Why we might not go extinct from fossil fuel emissions

Peak Fossils means Peak Emissions and the lowest to medium IPCC projections at worst

This is an overview, other posts in this category contain peer-reviewed papers that show why this is true.  The heart of the problem is that the IPCC uses old projections from 1998 and have not ever invited petroleum and coal geologists with more up-to-date data to the hearings.

Energy is the master resource that unlocks all the others.  Don’t have fresh water?  No problem, just use oil to drill down 1,000 feet and bring it up.  Can’t find any fish nearby? No problem, build a mega-factory boat and sail it to the ends of the earth where the remaining fish are.  And so on.  It’s allowing us to mine topsoil and grow crops for a few generations before the topsoil washes and blows off, or becomes too saline to grow crops anymore.

Plentiful oil allows us to make microchips, keep supply chains going, deliver food — there isn’t anything that does NOT depend on oil at some point in its life cycle.

Oil is a liquid fuel transportation problem.  Everything in your house, everything in stores got there on a truck at some point, if only for the last mile, and was probably on a ship and train as well.  In my new book “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, I show why transportation can’t be electrified, and that there is no renewable liquid fuel that scales up or has enough energy returned on invested to keep our billions of diesel engines in heavy-duty vehicles and equipment running. Therefore, when transportation goes below some minimal level, civilization as we know it fails, and carbon emissions from fossil fuels go to nearly zero.

Carbon emissions also go to zero from fast crashes due to EMPs, nuclear war, peak phosphorous, and too many other limits to growth and resources to list.

Burning fossil fuels is also the main reason we have climate change. And why 7+ billion people can survive off of this borrowed energy. Before fossil fuels powered society, there were 1 billion people.

The end of fossil fuels means we will stop emitting so much carbon dioxide. We won’t be able to manufacture as many chemicals as we are now that poison land, sea, and air. Nor will we won’t be able to feed 7 billion people whose consumption of every mineral, tree, animal, and plant is destroying the world.

The Permian extinction drove 90% of species extinct when volcanoes belched far more CO2 than fossil fuels are capable of emitting. Scientists found it unlikely that the die-off resulted from the CO2 (Kerr).

To stay under the 2 degrees Celsius limits some estimate we can only emit a further 275 Gt, about 34 more years of business-as-usual emissions, which the IPCC assumes will increase until 2100.  Yet in 2005 oil production reached a peak and has been on a plateau since then, slightly rising mainly due to fracked oil and canadian tar sands, both of which are likely to decline from now on. That means coal and natural gas will also decline, since oil is essential for their production, and do little to solve the transportation problem (Coal-to-Liquids will not solve the problem, nor will natural gas (read When Trucks Stop Running or posts at energyskeptic)

Declining fossil fuels means a lot less CO2 and methane emissions:

1. Carbon dioxide and methane will start to go down due to peak oil and peak coal (Hart, Heinberg, Höök, Nel, Patzek) and natural gas.  Because of this, Patzek and other scientists predict only the bottom 4 IPCC projections are likely to be reached.

2. In “The Ecological Indian: Myth and History” by Shepard Krech III you can see that people were very destructive in the past, but they couldn’t do much harm because there were so few of them — if they destroyed all the buffalo or burned down the forest they had to move on, and the buffalo and forest recovered.  It’s only with fossil fuels and the machines we built plus their emissions that we have been able to alter the planet so much.

3.  Gail Tverberg in Oil Limits and Climate Change: “My estimate of CO2 generation by fossil fuels in the 21st century is only about one-quarter of the amount (range midpoint) assumed in the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Report.”

4. Our ability to do any kind of harm to any resource will diminish drastically once oil and oil equivalent fuels diminish because so many large vehicles and any other equipment with combustion engines won’t operate any more:

  • farm tractors will no longer compress and erode topsoil (or grow enough food to feed 7+ billion people)
  • earth moving machines will no longer harvest coal and other minerals and metals
  • our roads, bridges, airports, and docks will last less than 100 years because we didn’t build anything with cement to last over a century (unlike Roman cement, which is still going strong). We won’t have the energy to rebuild or maintain most of our infrastructure
  • It will be much harder to chop down (rain)forests with roads crumbling and large trucks gone
  • There won’t be ships that can go to the ends of the earth to harvest the last schools of fish. Marine reserves have often restored fish populations faster than anyone expected.
  • due to lack of fuel, future world wars or world war on the scale of WWI & II will not be possible.  Wars will be far more local, more like pre-WWI.
  • Although biodiversity loss will probably increase initially as anyone with a gun goes out hunting, that’s likely to change because the people who live where hunters can get to on foot or bicycle will defend their territory.   The same goes for fishing and foraging.

5. The book “The Earth Without Us” shows that the earth recovers rather rapidly absent humans.  Human population and oil production curves are locked together in a death-grip. If oil declines, population declines too.

6. In 2075 when sea levels start to rise to the point of forcing migration, so many people will have already died off from the decline in fossil fuels that there will be plenty of room for coastal dwellers to move to

7. The loss of our ability to make microchips and breakdown in supply chains will be nearly as important as the loss of oil in rapidly changing civilization back to wood-based energy, and also increase the rate and numbers of people dying.

Climate change will still exist for many millenia, and drive population down even further than the end of oil from mosquito borne and other diseases, years of failures to grow crops and/or less crop production, and so on.

Even though even a small nuclear war would kill over 1 billion people (and a solar or nuclear EMP even more), the ozone would recover after 5 years, many people around the equator will be fine, others will have stockpiled enough food to get by.

All of the 9 planetary boundaries will diminish as human population declines from lack of fossil fuels.  Peak phosphorous will come even sooner without fossil-fuel driven vehicles and equipment to harvest and transport it.

This is too big a topic to list every factor and how it might turn out as you can see from the menu items in Decline and Collapse at energyskeptic.com.  Yes, extinction is a possibility if too many of these happen at once over just a few centuries.

But since both human population and energy resources are likely to decline exponentially rather quickly, we won’t be able to do the harm we are now, to the planet or ourselves, and that has a good chance of saving us from extinction.

Alice Friedemann


Hart, Phil. 15 Nov 2010. Oil Demand to Decline in the West, according to International Energy Agency.  http://anz.theoildrum.com/node/7114

Heinberg, R., Fridley, D. The end of cheap coal. New forecasts suggest that coal reserves will run out faster than many believe. Nature 468, 367-369 (18 November 2010) doi:10.1038/468367a

Höök, M., Sivertsson, A. & Aleklett, K. “Validity of the fossil fuel production outlooks in the IPCC Emission Scenarios” Natural Resources Research, 2010, Vol. 19, Issue 2: 63-81

Kerr, R.A. 2013. Mega-Eruptions Drove the Mother of Mass Extinctions. Science  20 Dec 2013: Vol. 342, # 6165, pp. 1424 DOI: 10.1126/science.342.6165.1424

Nel and Cooper (2009) Implications of fossil fuel constraints on economic growth and global warming, Energy Policy 37: 166-180.

Patzek, T, Croft, G. A global coal production forecast with multi-Hubbert cycle analysis.  Energy 35 (2010) 3109e3122

This entry was posted in But not from climate change: Peak Fossil Fuels. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Why we might not go extinct from fossil fuel emissions

  1. Jan Lundberg says:

    Alice, well presented. Keep up the good work. We have re-posted your review “How shipping containers shortened the life span of petro-civilization” on http://www.SailTransportNetwork.org. I just noticed that one of your references in another article on Culture Change, at http://www.culturechange.org/cms/content/view/152/1/ , has a broken link to Project Censored for the Hirsch Report. Funny if it has been censored.