CAMWEST: Cyclists’ Action Movement West

Energy Consumption, Global Warming and Cycling

When I sit on the beach at night and look at the stars I often get a sense of perspective. In these days of bright city lights it needs to be a beach a long, long way from the nearest city. The night view from the mountains behind Sydney creates an equal sense of perspective. Each one of the small shimmering lights represents a family going about their daily (or nightly) business. However each light also represents a small amount of carbon dioxide being tipped into the atmosphere by a coal-fired power station somewhere in NSW. So as I sit on the beach and wonder if any of those stars have planets circling them, I am scared. I am scared of coal, and the power stations we burn it in. I am scared that in an attempt to continue ‘business as usual’ in some way that Western civilisation will use all that coal we know is still in the ground.

Global warming is about energy use. It doesn’t matter if we are burning oil in a car, scooping coke into a furnace to make iron, or burning coal in a power station to make electricity to power a train, all of these activities generate greenhouse gas as an end product. The time is fast approaching where individuals, corporations and communities will be held to account for their greenhouse activities. After all, it is not the power company’s fault that you choose to consume their power, they are only fulfilling your demand.

Many aspects of the mitigation of peak oil are beginning to become complicated by the dual threat of global warming. Solutions such as electrification of transport on a massive scale, such as electric cars, will only intensify the rate of carbon emissions. Solutions need to not only account for the emissions of use of the vehicle, but also must take into account the emissions of all phases of manufacture. For example, aluminium cars may provide greater fuel efficiency, but the emissions created by the electricity generation needed to refine the aluminium from it’s ore are so great that the widespread use of aluminium cars would result in a net increase in emissions, though of course a decrease in oil demand. The same must be said of trains, low in emissions from the source fuel, but by the time the community builds the railway lines, then builds the carriages, power supply infrastructure, platforms, tunnels and so on then the emissions outlook does not look as good. A similar debate is needed about hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, zero emissions while in use, but large emissions of carbon dioxide during manufacture.

Some of the possible measures that have been proposed to mitigate the worst effects of peak oil have carbon emissions ramifications that are positively frightening. Whether the petrol industry turns to the tar sands of Canada, the heavy Orinoco bitumen belt in Venezuela, or shale oil in the US, the end result will be huge carbon dioxide emissions. Even more frightening is the widespread talk of Coal to Liquid technology. Whether it’s biofuel, natural gas powered cars or mass transit with electric trams and electric scooters, the mentality is that somehow mankind will find the technology to maintain some sort of business as usual. If mankind starts using coal as the feed source for our daily transport needs on a massive scale, well, then that will be that as far as global warming is concerned. Jeremy Legget has calculated that there is enough coal in the ground to reach the tipping point to runaway global warming catastrophe NINE times over.

I’m sure in recent times you have heard of the Stern report. Stern is an economist; however he has done a great deal of good by bringing global climate change up the world’s priority list. Try finding the Tyndall report, issued in September, 2006 by British scientists. It concluded the world needs a ninety percent decrease in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Yes, ninety percent. Try living, just for a day, on one tenth of your current energy consumption schedule. Cold food, no refrigeration, a single electric light to operate your computer by, and of course the only way to get to work will be by bicycle.

Any potential solutions to the coming peak oil crisis MUST include the more damaging threat of global warming. Rebuilding our transport infrastructure to consume any fossil fuel sourced energy is absolute madness. If we are going to be forced to rethink our transport energy source (and I use the singular here because it comes from a single source — oil) then we may as well, no we must, move directly to greenhouse neutral transportation.

Now there’s a new concept, greenhouse neutral transportation. What is it? How can a person get from Point A to Point B, then to Points C and D and back home to Point A again for dinner, without promoting or using a process that emits carbon dioxide?

UK environmentalist George Monbiot has calculated that it will be physically impossible to simply convert to a renewably powered society for the UK. He assumed, just for a while, that it would be possible to easily convert renewable electrical energy to a form needed for transport; as well as using it for current electrical demand. He found that the UK currently has only about half the required renewable energy resources needed. Most densely populated countries will struggle to renewably generate enough power to eat. ‘Active’ transport such as walking and cycling will be their only option. Australia is in a somewhat better position. We have a much smaller population and it is spread mostly around a coastline that is well battered by the surf from open oceans. Ocean wave energy generation will be a great source of the future to add to our solar, hydro and wind generated power.

Clearly electricity is about to get more expensive, much more expensive. If carbon emissions trading and carbon taxes are enforced this could happen quite soon. Home air conditioning will become something for use by the rich. Electric cars will be prohibitively expensive to operate if we are forced to power them solely with renewably sourced electricity. In addition, any products and goods, including vehicles, will be quite rightly taxed according to the total emissions generated during manufacture, distribution and also final disposal. The emissions tax on a 1000 kg electric car is likely to be 100 times that of a 10 kg bicycle! Major manufacturing will also be forced to source their energy from renewable sources.

So what will an emission tax cost? If society is forced to sell the available emissions with a market based strategy then clearly the emissions allowances will go to the highest bidders, just as oil does now. The result will be emissions by the richest countries, with the cost of the emissions added to the price of the goods (vehicles) thereby produced.

It would be childish to claim that bicycle riding will be our salvation. Transport fuel consumption only accounts for around 30% of Western civilisations typical energy demand. Water heating accounts for a decent slice, followed by air conditioning and general electricity use. Industry demands a fair bit of electrical energy as well. However, in a civilisation where electrical energy is expensive and highly difficult to create, the use of the bicycle will allow personal mobility in the face of dwindling energy supplies, allowing what available generated energy there is to be used for other more important purposes than transport.

Will mankind ever arrive at a partially industrial society that is totally powered by renewable means where bicycles are the major means of daily personal transport? Personally I am very, very pessimistic about the probabilities of success. I feel that to our own demise we will cling to the current community model of everyone having a small personal transport box that we take with us everywhere we go. It is a model that has to go. Either we make changes to ensure our survival, or the planet will enforce the changes upon us. It is becoming clearer each year that the planet is having trouble supporting the unsustainable lifestyle of Western civilisation. It is time to live with less. If we can’t harvest the energy we need directly from the daily renewable resources around us, then we can’t use the energy.

A final thought, “About 200,000 years ago the Angel of the Earth went to God with a problem. My planet isn’t clouding up nicely like Venus. I’ve got plenty of carbon in my planet, but it’s all congealing into a yucky black liquid and solid mess under the surface. The sky is blue most of the time and I hate it. Next day God came back with an answer — don’t worry Angel, I have a solution to your problem. I’ll invent an animal that’s stupid enough to burn it!”

So I sit on the beach at night and look at the stars and wonder about the future of the human race and I’m scared of the coal that’s still in the ground. Mankind has a wonderful home here on Earth and we are altering it. We are releasing millions of years of built up sub-surface carbon into the atmosphere in a couple of hundred years. The consequences could be catastrophic. Science fiction author Issac Asimov had a great word for mankind, he called us “Humanity”. The word invokes a sense that we are all Human, unlike the term mankind. I wonder how much of humanity will be left when the dual crises of peak oil and global warming play out during the next century. Of the children being born next year; I wonder what the world will be like when they complete life toward the end of the century.

Mark Robson
November, 2006

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and not necessarily those of CAMWEST.

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