I have always been sceptical of the peak-oil hypothesis. But that does not mean we should not consider how to transition to a post-carbon world only when the oil runs out.

David Hughes, a Fellow at the Post-Carbon Institute, is currently making the rounds on the lecture circuit with a presentation dubbed The Talk about the end of the fossil fuel age. The Walrus has an interesting article about it.

Ninety percent of all the oil humanity has ever burned has turned to ash and greenhouse gases since 1959 — half since 1986. Ninety percent of all the natural gas ever burned set aflame since 1964. Half of humanity’s cumulative coal tally up in smoke since 1972. 

Significantly, Hughes’s focus is not on the bogeyman of climate change, but on how to ensure sustainable energy supplies long into the future.

Climate change is in the minds of the public and the rhetoric of the politicians. The energy sustainability dilemma is much less understood, although it’s highly likely to have more immediate and severe impacts on our current lifestyle than climate change. Which we will likely have to live with for centuries, because of the feedback loops that are already activated. Fortunately, many but not all solutions proposed for climate change also address energy sustainability. The number one priority is energy conservation and much greater efficiency. And there are many opportunities for doing this. Followed by technologies and lifestyle changes to reduce the dependence on non-renewable fuel sources. A sustainable energy future is not out of reach but will be hugely challenging. We have to be thinking on a ten- to twenty-year or longer time frame. To develop the infrastructure for alternatives as well as technologies and incentives to reduce consumption.

The energy we derive from hydrocarbons will be hard to replace. Although it might have worked for the ancient Egyptians, we definitely don’t want to go back to providing the energy ourselves. 

As he drives, Dave indulges in a little academic exercise. He’s comfortable with numbers, quick with calculations. A barrel of oil, he tells you, contains about six gigajoules of energy. That’s six billion joules. Put your average healthy Albertan on a treadmill and wire it to a generator, and in an hour the guy could produce about 100 watts of energy. That’s 360,000 joules. Pay the guy the provincial minimum wage, give him breaks and weekends and statutory holidays off, and it would take 8.6 years for him to produce one barrel of oil equivalent (boe, the standard unit of measure in hydrocarbon circles). And you’d owe him $138,363 in wages. That, Dave tells you, is what a barrel of oil is worth.