By Jun N. Aguirre
An oil spill on July 3 threatens a mangrove forest on the Philippine island of Guimaras, an area only just recovering from the country's largest spill in 2006.
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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
Scores of people remained stranded in southern Japan on Sunday after heavy rain the day before caused deep flooding and mudslides that left at least 34 people confirmed or presumed dead.
Care Home Inundated<p>Altogether 16 residents at an elderly care home in Kuma Village are presumed dead after the facility was flooded by water and mud.</p><p>Fifty-one other residents have been rescued by boats and taken to hospitals for treatment, officials said.</p><p>Eighteen other people elsewhere have been confirmed dead, while more than a dozen others were still missing as of Sunday afternoon.</p><p>The Fire and Disaster Management Agency said many others were still waiting to be rescued from other inundated areas.</p><p>Hitoyoshi City was also badly affected by flooding, as rains in the prefecture exceeded 100 millimeters (4 inches) per hour at their height.</p>
More Rain Forecast<p>The disaster in the Kumamoto prefecture on Kyushu island is the worst natural catastrophe since Typhoon Hagibis in October last year, which cost the lives of 90 people.</p><p>Although residents in Kumamoto prefecture were advised to evacuate their homes following the downpours on Friday evening into Saturday, many people chose not to leave for fear of contracting the coronavirus.</p><p>Officials say, however, that measures are in place at shelters to prevent the transmission of the disease.</p><p>More rain is predicted in the region, and the Japan Meteorological Agency has warned of the danger of further mudslides.</p>
- 900,000 Forced to Evacuate Due to Flooding in Japan - EcoWatch ›
- Typhoon Slams Into Flood-Ravaged Japan - EcoWatch ›
- Historic Floods in Japan Kill More Than 100, Force Millions to Flee ... ›
By Sonya Diehn
More than 2 billion hectares of previously productive land is degraded. For Desertification and Drought Day on June 17, DW spoke with Ibrahim Thiaw, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD).
By Akito Y Kawahara
Editor's note: According to recent press reports, two Asian giant hornets – a species not known to occur in North America – were found in northwest Washington state in late 2019, and a hornet colony was found and eliminated in British Columbia. Now scientists are trying to determine whether more of these large predatory insects are present in the region. Entomologist Akito Kawahara explains why headlines referring to "murder hornets" are misleading.
1. How Common Are These hornets in Asia, and How Much Alarm Do They Cause?<p>The Asian giant hornet (<em>Vespa mandarinia</em>) is fairly common in many parts of Asia, where it is called the "Giant hornet." Growing up in Japan, I saw them relatively frequently in the mountains outside of Tokyo.</p><p>These insects are large and distinctive, with a characteristic orange head and black-banded orange body. Like any other social wasp, they will defend their nest if the colony is disrupted. But in most cases they will not do anything if people aren't aggressive toward them.</p><p>Giant hornets have longer stingers than a honeybee's, and hornets do not break off their stingers when they sting. Because hornet stingers can puncture thick clothing, people should avoid hornets and their nests whenever possible.</p>
2. Are You Surprised That the Hornets Have Appeared in North America?<p>To some degree, yes. Most likely, a single, fertile queen hornet entered Canada via shipping packaging and created the colony that was discovered in 2019.</p><p>It's easy for invasive species to travel this way. More than 19,000 cargo containers <a href="https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/policing-americas-ports-108008881/" target="_blank">arrive daily at U.S. ports</a>, and inspectors can only do random searches of shipping containers. One estimate suggests that just <a href="https://www.ncrs.fs.fed.us/pubs/jrnl/2001/nc_2001_haack_004.pdf" target="_blank">2% of shipments</a> are searched for evidence of harmful organisms such as plant pests. Many invasive species are intercepted, but some do get through.</p><p>It's very unlikely that an entire colony of hornets was transferred to North America. Colonies of this hornet are often large, and the hornets would be visible and potentially aggressive if their nest were disturbed.</p><p>A genetic test indicated that one of the hornets found in Washington was <a href="https://news.ucr.edu/articles/2020/05/06/murder-hornets-invade-headlines-not-us" target="_blank">not related to the Canadian colony</a>, but those results have not been published or peer reviewed. The Giant hornet has not been found in 2020 in either the U.S. or Canada.</p>
Four wasp and hornet species often confused with the Giant hornet. Upper left: European hornet (Vespa crabro). Upper right: Common aerial yellowjacket (Dolichovespula arenaria). Lower left: European paper wasp (Polistes dominula). Lower right: Baldfaced hornet (Dolichovespula maculata). gailhampshire (upper left), Gilles Gonthier (upper right), Judy Gallagher (bottom images), all via Flickr, CC BY
3. What Kind of Conditions Do These Insects Need to Live?<p>Giant hornets are fairly common in mountainous regions of Asia, but they're not often seen in large cities or highly urbanized areas. They usually nest at the base of large trees and inside dead logs. The fact that they can't tolerate extremely hot or <a href="https://www.jstor.org/stable/25008806" target="_blank">cold temperatures</a> makes it unlikely that they would spread to very hot or cold areas of North America.</p><p>If active colonies are discovered in 2020 in the Pacific Northwest, which has a more temperate climate, it's possible that they could spread there. However, it is unlikely that this would happen quickly, as foraging ranges of <em>Vespa</em> are only <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0185172" target="_blank">about 2,300 feet (700 meters) from their nest</a>.</p><p>The key to prevent spread is surveillance. Anyone in the Pacific Northwest should be alert for Giant hornets while they are outdoors this summer and fall.</p>
4. If More Hornets Are Found, Could They Threaten Honeybees and Other Pollinators?<p>Possibly. Some media posts have described destruction of honeybee nests by what could have been Giant hornets, but honeybees are not these insects' only prey. The hornets feed on different kinds of insects, and bring captured dead prey back to their hive to feed to their young.</p><p>In Japan, beekeepers surround their hives with <a href="https://shop.r10s.jp/diokasei/cabinet/suzume/imgrc0068904247.jpg" target="_blank">wire screen nets</a> to protect them from hornets. North American beekeepers can replicate these with wire netting from local hardware stores.</p><p>Many honeybees in Asia have the ability to protect their hive from intruding Giant hornets by <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2007.07.033" target="_blank">scorching them</a>. They wait for a hornet to enter their nest, then mob it by surrounding it completely with their bodies. Each honeybee vibrates its wings, and the combined warming of honey bee bodies raises the temperature in the center of the cluster to 122 degrees F (50 degrees C), killing the hornet. Carbon dioxide levels in the nest also increase during this process, which contributes to the hornet's death.</p>
5. Are News Stories About “Murder Hornets” Overreacting?<p>Yes, very much so. In parts of Japan, people consider these hornets beneficial because they remove pests, such as harmful caterpillars, from crops. They are also thought to contain nutrients, and have been used as ingredients in <a href="https://www.splendidtable.org/story/the-japanese-tradition-of-raising-and-eating-wasps" target="_blank">Japanese food and some strong liquors</a>. Some people believe the hornets' essence has medicinal benefits.</p><p>People who live in Vancouver, Seattle or nearby should certainly take note of what these insects look like. They are 2 inches long or more, with a <a href="https://extension.psu.edu/asian-giant-hornets" target="_blank">3-inch wingspan</a>, and have distinctly orange heads and broad striped orange and black-banded abdomens. That's different from typical North American hornets, which have yellow or white bodies with black marks.</p><p>In the unlikely case that you see a Giant hornet in Washington state, do not try to remove nests yourself or spray hornets with pesticides. Cutting down trees to prevent nesting sites is also unnecessary, and can affect many other kinds of native wildlife, including beneficial insects that are needed for pollination and decomposition. Many native insects are <a href="https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-ento-011019-025151" target="_blank">declining globally</a>, and it's important to make sure these insects are not affected.</p><p>Instead, take a photo from a distance and report it to the <a href="https://agr.wa.gov/departments/insects-pests-and-weeds/insects/hornets" target="_blank">Washington State Department of Agriculture</a>. Photos are essential to verify that identifications are accurate.</p><p>Consider also uploading your images to <a href="https://www.inaturalist.org/" target="_blank">iNaturalist</a>, which is one of the primary sources for information on tracking wildlife. The images are archived and carry data, such as location, time of observance and the insect's morphological features, that scientists can use for research. </p>
- 'Murder Hornets' Spotted in U.S. for the First Time - EcoWatch ›
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By Neil Carter
Tigers are one of the world's most iconic wild species, but today they are endangered throughout Asia. They once roamed across much of this region, but widespread habitat loss, prey depletion and poaching have reduced their numbers to only about 4,000 individuals. They live in small pockets of habitat across South and Southeast Asia, as well as the Russian Far East — an area spanning 13 countries and 450,000 square miles (1,160,000 square kilometers).
Letting Humans In<p>Road construction <a href="http://tigers.panda.org/news/asias-infrastructure-development-threatens-worlds-tigers/" target="_blank">worsens existing threats to tigers</a>, such as poaching and development, by paving the way for human intrusion into the heart of the tiger's range. For example, in the Russian Far East, roads have led to <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1469-7998.2008.00458.x" target="_blank">higher tiger mortality</a> due to increased collisions with vehicles and more encounters with poachers.</p><p>To assess this threat across Asia, we focused on areas called Tiger Conservation Landscapes — 76 zones, scattered across the tiger's range, which conservationists see as crucial for the species' recovery. For each zone we calculated road density, distance to the nearest road and relative mean species abundance, which estimates the numbers of mammals in areas near roads compared to areas far from roads. <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1522488113" target="_blank">Mean species abundance</a> is our best proxy for estimating how roads affect numbers of mammals, like tigers and their prey, across broad scales.</p><p>We also used <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aabd42" target="_blank">future projections of road building</a> in each country to forecast the length of new roads that might be built in tiger habitats by 2050.</p>
More Roads, Fewer Animals<p>We estimated that more than 83,300 miles (134,000 kilometers) of roads already exist within tiger habitats. This is likely an underestimate, since many logging or local roads are missing from the global data set that we used.</p><p>Road densities in tiger habitat are one-third greater outside of protected areas, such as national parks and tiger reserves, than inside of protected areas. Non-protected areas averaged 1,300 feet of road per square mile (154 meters per square kilometer), while protected areas averaged 980 feet per square mile (115 meters per square kilometer). For tiger populations to grow, they will need to use the forests outside protected areas. However, the high density of roads in those forests will jeopardize tiger recovery.</p><p>Protected areas and priority conservation sites — areas with large populations of tigers — are not immune either. For example, in India — home to more than <a href="https://www.npr.org/2019/07/29/746237332/census-finds-nearly-3-000-tigers-in-india" target="_blank">70% of the world's tigers</a> — we estimate that a protected area of <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tiger_reserves_of_India" target="_blank">500 square miles, or 1,300 square kilometers</a>, contains about 200 miles (320 kilometers) of road.</p><p>Road networks are expansive. More than 40% of areas where tiger breeding has recently been detected — crucial to tiger population growth — is within just 3 miles (5 kilometers) of a nearby road. This is problematic because <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biocon.2010.02.009" target="_blank">mammals often are less abundant</a> this close to roads.</p><p>In fact, we estimate that current road networks within tiger habitats may be reducing local populations of tigers and their prey by about 20%. That's a major decrease for a species on the brink of extinction. And the threats from roads are likely to become more severe.</p>
Estimated road densities for 76 tiger conservation landscapes (colored zones), with darker red indicating more roads per unit area. Neil Carter / CC BY-ND
Making Infrastructure Tiger-Friendly<p>Our findings underscore the need for planning development in ways that interfere as minimally as possible with tiger habitat. Multilateral development banks and massive ventures like the Belt and Road Initiative can be important partners in this endeavor. For example, they could help establish an international network of protected areas and habitat corridors to safeguard tigers and many other wild species from road impacts.</p><p>National laws can also do more to promote <a href="https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/handle/10986/27751" target="_blank">tiger-friendly infrastructure planning</a>. This includes keeping road development away from priority tiger populations and other "no go" zones, such as tiger reserves or habitat corridors.</p><p>Zoning can be used around infrastructure to prevent settlement growth and forest loss. Environmental impact assessments for road projects can do a better job of assessing how new roads might exacerbate hunting and poaching pressure on tigers and their prey.</p><p>Funding agencies need to screen proposed road developments using these tiger-friendly criteria before planners finalize decisions on road design, siting and construction. Otherwise, it might be too late to influence road planning.</p><p>There are also opportunities to reduce the negative effects of existing roads on tigers. They include closing roads to vehicular traffic at night, decommissioning existing roads in areas with important tiger populations, adding road signs announcing the presence of tigers and constructing wildlife crossings to allow tigers and other wildlife to move freely through the landscape.</p><p>Roads will become more pervasive features in Asian ecosystems as these nations develop. In my view, now is the time to tackle this mounting challenge to Asian biodiversity, including tigers, through research, national and international collaborations and strong political leadership.</p>
Are tigers extinct in Laos?
That's the conclusion of a detailed new study that found no evidence wild tigers still exist in the country.
Illegal wildlife snares in Laos. Bill Robichaud / Global Wildlife Conservation / CC BY 2.0<p>The loss of tigers in Laos was an avoidable, if not unexpected, tragedy. The most recent <a href="https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/extinction-countdown/tiger-populations-increasing/" target="_blank">worldwide tiger population estimates</a>, released in April 2016, put the number of tigers remaining in the country at all of two. The observation of those last two Laotian tigers came from the first year of the camera survey; they were never seen again — except, in all likelihood, by the trappers who killed them.</p><p>"Our team did what we could with our limited resources to conserve the species," said Rasphone. "We did our best despite being defeated by the high international demand in the illegal wildlife trade for this species."</p><p>Their deaths continue the <a href="https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/extinction-countdown/tigers-at-risk/" target="_blank">slow decline of the Indochinese tiger</a> (<em>Panthera tigris tigris</em>). Today their only healthy populations remain in Thailand, which at last count had about 189 wild tigers. The Indochinese tiger (previously considered its own subspecies) also persists at unsustainable levels in China (about 7 tigers), Vietnam (fewer than 5) and Myanmar (no reliable population count).</p><p>Unfortunately, the news of tigers' extirpation in Laos hasn't generated much attention in the country.</p>
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By Kaamil Ahmed
A pair of "French spies" had infiltrated India by sea to commit a "treasonous conspiracy," an Indian minister claimed in late November. In reality, they were two visiting journalists, and their mission was an investigation into allegations of illegal sand mining in the southern state of Tamil Nadu. They had merely tried and failed to visit the site of a major mining company through legal means.
Their presence set off alarm bells among some connected to the industry, and the fallout has been significant. It's included a police investigation, a politically fueled propaganda campaign and the arrests of two local translators who had been working for them.
The events come nearly two months into the continent's annual rainy season that extends from June to November, according to The Straits Times.
Today is International Snow Leopard Day, a global observance commemorating the signing of the Bishkek Declaration on the conservation of snow leopards in 2013.
The snow leopard has been listed on the IUCN Red List as "Endangered" since 1986, although it recently had its threat status downgraded to "Vulnerable."
Glaciers in Asia could shrink to one-third of their current size by the end of the century even if warming stays below 1.5 degrees C, according to new research. A study published Wednesday in the journal Nature finds that glaciers in the Tibetan plateau experience higher levels of warming than the global average.
By Paul Brown
A solar revolution is transforming the lives of women in the remotest parts of Asia. They no longer have to wait decades to be connected to a power grid but are able today to exploit the huge potential of the abundant sunshine.
In societies where women normally play a subservient role and spend much of their time on menial chores, solar businesses are creating a new breed of female entrepreneur who are bringing electricity to their villages.
In the opening scene of the new documentary RiverBlue, deep magenta wastewater spills into a river in China as the voice of fashion designer and activist Orsola de Castro can be heard saying "there is a joke in China that you can tell the 'it' color of the season by looking at the color of the rivers."
What sort of fabulous new energy systems will the world possess in 2040? Which fuels will supply the bulk of our energy needs? And how will that change the global energy equation, international politics and the planet’s health? If the experts at the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) are right, the startling “new” fuels of 2040 will be oil, coal and natural gas—and we will find ourselves on a baking, painfully uncomfortable planet.
It’s true, of course, that any predictions about the fuel situation almost three decades from now aren’t likely to be reliable. All sorts of unexpected upheavals and disasters in the years ahead make long-range predictions inherently difficult. This has not, however, deterred the DOE from producing a comprehensive portrait of the world’s future energy system. Known as the International Energy Outlook (IEO), the assessment incorporates detailed projections of future energy production and consumption. Although dense with statistical data and filled with technical jargon, the 2013 report provides a unique and disturbing picture of our planetary future.
Many of us would like to believe that, by 2040, the world will be far along the path toward a green industrial future with wind, solar and renewable fuels providing the bulk of our energy supplies. The IEO assumes otherwise. It anticipates a world in which coal—the most carbon-intense of all major fuels—still supplies more of our energy than renewables, nuclear and hydropower combined.
The world it foresees is also one in which oil remains a preeminent source of energy, while hydro-fracking and other drilling techniques for extracting unconventional fossil fuels are far more widely employed than today. Wind and solar energy will also play a bigger role in 2040, but—as the IEO sees it—will still represent only a small fraction of the global energy mix.
Admittedly, International Energy Outlook is a government product of this moment with all the limitations that implies. It envisions the future by extrapolating from current developments. It is not visionary. Its authors can’t imagine energy breakthroughs that have yet to happen, or changes in world attitudes that may affect how energy is dealt with or events like wars, environmental disasters and global economic recessions or depressions that could alter the world’s energy situation. Nonetheless, because it assesses current endeavors that are sure to have long-lasting repercussions, like the present massive worldwide investments in shale oil and shale gas extraction, it provides an extraordinary resource for imagining the energy crisis in our future.
Among its major findings are three fundamental developments:
- Global energy use will continue to rise rapidly, with total world consumption jumping from 524 quadrillion British thermal units (BTUs) in 2010 to an estimated 820 quadrillion in 2040, a net increase of 56 percent. (A BTU is the amount of energy needed to heat one pound of water by one degree Fahrenheit.)
- An increasing share of world energy demand will be generated by developing countries, especially those in Asia. Of the nearly 300 quadrillion BTUs in added energy needed to meet global requirements between now and 2040, some 250 quadrillion, or 85 percent, will be used to satisfy rising demand in the developing world.
- China, which only recently overtook the U.S. as the world’s leading energy consumer, will account for the largest share—40 percent—of the growth in global consumption over the next 30 years.
These projections may not in themselves be surprising, but if accurate, the consequences for the global economy, world politics and the health and well-being of the planetary environment will be staggering. To meet constantly expanding world requirements, energy producers will be compelled to ramp up production of every kind of fossil fuel at a time of growing concern about the paramount role those fuels play in fostering runaway climate change. Meanwhile, the shift in the center of gravity of energy consumption from the older industrial powers to the developing world will lead to intense competition for access to available supplies.
To fully appreciate the significance of the IEO’s findings, it is necessary to consider four critical trends: the surprising resilience of fossil fuels, the degree to which the world’s energy will be provided by unconventional fossil fuels, the seemingly relentless global increase in emissions of carbon dioxide and significant shifts in the geopolitics of energy.
The Continuing Predominance of Fossil Fuels
Anyone searching for evidence that we are transitioning to a system based on renewable sources of energy will be sorely disappointed by the projections in the 2013 International Energy Outlook. Although the share of world energy provided by fossil fuels is expected to decline from 84 percent in 2010 to 78 percent in 2040, it will still tower over all other forms of energy. In fact, in 2040 the projected share of global energy consumption provided by each of the fossil fuels (28 percent for oil, 27 percent for coal and 23 percent for gas) will exceed that of renewables, nuclear and hydropower combined (21 percent).
Oil and coal continue to dominate the fossil-fuel category despite all the talk of a massive increase in natural gas supplies—the so-called shale gas revolution—made possible by hydro-fracking. Oil’s continued supremacy can be attributed, in part, to the endless growth in demand for cars, vans and trucks in China, India, and other rising states in Asia. The prominence of coal, however, is on the face of it less expectable. Given the degree to which utilities in the U.S. and Western Europe are shunning coal in favor of natural gas, the prominence the IEO gives it in 2040 is startling. But for each reduction in coal use in older industrialized nations, we are seeing a huge increase in the developing world, where the demand for affordable electricity trumps concern about greenhouse gas emissions.
The continuing dominance of fossil fuels in the world’s energy mix will not only ensure the continued dominance of the great fossil-fuel companies—both private and state-owned—in the energy economy, but also bolster their political clout when it comes to decisions about new energy investment and climate policy. Above all, however, soaring fossil-fuel consumption will result in a substantial boost in greenhouse gas emissions, and all the disastrous effects that come with it.
The Rise of the “Unconventionals”
At present, most of our oil, coal and natural gas still comes from “conventional” sources—deposits close to the surface, close to shore and within easy reach of transportation and processing facilities. But these reservoirs are being depleted at a rapid pace and by 2040—or so the DOE’s report tells us—will be unable to supply more than a fraction of our needs. Increasingly, fossil fuel supplies will be of an “unconventional” character—materials hard to refine and/or acquired from deposits deep underground, far from shore or in relatively inaccessible locations. These include Canadian tar sands, Venezuelan extra-heavy crude, shale gas, deep-offshore oil and Arctic energy.
Until recently, unconventional oil and gas constituted only a tiny share of the world’s energy supply, but that is changing fast. Shale gas, for example, provided a negligible share of the U.S. natural gas supply in 2000; by 2010, it had risen to 23 percent; in 2040, it is expected to exceed 50 percent. Comparable increases are expected in Canadian tar sands, Venezuelan extra-heavy crude and U.S. shale oil (also called “tight oil”).
By definition, unconventional fuels are harder to produce, refine and transport than conventional ones. In most cases, this means that more energy is consumed in their extraction than in the exploitation of conventional fuels, with more carbon dioxide being emitted per unit of energy produced. As is especially the case with fracking, the extraction of unconventional fuels normally requires significant infusions of water, raising the possibility of competition and conflict among major water consumers over access to supplies that, by 2040, will be severely threatened by climate change.
Relentless Growth in Carbon Emissions
By 2040, humanity will be burning far more fossil fuels than today: 673 quadrillion BTUs, compared to 440 quadrillion in 2010. The continued dominance of fossil fuels, rising coal demand and a growing reliance on unconventional sources of supply can only have one outcome, as the IEO makes clear: a huge jump in carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions.
Carbon dioxide (CO2) is the most prominent of the anthropogenic greenhouse gases being pumped into the atmosphere, and the combustion of fossil fuels is the primary source of that CO2; hence, the IEO’s projections on energy-related carbon emissions constitute an important measure of humankind’s ongoing role in heating the planet.
And here’s the bad news: as a result of the continued reliance on fossil fuels, global carbon emissions from energy are projected to increase by a stunning 46 percent between 2010 and 2040, jumping from 31.2 billion to 45.5 billion metric tons. No more ominous sign could be found of the kind of runaway global warming likely to be experienced in the decades to come than this grim figure.
In the IEO projections, all fossil fuels and all of the major consuming regions contribute to this nightmarish future, but coal is the greatest culprit. Of the extra 14.3 billion metric tons of CO2 to be added to global emissions over the next 30 years, 6.8 billion, or 48 percent, will be generated by the combustion of coal. Because most of the increase in coal consumption is occurring in China and India, these two countries will have a major responsibility for accelerating the pace of global warming. China alone is expected to contribute half of the added CO2 in these decades; India, 11 percent.
New Geopolitical Tensions
Finally, the 2013 edition of International Energy Outlook is rife with hints of possible new geopolitical tensions generated by these developments. Of particular interest to its authors are the international implications of humanity’s growing reliance on unconventional sources of energy. While the know-how to extract conventional energy resources is by now widely available, the specialized technology needed to exploit shale gas, tar sands and other such materials is far less so, giving a clear economic advantage in the IEO’s projected energy future to countries which possess these capabilities.
One consequence, already evident, is the dramatic turnaround in America’s energy status. Just a few years ago, many analysts were bemoaning the growing reliance of the U.S. on energy imports from Africa and the Middle East, with an attendant vulnerability to overseas chaos and conflict. Now, thanks to American leadership in the development of shale and other unconventional resources, the U.S. is becoming less dependent on imported energy and so finds itself in a stronger position to dominate the global energy marketplace.
In one of many celebratory passages on these developments, the IEO affirms that a key to “increasing natural gas production has been advances in the application of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing technologies, which made it possible to develop the country’s vast shale gas resources and contributed to a near doubling of total U.S. technically recoverable natural gas resource estimates over the past decade.”
At the same time, the report asserts that energy-producing countries that fail to gain mastery over these new technologies will be at a significant disadvantage in the energy marketplace of 2040. Russia is particularly vulnerable in this regard: heavily dependent on oil and gas revenues to finance government operations, it faces a significant decline in output from its conventional reserves and so must turn to unconventional supplies; its ability to acquire the needed technologies will, however, be hindered by its historically poor treatment of foreign companies.
China is also said to face significant challenges in the new energy environment. Simply to meet the country’s growing need for energy is likely to prove an immense challenge for its leaders, given the magnitude of its requirements and the limits to China’s domestic supplies. As the world’s fastest growing consumer of oil and gas, an increasing share of its energy supplies must be imported, posing the same sort of dependency problems that until recently plagued American leaders. The country does possess substantial reserves of shale gas, but lacking the skills needed to exploit them, is unlikely to become a significant producer for years to come.
The IEO does not discuss the political implications of all this. However, top U.S. leaders, from the president on down, have been asserting that America’s mastery of new energy technologies is contributing to the nation’s economic vitality, and so enhancing its overseas influence. “America’s new energy posture allows us to engage from a position of greater strength,” said National Security Advisor Tom Donilon in an April speech at Columbia University. “Increasing U.S. energy supplies act as a cushion that helps reduce our vulnerability to global supply disruptions and price shocks. It also affords us a stronger hand in pursuing and implementing our international security goals.”
The DOE’s report avoids such explicit language, but no one reading it could doubt that its authors are thinking along similar lines. Indeed, the whole report can be viewed as providing ammunition for the pundits and politicians who argue that the emerging global energy equation is unusually propitious for the U.S. (so long, of course, as everyone ignores the effects of climate change)—an assessment that can only energize advocates of a more assertive U.S. stance abroad.
The World of 2040
The 2013 International Energy Outlook offers us a revealing peek into the thinking of U.S. government experts—and their assessment of the world of 2040 should depress us all. But make no mistake, none of this can be said to constitute a reliable picture of what the world will actually look like at that time.
Many of the projected trends are likely to be altered, possibly unrecognizably, thanks to unforeseen developments of every sort, especially in the climate realm. Nonetheless, the massive investments now being made in conventional and unconventional oil and gas operations will ensure that these fuels play a significant role in the energy mix for a long time to come—and this, in turn, means that international efforts to slow the pace of planetary warming are likely to be frustrated. Similarly, Washington’s determination to maintain U.S. dominance in the exploitation of unconventional fuel resources, combined with the desires of Chinese and Russian leaders to cut into the American lead in this field, is guaranteed to provoke friction and distrust in the decades to come.
If the trends identified in the DOE report prove enduring, then the world of 2040 will be one of ever-rising temperatures and sea levels, ever more catastrophic storms, ever fiercer wildfires, ever more devastating droughts. Can there, in fact, be a sadder conclusion when it comes to our future than the IEO’s insistence that, among all the resource shortages humanity may face in the decades to come, fossil fuels will be spared? Thanks to the exploitation of advanced technologies to extract “tough energy” globally, they will remain relatively abundant for decades to come.
So just how reliable is the IEO assessment? Personally, I suspect that its scenarios will prove a good deal less than accurate for an obvious enough reason. As the severity and destructiveness of climate change becomes increasingly evident in our lives, ever more people will be pressing governments around the world to undertake radical changes in global energy behavior and rein in the power of the giant energy companies. This, in turn, will lead to a substantially greater emphasis on investment in the development of alternative energy systems plus significantly less reliance on fossil fuels than the IEO anticipates.
Make no mistake about it, though: the major fossil fuel producers—the world’s giant oil, gas and coal corporations—are hardly going to acquiesce to this shift without a fight. Given their staggering profits and their determination to perpetuate the fossil-fuel era for as a long as possible, they will employ every means at their command to postpone the age of renewables. Eventually, however, the destructive effects of climate change will prove so severe and inescapable that the pressure to embrace changes in energy behavior will undoubtedly overpower the energy industry’s resistance.
Unfortunately, none of us can actually see into the future and so no one can know when such a shift will take place. But here’s a simple reality: it had better happen before 2040 or, as the saying goes, our goose is cooked.
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