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The 2020 Summit - more hallucination than clear vision

By Michael Lardelli - posted Monday, 17 March 2008

In April this year 1,000 of Australia's best minds will congregate in Canberra for Kevin Rudd's Australia 2020 summit. The name suggests that these fine folk will form a clear vision of what we want Australia to be in 12 years time and the long term challenges that our nation faces.

Quoting from the Labor Party website for the summit, one of its five objectives is said to be, "To provide a forum for free and open public debate in which there are no predetermined right or wrong answers". This sounds great but as one reads further one finds that this is simply not true. In fact, the summit is destined to fail.

By the year 2020 - only 12 years away - we will look back on the summit and the reports it produces as a lost opportunity. A tragic victory for fantasy and self-deception at a moment when a clear vision of reality could have helped us to meet the challenges ahead.


How do I know this? Let me quote a couple more lines from the website:

"The Australia 2020 Summit will examine ... How we best invest the proceeds of [current] prosperity to lay the foundations for future economic growth." And "How ... we plan future population growth at a national and regional level, given the constraints of water shortages and sustainability?"

The trouble with these statements is that they assume the possibility of future economic growth and the inevitability and even desirability of population growth. But economic growth requires energy. A clear, objective view of the facts shows that by 2020, Australia and the rest of the world will be deep in an energy and food crisis of epic proportions.

Two independently-formulated computer models of world oil production - by Bakhtiari and Guseo - give the same result. The peak of oil production is about now and production will be down 30 per cent by 2020. An analysis of all the large and not so large oilfields coming on line in the next seven years sees little new production beyond 2012. Even the world's highest advisory body on oil, the International Energy Agency that has previously been so complacent about the world's energy security, last year did an about face and declared that it sees a "supply crunch" developing by 2012.

If a 30 per cent reduction in world oil production by 2020 sounds bad then consider this. For an oil importing nation like Australia, it is not important how much oil the world is producing. What IS vital is how much oil is available to buy on the export market.

Oil production in most of the major exporting nations has now peaked or is in decline. However, at the same time, the consumption of oil in these nations is rising rapidly. This is because the oil exporting nations are currently earning huge profits from sales of oil at high international prices. This stimulates rapid growth in their economies and so rapid increases in their domestic oil use.


Most of the oil exporting nations also have young and quickly growing populations that they supply with oil at cheap, subsidised prices. So the major oil exporting nations are increasing their internal oil use at the same time as their production is falling. On current trends this leads to the projection that there will be little oil available on the world market within 10 years.

In fact, oil exports are already decreasing at the same time as demand from China and India is rising. This is the fundamental explanation for the current oil price of around US$100 a barrel. Remember, it was only US$20 six years ago.

By 2020 Australia may have another Sydney's worth of population - four million additional mouths to feed, house and transport. However, we will be scraping by on whatever oil we can produce ourselves - and this will be a small fraction of what we use today.

The price of fuel will be many times its current cost. Since energy and economic growth are inextricably linked, our economy will be in severe and long term decline. Since oil is central to modern, industrial food production, food prices will be through the roof and our very food security will be uncertain.

Today, in 2008, it is politically incorrect for any politician, even of the Greens, to suggest that future economic growth is impossible or that population growth is undesirable. In 12 years time, as we struggle to survive, the future vision that came out of the 2020 summit will look more like an hallucination.

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This article was first heard on ABC Radio National Perspective Program.

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About the Author

Michael Lardelli is Senior Lecturer in Genetics at The University of Adelaide. Since 2004 he has been an activist for spreading awareness on the impact of energy decline resulting from oil depletion. He has written numerous articles on the topic published in The Adelaide Review and elsewhere, has delivered ABC Radio National Perspectives, spoken at events organised by the South Australian Department of Trade and Economic Development and edits the (subscription only) Beyond Oil SA email newsletter. He has lectured on "peak oil" to students in the Australian School of Petroleum.

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