Feature

The three peaks

G Magazine

We have a tendency to treat our home planet like there’s no tomorrow. But it’s time to wake up to the three-pronged resource crisis – shortages of oil, water and food – that experts say lies just around the bend.

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We’ve been hanging around the land and oceans of this 4.5 billion-year-old planet for the best part of 200,000 years – all the while, we Homo sapiens have found enough food and water to survive.

In recent centuries, however, some have ‘survived’ in a more extravagant manner than others. It is not news that, for many decades, there have been grave fears we have been leaning too heavily on Earth’s 149 million square kilometres of land and 361 million square kilometres of water.

The industrial revolution provided a spark that ignited some positive changes in health, material wealth and human ingenuity in what is now the developed world. Yet for the most part, the progress has come at a cost – with accelerated rates of extinction of flora and fauna, the degradation of biodiversity, depletion of resources and changes to the Earth’s climate systems.

The world population is now approaching seven billion people and it’s estimated there will be in the region of two billion more of us on the planet before 2050. Put this together with the varied impacts of climate change and it presents some fundamental questions for the future.

Will there be enough affordable and healthy food to feed us all without more of the planet’s population facing famine? Can we lessen our reliance on cheap oil quickly enough before it becomes prohibitively expensive? Will there be enough clean fresh water to drink, grow crops and keep rivers healthy and, if there is, will everyone have an equal right to access it?

“There is no doubt about the major challenge for the next generation,’‘ says Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, director of the University of Queensland’s Global Change Institute.

“Soaring human populations are rapidly depleting the key essentials of life, be they food, water or oil.  Along
with our rapidly changing global climate, the next generation of thinkers and doers will have to solve the peak resource issue or face almost certain global calamity.”

OIL

If money does make the world go round then it can be said much of that money is spent on oil to keep the globe’s wheels spinning. Currently about 85 million barrels of ‘Texas tea’ are used every day to move people and products across land, skies and oceans and to provide energy.

From transport fuel to plastics production and even most face moisturisers, we rely on oil for an incredible variety of everyday materials and activities. Of these, transport is the most significant. When oil prices rise, the ripples can be felt in everything from the price of a loaf of bread to geopolitical tensions across continents and economies.

Peak oil “refers to the maximum rate of the production of oil in any area under consideration, recognising that it is a finite natural resource, subject to depletion”, according to the international Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas (ASPO).

In understanding the concept, it’s important to note that no one is predicting the world will run out of oil entirely – but that our supplies of conventional oil that are cheap and easy to access are going down the gurgler fast.

Kjell Aleklett, international president of ASPO, says in the 1960s the world was discovering about 48 billion barrels of oil per year (BPY) but only consuming eight billion. “Since then there has been a decline in the discovery rate where we are down to something like 10 billion BPY but the consumption has gone up to 30 billion, which means we have a deficit,” he says.

A 2010 US Department of Defense report advised that, without a “massive expansion of production and refining capacity” of oil, a “severe energy crunch” is inevitable. This would, at best, lead to “periods of harsh economic adjustment”.

Analysts have yet to reach consensus on when production from the world’s conventional oil fields will peak and start to decline.

According to the International Energy Agency, which advises Australia and other major economies on energy policy, if the current policy proposals from governments around the world stayed as they are today, demand for oil would rise to 99 million barrels per day (mbpd) by 2035. By this time, production of oil will have peaked or almost peaked, the agency says. The UK Energy Research Centre says there’s a “significant risk” conventional oil could peak before 2020. Research from Kuwait University, published in the American Chemical Society’s Energy & Fuels journal, says conventional oil will peak in 2014.

So, who to believe? UK newspaper The Guardian published allegations from two IEA whistleblowers that a looming shortage had been deliberately underplayed. One of the sources, a senior official who wished to remain anonymous, said maintaining oil supplies at 90 to 95 mbpd in years to come would be “impossible”.

Whatever the date, the IEA says unconventional oil will “play an increasingly important role in world oil supply through to 2035, regardless of what governments do to curb demand”.

Unconventional oil comes from sources such as shale, tar sands, deep ocean wells or manufacturing processes such as coal-to-liquids. The IEA says these sources are “several times larger than conventional oil resources”; the US government estimates its oil shale deposits are equivalent to three times the oil reserves of Saudi Arabia. However, unconventional oils are the most expensive and generate more greenhouse gases because of the extra resources needed to extract them. A WWF report on the environmental impact of the Canadian oil sands and US oil shale industries puts the carbon footprint of oil sands as three times that of conventional oil. (Oil shale production is even more carbon intensive.) Other costs to factor in are high water-intensity, deforestation and threats to biodiversity.

There are those who believe we’ve already passed the point of no return. Peter Newman, professor of sustainability at Curtin University in Fremantle, believes conventional oil peaked in 2008. He is not alone in concluding this peak was the trigger for the global financial crisis. As prices for petrol went up, US mortgage-holders in suburbs with poor transport links couldn’t shield themselves from the increased fuel costs.

Newman says the dependence of cities on cheap oil leaves people and economies exposed to the inevitable price spikes. He congratulates community-based responses such as the Transition Town movement, which looks to relocalise economies.

Other solutions will be a rapid shift towards light rail and the roll-out of electric vehicles. “The more we build suburbs that are more car-dependent then the more we induce the kind of poverty and pain that will be associated with the paralysed urban system,’’ he says. “It is not something that we will be proud of. We will wonder why the heck we didn’t do something. We are not beyond redemption but every year we put it off, it gets harder.”

FOOD

In 2007, the world experienced a food crisis. Prices surged, riots ensued and those living in poorer countries went hungrier. But the primary cause of the crisis is still the subject of debate. Some blamed the rise in demand for higher kilojoule foods and meat in China and India. Population growth and a slow-down
in agricultural productivity were cited.

Others pointed to disruptions in the climate, such as Australia’s drought, while others said the main causes were rising oil prices and US demand for biofuels.

According to a study by the International Food Policy Research Institute, the crisis was caused by a “complex set of interacting factors”. Primarily though, the institute identified the main drivers to be rising energy prices, biofuels from food stocks and trade restrictions, triggered partly by extreme weather events such
as Australia’s drought.

But what the crisis and the analysis did show conclusively was that the world has a problem in supplying enough food at a price everyone can afford.

What happens when energy prices rise again? How will climate change affect the reliability of agricultural yields? What happens if, as some (but not all) fear, declining supplies of phosphorous and oil-based fertilisers push food prices higher?

An analysis by the Australian Government’s Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics (ABARE) concluded “in the long term, another food crisis will only be avoided if a concerted effort is made, by all governments, to raise the global food supply."

“Australia will continue to produce in excess of what it consumes and will therefore be able to contribute to the world’s food needs,’’ the report’s authors found. “However, Australia faces its own challenges, namely climate change, diminishing water supplies and soil degradation, agricultural labour shortages and
declining productivity.”

Economic uncertainty and rising living costs will “generally mean more Australians could find it difficult to maintain eating and living lifestyles”.

Peter Carberry, deputy director of the CSIRO Sustainable Agriculture Flagship, says researchers and farmers will together need to find ways of producing more food while being more efficient with inputs including fertilisers and water. He says the productivity gains of the last 40 years have come at a cost to
the environment.

“This revolution has grown on the back of increases in inputs and the world has benefited in that prices have stayed low and the world has been fed."

“There have been consequences because we are using non-renewable resources such as fertilisers and there have been consequences for biodiversity and the health of river systems.”

The future of food production, says Carberry, will look different from the past – out of necessity.

“I think there’s agreement that meeting the demand in the next 40 or 50 years can’t come about with the same mechanisms that saw us increase inputs.

“Clearly the productivity gains have to come from increases in efficiencies, but even more than that the reality is we have a greenhouse gas footprint from agriculture that the world wants to do something about. The challenge is to increase food production with the same or less inputs without putting a pulse of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. It’s a more difficult problem than we’ve had in the past.” 

He says a major concern is that not enough young people are seeking careers in agricultural science to give the world answers to the problems. “Managing our natural resources alongside food production is a fantastic career that looks at innovation and science and tackles one very big problem that the world is facing.”
 

WATER

Viewed from space, the Earth is without doubt a blue planet. When you consider more than two-thirds of the planet’s surface is covered by water, it’s almost impossible to think we could ever run out if it. Yet there are serious concerns that we are entering an era in which fresh water that’s clean enough for growing food and drinking could become ever more scarce.

Last year the United Nations General Assembly voted to make “safe and clean drinking water and sanitation” a basic human right. With 884 million people lacking access to safe drinking water and at least 2.6 billion lacking access to basic sanitation, there’s a long way to go.

A major study published in the scientific journal Nature found that 80 per cent of the world’s population is exposed to a high level of threat to the security of their fresh water supplies. Agricultural run-off, invasive species and pollution are among the “environmental stressors” already generating major threats to water security. In richer countries, such as Australia, while money has been spent on infrastructure such as dams to store water in the short term, this is having a knock-on effect in damaging rivers.

“There’s plenty of water in the world but it’s not all suitable for human use,’’ says Caroline Sullivan, associate professor of environmental politics and policy at Southern Cross University in Lismore, and a co-author of the study.

“You can see all that water from space but the point that many people don’t understand is that probably only about one per cent of it is accessible and suitable for us to use."

“Eighty to 90 per cent of that is used for industry, with agriculture being the biggest user by far."

“We won’t run out of water, because there’s lots of it around, but we will run out of water that’s suitable to meet the needs of the population. There will be increasing levels of conflict over the use of water.”

Sullivan says policymakers tackling water issues often fail to take into account how impacts on waterways can be cumulative. For example, nitrates enter a river and other pollutants find their way in downstream. “Let’s say then, you put a dam in place further down the catchment, which obstructs the water flow, then this affects the health of the fish in the water.”

Wetlands, says Sullivan, contribute to the health of waterways because the plants and insects living there can absorb pollutants. “That happens naturally, but we don’t recognise the functionality of a working ecosystem and how it helps us. If we recognise that they’re important, then we’ll recognise the need to protect them. If we just think about them as being places for birds and fish to live, then we might easily just replace them with a farm.”

Sullivan advocates policies such as supporting farmers to better control run-off and to find ways to use less water in the irrigation of farmland. Australian Government figures show agriculture is a huge drain on our water resources – accounting for half of annual water use in Australia. That’s hardly surprising when you consider that it can take up to 20,000 L of water to produce one kg of conventional cotton, for example. Alternatives to water-hungry crops, such as hemp, should be considered, she says.

“If you affect the quality of the water, then you affect the quantity that’s available for us to use. If we run a system where agriculture relies on irrigation and then we find there’s no water in a drought, then everything suffers.”

Three steps you can do to help these shortages:

Oil
1. Reduce your own dependency on oil with more fuel-efficient vehicles and take more trips on public transport, in car pools, on bicycles and your very own two feet!
2. Seek out community groups tackling the peak oil issue. There are more than 35 Transition Town initiatives in Australia. Visit www.transitionnetwork.org for more info on how to join or start one.
3. Supporting local food producers and businesses can help create sustainable communities that are less dependent on oil.

Food
1. Growing some food at home or in a community garden means we better understand the challenges farmers face and gives us a healthy respect for what we eat.
2. Tackling the world’s food security challenge will require the skills of innovators and science researchers. Sign up for membership to lobby groups that consider both agriculture and the environment, such as the Biological Farmers of Australia.
3. There’s little doubt food security pressures will threaten poorer countries first. Look to support aid organisations working to help those at the sharp end.

Water
1. Get involved in efforts to promote the importance of healthy rivers, such as the Australian Conservation Foundation Healthy Rivers campaign.
2. Join a local community group that cares for rivers and wetlands and help preserve the environment’s natural clean-up mechanisms.
3. Conserve water at home by taking shorter showers, fixing dripping taps and reusing water from showers, baths and the washing machine on your garden. Consider installing a rainwater tank if you don’t have one already.