The Future of Rural: Peak Oil and Climate Change in Rural Communities

by Eric Marr, 25/02/2013

On Friday, February 15 I had the opportunity to sit as a panellist at the 2013 Farmland Forum hosted by the Ontario Farmland Trust and the University of Guelph. The topic of the forum was “The Farm Economy & Rural Resilience: Coping with Climate Change & Rising Energy Prices” and brought together farmers, municipal/provincial staff, academics/students, and others interested in farmland preservation and rural resilience. I am personally accustomed to academic or at least professional conferences so it was enlightening, and other times disappointing, to hear a diverse set of opinions on climate change and rising energy prices (sometimes unpopularly referred to as peak oil). I was impressed by the general consensus that farmers could play a positive role in climate change mitigation and my own realization that farmers, as entrepreneurs, can be convinced through the use of business cases. Telling a farmer to build a tree for greater environmental purposes might not get you far, but telling them to plant trees as a wind break to prevent soil erosion will convince many.

In contrast, I was not impressed by the unusual and intense opposition to wind energy that exists in Ontario. Rural people HATE windmills in this province. The keynote speaker for the conference was the President of the American Farmland Trust and seem ed surprised to be fielding questions about the health effects of windmills simply due to the fact that he had a picture of one on his slides. I will never understand how people think we can transition to renewable fuels without actually building the
infrastructure for them. Perhaps they would be happier with the health effects of coal power plants in their communities.

I was a panellist in a session entitled “Rural Community Perspectives on Climate Change and Rising Energy Prices” which included fellow ICRPS alumni Émanuèle Lapierre-Fortin. We intentionally avoided discussion of windmills and instead, I spoke about transportation while others on the panel covered their own areas of interest. My key point was that rural municipalities need to reconsider how their residents access essential services, supplies, and activities without the use of the automobile. Personal transportation is, of course, directly tied to greenhouse gas emissions and the increasing cost of oil directly leads to an increasing cost of fuel. Since rural residents travel further than urban residents to reach equivalent services, we can expect that rural residents will be particularly effected by the increasing cost of fuel. I received generally positive reception from my discussions of transportation however I still feel that there are two barriers to action on rural transition to renewable fuels without actually building the infrastructure for them. Perhaps they would be happier with the health effects of coal power plants in their communities.

First, I still get the sense that rural people feel that there is nothing they can do about vehicle emissions or that they are not major greenhouse gas emitters (when compared with the much larger urban population). This is actually not true, for instance Cullinane & Stokes, 1998 state that “while rural residents do not suffer the same congestion as their urban counterparts, they do tend to drive long distances at speeds above the optimum speed for car travel.” Similarly, additional findings from the United Kingdom indicate that “people residing in rural areas on average produce nearly 50% more CO2 from travelling than the national average” and that rural residents were “identified as those with the highest CO2 per person per year, in particular for travel by car (as driver), which accounted for just under 2,000kg CO2 per year” (CRC, 2008).

A second, and widely problematic, issue I have regularly encountered is the assumption that technology will save us and that we do not have to take action or change our habits. I feel that this particularly evident in discussions of transportation where alternative fuels are commonly discussed. But what is that alternative fuel going to be? Electricity? Well consider how much additional power generation we would require to replace all the energy currently generated from gasoline and now consider that (in Ontario at least) we are already struggling to replace our coal power plants and face large opposition against renewable energy sources.

Natural gas/hydrogen? Even if this were determined to be a viable fuel source for automobile fuel, when would rural/remote areas get the infrastructure to use it? Also consider that within the United States’ context, it has been estimated that under normal replacement rates it would take between 10 and 15 years, and $1.3 trillion, to replace one-half of the country’s automobiles (Hirsch, Bezdek & Wendling, 2005).

The final source that we hear a lot about, and is very popular among the farming population, is biofuels (e.g. ethanol). However, consider this: in 2050 the world population is projected by the United Nations to surpass 9 billion people (UN, 2011). Correspondingly, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that global food production will need to increase by 70 per cent by 2050 in order to meet the needs of this rapidly growing population (FAO, 2009). Now consider how much food producing land we would need to take out of production in order to replace petroleum based fuels at the same time that we need to dramatically increase the world food supply. Add to this the expectation that currently productive agricultural lands will dramatically lose productivity (worldwide) due to the effects of climate change. While biofuels may work as a transitional fuel, since it can be mixed with petroleum based fuels and utilize the same infrastructure, it is unlikely that it can work as a viable replacement.

Overall, this situation suggests that we need to change our transportation habits rather than waiting for someone else to solve this looming issue. This may be through the form of Transportation Demand Management (TDM) measures or public transportation provision.

Climate change and increasing energy prices have the potential to fundamentally change rural communities. What do you see as being the key implications for rural areas arising from these dual issues? What will rural areas look like in the future? And what can be done to mitigate the impacts on rural communities as these impacts intensify?

Work Cited

CRC. (2008). “Thinking about rural transport: Contribution to sustainable rural communities.” Commission for Rural Communities (CRC) and the Transport Research Laboratory (TRL).

Cullinane, S., & Stokes, G. (1998). Rural Transport Policy. Amsterdam: Pergamon.

Hirsch, R.L., R. Bezdek, and R. Wendling. (2005). “Peaking of World Oil Production: Impacts, Mitigation, & Risk Management.”  National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL). <>

UN (2011) “World Population Prospects: The 2010 Revision.” The United Nations. <>

FAO (2009) “How to Feed the World in 2050.” Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. <>

Photo courtesy of nualabugeye

Eric Marr is from Petrolia, Ontario a former oil town in central Canada turned agricultural community. He left the rural life to pursue education in Montreal, Toronto, and finally Guelph where he recently graduated from the Master of Science in Rural Planning and Development program at the University of Guelph. Eric had the opportunity to attend both ICRPS 2011 in Norway and ICRPS 2012 in Quebec. He currently works in policy development for the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food, and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA). Eric’s research interests include transportation in rural communities and land-use planning policy and he is one of the editors of this blog.

E-mail Eric at ericmarr“at”