Global Energy Report Tracks Path From Doom to Slightly Less Doom

Worldwide mix of fossil fuels hasn't budged in 25 years, will only drop slightly in next 20.

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Global Energy Report Tracks Path From Doom to Slightly Less Doom
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Solar power in the United States will shortly crack 10 gigawatts. Wind power has soared past 60 GW, and the vast potential of offshore wind is finally threatening to shift from potential to reality. Germany recently hit a record of 59.1 percent renewables on its grid. The punchline of all this good news? We have made essentially no real progress so far.

The International Energy Agency released its World Energy Outlook report for 2013 today, and it paints a picture of a world that is not changing its energy supply remotely fast enough to combat the various dangerous effects of climate change. The scariest tidbit is very simple to understand: the share of the world's energy mix attributed to fossil fuels has not changed at all in the last 25 years. Even with all those solar and wind power milestones adding up, it was 82 percent coal, oil, and gas in the late 1980s, just as it is right now.

The (sort of) good news is that that mix will finally start to shift, with fossil fuels accounting for 76 percent of global energy supplies... in 2035. So if you're scoring at home, that's a drop of six percent over a bit less than 50 years, if we believe the IEA's central scenario in the report.

So what does that mean for a warming world? Carbon dioxide emissions related specifically to energy (a sector that accounts for about two-thirds of all CO2 emitted) will rise by 20 percent by 2035. I'm pretty sure we were going for reductions, not increases. If this scenario comes true, we're locking ourselves in to at least 3.6°C of warming, far more than the 2°C most agree should be the limit in order to avoid the worst effects.

A lot of the continued use of fossil fuels is in the transport sector, and electricity generation is actually faring a little bit better. Renewable energy accounted for 20 percent of global electricity supplies in 2011, and that will rise to 31 percent in 2035 under that same main scenario. Fossil fuels, meanwhile, will drop from 68 percent in 2011 to 57 percent in 2035—still far too high to meet that 2°C goal.

The way to change this bleak future, of course, is with money. The IEA report notes that global subsidies for renewable energy reached US $101 billion in 2012, and would need to double to $220 billion in 2035 to match the very paltry advances laid out above. Now is probably a good time to note the Stern Review's estimate of climate change causing an annual loss of 5 percent of global GDP if we don't fix things in a hurry (that would represent around, oh, $3.6 trillion today).

This is one of those reports that I really hope is wrong. There is nothing stopping the world from dramatically altering its trajectory in terms of energy supplies, except inertia and international gridlock. The news of each big solar plant or wind farm that comes online is invariably exciting, but in the grand scheme of things we are still doing essentially nothing to fix the mess we spent 200 years creating.

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