For most of the past three decades, fossil fuel use and emissions of greenhouse gases (GHG) have been a focus of public debate and increasing policy interest around the world. In the past 7 years, much ink has been spilled on the theme of “do something” to address the world’s heavy reliance on fossil fuel energy sources. And yet the data continue to suggest we are only making slow (if any) progress. This is not surprising, given the diverse patterns of economic and industrial development evident among the 200 or so countries that belong to the UN and the energy path dependence associated with economic development. The most recent BP Annual Statistical Energy Review of World Energy, a well-respected source of data on all matters concerning energy, provides an up-to-date look at the global energy system.
What story does the data tell?
First and foremost, the report confirms that economic systems are essentially built and operate to extract, process, and transform energy into a vast array of in-demand products and services. Humans have been doing this since discovering fire. And for more than 200 years we have continued to perfect the ubiquitous internal combustion engine, the machine that has made our lives immeasurably easier and more productive, while also raising the overall standard of living. The world now relies on machines to perform most of the backbreaking work previously done by humans and animals. Machines in their various capacities continue to automate all manner of physical and mental labour.
The BP Energy Review estimates that in 2021 the world collectively consumed ~595 exo-joules (EJ) of energy, up almost 6% from 2020 (when the impact of COVID was greatest). This jump in energy demand was accompanied by an approximately equivalent increase in GHG emissions. Some of the increase in energy consumption was part of the recovery from the pandemic – when economies went into a form of hibernation for a few months. One temporary consequence of the COVID-19 shock was a dramatic decline in energy use and related GHG emissions. But as economies rebounded, energy consumption awakened and by 2021 the world was using 1.3% more total energy than in 2019 (a pre-pandemic base reference year). This is not a surprise, or shouldn’t be, at least.
Since the 2015 Paris Agreement, total global energy consumed has risen by almost 7%. Except for a handful of countries, jurisdictions around the world have increased their total primary energy consumption. Those that managed to achieve reductions did so by rather miniscule amounts. Of course, rising energy demand is not unexpected given the links between energy use, population, and economic growth. Our guess is that in 2022, total global energy consumed will be at least the same as in 2021, if not larger, even with current inflationary pressures and the other extraordinary global events in the last several months.
In terms of energy consumption by fuel type – which is what matters from the perspective of delivering on the Paris Agreement’s GHG targets – between 2019 and 2021 fossil fuels still represented over four fifths of the total. Renewables gained ground, with an almost 4% shift towards non-nuclear and non-hydroelectric renewables. In quantum, non-hydro/non-nuclear energy use has climbed from ~15 EJ to ~40 EJ over the past 7 years. However, these sources of energy still supplied a bit less than 7% of total world energy consumption in 2021. Moreover, the march of non-hydro/non-nuclear renewable energy is exclusively happening in electricity generation, which itself accounts for less than 20% of all energy used in the world. This points to the immense difficulty in weaning the overall global energy system off of fossil fuels. On a more positive note, energy consumption per capita and per dollar of GDP continues to improve (decline).
What awaits us in 2030 and 2050 — 8 and 28 years away, respectively? There is little sign that the world’s need for flows of highly concentrated energy is diminishing. This suggests a continued demand for fossil fuel energy sources, even as the world gradually and bumpily transitions to a less carbon-based energy system. One thing history and scholarship teach is that energy transitions take a long time, much longer than the periods and dates proposed – and in some cases legislated – by politicians in a hurry to solve the GHG problem. We remain skeptical that the world is on the cusp of a pronounced and rapid shift in the composition of energy supplies and use. The data for 2021 confirm that our skepticism is well-founded.