November 13, 2010 at 12:00PM
by Jim DiPeso
The scariest movie ever, IMHO, is the original The Haunting, released in 1963. It has none of the computer graphics, gore, or techno-sizzle frou-frou found in today's fright flicks. It wouldn't have needed any of that embellishment, even if it had been available in that bygone time. Weird lighting, odd camera angles, and jarring cinematography were enough to prime the psychological pumps of fear.
In a strange sort of way, that's how the International Energy Agency's annual World Energy Outlook (WEO) can stir up anyone who worries about humanity's growing pressure on natural life support systems. It doesn't hit you over the head with the melodramatic language and exclamation points often found in climate change action alerts. Instead, the WEO's dry prose and pedestrian graphics are plenty to get anyone who has a passing grasp of energy issues to wonder if we can crack the global energy nut before it cracks human civilization.
This year's edition, released November 9, examines three scenarios: business as usual, "new policies," and an aggressively ambitious scenario in which we all join hands and agree to hold the atmosphere's carbon dioxide concentration to 450 parts per million.
The new policies scenario, the middle path in the analysis, is rather optimistic. It assumes that governments will do what they have said they would do to lower greenhouse gas emissions. Like carrying out the Copenhagen Accord, which has all the contractual rigor of a barroom bet five minutes before closing time. Like eliminating all fossil fuel subsidies, which for politicians would be as appealing as an indictment three days before Election Day.
Supposing, however, that the "new policies" scenario comes to pass. Here is what we're in for:
Oil prices rise to $113 per barrel (measured in current dollars) by 2035, thanks to relentless increases in demand from China and other developing nations that, very reasonably, desire a spot of comfort and security after millennia of poverty and misery. The number of cars tooling around is projected to double by 2035, to 1.6 billion.
Conventional crude oil production peaks at 69 million barrels per day by 2020. This is a variation of the "peak oil" theory that's been debated around water coolers in Houston and Riyadh for years. But oil production doesn't fall. The gap is made up, partly by ramping up production of unconventional oil sources, such as oil sands and shale oil - the bottom-of-the-barrel sludge whose extraction requires copious amounts of money, water, and energy.
The share of global oil production held by that fun-lovin' bunch at OPEC is expected to rise significantly, from 41 to 52 percent by 2035. OPEC's reserves far outweigh U.S. reserves, a fact that the drill, baby, drill crowd cannot seem to wrap its collective head around. As long as we tie our energy future to oil, we're bound to need more production from OPEC.
Coal-fired power generation more than doubles. By 2035, China's coal-fired generating capacity exceeds the combined capacity of the U.S., European Union, and Japan.
With all that digging and burning, the atmosphere's CO2 level peaks at more than 650 ppm. Average temperatures rise 3.5 degrees C. Those figures are well north of 450 ppm and a 2-degree C temperature increase, which scientists have judged to be boundaries, beyond which the odds increase of hitting trip wires that could send the global climate system spinning off into a red zone of disastrous consequences. We know those trip wires are out there; we just don't know exactly where.
In any event, the Copenhagen Accord's "lack of ambition," as the IEA puts it, has added $1 trillion to the estimated bill for climate stabilization. Sticking to the 2-degree limit "would require a phenomenal policy push by governments around the world." This would require cooperation from a polarized U.S. Congress that can't even pass a budget on time.
The World Energy Outlook is not all shadows and gloom. Projections of higher fossil fuel prices and technological advances would make low-carbon energy sources more competitive. A long period of low natural gas prices could knock back the demand for coal.
Still, it takes some effort to see the WEO's silver linings. A cascading series of "ifs" must fall into place to reach climate stabilization goals. If the Copenhagen Accord commitments are taken seriously, if the ambiguities in the accord are interpreted in the strongest light, and if much stronger commitments are agreed to and acted upon after 2020, stopping the global temperature increase at 2 degrees C is doable.
If not? "Otherwise, the 2 degree C goal would probably be out of reach for good."
And that's not just a scary movie, folks.