Yesterday the International Energy Agency released their World Energy Outlook. It contained a statement that has been stated before by activists and scientists, but which has yet to gain widespread traction: “No more than one-third of proven reserves of fossil fuels can be consumed prior to 2050 if the world is to achieve the 2 °C goal” (Thanks to The Price of Oil for the quote; I’m not about to buy the report.) Based on the reactions of the community, a statement like this from the IEA was not expected.
Unbelievable! Staid Intl Energy Agency adopts our climate math, says we have to leave 2/3 carbon in the ground priceofoil.org/2012/11/12/iea…
— Bill McKibben (@billmckibben) November 12, 2012
This statement is important and historic, but it’s not what really got to me. The graphic above from Price of Oil’s post did. Take a look at how the different lines are labeled. The top line shows the oil industry’s projected supply, which may or may not be inflated by wishful thinking. The bottom line shows the growth in oil usage needed to hit the 2° mark, which is simultaneously a bit too high for comfort and a bit too low for us to easily reach. Now look at the middle line. That’s the projected demand for 2020. It’s on track for a 6° rise, which would be absolute worldwide disaster.
What I think gets lost in all the talk about the fossil fuel industry, emissions, and policy is this simple fact: we don’t have an oil supply problem, we have an oil demand problem. It’s no wonder that all the leaders of companies and governments want to keep drilling and burning. As long as the demand for oil is this high, they have no incentive to do anything but keep the black gold flowing, none besides sheer altruism. Altruism may move people like Al Gore into action, but it hasn’t created the systemic change we need.
It’s on the demand side that individual choices and broader trends come together. Policy makers take little action on the climate because hoards of their constituents are happy to ignore it. Industry keeps producing energy-intensive products because there are hoards of consumers clamoring to buy them. Will the choice of one individual to buck the trend make an impact? No, of course not. However, crowds are made up of individuals, and if no one changes their choices simply because the crowd is too large, change will never come.
Imagine if everyone drove less, moving closer to where they work when possible and carpooling when not. Imagine if cars, computers, and clothing were more commonly bought used than new. Imagine if everyone bought their food from local farmers and favored those who reduced their use of inefficient machinery and petrochemical products. If everyone did these things, the fossil fuel industry couldn’t function as it does today. If all the voters cared so much for the planet, politicians would be jumping to be the first to pass protective legislation. The demand for oil is complex, but it ultimately comes down to us.
It’s important for me to remind myself of this. Blaming politicians and CEOs is tempting, but it distracts from the fact that I too am often part of the problem. The fact that my efforts can only be a drop in an ocean is no excuse not to be fully committed to reducing my own demand for energy. As was said in Cloud Atlas, “What is an ocean but a great multitude of drops?”