I finished my last post with an important piece of data. Out of 100 quads of energy the US generates every year, the vast majority of it (83%) comes from fossil fuel sources – sources that emit greenhouse gases when we burn them. The same is true for the vast majority of other countries, and therefore for the global portfolio as well. Here is a graphic showing global energy consumption distribution by fuel type from 1990 through 2010 and into the future:
Figure 1. Global fuel-type energy consumption, 1990-2040 (EIA 2013 Energy Outlook).
The global picture is somewhat different from the US picture: liquids’ energy (e.g., oil) exceed coal energy, which exceed natural gas. All three of these carbon-intensive energy sources, which power our developed, high-wealth lifestyles, greatly exceed renewables (which hydropower dominates), which exceeds nuclear. It is these type of energy forecasts that lead to the suite of IPCC emissions pathways:
Note that our current emissions trajectory more closely resembles the RCP8.5 pathway (red) than the other pathways. This trajectory could lead to a 1000+ ppm CO2-eq concentration by 2100, or 2.5X today’s concentration value. Stabilizing global temperature increases at less than 2C by 2100 requires stabilizing CO2-eq concentrations below 450 and quickly decreasing, which is best represented by the RCP2.6 pathway above (green). This pathway is technologically impossible to achieve as of today. The only way to make it possible is to invest in innovation: research, development, and global deployment of low-carbon technologies. We are not currently doing that investment; nor does it look likely we will in the near future.
Let’s take a further look at the recent past before we delve further into the future. Environmental and renewable energy advocacy groups tout recent gains in renewable energy deployment. We should quietly cheer such gains because they are real. But they are also miniscule – far too little deployment at a time when we need exclusive and much wider deployment of renewable energy globally to shift our emissions pathway from RCP8.5 to RCP2.6. Here is a graphic showing global use of coal in the past 10+ years:
Figure 3. Global coal use in million tonnes of oil-equivalent 2001-2011 (Grist).
Climate and clean energy advocates like to report their gains in percentage terms. This is one way of looking at the data, but it’s not the only way. For instance, coal usage increased by 56% from 2001 to 2011. This is a smaller percentage than most renewable energy percentage gains in the same time period, but the context of those percentages is important. As you’ll see below, renewable energy gains really aren’t gains in the global portfolio. The above graph is another way to see this: if renewable energy gains were large enough, they would replace coal and other fossil fuels. That’s the whole point of renewable energy and stabilizing carbon emissions, right? If there is more renewable energy usage but also more coal usage, we won’t stabilize emissions. Here is another way of looking at this statement:
Figure 4. Global Energy Consumption from Carbon-Free Sources 1965-2012 (Breakthrough).
Carbon-free energy as a part of the total global energy portfolio increased from 6% in 1965 to 13% in the late 1990s. This is an increase of 200% – which is impressive. What happened since the 1990s though? The proportion was actually smaller in 2011 than it was in 1995 in absolute terms. At best, carbon-free energy proportions stagnated since the 1990s. Countries deployed more carbon-free energy in that time period, but not enough to increase their proportion because so much new carbon energy was also deployed. What happened starting in the 1990s? The rapid industrialization of China and India, predominantly. Are developing countries going to stop industrializing? Absolutely not, as Figure 1 showed. It showed that while renewable energy consumption will increase in the next 30 years, it will likely do so at the same rate that natural gas and liquids will. The EIA projects that the rate of increase of coal energy consumption might level off in 30 years, after we release many additional gigatonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere, ensuring that we do no stabilize at 450 ppm or 2°C.
Here is the EIA’s projection for China’s and India’s energy consumption in quads, compared to the US through 2040:
Figure 5. US, Chinese, and Indian energy consumption (quads) 1990-2040 (EIA 2013 Energy Outlook).
You can see the US’s projected energy consumption remains near 100 quads through 2040. China’s consumption exceeded the US’s in 2009 and will hit 200 quads (2 US’s!) by 2030 before potentially leveling off near 220 quads by 2040. India’s consumption was 1/4 the US’s in 2020 (25 quads), and will likely double by 2040. Where will an additional 1.5 US’s worth of energy come from in the next 30 years? Figure 1 gave us this answer: mostly fossil fuels. If that’s true, there is no feasible way to stabilize CO2 concentrations at 450 ppm or global mean temperatures at 2°C. That’s not just my opinion; take a look at a set of projections for yourself.
Here is one look at the future energy source by type:
Figure 6. Historical and Future Energy Source by Type (BNEF).
This projection looks rosy doesn’t it? Within 10 years, most new energy will come from wind, followed by solar thermal. But look at the fossil fuels! They’re on the way out. The potential for reduced additional fossil fuel generation is good news. My contention is that it isn’t happening fast enough. Instead of just new energy, let’s look at the cumulative energy portfolio picture:
Figure 7. Historical and Future Total Energy Source by Type (BNEF).
This allows us to see how much renewable energy penetration is possible through 2030. The answer: not a lot, and certainly not enough. 2,000 GW of coal (>20% of total) remains likely by 2030 – the same time when energy experts say that fossil fuel use must be zero if CO2 concentrations are to remain below 450 ppm by 2100. But coal isn’t the only fossil fuel and the addition of gas (another 1,700 GW) and oil (another 300 GW) demonstrates just how massive the problem we face really is. By 2030, fossil fuels as a percentage of the total energy portfolio may no longer increase. The problem is the percentages need to decrease rapidly towards zero. Nowhere on this graph, or the next one, is this evident. The second, and probably more important thing, about this graph to note is this: total energy increases at an increasing rate through 2030 as developing countries … develop.
Figure 8. Global fuel-type energy consumption, 1990-2040 (EIA 2013 Energy Outlook).
The EIA analysis agrees with the BNEF analysis: renewables increase through 2030. The EIA’s projection extends through 2040 where the message is the same: renewables increase, but so do fossil fuels. The only fossil fuel that might stop increasing is the most carbon intensive – coal – and that is of course a good thing. But look at the absolute magnitudes: there could be twice as many coal quads in 2040 as there were in 2000 (50% more than 2010). There could also be 50% more natural gas and 30% more liquid fuels. But the message remains: usage of fossil fuels will likely not decline in the next 30 years. What does that mean for CO2 emissions?
Figure 9. Historical and projected global carbon dioxide emissions: 1990-2040 (EIA 2013 Energy Outlook).
Instead of 14 Gt/year (14 billion tonnes per year) in 2010, coal in 2040 will emit 25 Gt/year – almost a doubling. CO2 emissions from natural gas and liquids will also increase – leading to a total of 45 GT/year instead of 30 GT/year. The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimated in 2011 that “if the world is to escape the most damaging effects of global warming, annual energy-related emissions should be no more than 32Gt by 2020.” The IEA 2012 World Energy Outlook Report found that annual carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels rose 1.4 percent in 2012 to 31.6 Gt. While that was the lowest yearly increase in four years, another similar rise pushes annual emissions over 32Gt in 2014 – six years ahead of the IEA’s estimate. Based on the similarity between our historical emissions pathway and the high-end of the IPCC’s AR4 SRES scenarios (see figure below), 2°C is no longer a viable stabilization target.
Figure 10. IEA historical annual CO2 emissions and IPCC AR4 emissions scenarios: 1990-2012 (Skeptical Science).
The A2 pathway leads to 3 to 4°C warming by 2100. Additional warming would occur after that, but most climate science focus ends at the end of this century. A huge caveat applies here: that warming projection comes from models that did not represent crysophere or other processes. This is important because the climate system is highly nonlinear. Small changes in input can induce drastically different results. A simple example of this is a change in input from 1 to 2 doesn’t mean a change in output from 1 to 2. The output could change to 3 or 50, and we don’t know when the more drastic case will take place. Given our best current but limited understanding of the climate system, 3 to 4°C warming by 2100 (via pathway A2) could occur. Less warming, given the projected emissions above, is much, much less likely than more warming than this estimate. Policy makers need to shift focus away from 2°C warming and start figuring out what a 3 to 4°C warmer world means for their area of responsibility. Things like the timing of different sea level rise thresholds and how much infrastructure should we abandon to the ocean? Things like extensive, high-magnitude drought and dwindling fresh water supplies. These impacts will have an impact on our lifestyle. It is up to us to decide how much. The graphs above and stories I linked to draw this picture for me: we need to change how we approach climate and energy policy. The strategies employed historically were obviously inadequate to decarbonize at a sufficient rate. We need to design, implement, and evaluate new strategies.