Some numbers about energy and fossil fuels

I read an interesting article recently in the December issue of EOS magazine. It was reporting on the findings of a study undertaken by the US Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration. Some salient points include:

  • Global energy consumption is predicted to increase 28% by 2040
  • Up to 77% of that increased consumption is predicted to be generated by fossil fuels
  • This increased energy consumption will generate a 16% increase in energy-related CO2 emissions
  • Natural gas usage is predicted to increase 1.4% per year, liquid fossil fuels by 0.7% per year and coal by 0.1% per year
  • These predictions are themselves based on predicted GDP growth curves

On the face of it, this looks pretty bad. And could well be, if you live in an area at particular risk to the effects of a changing climate. However, the positive message is that the growth rate of energy-related CO2 emissions is set to decrease from the 1.3% rate per year for 1990 – 2015, to a predicted 0.6% per year for 2015 – 2040. This decreasing rate is likely to come from increased energy efficiency and a greater move to renewable energy generation methods. Indeed, the report is predicting a 2.8% annual increase in renewable energy generation. One of the interesting, but not surprising, statistics from the report is that annual growth in energy consumption is predicted to be larger for transport and housing, when compared to industrial consumption (traditionally the big user of energy). It’s not all down to renewables though. The contribution from nuclear power generation is predicted to increase by 50% by 2040.

I’ve not been back to the main report and have only read the article written in EOS magazine, but my assumptions are as follows:

  • Despite it coming from a US Government Department, the report is not going to be overly biased and neither is the journalism used to report the findings in the EOS article
  • That the modelling undertaken on the base GDP estimates, and everything extrapolated from that, is robust and repeatable

However, this is probably being naive. The US is heavily invested in fracking technologies, which releases gas, which is predicted in the report to be the main growth fossil fuel. Could this report be timed to reassure investors in fracking when there is still a large amount of opposition to the industry? <raised eyebrow>

The values reported represent a reduction in the predicted emissions from previous studies, but they still seem very high. The article stated that this is due to ‘the base that you are starting with’. I understand that this might hold for the next 5 – 10 years, but surely by 2030 the global economy could have made more of a transition to renewable energy sources (linking with better energy efficiency). This is evidenced by numerous reports from around the world of renewable technologies becoming cheaper than other forms of energy generation, and others where renewables can sustain the energy needs of entire countries for days and/or weeks at a time. However, there is also a need to account for predicted global population increases too, which no doubt hinder a rapid move to cleaner energy generation (and will lead, in part, to the increased consumption).

I’m just an Earth observation scientist, and a land surface process one at that, so the ins-and-outs of the politics around CO2 emissions and climate change are not my specialism. I was just a bit dismayed that the near-future seemed so wedded to fossil fuels when, really, we make our own future. And it could be so much cleaner if we acted rather than pontificated and argued.


I predict that this blog post may generate some feedback, as anything on climate change and carbon dioxide emissions tends to on the interwebs. It’s just some numbers and some thoughts on what those numbers may mean. It’s not worth getting uptight about, so please take this post for what it is. And remain calm.