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The Toronto Star

Pessimistic Fuel Report Too Bright

Richard Gwyn

The latest report issued by the International Energy Agency on the global balance between supply and demand for energy is by far and away that agency's most pessimistic.

According to the IEA, "vigorous, immediate and collective policy action by all governments" is needed to prevent both a rise in oil prices, perhaps to $150 a barrel by 2030, and a 50 per cent rise in greenhouse gas emissions by around the same date.

The report's principal author, IEA principal economist Fatih Birol, calls it "the most pessimistic overview of the world we have ever portrayed."

To the 625-page report, and to Birol's summation of it, there is one major flaw. This is that its pessimistic forecast is, almost certainly, far too optimistic.

Consider this fact. In China today, there are about nine "personal vehicles" for every 1,000 eligible drivers. In India, there are 11 amongst the same number.

By contrast, in the United States there are 1,148 personal vehicles for each 1,000 eligible drivers. (The level of car-ownership in other industrial democracies such as Canada is little different).

Where the U.S. is today, China and India are going. And when they get there - as they will, and as will other large developing nations such as Brazil, Indonesia, Vietnam - they will unhinge whatever energy supply-demand equation would exist then, even if governments do, improbably, nerve themselves to implement "vigorous, immediate and collective policy action."

Once car ownership in these countries reaches half of the present American level, their combined daily consumption of oil would slightly exceed the entire world's current total daily consumption level.

Once China and India's car ownership reaches the present American level, their consumption of oil would be double that now used up each day by the rest of the world. (These calculations come from the recently published book, Zoom: The Global Race to Fuel the Car of the Future, by Iain Carson and Vijay Vaitheeswaran.)

Moreover, this equation makes no allowance for what will happen in Brazil, Indonesia and elsewhere.

There simply isn't enough oil in the world, even with occasional new discoveries like the just-announced huge field offshore from Brazil, to meet such a demand.

Even if alternative energy sources, from wind and solar to biomass to nuclear, could close the gap left after all-out production of oil and of coal (one new coal plant is built each week in China), the consequence would be a massive increase in greenhouse gas emissions.

Try to imagine China and India and others agreeing to forgo a car in every garage in their long-delayed escape from mass poverty.

Try to imagine North Americans, Europeans and other economic success stories giving up conveniences we enjoy today and now regard as our birthright.

Try to imagine any alternative to some combination of those two exercises in national self-sacrifice.

An alternative might exist but it could only come from transformational breakthroughs in technology. Nothing of this order is in sight. Assume, as IEA does, that China and India and the others continue much as they now are doing. By 2030, greenhouse gas emissions will rise to 42 billion tonnes from 27 billion in 2005.

That increase in CO2 matches the amount the UN International Panel on Climate Change calculates will push average global temperatures up by 6 degrees C - the maximum rise forecast.

We'd all have cars, and we'd all be roasting.

-- Richard Gwyn

© Copyright Toronto Star 1996-2007

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