Hooked on Fossil Fuels Forever

By Michael T. Klare / TomDispatch
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Michael T. Klare / TomDispatch

    A demonstrator at a protest against coal mining in Germany, 2016. (Break Free / CC-BY-2.0)

This piece first appeared at TomDispatch. Read Tom Engelhardt’s introduction here.

Here’s the good news: wind power, solar power, and other renewable forms of energy are expanding far more quickly than anyone expected, ensuring that these systems will provide an ever-increasing share of our future energy supply.  According to the most recent projections from the Energy Information Administration (EIA) of the U.S. Department of Energy, global consumption of wind, solar, hydropower, and other renewables will double between now and 2040, jumping from 64 to 131 quadrillion British thermal units (BTUs).

And here’s the bad news: the consumption of oil, coal, and natural gas is also growing, making it likely that, whatever the advances of renewable energy, fossil fuels will continue to dominate the global landscape for decades to come, accelerating the pace of global warming and ensuring the intensification of climate-change catastrophes.

The rapid growth of renewable energy has given us much to cheer about.  Not so long ago, energy analysts were reporting that wind and solar systems were too costly to compete with oil, coal, and natural gas in the global marketplace.  Renewables would, it was then assumed, require pricey subsidies that might not always be available.  That was then and this is now.  Today, remarkably enough, wind and solar are already competitive with fossil fuels for many uses and in many markets.

If that wasn’t predicted, however, neither was this: despite such advances, the allure of fossil fuels hasn’t dissipated.  Individuals, governments, whole societies continue to opt for such fuels even when they gain no significant economic advantage from that choice and risk causing severe planetary harm.  Clearly, something irrational is at play.  Think of it as the fossil-fuel equivalent of an addictive inclination writ large.

The contradictory and troubling nature of the energy landscape is on clear display in the 2016 edition of the International Energy Outlook, the annual assessment of global trends released by the EIA this May.  The good news about renewables gets prominent attention in the report, which includes projections of global energy use through 2040.  “Renewables are the world’s fastest-growing energy source over the projection period,” it concludes.  Wind and solar are expected to demonstrate particular vigor in the years to come, their growth outpacing every other form of energy.  But because renewables start from such a small base — representing just 12% of all energy used in 2012 — they will continue to be overshadowed in the decades ahead, explosive growth or not.  In 2040, according to the report’s projections, fossil fuels will still have a grip on a staggering 78% of the world energy market, and — if you don’t mind getting thoroughly depressed — oil, coal, and natural gas will each still command larger shares of the market than all renewables combined.

Keep in mind that total energy consumption is expected to be much greater in 2040 than at present.  At that time, humanity will be using an estimated 815 quadrillion BTUs (compared to approximately 600 quadrillion today).  In other words, though fossil fuels will lose some of their market share to renewables, they will still experience striking growth in absolute terms.  Oil consumption, for example, is expected to increase by 34% from 90 million to 121 million barrels per day by 2040.  Despite all the negative publicity it’s been getting lately, coal, too, should experience substantial growth, rising from 153 to 180 quadrillion BTUs in “delivered energy” over this period.  And natural gas will be the fossil-fuel champ, with global demand for it jumping by 70%.  Put it all together and the consumption of fossil fuels is projected to increase by 177 quadrillion BTUs, or 38%, over the period the report surveys.

Anyone with even the most rudimentary knowledge of climate science has to shudder at such projections.  After all, emissions from the combustion of fossil fuels account for approximately three-quarters of the greenhouse gases humans are putting into the atmosphere.  An increase in their consumption of such magnitude will have a corresponding impact on the greenhouse effect that is accelerating the rise in global temperatures.

At the United Nations Climate Summit in Paris last December, delegates from more than 190 countries adopted a plan aimed at preventing global warming from exceeding 2 degrees Celsius (about 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above the pre-industrial level.  This target was chosen because most scientists believe that any warming beyond that will result in catastrophic and irreversible climate effects, including the melting of the Greenland and Antarctic ice caps (and a resulting sea-level rise of 10-20 feet).  Under the Paris Agreement, the participating nations signed onto a plan to take immediate steps to halt the growth of greenhouse gas emissions and then move to actual reductions.  Although the agreement doesn’t specify what measures should be taken to satisfy this requirement — each country is obliged to devise its own “intended nationally determined contributions” to the overall goal — the only practical approach for most countries would be to reduce fossil fuel consumption.

As the 2016 EIA report makes eye-poppingly clear, however, the endorsers of the Paris Agreement aren’t on track to reduce their consumption of oil, coal, and natural gas.  In fact, greenhouse gas emissions are expected to rise by an estimated 34% between 2012 and 2040 (from 32.3 billion to 43.2 billion metric tons).  That net increase of 10.9 billion metric tons is equal to the total carbon emissions of the United States, Canada, and Europe in 2012.  If such projections prove accurate, global temperatures will rise, possibly significantly above that 2 degree mark, with the destructive effects of climate change we are already witnessing today — the fires, heat waves, floods, droughts, storms, and sea level rise — only intensifying.

Exploring the Roots of Addiction

How to explain the world’s tenacious reliance on fossil fuels, despite all that we know about their role in global warming and those lofty promises made in Paris?

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