This is my somewhat harsher version of the beginning of a coauthored and forthcoming book chapter. I particularly thank Tom Morton of UTS for much of the data and inspiration for what follows.
There is a lot of discussion as to whether or not the world has reached “peak demand” for fossil fuels as an energy source. Burning fossil fuels generates greenhouse gases and greenhouse gases are generating climate change. This is not the only ecological crisis we face, but it is the one with the largest acknowledgement.
Large players in the fossil fuel industry seem eager to imply that world demand for coal and other fossil fuels are declining, but there is little evidence to imply that an energy transition to renewables is coming with the kind of speed we need.
For example, The BHP group states that coal will:
progressively lose competitiveness to renewables on a new build basis in the developed world and in China. In our view, the cross over point should have occurred in these major markets by the end of next decade on a conservative estimate. However, coal power is expected to retain competitiveness in India, where the coal fleet is only around 10 years old on average, and other populous, low income emerging markets, for a much longer time.(Italics added)
BP are more optimistic still, stating that “renewables are the largest source of energy growth, gaining at an unprecedented rate” and “are set to penetrate the global energy system more quickly than any fuel previously in history.”
ExxonMobil describes a more complicated picture. While they suggest that coal use “likely peaked” in 2013 (p. 29), they suggest the immediate energy “switch” will be to gas (p. 33), which continues greenhouse gas emissions, if at a lesser rate (although this is not certain because of perpetual leakage). However, they also predict that:
global CO2 intensity of energy use remain[s] fairly constant, with increased coal use in some non-OECD countries offsetting improvements in the OECD countries (p. 39).(Italics added)
They also predict that by 2040 the global energy mix will be:
- 30% oil,
- 26% gas,
- 20% coal,
- 8% biomass,
- 7% nuclear,
- 4% wind and solar, and
- 4% hydro/geo/biofuels (p. 28).
It hardly needs to be emphasized that this implies that over 80% of a our fuel use will continue to emit greenhouse gases, even by 2040. The degree of transition to renewables will be trivial. Essentially, ExxonMobil predict a transition to a state which is not much different from today, as is shown by the IEA.
The IEA, claims, in its Key World Energy Statistics for 2017, that only 1.5% of world primary energy supply by fuel in 2016 was “geothermal, solar, wind, tide/wave/ocean, heat,” while 2.5% is hydro and 9.7% is biofuel (p. 6). That is, the proportion of our current energy usage in the world, which is renewable, non greenhouse gas emitting, could be said to be less than trivial!
We may also need to recall that we have been aware of the need for transition to low greenhouse gas emission energy, since the early 1980s, with the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change being signed in 1992, and this is the best we have done under the current system, and leaving it to private enterprise. (Because the market always knows what is best).
The change predicted and celebrated by ExxonMobil is hardly a transition, and hardly makes much of an impact on a situation which seems to becoming worse daily.
While recognising low utilisation today, the IEA is somewhat more optimistic in its prognosis: in Renewables 2018, it predicts that the share of renewables in meeting global energy demand is expected to grow by one-fifth to reach 12.4% in 2023. Renewables should have the fastest growth in the electricity sector, providing almost 30% of power demand in 2023, up from 24% in 2017. During this period, renewables are forecast to supply more than 70% of global electricity generation growth, led by solar PV and followed by wind, hydropower, and bioenergy. However:
30% of the growth in renewables consumption is expected to come from modern bioenergy… due to bioenergy’s considerable use in heat and its growing consumption… in transport. Other renewables make a negligible contribution to these two sectors [heat and transport], which together account for 80% of total energy consumption (IEA 2018: 3).(Italics added)
Bioenergy is not clean. At best it consumes fertile land previously intended for agriculture, or leads to felling of old growth forests, thus dispossessing poorer farmers and forest dwellers and increasing the price of food. Biofuel is only of any conceivable use, if it replaces, and lowers, consumption of fossil fuels.
In another recent report the IEA adds:
Energy consumption worldwide grew by 2.3% in 2018, nearly twice the average rate of growth since 2010… natural gas… emerged as the fuel of choice last year, accounting for nearly 45% of the increase in total energy demand. Demand for all fuels rose, with fossil fuels meeting nearly 70% of the growth for the second year running….
global energy-related CO2 emissions increased to 33.1 Gt CO2, up 1.7%….
The United States had the largest increase in oil and gas demand worldwide. Gas consumption jumped 10% from the previous year, the fastest increase since the beginning of IEA records in 1971. The annual increase in US demand last year was equivalent to the United Kingdom’s current gas consumption.
Growth in India was led by coal (for power generation) and oil (for transport), the first and second biggest contributors to energy demand growth, respectively.(Italics added)
The IEA points out that the pace and scale of the global energy transition, “is not in line with climate targets”. This we can almost certainly agree with.
It is, however, in line with a future which maximises fossil fuel company profits and destroys normal life for most people. That is were the World’s current policies have led us.
Data like this, might make you think, that we need Revolution, even if the consequences of Revolution will almost certainly be painful and horrendous. However, while we may wonder if we have any time left to avoid looming disaster, let us try the relatively painless, if perhaps insufficient move, of encouraging high renewable targets, ending of fossil fuel exploration, mining and use, within the next ten years, even if it costs some taxpayers’ money and risks financial problems for some companies. The cost will probably be less than that of oil wars.
This may require us to also consider the necessity of “degrowth” which will be considered in a later post.
A new report by the IEA (20 September 2019) states that:
After stalling last year, global capacity additions of renewable power are set to bounce back with double-digit growth in 2019, driven by solar PV’s strong performance, according to the International Energy Agency.
The IEA expects renewable capacity additions to grow by almost 12% this year, the fastest pace since 2015, to reach almost 200 GW, mostly thanks to solar PV and wind. Global solar PV additions are expected to increase by over 17%
Renewable capacity additions need to grow by more than 300 GW on average each year between 2018 and 2030 to reach the goals of the Paris Agreement.
Even with the “bounce back”, we are still not moving fast enough.