels are highly relevant, at this point, the IPCC is still using inaccurate figures. Kjell Aleklett and James Hanson have worked together on this – and shown that the IPCC’s assumptions are cornucopian. While we know that we can still cross critical tipping points with the fossil fuels we have, we do need to understand how geology will shape this issue. More importantly, any framing of climate change as a lone issue leaves out a central portion of the picture.

While a number of energy leaders have taken the IPCC correctly to task, but this is a UN-wide issue, not just an IPCC issue. The UN must take resource limits solidly into account across the board – for example, in the Millenium Development goals, assuming longer term continued urbanization and development in the absence of the energy resources to support them may not be correct. Assuming that the energy will be present for long-term continued globalization as well is an assumption that simply isn’t justified with the available resources – asking the important question – what will the world look like as energy resources rise in price and diminish in availability is critical for a clear-eyed picture of our future. Even the most recent UN report to hit the news – that population projections for the world are on the rise – contains in it the hidden assumption that fossil fuels will be there to make and distribute contraception and HIV drugs, to send more girls to school, to bring more people into cities.

We cannot allow our sense of the future to rely simply on assumption – the UN needs to come to understand the energy and resource picture more fully and to incorporate it into all of its committees. Just as climate change will transform our society, so will peak oil – and we know far too little about how.

Peak oil changes the world picture entirely – agroecological responses to our food crisis, endorsed by several UN reports in the last few years, become not just a good idea but an absolute necessity when you have to reduce the amount of energy consumed in agriculture. Understanding why we will be tempted to burn coal – and how to avoid it is critical to our climate picture. The UN’s emergent focus on women’s impact in reducing poverty and improving lives must continue – but must move in areas that aren’t fossil fuel dependent. We must prepare for a less-globalized, not more globalized society, and one struggling with new poverty in new places as climate change and peak oil come together. Human rights of all sorts will be affected by the changes that are coming – if we do not wish to lose gains because we are surprised by depletion, we must prepare to hang on to them in a lower energy society.

There is, at this moment, as far as I know, no comprehensive UN study on energy resources and their future. This is both a shame and a scandal – we are preparing for the coming century without a clear picture of the real problems that beset us. Every nation on earth relies on UN research and material to make decisions – and that material is becoming increasingly irrelevant.

Sharon

Comments

  1. #1 Chris Shaw
    June 10, 2011

    Why Doesn’t the UN Consider Energy Depletion? – Maybe because, along with population increase, climate change, earthquakes and corrupt politicians, they know there’s sod all they can do about it.

  2. #2 ike solm
    June 10, 2011

    The primary energy source driving all life on Earth is of course the Sun, which will keep going for some billion plus years. The input of solar energy is also what drives global atmospheric circulation, aka “the wind.”

    Between solar and wind, the world faces no energy limitations. Claims that this energy is difficult to extract and store were true in the mid-20th century, but that’s no longer the case, thanks to technological advances that the fossil fuel and nuclear industries are desperately trying to stifle, with ever-diminishing success.

    However, in terms of arable land, food and fresh water, the limitations are becoming stark, particularly as global warming induced drought and flood cycles intensify, along with other forms of crop-damaging extreme weather. Even though it is possible to eliminate fossil fuels from food production via the deployment of wind turbines, solar panels and energy storage systems, the need for good soil and fresh water cannot be eliminated.

    Peak oil is not a big deal. All it means is that humans will have no choice but to rely on the same energy source that the rest of the biosphere has relied on for billions of years: the Sun.

  3. #3 Sharon Astyk
    June 10, 2011

    The timeframe for scaling renewables and the timeframe for peak oil are unfortunately problematically intertwined – that is, technically you are right, there are no empirical limits in solar energy. The problem is the transition – if we’d started 40 years ago, peak oil might not be a significant problem. As it is, it will be. All those renewables are built at every stage with fossil fuels, and the economy that funds the build-out depends at every stage on fossil fuels – the scaling issues can be hard to grasp, but are very real.

    Sharon

  4. #4 Andy Brown
    June 10, 2011

    When I think about scaling up to wind – I think it’s useful to look at that big turbine and meditate on its history – and imagine the electricity that it will generate over it’s lifetime and fold that back into its history. Apply that electricity to powering the equipment mining the iron and silicon, use that electricity to power the trucks that haul the ore, and use that electricity to forge the steel and the other components, use even some of that electricity to build the factories that build wind turbines, use that electricity to power the great trucks that haul the components to the field sites, and power the equipment that sets it into place and maintains it. Once you’ve accounted for that electricity, THEN you can start talking about this windmill’s contribution to freeing us from fossil fuel, THEN you can talk about this thing actually generating power. Only after all that do we get electricity we can use for all the things we want it for.

    I recall reading some appalled engineer watching them ferry turbine parts to an off-shore wind farm by helicopter and wondering whether the turbine would ever generate more power than had just been spent setting it up.

  5. #5 Shane Mulligan
    June 10, 2011

    Hi Sharon – I spent a few months of a post-doc trying to find an answer to a closely related question: why the UN Environment Program never dealt with the issue of fossil fuel depletion, when that was a hot *environmental* topic at the time the UNEP was founded (1972). I wrote an article on the topic, to share if you like, just fire me an email.

    In response to your question, you need to keep in mind the UN is a very broad organization (“the UN system”), and peak oil has very broad ramifications that cut across policy areas – so the first question is who, or what department, should take on the issue? The Food and Agriculture Organization? The World Health Organization? The Commission on Sustainable Development? UNEP? UNDP? The Security Council? Clearly peak oil changes the game for pretty much all of them – so who should take the lead?

    Even if that were decided (it would have been UNEP, but people got in the way), there’s a related problem we have at the national level – in Canada, Natural Resources Canada is designated as having the responsibility to keep an eye on the global oil supply situation; but they’ve been happy to defer to the IEA for decades, no questions asked; and every other department in the government defers to NRCan on the subject, so most haven’t even begun to think through the implications of peak oil. It hasn’t been admitted to the discussion. (Almost Newspeak: “it doesn’t exist.”)

    Now, add to this the fact that the UN system is an organization whose mandate requires that it defer to (or represent) the will of the member states – when the member states won’t talk about peak oil openly – and you have our situation.

    As you’re well aware, we can’t look to governments to get us through this, we need to do it ourselves. Indeed, government – the ability to govern – looks like it will be among the first victims of the crash. The UN may well go down with them (and maybe already has).

    Thanks for all your good words these last few years.

    Shane

  6. #6 Brad K.
    June 11, 2011

    Sharon,

    I imagine China and India don’t want the UN talking about peak oil, because that would raise the prices they encounter as they continue to lock in crude oil sources for the next few decades.

    I imagine oil exporting countries don’t want peak oil discussed, because it might (should) affect demand. It just makes sense, that the early adopters to living at a sustainable level of energy would have an easier time adapting, but that would mean that countries now importing oil would need to import less, thus hurting OPEC and other oil exporters.

    I also imagine that many countries feel that talking about peak oil is a deliberate pattern of aggression against this idea, that region, or some other target or goal.

    And then there is my problem. I see so much of the UN and what it does as being graft and corruption, that I tend to cringe away from all UN outputs.

    I would like to see the US Dept of State, or the UN, issue a report on the exposure of modern agriculture and also of international trade and donation of food — to unstable energy prices and intermittent failures of availability.

    Blessed be.

  7. #7 bill
    June 11, 2011

    “I recall reading some appalled engineer watching them ferry turbine parts to an off-shore wind farm by helicopter and wondering whether the turbine would ever generate more power than had just been spent setting it up.”

    And…. what was the answer? How much energy did it take to set up and how much does it produce?

    When you calculate the total carbon footprint per unit energy building and runnig a coal plant vs solar panels, the solar system is much better. (ref. Environmental Commissioner of Ontario) Remember, delivery of sunlight is free for the life of the solar plant, coal mining and delivery is very dirty.

    We went through this debate recently with a biomass generating plant. It turned out that the production and transportation of the biomass releases as much CO2 as burning the biomass.

  8. #8 Andy Brown
    June 11, 2011

    @Bill,

    Short answer, I don’t know what the windmill returned. The point that I took away was that massive off-shore installations entailed a massive fossil fuel investment – and the question about EROEI wasn’t being made clear at all.

    To me it seems like a basic piece of knowledge we’d want about any energy source (like a windmill, coal plant, or solar panel) would be the “energy debt” that it came with (which might be a better layman’s explanation than EROEI) – but as an educated layman I find that kind of information very, very hard to find. Partly that’s because it’s difficult to calculate and partly because it’s not in the interest of many of the players involved to make such things clear. (The effort to obscure these things in the corn ethanol boondoggle was pretty epic, I think.)

    And don’t get me wrong – I think windmills are great. It’s just that when people talk about scaling up to renewables, the optimism seems to be always built on ignoring or misunderstanding these issues. It’s one thing to plunk down a solar panel to run my computer — it’s another thing to use solar power to run the industrial infrastructure that creates my computer. As long as we’re only thinking in terms of the first, we are taking the energy status quo off the cliff just like the cheerleaders for coal and oil.

  9. #9 Willy De Backer
    June 12, 2011

    Sharon,
    You are right about the UN’s blindness to this issue but there is some hope. The UNEP’s International Resource Panel is undertaking a study which looks at the environmental and resource limits to renewable energy and which should be published by early 2012. The working group preparing this study is led by Professor Edgar Herwitch, Norwegian University of Science and Technology.

    The working group produced a first interim report which can be found at http://www.rona.unep.org/documents/partnerships/SCP/Assessment_of_Env._Impact_of_SCP_on_Priority_Products.pdf

  10. #10 Tenerife Property
    June 12, 2011

    The UN has a purpose as we all see on the television every day but it should seek resolution to extend the boundaries to consider energy depletion.
    The world needs carbon fuels all of which are taken from the ground we walk upon. Apart from conservation, the answer is to harvest carbon fuels which could so easily be done.
    I believe producing biodeisel should become a world priority and the UN could promote this, especially in areas with poor economies.
    Consider this:
    I would like to see an independant study on the benefits of Algae farming, especially in areas with plentiful water supplies. Algae farming can produce biofuels and foodstuffs while absorbing greenhouse gases. Sound like this could be the ozone depletion hatrick!

  11. #11 Coast Watcher
    June 13, 2011

    Perhaps a career in journalism has jaded me beyond redemption, but the answer to your question, Sharon, is that it doesn’t serve the status quo to consider energy depletion. The United States, Russia, China, and all of the oil exporting and oil importing countries cannot deal with energy depletion without admitting peak oil exists. That is too much of a paradigm shift for the entrenched bureaucracies and special interests. Besides, the Food for Oil Program showed, if nothing else, that corruption and self-interest reach the very highest levels of the UN structure. There is no money to be made or power to be acquired from peak oil. Until there is, it will be ignored.

  12. #12 Jerah
    June 13, 2011

    Yup. They haven’t really brought the subject up in a meaningful way, yet. (Thanks, Willy, for mentioning that report, I hadn’t heard about it! Will be following that with interest…)

    I wrote a letter to various heads of UN agencies a little while ago (UNEP, FAO, etc), asking this exact question. Got no response, of course, but the agencies function a little more at their own discretion, and not by direct fiat of the member states (unlike the General Assembly or Security Council), so I assume they would be more willing/able to pick up a new issue such as peak oil and start talking about it in a meaningful way.

    But yes, the main problem is just that peak oil is not a subject that the member states have any wish to bring up.

    I think framing it as “resource depletion” or “energy supply constraints and their impact on international peace and security” will get a lot better response, honestly, since those are accepted tropes, whereas “peak oil” sometimes comes across as a dismissable conspiracy theory.

    As a side note, it’s a little troubling that some are willing to write off the UN as a whole because of some well-publicized instances of corruption. We certainly have instances of corruption in any organization (especially our government and financial system!) any time there are sums of money involved, but in addition to that, the UN is the target of a pretty vicious defamation campaign in the USA in particular.

    There are a number of reasons for this, but whatever the reasons, keep in mind that the day-to-day (very substantial) good work done by the UN is not really visible in first-world countries. It has and continues to do a lot of good in the developing world, though. Yes, corruption and mismanagement need to be addressed and ended. No, it doesn’t mean we can throw the whole idea of an organization devoted to world peace through diplomacy and humanitarian work out with the bathwater.

  13. #13 nanomatik
    June 14, 2011

    I imagine China and India don’t want the UN talking about peak oil, because that would raise the prices they encounter as they continue to lock in crude oil sources for the next few decades.

    I imagine oil exporting countries don’t want peak oil discussed, because it might (should) affect demand. It just makes sense, that the early adopters to living at a sustainable level of energy would have an easier time adapting, but that would mean that countries now importing oil would need to import less, thus hurting OPEC and other oil exporters.

    I also imagine that many countries feel that talking about peak oil is a deliberate pattern of aggression against this idea, that region, or some other target or goal.

    And then there is my problem. I see so much of the UN and what it does as being graft and corruption, that I tend to cringe away from all UN outputs.

    I would like to see the US Dept of State, or the UN, issue a report on the exposure of modern agriculture and also of international trade and donation of food — to unstable energy prices and intermittent failures of availability.

    Blessed be.

  14. #14 smithmillcreek
    June 15, 2011

    Shane- I’d be interested in taking a look at what you wrote on UNEP and peak oil. I’m on gmail.

    And i second Jerah’s comments:
    “It doesn’t mean we can throw the whole idea of an organization devoted to world peace through diplomacy and humanitarian work out with the bathwater.”
    – Jim

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