Peak Oil -- No Longer the Right Question
A Shell Oil geologist named M. King Hubbert predicted in 1956 that U.S. oil production would peak in the early 1970s. When it did, Hubbert became the geologist equivalent of a rock star and gave the young environmental movement evidence for something it was seeking: a limit to growth.
When is -- or was -- peak world oil production? It's just not the right question anymore. Deepwater drilling, tar sands extraction, and the shale gas boom have extended the supply of hydrocarbon fuels. The new question: What's the smartest way to use them?
The iconic Peak Oil example has inspired parlor-game questions about other resources. Some, like coal, are finite; others, like water, are renewable but have limits to how quickly reserves can be replenished. Can Earth keep up with our demand? Call it Peak Everything.
Peak Uranium -- Nuclear Risk Declines Post-Fukushima
"Peak uranium" entered the lexicon with peak oil, coal and natural gas in 1956, when Shell Oil geologist Hubbert sketched out his famous resource bell curves. The future is still up for debate.
The world reached a uranium production peak in the 1980s, even as consumption climbed. However, supplies continued to meet demand because weapons decommissioned after the Cold War were repurposed for commercial fuel. Those sources are now drying up, and a new demand-driven peak may be on the horizon.
The Fukushima Daiichi disaster in Japan last year scaled back global nuclear ambition dramatically and raised questions about nuclear power's future. That makes peak uranium an uncertain risk at a time when other power sources, such as solar, wind and natural gas, have made great gains.
Peak Population -- Driving the Race for Materials
Population growth and rising affluence are fueling the fastest and largest modernization binge in history.
The human population is set to grow to 9.3 billion people by 2050, from 7 billion today, according to United Nations estimates. Even more impressive, the middle class may nearly triple to 4.9 billion consumers in 2030. The UN estimates the total number of humans may peak at 10 billion by the end of this century.
The global business dilemma of our time is how companies can satisfy these new markets without falling prey to scarcity of strategic resources, as well as social or ecological strain. Sustainability strategies are fast emerging as executives' road map to this quickly changing world.
Peak Tuna -- Sushi Endangers Atlantic Bluefin Species
Sushi eaters have over-indulged in one of the world's most delicious resources. The numbers of Atlantic bluefin tuna, Japan's most prized catch, have passed their peak, decimated by a global craze over the delicate slices of crimson flesh. Some environmentalists want it designated as endangered.
Once-thriving populations have been over-fished to less than 10 percent of their former populations in some regions. The plight of the species has done little to curb demand; a Japanese sushi chain spent a record $730,000 for a single fish this year.
International quotas are ignored each year. The tuna trade has declined since its 2007 peak, but not fast enough, according to the Pew Environment Group. In 2010, bluefin sales were more than double the set limit.
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Peak Water -- Era of Clean and Cheap Comes to an End
Water is plentiful on Earth; humans use less than 1/100 of one percent. This global abundance obscures local challenges. In many places, the tap is running dry. That's because there's a difference between usable water -- the kind that's clean and salt-free and located nearby, and unusable water -- everything else.
Many of the reservoirs of water humans draw on for farming, manufacturing and drinking are ground-water aquifers that took millennia to fill. These irreplaceable storage tanks are being depleted over just a few decades.
The era of cheap water has passed its peak, according to Peter Gleick, a California scientist who helped define the term "peak water" in 2010. The good news is there's plenty of water out there if the humans just learn to better manage it.
Peak Iron -- Emerging Markets Keeps Prices High
There's good and bad news about peak iron. The good news is that demand has leveled off in the U.S. and much of the developed world. It's easier to recycle iron products than to mine new supplies.
The bad news: Emerging markets are just getting started on a high-iron diet. Steel skyscrapers from Bangalore to Beijing are piling up in record numbers, and more people than ever are driving cars to get to them. Price volatility jumped in recent years as miners failed to meet Chinese-led demand.
Consumption outpaced seaborne supply every year since at least 2004 and will continue to do so until 2014, Morgan Stanley estimates. The price of Australian lump ore was $184.09 a metric ton last year, compared with $29.40 in 2004.
Peak Coffee -- Climate Change May Stress the Beans
Prices for Arabica coffee beans jumped more than fourfold since Starbucks Corp., the world's largest coffee shop owner, had its initial public offering in June 1992. By 2010, java guzzlers consumed an estimated 135 million bags, the most since at least 2000, according to the International Coffee Organization.
Starbucks plans to open its first store in India by August, becoming one of the first companies to take advantage of new rules opening the doors to foreign chains. The downside to adding a billion new potential customers: increasing strain on an already stressed bean.
Rising temperatures and unusual rainfalls in Central and South America have curtailed crops in recent years, a trend that's forecast to worsen as global warming takes a toll on coffee-growing regions.
Peak Coal--Industrial Age Icon Has Clean Competition
Coal, the fire stone, filler of Christmas stockings, enabler of industrialization, may be reaching its peak. "The peak of global coal production... is imminent," wrote two engineering professors, in the journal Energy in 2010.
Like other peak assessments, coal projections vary with researchers' assumptions and estimates. The Energy Watch Group, based in Germany, has suggested that U.S. coal production peaked in 2002 and that world reserves could climb until 2025. The U.S. Energy Information Agency sees global coal output rising at 1.1 percent a year at least until 2035.
Coal has always been dirty. Airborne soot convinced Londoners in the 1700s to start using all-black umbrellas to hide the grime, a tradition that's carried on even after the air has cleared significantly. Today, the grime from coal is molecular, as power plants release carbon dioxide emissions that contribute to global warming.
Peak Food -- The Earth Can Manage It. Can We?
The price of wheat, the most-consumed food grain, has almost quadrupled in four decades as global demand surged for everything from bread and cakes to cookies and pasta.
With brief exceptions, wheat averaged about $3 a bushel from 1960 until 2008. That year, weather damage and plunging inventories quadrupled prices. At the same time, the price of rice contributed to more than 60 food-related riots worldwide.
After the recession, wheat still trades at about $6.50 a bushel, encouraging farmers to grow the biggest crop ever. Rice trades at almost double its pre-2008 price. If managed right, grain production may have no peak, though volatility and higher prices are becoming the norm. Cargill, the farm commodities trader, has said the era of falling food prices has probably come to an end.
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Peak Phosphorus -- Running Low Except as Pollution
The Earth recycles its phosphorus. Like life's other chemical elements, phosphorus travels from soil, sea or rock, through the food chain, and back to earth again.
Industrial agriculture, which relies on phosphorus for fertilizer, is disrupting the cycle by adding excessive amounts of mined minerals. This creates two problems. First, the world might have only 30 years of mineable phosphorus left before availability peaks, according to the Global Phosphorus Research Initiative.
Second, phosphorus and nitrogen fertilizers wash from farms into rivers, to the sea, where they form massive "dead zones" of oxygen-starved water. A solution to both issues is as difficult to accomplish as it is unappealing to consider: Recycle our own waste streams when the Earth runs low.
Peak Spectrum -- Will Devices Overload the Airwaves?
Spectrum is the highway system of the mobile Internet, and data-intensive devices are taking up more road. Owners of Apple's iPhone 4S take up almost twice as much data as users of the previous version. They belong to the top one percent of mobile device users, who today consume half the world's data volumes. As the other 99 percent catches up, there may be traffic jams and more expensive tolls.
To cope with traffic, users are increasingly offloading data onto more efficient, shorter-range Wi-Fi networks. Service providers are also investing in more towers to address congestion.
As demand increases for limited spectrum, service providers may raise prices. Many are already eliminating unlimited-use plans or capping speeds for heavy users. As with another natural resource -- oil in the early 1970s -- suppliers and consumers are only beginning to take basic steps to minimize consumption.
Peak Rare Earths -- Metals that Play Hard to Get
One resource has scarcity in its name: rare earth metals. Early researchers called them "rare" because of their scattered distribution and the difficult task of mining them. Ironically, they are fairly common in the Earth's crust.
Economic and political factors constrain supply, which puts rare earths high atop the list of strategic concerns. China produces almost all the world's rare earths. The U.S. might need up to 15 years to begin mining its own deposits, according to a 2010 General Accountability Office study.
Rare earths have magnetic and other properties that make them critical to mobile phones, computers and advanced weaponry. Low-carbon energy technologies depend on them, too -- nuclear, solar, wind, biofuels, carbon capture and storage, and electricity transmission. Potential shortages are a risk to clean energy development.
Peak Fracking -- Only Natural Gas Limit is Regulation
No question posed here is less urgent than how long natural gas will last. Gas is booming. Pennsylvania, home of America's early oil industry, is seeing a hydrocarbon renaissance, even as it confronts serious questions of environmental contamination raised in the last several years.
Technology matured in the last decade that allows drillers to bore horizontally, under places difficult to reach by conventional methods, such as Dallas-Ft. Worth. Engineers also became better at a process called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.
The U.S. has more than a century of natural gas reserves at a 2010 consumption level, according to the Energy Information Agency. Better technology flattens the prediction, offered by Shell Oil's geologist Hubbert, of a U.S. peak between 1975 and 1980. No peak in sight.