Pat Kane: Future with less oil needn’t be so bad

THE real crisis we face is global warming, and we need to work out how to leave more carbon fuel under the earth, writes Pat Kane.
Most of the worlds oil is sourced from the Middle-East. Picture: GettyMost of the worlds oil is sourced from the Middle-East. Picture: Getty
Most of the worlds oil is sourced from the Middle-East. Picture: Getty

The tedious biff-bash of the Westminster election campaigns kicked off this week in Scotland. As Judy swung at a low-jabbing Punch, it was a perverse relief to read some hard science that would force us all to make difficult choices, based on uncomfortable facts. The topic does, at least, have a full kilt on it. What will global warming force us to do with our territorial oil, gas and coal reserves?


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The authors of the report in Nature, UCL’s Paul Eakin and Christoph McGlade, can land a few punches themselves. To keep enough carbon out of the atmosphere to give us a chance of hitting a global warming increase of only 2deg C, the authors identify a certain proportion we have to keep in the ground (whether seabed or land).

Their bottom-line assessment is: we should keep our hands off a third of the planet’s total oil reserves, half of its total gas reserves and more than 80 per cent of total coal reserves.

Different global regions, in terms of the size of their reserves, take a bigger hit. The Middle-East must keep an equivalent amount to Saudi Arabia’s entire oil reserve under the sands. If both pursued to their fullest extent, Canada’s tar sands, or drilling in the Arctic, also burst the limits of atmospheric carbon that scientists believe the planet can bear.

With its smaller overall reserves, many fields nearing the end of their life, Europe gets away with a smaller amount to leave unused: 20 per cent of oil, 11 per cent of gas (compared to 39 per cent for Central and South America, and 63 per cent for China and India, respectively).

But the Nature authors raise the most pertinent macro-economic question: if we accept these limits, is it wise that carbon-heavy resource exploitation gets so much investment (a global total of £443 billion in 2013)? Wouldn’t markets and governments be better directing their funds to low-carbon energy sources – or even just return some dividends to their shareholders?

I will leave it to the energy experts to make their predictions on what those limits would specifically mean for oil and gas production in Scottish territories. But by comparison with the shenanigans over fluctuating oil prices, at least this argument has a climatic brick wall to slam against.

The consequence of 3, 4, or 5 degrees of global warming is a rising pile of disasters – coastal cities abandoned; desperate migration from baking world regions; numbing death tolls, and political meltdowns.

And there you go: the argument from the scientific experts, mixed in with some stirring metaphors. How can you all resist going out and voting Green? Embarrassingly easy, as it turns out.

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The ultimate pull-up-the-drawbridge party, Ukip, regularly out-polls the Scottish Greens in Scottish surveys. Patrick Harvie has been pushing an argument about oil non-exploitation in Scotland for a year or so. But in public debates, it’s always painful to see just how hard he has to row to pull the main argument in his direction.

One of the few benefits of a No vote, for Yessers like me, is that it gives us some thinking time to refashion the prospectus for independence. I’d like to suggest that one of the most interesting thought experiments we could conduct would be: imagine the viability of an independent Scotland without oil, gas or coal resources.

Or, if I was to concede to carbon-nationalists: a Scotland which exploited these resources with a clear overall awareness of when that exploitation had to end, in order to fulfil our climate obligations.

Believe me, it’s not easy to propose this. I’ve been a trad-Nat long enough to feel the pain of comparison between Scotland and Norway over the last 40 years of North Sea bounty. As the Norwegians’ sovereign wealth fund towers over the world, and our UK national debt grows bigger still, Jim Murphy’s current rhetoric over “resilience funds” is embarrassing, to say the least.

Of course, the productive capacity built up in this era can be turned to sustainable energy engineering (one would hope that investors listen to the Nature scientists closely on this). We’ve no need to wash our hands of the human and societal legacy of the black stuff.

But to imagine a Scotland viable without hydrocarbons is not just to express the best of Green virtues. It might also be the next stage in the gathering power of Scottish citizens to think intelligently and informedly about the future of their country.

Keeping “the bounty of oil” out of our budgets compels Scots to turn towards each other, and think about the labours and enterprises that we can embark on together, with the sustainable resources and talents to hand.

The more we can do this – aiming to build strong, mutual economies and communities among ourselves – the more resistant we’ll be to the threats that cascade down from financial and other power elites.

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It will always infuriate me that a significant percentage of the No vote was, in effect, terrified out of its wits – all that doom and disaster that an act of democratic sovereignty apparently brings. But as I’ve written here before, the economic case for independence also did not have enough credibility in itself to assuage doubters.

We would set ourselves a tough challenge to regard Scotland’s hydrocarbons as a problematic legacy for our society and economy. Something to be responsibly managed and gradually minimised, rather than rampantly (and destructively) monetised to the max.

But as the pre-election rammies rage around various claims of patriotism, I feel pretty patriotic about the capacity of our vibrant popular culture of thoughtful self-determination to take on the biggest policy challenges. As one would expect Judy to say to Punch: Oh yes we can.

• Pat Kane is a writer, musician and board member of Common Weal. His forthcoming book is Radical Animal,


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