According to the Paris Climate Agreement a rapid decrease in the world’s consumption of fossil fuels is now mandatory if the Earth is to be saved from climate disaster. Projections of future energy use, however, are unanimous in predicting an increase in the world’s consumption of fossil fuels in coming decades. Either the energy consumption projections are wrong or the Paris goal is unachievable. This post reviews the basic provisions of the Paris Agreement, compares them with six independent estimates of future energy consumption and concludes that while the energy consumption estimates are subject to uncertainty the goals of the Paris Agreement are indeed unachievable.
The Paris Climate Agreement
The magnitude of the task facing the Paris signatories is illustrated in Figure 1. A “no action scenario” supposedly leads to a disastrous 4.5C of warming by 2100 (there is no compelling scentific evidence that it will, but the Paris signatories have decreed that it will). A scenario under which all of the countries that have filed Intended Nationally Determined Contributions meet their targets (which is unlikely) leads to 3.5C of warming. The 2C pathway considered necessary to stave off the worst impacts of climate change is nowhere near being met. (The 2C “safe” threshold has no scientific basis either, as discussed in this post, but we will pass that over too):
The 2C pathway is, however, a proxy for fossil fuel emissions, which according to Paris will now have to start decreasing within the next few years, fall by about 25% by 2040-50 and thereafter to near-zero in 2100. Can this be done? The fact that global emissions have increased by almost 50% since the Kyoto Protocol was adopted twenty years ago is not encouraging, and according to the energy consumption projections discussed below is isn’t going to happen:
Energy Consumption Projections
Six recent projections of future world energy consumption are summarized – two from oil companies (BP and Exxon), two from government or government-sponsored entities (EIA and IEA), one from academia (MIT) and one from a “think tank” (IEEJ). All are presented in the same graphical format with the data taken from spreadsheets or tables or scaled off graphs. We begin with the oil companies:
Figure 1 shows BP’s projections of world primary energy consumption through 2035. BP projects a 32% increase in total energy consumption and a 23% increase in fossil fuel consumption between 2015 and 2035. Renewables (which here include hydro, wind, solar, biofuels, biomass and all other renewable sources) continue to grow but supply only 16% of the world’s energy in 2035. Only a modest increase in nuclear is foreseen.
Figure 1: BP world primary energy consumption projections to 2035
Figure 2 shows Exxon’s projections of world energy consumption through 2040. Exxon projects a 24% increase in total consumption and a 19% increase in fossil fuel consumption. Renewables continue to grow but again supply only 15% of the world’s energy in 2040. Again only a modest increase in nuclear is foreseen.
Figure 2: Exxon world primary energy consumption projections to 2040
It can of course be argued that neither BP nor Exxon are likely to develop energy projections that show their core businesses disappearing, but projections by non-industry groups are substantially the same. First government or government-sponsored agencies:
Figure 3 shows the US Energy Information Administration’s projections of world energy consumption through 2040. EIA projects a 40% increase in total world energy consumption and a 33% increase in fossil fuel consumption between 2015 and 2040, significantly more than Exxon and BP. Despite strong growth renewables still supply only 16% of world energy consumption in 2040. Nuclear expands only marginally:
Figure 3: EIA world primary energy consumption projections to 2040
The International Energy Agency demands payment before releasing its report, but there is sufficient information in the Executive Summary to construct Figure 4. It projects a 32% increase in total world energy consumption and a 21% increase in fossil fuel consumption between 2013 and 2040. Once more there is strong growth in renewables, but in 2040 they still supply only 18% of world energy demand. Once again nuclear expands only marginally:
Figure 3: IEA world primary energy consumption projections, 2013 and 2040
Now a projection from academia:
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology projects a 51% increase in total energy consumption and a 31% increase in fossil fuel consumption between 2015 and 2050, more than anyone else. MIT also projects growth in renewables but only enough to supply 15% of the world’s energy needs in 2050. Nuclear growth in this case is, however, higher than in most other cases, with nuclear supplying 9% of world consumption in 2050.
Figure 5: MIT world primary energy consumption projections to 2050
And finally one from a “think tank”:
The Institute of Energy Economic Japan (rated The Best Think Tank In The World in the 2015 University of Pennsylvania Think Tank Index) projects a 36% increase in total world energy consumption and a 31% increase in fossil fuel consumption between 2015 and 2050. Again renewables are projected to fill only 15% of world energy demand in 2040. IEEJ projects the largest role for nuclear, which is projected to fill 10% of world energy demand by 2040.
Figure 6: IEEJ world primary energy consumption projections to 2040
The results of the six energy projections are summarized on the Table below. Low carbon sources are the sum of renewables and nuclear:
The obvious question that arises here is whether these projections take into account the potential impacts of the Paris Agreement and other emissions regulations or whether they are business-as-usual scenarios. The following report excerpts confirm or imply that they take Paris impacts into account:
BP: The Energy Outlook considers a base case, outlining the ‘most likely’ path for energy demand by fuel based on assumptions and judgements about future changes in policy, technology and the economy
Exxon: The Outlook for Energy is ExxonMobil’s global view of energy demand and supply through 2040. We use the data and findings in the book to help guide our long-term investments. It also highlights the dual challenge of ensuring the world has access to affordable and reliable energy supplies while reducing emissions to address the risk of climate change.
EIA: The International Energy Outlook 2016 (IEO2016) presents an assessment by the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) of the outlook for international energy markets through 2040. IEO2016 reflects the effects of current policies—often stated through regulations—within the projections.
IEA: All the Paris climate pledges, covering some 190 countries, have been examined in detail and incorporated into our main scenario.
MIT: … on the assumption that the Paris pledges made at COP21 are met and retained in the post-2030 period, future emissions growth will come from the Other G20 and developing countries. Growth in global emissions results in 64 gigatons (Gt) CO2-eq emissions in 2050, rising to 78 Gt by 2100 (a 63% increase in emissions relative to 2010).
IEEJ: At present, fossil fuels (oil, coal and natural gas) account for 81% of primary energhy consumption. The situtation will not change greatly as they cover 70% of new future energy demand. While hopes are placed on non-fossil fuels, even their combination is likely to fall short of rivalling any of the three fossil fuels.
In short, what we have are the best estimates of actual future energy use from six presumably competent entities, all of which show more or less the same results. Global fossil fuel consumption is going to increase by 20-30% over coming decades despite Paris and emissions will rise with it. This increase will be driven by increased fossil fuel consumption in the developing countries (Figure 7), wh0 are going to follow in the footsteps of China (and the developed countries before them) and choose the quickest and cheapest electrification route. This is why coal consumption shows modest growth in five of the six projections. (The average of all six projections shows increases of 23% in world oil consumption over the period of estimation, 53% in gas and 10% in coal.)
Figure 7: BP world primary energy consumption projections to 2035, OECD and non-OECD countries
So where do we go from here? First the Paris conferees should recognize:
- That according to the projections of people who may be accounted among the world’s energy experts their emissions-reductions goals will fall far short of being met,
- that efforts to meet them could do significant economic damage,
- that according to recent estimates of climate sensitivity climate models overstate temperature increases in the 21st century,
- that the 2C “safe” threshold has no scientific basis, and
- that like it or not the only proven large-scale technology that offers potential for significant emissions reductions is nuclear.
To which the appropriate responses would be:
- Review climate model projections and the validity of the 2C threshold to obtain a better idea of the true magnitude of the climate change “threat”.
- Reset emissions reduction goals to a) what can reasonably be achieved and b) with the emphasis on nuclear.
- Place more emphasis on mitigation measures (sea walls, flood protection, improved agricultural practices etc.)
I am, however, under no illusions as to whether any of these responses will be implemented at any time in the foreseeable future.