Revised 2 December 2023

In 1977, William Ophuls cautioned that the time for concern about the potential exhaustion of a resource comes when no more than 10% of the total has been used up. This applies especially when the rate of extraction of a resource is exponential. 

There is an expression of “Don’t eat your seed corn” which refers to the age-old farmer’s strategy of saving some of the harvest of the current year as the seeds for the next. Our main energy sources have been fossil fuels, and they have produced very few seeds for the next harvest in the form of renewables. The inevitable peaking of fossil fuels has been ignored since cautions in the 1970s to make wise use of a proportion of fossil fuels to enable a smooth transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy and infrastructure. 

Figure 1: Early Warnings to Use Proportion of Fossil Fuels for Transition to Renewables Ignored 

We now have a situation where the energy provided by the current limited scale of renewables such as photovoltaic panels and wind turbines is insufficient to bootstrap the manufacturing of more renewables. Manufacturing of renewable energy sources requires the use of fossil fuels. But a transition from fossil fuels to renewables and infrastructure is now more difficult because the net energy of oil liquids, a convenient and key form of fossil fuels necessary for the production of renewables, is on the decline. 

The longer we delay in using what remains of net energy provided by oil liquids, the less likely we will be able to make a transition to renewables. At the same time that we should be transitioning from fossil fuels to renewables, we also need to reduce our consumption of fossil fuels to mitigate the impact of climate change. We have a double whammy here. 

The only way out of our predicament is to divert the use of fossil fuels away from unnecessary consumption to that of investment in renewables and infrastructure and do this on a limited and reducing carbon budget to ensure we mitigate the impact of climate change.