BP’s Energy Outlook Shines Light On Future for Carbon

Global energy and electricity demand is on the rise. Credit: Charles Haynes/flickr

Three things you should know:

1)  Average global energy intensity has been decreasing since the 1970s and the trend is expected to continue — which means the world is using less energy for each dollar of income generated.  

2)  On the other hand, world energy consumption is on the rise and is also projected to grow for the foreseeable future.  

3)  New projections from BP of energy intensity and energy consumption out to the year 2030 suggest that carbon will have to be removed from energy sources at a faster rate than has occurred before if the world is to keep average global temperatures below what most scientists think is a “safe” level.  


The Debrief

A couple of weeks ago, BP released its Energy Outlook for 2030, which is a projection of likely global energy production and consumption trends over the next two decades. The report finds, to no big surprise, that global energy use is expected to increase by about 40 percent in the next twenty years. Most of that increase will come from growing energy demands of the so-called “emerging economies,” including China, India, Russia, and Brazil. The increasing modernization and industrialization of those countries (not to mention their growing populations, with the exception of Russia where population is declining) means that more people are consuming a lot more energy.

On the other hand, other recent reports have shown that energy intensity is decreasing. Energy intensity is defined as the amount of energy used per Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of a country, but you can think of this as how efficiently energy is used to generate economic value. In this case, average national energy efficiency around the world is increasing — countries are getting more energy bang for their buck (or it is at least costing them less to get their energy).

It’s all a bit deceiving because it sounds like there is a kind of balance: we’re using more energy but we’re also getting better at using it. But in truth, the two trends don’t cancel each other out and in the future, worldwide energy demand will continue to grow.

Another emerging global trend can be seen by examining how much energy is consumed in the form of electricity. Since 1971, the share of energy being used as electricity worldwide has nearly doubled, and is now nearly 20 percent. With more people using computers, air conditioners, refrigerators, microwaves and a whole host of small appliances, electricity demand is climbing (even as the appliances themselves become more energy efficient).

Increasing energy use and electricity consumption aren’t problematic on their own. The concern comes in when you think about how much fossil fuel is burned to supply the energy. According to the International Energy Agency, coal is the single largest source of electricity around the world. It is also one of the most carbon intensive fuels, releasing large amounts of climate-warming greenhouse gases when it is burned.

In the U.S., about 50 percent of electricity comes from burning coal, and in China it's closer to 85 percent. The U.S. and China have abundant coal reserves, ensuring a plentiful supply of this fossil fuel for many decades to come. 

What all this means is that in spite of decreasing energy intensity and more efficient electrical appliances, burning coal will still be the most likely way that growing demands for electricity will be met in the near future. Consequently, BP anticipates that global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions will rise by about 1.2 percent each year to 2030, which means the world would go from emitting about 30 billion tons of CO2 per year at today's level, to 38 billion per year twenty years from now. 

BP's Energy Outlook for 2030 offers new projections on global energy supply and demand.

Why the science is important:

Perhaps some of the most interesting information from the BP projections are numbers that aren’t found directly in its pages. From BP's projections of how energy intensity and energy use are expected to change, along with projections for population growth and world GDP, it is possible to calculate how the world's energy system will need to change if average global temperature rise due to climate change is to be kept at what many scientists consider to be a safe level, or about a 2°C increase relative to preindustrial temperatures. 

To offset the increasing energy demand and put a dent in CO2 emissions, the world's energy system would need to be increasingly decarbonized — that is, it needs to emit less carbon for each bit of energy we use. This can happen if the world becomes less reliant on traditional fossil fuels and more on low-carbon carbon sources of energy, like solar, wind, hydropower and biomass.

According to our calculations, if we carry BP's projections forward from 2030 to 2050: 

  • To stabilize CO2 emissions in 2050 at the level they are today (about 30 billion tons/year), average global CO2 emissions from energy use would need to decrease at about the rate of 1.8 percent per year. Recall above that BP projects an increase of emissions at a rate of 1.2 percent. But stabilizing emissions at today's level won't stabilize CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere.
  • To stabilize atmospheric CO2 concentrations at, say, 500 parts per million (ppm) by 2050 (today we’re at about 390 ppm) to limit the average global temperature rise, average emissions of CO2 per unit of energy consumed would need to decrease at a rate of 4.2 percent per year.

As a point of comparison, the highest previously recorded rate of decarbonization in a country probably took place in France between 1975 and 1990, when that country's nuclear power system expanded very rapidly. In that case, emissions of CO2 decreased at a rate of 2.6 percent per year. Decarbonizing energy at a rate of more than four percent appears particularly challenging by comparison.

Special thanks to Eric Larson for calculating the rates of decarbonization needed to meet 2050 targets.