Companies and governments are hoarding oil and coal and risking creating a 'carbon-asset bubble' - which when it bursts will destabilise economies worldwide on the same scale as the global financial crisis.
The claim came from a visiting British environmentalist and convener of the UK Industry Taskforce on Peak Oil and Energy Security - a group of companies who believe oil supply will no longer meet demand by about 2015. Jeremy Leggett, whose work as a professor of earth sciences at Imperial College in London led to him leaving his post to become an environmental campaigner, warned that 'something as bad as the credit crunch related to oil' was on the horizon.
Leggett, who worked for Greenpeace before founding Solarcentury, a company which produces solar technology in China for the European market, said: 'The problem is that the world's governments are locked into keeping global warming to 2 degrees Celsius, so corporations and nations have more than enough fossil fuel in their reserves, and they're still looking for more.'
He said most of this would prove unusable if the rise in the global temperature is to be limited to just 2 degrees. Company assets would lose their value and shareholders, including pension funds, would suffer.
Speaking at the Kadoorie Institute, in the University of Hong Kong's Shek Kong Centre, he urged companies to start investing in renewable energy sources to safeguard against oil depletion in the near future.
The investment in renewable energy may be expensive at first, but, he said, it would be far more cost-efficient in the long run. 'Companies should plan 20 years ahead, but it seems to me that they are only planning 20 minutes ahead.'
He also urged governments to invest more in renewable energy resources and develop contingency plans so they could 'soften the blow' when oil reserves finally ran dry.
Only, governments and companies preferred to view the oil crisis through rose-tinted glasses - the same attitude that held sway before the financial crisis, he added.
'The British government is saying basically: we prefer to believe BP [whose chief economist stated in 2008 that he did not believe demand for oil would ever exceed supply],' said Leggett. 'We are going to find out who's right. I believe there will be a massive shock.'