Implications of “peak oil” for atmospheric CO2 and climate



[1] Unconstrained CO2 emission from fossil fuel burning has been the dominant cause of observed anthropogenic global warming. The amounts of “proven” and potential fossil fuel reserves are uncertain and debated. Regardless of the true values, society has flexibility in the degree to which it chooses to exploit these reserves, especially unconventional fossil fuels and those located in extreme or pristine environments. If conventional oil production peaks within the next few decades, it may have a large effect on future atmospheric CO2 and climate change, depending upon subsequent energy choices. Assuming that proven oil and gas reserves do not greatly exceed estimates of the Energy Information Administration, and recent trends are toward lower estimates, we show that it is feasible to keep atmospheric CO2 from exceeding about 450 ppm by 2100, provided that emissions from coal, unconventional fossil fuels, and land use are constrained. Coal-fired power plants without sequestration must be phased out before midcentury to achieve this CO2 limit. It is also important to “stretch” conventional oil reserves via energy conservation and efficiency, thus averting strong pressures to extract liquid fuels from coal or unconventional fossil fuels while clean technologies are being developed for the era “beyond fossil fuels”. We argue that a rising price on carbon emissions is needed to discourage conversion of the vast fossil resources into usable reserves, and to keep CO2 beneath the 450 ppm ceiling.