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Beyond Oil: Imagining the Future (Opinion Editorial)

Is it possible? We depend on oil for all our transport, much of our heating, and all our plastics. 

And yet like freezing cold water in the face, we know that if we are to keep global warming under control, we can burn no more than 20% of the world’s remaining oil. Any more, and we cross the critical global line past two degrees Celsius. 

We can prepare for a future without oil. 

But let’s put this in context. Let’s pretend we are learned professors, and proclaim that history has three eras of energy: Pre-Oil, Oil, and Post-Oil:

The Pre-Oil Era commences when humans start walking, about four million years ago. Length: 4,000,000 years.

The Era of Oil begins in 1858, when the first modern oil is struck in Petrolia, Ontario. Ends sometime in the mid 21st century. Length: 200 years.

The Post-Oil Era begins sometime in the mid 21st century and lasts for a billion years, until the Sun begins its final journey to a Red Giant and Earth becomes uninhabitable. Length: 1,000,000,000 years.

The Era of Oil is a mere 0.005% of the Pre-Oil Era, and only a smidgeon (0.00002%) of the Post-Oil Era. We live in the middle of it, so we suffer from illusion of the moment, and find it hard to imagine anything different. So lacking zero point energy personal helicopters, or the Star Trekkers’ ability to beam themselves from A to B, we need to work with what we have. 

Let’s begin with 100 personal trips, and see how far we can get without oil—but let’s do it in a way that makes life more civilized and reduces our use of resources. Would electric car congestion be any happier than combustion car congestion? The air would be cleaner, but the experience would be just as frustrating. This 10-Step journey is illustrated in the slide-deck Beyond Oil: Imagining the Future.

Step One: Walking

Get out of the car, and make 5% of the trips on foot. For this, we need walkable communities, where it is not only safe but also a real pleasure to walk, as it is in many European cities, and in the heart of Seoul, South Korea, where an old urban creek has been restored into a magnificent urban riverwalk. 5% trip reduction. 

Step Two: Cycling

Shift 15% of the car-trips to bicycles. That’s low, compared to some towns in Holland, where over 30% of all trips are by bike. For this, we need safe, separated bike lanes, secure bike parking, public bike-share programs, and electric bikes to help with the hills. It’s all perfectly doable. 20% trip reduction. 

Step Three: Transit & LRT

Shift 15% of the car-trips to transit or LRT. For this, we need more buses, electric buses and light rail transit systems, combined with electronic timetables and proper—why not creative?—bus shelters. 35% trip reduction. 

Step Four: Teleworking 

Eliminate 5% of the trips by teleworking from home. It’s clearly possible, since people are doing it, but it needs good facilities within a walkable distance, or teleworkers will simply get in their cars to drive for lunch. 40% trip reduction. 

Step Five: Ride-sharing

Shift 5% of the trips to ride-sharing, using ride-share buddies and on-line systems to link drivers with riders, both in advance and in real time. At work, this needs to be accompanied by a guaranteed emergency trip home if needed, and by other perks as an incentive to sharer.  45% trip reduction. 

Step Six: Carsharing

Shift 5% of the trips to carsharing. Members of car-share groups use more transit and bicycles to lower their cost of driving, but they have the convenience of a car when they need one. With peer-to-peer carsharing, people can earn up to $300 a month by putting their car into a carshare pool 50% trip reduction. 

Step Seven: Good intermodal connections

Create better intermodal connections, with secure bike parking at transit stations, good transit-rail connections, and easy travel cards that you use to pay for everything. 50% trip reduction.

Step Eight: Smart Growth

Plan future urban growth as complete communities with complete streets, to maximize the experience of community and minimize the need for trips. 50% trip reduction.

Step Nine: Plug-In Hybrid Electric Cars

With a 50% trip reduction under our belt, accounting for maybe a 30% fuel-use reduction, we now need to switch from gasoline to electric and hybrid electric for the remaining 70% of the oil. If half the cars and light trucks (using 35% of the oil) are plug-in hybrid electric, based on experience, they will use battery power for 80% of their mileage, and use 7% of the fuel for their longer gasoline-trips, giving us a 28% reduction in fuel use. If the hybrid EVs are ultra-lightweight, they’ll only need 3.5% of the oil. 

Step Ten: Electric Cars

If the other half of the vehicles are fully electric, they’ll need no gasoline at all, reducing our final oil use to 7%-3.5%. As soon as battery technology becomes fully mature, or as solar roadways or electric roads are installed, (as in South Korea), the hybrids will be replaced by full EVs, reducing our oil-use to 0%. 

What about trucking, shipping, flying - and plastics?

Those are all stories for another day.

Guy Dauncey

Author of The Climate Challenge: 101 Solutions to Global Warming, and other titles. Founder and Communications Director of the BCSEA.