Monday, October 22, 2007

2007 As a Tipping Point for Climate Change, Peak Oil, and Sustainability: A Few Thoughts

With the realization that not only Climate Change, but perhaps also Peak Oil are here now, 2007 sure seems to be turning into quite the tipping point for the future of society as we know it.

A friend of mine just returned from a Peak Oil conference in Houston, and declared "this is it. Peak Oil is here NOW." Indeed, just last week we heard it from legendary oil tycoon Boone Pickens: with demand (88 million barrels per day) exceeding supply (85 million barrels per day - a plateau we've been floating around since 2005), we can expect oil and gas prices to keep going higher. Whether we're there now, or just a few years away, oh boy... What's going to happen to all those unpatriotically gigantic Dodges and Ford 350+ type trucks on the road, which may soon become too expensive for most people to operate?!

The good news, of course, is that as oil and gas prices go higher, demand will at some point decline in response, and a new equilibrium price range will be established. I hope that the range is high enough to motivate (1) dramatic reductions in the use of fossil fuels to power our vehicles and (2) dramatic increases in the use of clean, highly efficient, and cheaper-to-operate technologies to power our vehicles. These developments in the oil and transportation markets are, of course, the types of things that need to happen anyway if we are to reduce our carbon emissions sufficiently to spare humanity from very destructive impacts of climate change. Hopefully they inspire China and India to move towards efficient, low-emissions personal transport options before the balance of their masses who want cars actually get them.

I find it interesting that tipping points in both climate change and Peak Oil seem to be following a parallel timeline. It's almost as if Earth's response to humanity's spewing of climate-destabilizing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere is to start shutting down the planetary oil spigots, which will, in turn will help bring levels of greenhouse gas emissions back down! This kind of response of Mother Nature reminds me of how grasslands and deserts respond to being overgrazed by livestock: plants that livestock eat are replaced by weedy plants that livestock don't find very tasty, until eventually the land can no longer support grazing. The resulting decline in livestock numbers typically allows the land's soils, plants, and wildlife to begin to recover. It will sure be interesting to watch as the earth responds to the increasing strain being inflicted by humanity, and how the earth's response affects humanity's capacity to continue to inflict strain. How will Mother Nature's response affect the well-being of human societies?

My guess is that we're headed down a path towards a presidency - perhaps 2008, but more likely 2012 - where a worried and stressed public demands a New Deal type agenda that not only fights climate change and its increasing ecological, economic, health, and quality of life impacts, but takes bold steps to advance society past our dangerous dependence on fossil fuels.

What kind of bold steps are needed? At a grand scale - a key item is to increase the sustainability of our cities. And who'd have thunk it, but a small Middle Eastern country is among those leading the way in demonstrating how cities can become independent of oil.

Get a load of the idea for the sustainable city of Masdar, proposed by one of the United Arab Emirates:

Masdar is being designed to run entirely on renewable energy. World renown architect Lord Foster is designing Masdar so that its 50,000 residents will live on streets modeled on traditional souks and medinas - but draped with shades of fabric that convert sunlight into electricity. There will be fields of solar concentrating mirrors in the desert and wind turbines will catch breezes from the Gulf.

Palm and mangrove plantations will create a green belt around the city to provide raw material for bio-fuels, a new industry that, say developers, may one day supplement oil and gas revenues. The tiny emirate is the fifth largest exporter of oil in the world, but it is envisaged that Masdar City will not need a drop. "We want to position ourselves as thinkers and progressives," says Sultan Al Jaber, the chief executive of Masdar. "Years ago in the Middle East we lived in a very sustainable environment. We are bringing that back by creating a compact city where people don't need to use a car."

Adjacent to Abu Dhabi International Airport, the goal is to create a city based on sustainable employment, eventually facilitating a population of 100,000. The first stage of development will set the tone for the entire project; the construction of a state-of-the-art photovoltaic power plant that will deliver the energy required to build the entire city!

The compact, high-density city will be completely free of cars and their emissions; a world model of energy conservation with zero carbon emissions and zero waste. Compared to average urban levels, fossil fuel consumption will be reduced by 75%, water demand by 300% and waste production by 400%. Cycling and walking will be the most common means of travel.

According to the city's master plan, no one will be more than 200 meters from essential facilities, including shops selling locally grown produce. A Light Railway Transport system will link the Masdar development to adjacent developments, the airport and in the future with the center of Abu Dhabi.


So we see a solid example of what is possible in the development of future cities.

But how will existing cities rise to the challenges posed by Peak Oil and climate change, from transportation to water to maintaining an affordable food supply?

We are currently seeing lots of good ideas emerging. Amazingly, even Wal-Mart is taking a leading role in driving innovation!

Stay tuned for what promises to be an interesting few months ahead as oil approaches $100 a barrel, and the impacts of rising oil prices start to reverberate throughout society. I look forward to seeing the positive developments that ensue, as the world is forced to turn with greater urgency toward more sustainable alternatives - both in our products and our everyday practices.


  1. Anonymous1:07 PM

    When can I move to a city like that.


  2. Personal Rapid Transit is an infeasible concept with a long, controversial history.

    Does anybody really think that people (real people, not the digital mannequins that inhabit the computer-generated simulations on PRT websites) would cut down half the trees on their block for an elevated structure with a clear view into their bedroom window?

    PRT is a ridiculous idea that has wasted a lot of time and money in dozens of cities all over the world. PRT has been promoted here and in other cities by anti-transit, pro-highway individuals and groups who use it as a stalking horse to attack light rail (LRT) as being "too expensive" or "old fashioned".

    Right now PRT is being used to greenwash aiport expansion at Heathrow Airport.

    According to the Saint Cloud Times, right-wing Minnesota politicians Rep. Dan Severson and Rep. Mark Olson are again proposing PRT in Minnesota.

    Learn more at the Dump Mark Olson Blog and the PRT is a Joke website.