January 17, 2005

A Different Planet

David W Young writes…

Although I’ve never liked Rod Donald – he’s just a politician’s politician – I’ve had a soft spot for his Green Party co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimons ever since I saw her fitting in poorly at an end-of -year parliamentary party that I was hating at the time. Fitzsimons looked like she would have preferred to be anywhere but there. Because I was feeling like an outsider at a back-slapping, matey, insiders-only gathering of preeners and sycophants, I related. We had a wee moment.

I support the Greens on lots of social issues. But when it comes to the environment, Fitzsimons and I live on different planets.

Yesterday, the female co-leader of the
Green Party of Aotearoa delivered a “State of the Planet” address as disingenuous and misleading as any political speech you are likely to see.

Although there are apparently three great threats to our existence – “ecological collapse, climate change and our reliance on oil” – Fitzsimons chose to focus on the third issue.

The Green Party blames oil for the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, the war on terrorism (I guess the planes that flew into the World Trade Centre weren’t run on coal), and even anti-terrorism legislation in New Zealand.

I have nothing new to add to debates about the Iraqi war, but David Farrar has penned a response to those claims.

I’m more interested in Fitzsimon’s catastrophic predictions. Here's her take on life: Using oil is catastrophic. Dependence on oil is catastrophic. The Earth is running out of oil really fast, and that’s catastrophic. Soon there will be none. And that will be… well… catastrophic.

Fitzsimons believes in a controversial theory about oil production and depletion. The Hubbert peak theory posits that the total amount of oil extracted over time follows a bell-shaped curve. The maximum output point is referred to as the peak. After the peak comes depletion.

In Fitzsimons' words: "The point at which demand outstrips the capacity of the wells to supply is the point at which oil prices rise inexorably and countries at the end of the supply line with little military power are likely to miss out. At first, it will cost you three dollars a litre instead of one to fill up your car. Later, there will be absolute shortages, no matter what you are prepared to pay. The cost of farming, fishing, manufacturing and international trade will skyrocket, and our international markets will no longer be able to afford our butter."

Frightening stuff.

So, when does Fitzsimons believe that the peak will occur? Well, although she dismissed New Zealand government predictions that peak-oil discoveries would occur in 2037, Fitzsimons is too modest to come up with her own figures. She isn't too modest, however, to clang some bloody loud alarm bells: “We may well have less than ten years before we reach this terrible tipping point”.

Strangely enough, if we plucked Fitzsimons from the Waiheke Island Picnic for the Planet she attended yesterday, we could plonk her down at almost any point in the past century and her predictions would fit right in.

In 1914 the US Bureau of Mines estimated that there would be oil left over for only ten years' consumption. In 1939 (and again in 1951) the Department of the Interior projected that oil would last only 13 more years. In the 1970s and 1980s, worry about resource depletion reached fever-pitch.

In fact, if we replaced the word “oil” with “coal”, we could plop Fitzsimons on a soapbox in 1865, and she could happily do her thing alongside other concerned pundits.

Despite the fears in the late Nineteenth century, coal reserves have increased (since 1975 coal reserves worldwide have grown by 38 percent). So too have oil and gas reserves.

This is counter-intuitive: we use more and more oil, yet the world has more and more left. How can this be so? It's because known resources are not finite, but limited by what we know we can access. Companies and countries don’t pay for expensive exploration in advance of need. Also, technology and efficiency constantly improve. We have become better at finding oil and better at using it.

Eventually, people will stop using fossil fuels. But mainstream opinion away from Waiheke Island holds that there is enough left for 40 or 50 years at the current rate of consumption. If we include undiscovered resources, we probably have 100–150 years of supply. The shale oil that will become economically viable within the next 25 years will probably last another century. If we consider all available shale oil in the world, there is enough to cover current energy consumption levels for 5,000 years.

We’re not about to use oil for another 5,000 years, though. In around 1600, wood became increasingly expensive, and this prompted a gradual switch to coal. During the latter part of the nineteenth century, a similar substitution took place from coal to oil. It is not clear today what resources will replace oil. But substitution is bound to occur. An increase in price will drive innovation.

Fitzsimons acknowledged that a price increase will occur when she claimed (obscenely) that “the end of cheap oil is coming towards us with the force of a tsunami”.

It’s more like one normal-sized tide coming in as another normal-sized goes out: As oil increases in price, renewables decrease. These have decreased in price about 50 percent per decade over the last 30 years. Even if the price falls in future at a much slower rate, it is likely that renewables will become a serious competitor to fossil fuels by the middle of this century.

In the meantime, Fitzsimons believes we should use fewer resources, which means slowing down economic development and growth. This is an argument commonly made by

What would less growth and development achieve?

Making a middle-income Auckland family poorer is not going to help the global environment. At first it does seem reasonable to assume less industrialisation means less pollution. But the industrialised world has demonstrated general improvement in dealing with the environment. When we get richer, we can afford to care more about the environment. On the other hand, if we are poor and hungry, living in squalor, we will think only about the next meal.
In reality, most of the world’s pollution comes from the developing world, where the primary need is still to satisfy basic requirements. The problem is not consumption – it is poverty. Therefore the solution must be to ensure the developing world becomes wealthy enough to afford to worry about the environment.

Ruining a middle-income Auckland family won’t help the world’s most disadvantaged. A diminished Western economy will mean less innovation, less trade, and fewer opportunities for the developing world. Those in impoverished nations need better health, better education, and free access to the West’s markets. What is needed is more growth, not less.

Fitzsimons devoted the second half of her speech to badmouthing her political rivals. Some of her descriptions are amusing, others are just the predictable personal attacks that all politicians engage in.

She spoke of the four parties to the right of Labour who “seek to govern New Zealand divisively, by invoking fear and hatred of, among others, Maori, the poor, criminals, immigrants, homosexuals, and anyone who suggests that a culture of mass consumption cannot go on forever.”

In this statement, she sums up the reasons why the Green Party appeals to me on some social issues – but then, I wonder, is invoking fear of far-fetched environmental doomsday scenarios really any more principled?

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