This evening as I sit with my feet up on the stern of my little narrowboat watching the last rays of sunlight search out shimmering tree leaves in Victoria Park, I am seriously contemplating the existence of parallel universes to the one I observe around me.
While I admit to a tendency towards sci-fi nerdism, unfortunately my question is not the result of inspiration from a great new Alistair Reynolds novel, but rather a cocktail of the Financial Times, a vote in the UK Parliament, and Duncan Clark and Mike Berners-Lee’s fantastic new book, ‘The Burning Question’.
Let’s start with the FT, whose page three headline this morning gleefully reported that ‘Shale gas promises northwest bonanza’. Fossil fuel prospector, IGas, we were told has ‘discovered’ up to 500 trillion cubic feet of shale gas under north west England. That’s a lot of gas – the UK currently burns through only 3 tcf in a year.
IGas’ shares rose 13 per cent on the announcement and Howard Rogers, director of gas research at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, was quoted explaining why this is good news for more than just IGas stockholders: “[a]nything that reduces import dependency will have a beneficial effect on our balance of payments and a big psychological impact on our perceived security of supply.”
Maybe, but what about the small matter that we have already discovered far more oil, coal and gas than we can safely burn and avoid catastrophic climate change?
That is the focus of my second tranche of reading material today, The Burning Question. I expect to be quoting liberally from this tome in future blogs, but for now the critical insight it contains is this: if we burned all the recoverable oil, coal and gas from already proven reserves it would release about 2,795 giga tonnes of carbon dioxide. That’s approximately 2,100 giga tonnes more than scientists say we can ‘safely’* burn without tipping the climate into runaway global warming.
To put it another way, we already know where to get three or four times as much fossil fuel as we can possibly risk burning, so what kind of fool would want to waste time finding more of the stuff? Even if the climate scientists’ very conservative estimates turn out to be wrong by a factor of two, there’s still twice as much proven reserves of oil, coal and gas as we can ever use.
Of course, the answer why talented engineers and business people are nevertheless contemplating fracking underneath the M6 is fairly simple – we/humanity might have more fossil fuel than you can shake a stick at, but we/Brits are reliant on imports for half of our annual gas demand. If there really is 500 tcf of the stuff under Blackpool and its neighbours then we/Brits may become less beholden to Russia’s pipeline and Mr Putin’s tendency to turn off the taps when it suits him.
Great. But unfortunately while we/humans glory in national borders, the global eco-system is just that – global. IGas and their ilk are like Jared Diamond’s Easter Island chiefs, blindly competing on constructing ever bigger monuments to each tribe’s strength, while operating in collective denial of the patently obvious fact that in so doing they were destroying the forests upon which their entire island-bound civilisation depended.
Still, in our more enlightened age we have the benefit of history and the ability to learn from it.
But, as I remain an unshakeably pint-half-full kind of person (and tonight I am enjoying a rather lovely bottle of Golden Ale from the Crate Brewery, an institution that is helpfully sited on the junction of the Hertford Union Canal and the River Lea), I have convinced myself that even if all of this is real, somewhere in another reality we are all working together towards a resilient, low-carbon future. And, in whichever dimension one operates, I am personally lucky enough to be sitting there ale in hand, feet up, watching dusk descend on a little corner of our beautiful planet.
* ‘Safely’ in this context means having slightly better odds than in a game of Russian Roulette – four empty chambers and one containing a bullet.