Reducing Carbon the Old Fashioned Way

The EIA has reported that 2009 carbon dioxide emissions in the United States experienced their largest decline–on both an absolute and percentage basis–in 60 years. If you consider the chart I’ve included here, it’s not hard to see why. Measuring total energy consumption from all sources–oil, coal, natural gas, nuclear, hydro, and renewables–US energy consumption fell from a high in 2007 at 101.5652 quadrillion BTU, to 94.8916 quadrillion BTU last year. A financial crisis and its attendant industrial collapse is a very effective way to reduce emissions.

What would happen to global carbon emissions, however, if successive industrial collapses or declines meant that the world was progressively relocated away from oil, and into coal? That question, among others, is the subject of my recent work in coal and I am inclined to favor just such an outcome. After all, global oil production has been up against a ceiling for 6 years now. And, the resulting price advance in oil was clearly a key component to the global recession. I see no reason why this can’t be repeated on a serial basis for years, as energy transition itself is at minimum a decade-long proposition.

Although the developing world funds its growth now with coal, not oil, I have also conjectured that even the developed world may have to fund its future growth (should it have any) also with coal. Now that we are in peak oil globally, there is no oil supply response that can fund growth in either the developing, or the developed world. This is why, since about 2006, I have watched closely coal consumption in Europe and a story this week in the FT Energy Source caught my eye, in that regard:

So it still seems a little ironic that the EU, which has been the developed world’s earliest mover on climate change, last week signalled it would delay enforcing new pollution standards on coal-fired power plants, pushing the deadline back from 2014 to 2019…Not only that, but Europe’s own coal demand is recovering to the extent that it is beginning to squeeze Asian prices.

A world getting poorer is a world that will reach all the harder for energy sources like coal. What would send the world on a perma-economic descent? Oh, little things like mountains of unpayable debt and the end of new advances in oil supply. Some may find the idea counterintutive, but once the world has departed the domain of growth then funding a transition to cleaner energy is going to be difficult, if not impossible.