Public Agenda
Commentary

25 Years From Now and Still Relying on Fossil Fuels?

Scott Bittle and Jean Johnson

Reprinted from The Great Energy Challenge - July 29, 2013

The federal government’s latest international energy projections are out, and there’s no question we’re living in a time of enormous change—and perhaps remarkably little progress.

The International Energy Outlook from the U.S. Energy Information Administration tries to identify the big trends and projections affecting the energy world through 2040. Some of the trends include:

  • The world is getting hungrier and hungrier for energy, but that’s mostly about China, India and the rest of the developing world. Energy consumption in countries that belong to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (basically the industrialized world) is expected to go up 17 percent by 2040. Consumption in countries outside the OECD is projected to nearly double. (See related interactive map: The Global Electricity Mix.)
  • Renewable energy and nuclear power are projected to be the fastest-growing energy sources, increasing by 2.5 percent per year. Thanks to new sources opened by fracking, natural gas is projected to be the fastest-growing of the fossil fuels, and by 2040 half of all the natural gas produced in the U.S. will be shale gas.
  • Because of improving technology, the world will continue to get more efficient in energy use, and that will have an impact on greenhouse gases.
  • Yet for all that, the EIA projects the world’s overall energy mix won’t change much at all by 2040.



    Yes, renewables and nuclear are the fastest-growing sources. But overall, the percent of energy produced by fossil fuels will only drop from 84 percent today to 78 percent in 2040. Renewables only grow from 11 percent to 15 percent, and nuclear rises from 5 percent to 7 percent. Liquid fuels drop by 6 percent, largely because of rising prices. And despite all the debate about the decline of coal and rise of natural gas, the overall percentage of those two fuels barely changes at all. Given that picture, we still be pumping out plenty of greenhouse gases. EIA is predicting a 46 percent increase in global warming emissions during the study’s time frame.

    There are important differences in what’s happening in developed nations versus emerging ones. For example, even though the EIA is projecting a small 1 percent drop in the share of coal used by 2040, it expects a dramatic increase in coal consumption between now and 2020, most of it coming from the developing countries that need cheap forms of energy to house and feed their growing populations and to industrialize.

    Projections aren’t karmic. They depend on taking current trends and best estimates of what will happen if those trends continue. But it’s a fair question: if there’s so much activity around new energy sources, then why don’t the projections look different? Why don’t the changes have more traction?

    The answer may lie in the fact that we haven’t, globally speaking, really reached consensus on the fundamentals: What kind of energy sources should we be using? What economic changes are we willing to make to back up those choices? What are developed nations willing to do to help poorer countries improve their citizens’ lives without depending so heavily on fossil fuels? Those of us living in the developed world have already reaped the benefits of industrialization based on cheap coal. It’s not surprising that developing nations would be tempted to follow the same path—and harder for us to preach to nations that are still building their economies. (See related story: “Desert Storm: Battle Brews Over Obama Renewable Energy Plan.”)

    The fact is that the changes we’re making on energy are working on the margins, and that’s why the long-term projections only show marginal shifts. If you want big shifts, you have to start making big changes—and that means persuading the public that those changes are worth making. (See related story: “Climate Change Impact on Energy: Five Proposed Safeguards.”)