Our global transportation needs now account for the burning of 70% of the world’s crude oil production. By 2005 this amounted to 85 million barrels a day, or over 30 billion barrels a year. Oil has become so central to our way of life and the globalised economy that any restriction to its access will be considered an international emergency.
Fifty years on from the geologist Hubbert’s early warnings of the danger of reaching the point of “Peak Oil”, it has now arrived. The activities of the 20th century are estimated to have consumed around 900 billion barrels- about half of the accessible oil deposits that the planet has laid down over the last billion years.
As oil producing countries and their corporate collaborators do not provide trustworthy data for their remaining oil reserves, it is impossible to be forewarned of the arrival of the Peak Oil point. However, analysis of actual production data suggests that we are about to see global production rates fall off the end of the bell-curve.
When oil can no longer be pumped in quantities to match demand, a cascade of issues will surface creating panic, disruption and violence. Even those short occasions where temporary blips in supply have occurred, the price rockets, electrical power cuts and empty fuelling infrastructure can suddenly slow day to day business activities to a halt.
The response to the looming crisis in transportation must be multi-faceted. Alongside the great need for technical advances, there is an even greater requirement for behavioural change. It is not just social/work factors such as reducing the need to commute to centralised workplaces. The cost of food is going to climb as increased oil costs affect every stage of the agricultural food chain from seed to plate. In fact the cost of everything is going to be increasingly affected. This will destabilise many areas of the world and increase the likelihood for ethnic and religious conflict at both a national and international level. As oil price accelerates so will the economic divide between those who can still afford what they need and those that can no longer buy access to limited resources.
Whilst unprecedented areas of virgin rain forest and existing farming land is already being put over to oil rich crops such as soybean and oil palm, basic arithmetic demonstrates that our finite global land area ensures that biofuels can only provide a small portion of our needs. The rainforests are the richest natural carbon sinks we have; their global role in underpinning the remaining stability of our biosphere should not be underestimated. Energy crops will undoubtedly play a role, but if they start to play too big a part, global famines and further lowering of our ecological carrying capacity will be added to present problems.
Solar vehicles are definitely an option for the future. A technical leap in the conversion rates of PV could allow 100% solar vehicles.
If Hydrogen is to power our future transportation, either through use of electrical motors and fuel cell technology or improved internal combustion engines, the hydrogen must be sourced from non-fossil fuels. Detractors point to the present expense of fuel cell technology and the difficulties of storing hydrogen on board at sufficient densities. However progress is being made in all these areas, it is the challenge to source the actual hydrogen from renewable resources that is woefully behind schedule.
In summary, nuclear power as we use it today is simply a very complicated way of heating water. In the same way as the coal, oil and gas power stations they were built to replace, nuclear power stations still work on the steam engine principle. They are massive water boilers feeding steam into steam turbines. The technology does not scale down to provide power systems for use in road vehicles, all it could do is allow the electrical charging of batteries or production of hydrogen through electrolysis.
It must be remembered that the nuclear option has many inherent problems. Its growing stockpiles of radioactive waste and the issue of uranium depletion pose serious problems for its future. Even if politicians choose to bet on the nuclear option, it is not going to offer a long-term replacement to oil’s role in transportation.