After decades of climate-related debate and policy, it’s still a fossil-fuel world. And judging from domestic and global politics, this will continue.
A base year to judge energy trends is 1988, the year climate scientist James Hansen sounded the alarm about the enhanced greenhouse effect, the result of manmade emissions of carbon dioxide and other warming gases.
In 1988 the global market share of carbon-based energies was 88 percent; three decades hence it is little diminished at 85 percent. Total usage of natural gas, coal, and oil in this period increased by two-thirds, with CO2 emissions rising 61 percent.
Regarding market share, natural gas has been the global gainer, capturing the electricity and industrial market away from oil. Versus oil at 34 percent and gas at 23 percent, coal has been steady at 28 percent of the world’s primary energy.
Electricity from wind, solar, and other non-hydro renewables increased to 3.5 percent from a fraction of one percent, while nuclear fell one-fourth to 4 percent. With hydropower growing globally, the market share of non-fossil-fuels reached 15 percent (from 11 percent in 1988).
Coal remains a workhorse globally in power generation. China, for example, which used coal for 59 percent of its energy usage last year, plans to rely upon this indigenous source for at least the next several decades to power its growing economy. In Asia overall, 1,200 coal plants are in construction or planned. Just last year, King Coal increased its global output 4 percent. U.S. coal exports, primarily to Asia, up 90 percent last year versus 2016, is a big part of the global coal boom.
Oil and gas have a robust future thanks to a U.S.-led extraction boom and increasing exports, as well as favorable policies from the Trump administration to drill, pipe, refine, and consume. A public policy of energy exceptionalism, combined with human ingenuity to find so-called depletable resources faster than they can be consumed (resourceship), is a powerful combination.
Horizontal drilling and fractionation have reinvigorated both primary energies. Whereas 15 years ago four-of-five wells in the U.S. were vertically drilled, today 19-of-20 are horizontal. In 2018, America recorded a “unique double first” of being the world leader in oil and in natural gas output. And much more is to come from a still-young industry.
Domestic consumption is meeting record supply, negating the notion of Peak Oil Demand. An estimated 43 million Americans traveled in cars, trucks, planes, trains, and boats to open this year’s driving season—virtually all petroleum-powered.
Climate politics is following, not leading, this energy reality. The international quest to reduce CO2 emissions remains stalled. Global emissions rose 2 percent last year, reflecting an overall increase in energy demand of nearly 3 percent. Three-fourths of this increase was met by fossil fuels.
Seen another way, not one of the top ten emitters of greenhouse gases is on track to meet its climate goals under the Paris climate accord. The U.S., which intends to withdraw from the agreement, is rated “critically insufficient” by the Climate Action Tracker. Even the EU, which aims to be carbon-neutral by 2050 (distant targets are a sign of compliance issues), is off to a bad start. Greenpeace recently called the EU’s climate plan “a collection of buzzwords.”
Why are fossil fuels so dominant despite political headwinds? The economic answer is that consumers prefer the most affordable, reliable, and convenient energies. The technical answer is that mineral energies are dense and have built-in storage, while wind and solar are dilute and intermittent. This is why renewables, which had a 100-percent market share for almost all of human history (primitive biomass, falling water, etc.), were displaced to enable the Industrial Revolution.
It’s still a fossil fuel world. And if subsidy fatigue sets in for wind power, solar power, ethanol, and electric vehicles, and legacy nuclear plants continue to retire, carbon-based energies could reach and even exceed 90 percent of global primary energy consumption in future decades.