The barrel of oil is approaching 100 dollars, do you think we are at a turning point in the awareness of the need to change?
We are at a
turning point. This derives from two or three things: one is the possibility
that the peak of world oil production might have been touched last year,
according to recent analysis. If that is the case, we are living in a very
different world from the one we have known up to now with the oil production
continuously going up. It creates an interesting situation because now, for any
country to get more oil, another must get less. This combines with the indirect
effects caused by biofuels on food prices: the U.S. effort to reduce its fuel
insecurity is leading to global food insecurity on a scale that’s going to get
much worse next year.
Then we have of course climate change. Put these signals of alarm together and we have almost a perfect storm of forces converging that are going to challenge our early 21th century civilisation. If we cannot effectively respond to these challenges, then civilisation is going to be in serious trouble. Civilisation is now global : we’re either going to make it together or we’re going to decline and collapse together.
Can you already confirm that we’ve reached the peak of world oil production last year?
We can say
that during the first nine months of 2007, world oil production is lower than it
was in 2006. It’s lower by about 300 000 barrels which is a fairly small figure
compared to a production of about 85 million. But Saudi Arabia’s production had
seen a 6% decline of its production last year. If Saudi Arabia has peaked and is
now declining, a majority of other oil producing countries are on the down side
of the peak too.
There are still some countries like Russia where production is still going up, but it’s becoming very difficult now to sustain growth in world oil production. For two decades no major oil field has been discovered. We’re looking at a likely peak, we can’t say it for certain yet, but it looks like world oil production peaked in 2006.
How do the links between biofuels and food security work?
oil raises in the ‘70s encouraged the idea in the US that the surplus agriculture
capacity could be used to make fuel, mainly ethanol. Today we don’t have excess
production in the US agriculture but we have an ethanol industry that’s growing
by leaps and bounds. Since Katrina when the price of gasoline went up to 3$ the
gallon, there’s been an enormous investment frenzy in ethanol. As a result,
ethanol distilleries are using about 20% of the grain harvest and this percentage
will be close to 30% next year. Throughout the world, the prices of commodities
such as grain, corn, rice and soy beans are rising and this is beginning to
translate into rising food costs for bread, pasta, tortillas, beer…
As we have developed more capacity to convert grain into fuel, the grain price is moving towards up towards the oil equivalent of its value. We were used to have a food economy and an energy economy and they were separate. Now they are beginning to fuse: the price of food will go up with price of oil unless someone intervenes and until today, none has. We now have a growing competition between the 840 million people driving automobiles and the 2 billion poorest people in the world competing for same commodities. I have calculated that the average automobile owner in the world has an income of 30 000 $, the average of the 2 billion poorest people today is below 3 000 $. So it’s easy to see who wins in that competition if we let the market distribute the grain.
And on top of this, we have climate change…
released at the end of the summer are alarming. In early September, melting of
glaciers in Greenland was happening at an unprecedented rate. If we don’t move quickly,
the level of the oceans may rise by 7 meters. Many costal cities would be
partly underwater, just as the rice growing plains in Asia. We’re looking at
things we’ve never seen before. Experts say we need to keep the temperature
rise over the next century to 2 °C or we will face dangerous climate change.
When we see what’s happening at current temperatures, I think we are already facing dangerous climate change. Were moving into a period we need to mobilize: our research leads us to think we need to cut carbon emissions by 80% by 2020 while others say 80% by 2050 or even 50% by 2050.
What kind of mobilisation do you intend?
It’s going to take an enormous effort in energy efficiency and developing new sources of energy. In particular wind energy.
It is necessary to restructure tax by introducing lower income taxes and imposing carbon tax. We will pay the same amount, but by taxing carbon emissions, investments will be shifted to less polluting sectors, industry will respond. We must tackle poverty with a vast plan for primary education and basic health service in poor countries. Altogether, it’s only a small part of the world’s military budget, exactly 1/6 of the world military budget (161 millions of dollars a year). I describe this money as the real defence budget because it is through this that we will assure our security, not through high tech weapons. The real threats on our civilisation today are poverty, demography and climate change and other environmental issues.
To raise these funds, political choices are essential. Who can make this decision?
Governments and in particular the US government have to lead. Things are going to change whether it’s a democrat or a republican that wins the next election. The problem is how quickly this will happen and whether it will be quickly enough. We’ve got to move quickly because we don’t know what the deadlines nature has set for us are. Nature is the timekeeper and we can’t see the clock. We have to hope it’s not too late.
How can individuals mobilize?
We all have a stake in future civilisation. We all have to act by becoming politically active, by supporting politicians who engage in change, by meeting them and explaining our concerns. I also think it’s good for people to pick an issue and to get involved with it: like increasing recycling in their community or joining the movement to ban coal-fire power plants. It is necessary to make a personal effort to understand what is happening.
How do you keep faith and hope in the future?
It’s probably congenital, but I'm not easily discouraged. I believe social change can come very suddenly. Change can come in ways we can’t even imagine: the important part of it is raising the awareness. Awareness is the key.