Our fossil-fuelled future 


What sort of fabulous new energy systems will the world possess in 2040?  Which fuels will supply the bulk of our energy needs?  And how will that change the global energy equation, international politics, and the planet’s health? 

If the experts at the US Department of Energy are right, the startling “new” fuels of 2040 will be oil, coal, and natural gas - and we will find ourselves on a baking, painfully uncomfortable planet.

It’s true, of course, that any predictions about the fuel situation almost three decades from now aren’t likely to be reliable.  All sorts of unexpected upheavals and disasters in the years ahead make long-range predictions inherently difficult.  This has not, however, deterred the US Department of Energy from producing a comprehensive portrait of the world’s future energy system.  Known as the International Energy Outlook (IEO), the assessment incorporates detailed projections of future energy production and consumption.  Although dense with statistical data and filled with technical jargon, the 2013 report provides a unique and disturbing picture of our planetary future.

Many of us would like to believe that, by 2040, the world will be far along the path toward a green industrial future with wind, solar, and renewable fuels providing the bulk of our energy supplies.  The IEO assumes otherwise.  It anticipates a world in which coal - the most carbon-intense of all major fuels - still supplies more of our energy than renewables, nuclear, and hydropower combined.

The world it foresees is also one in which oil remains a preeminent source of energy, while hydro-fracking and other drilling techniques for extracting unconventional fossil fuels are far more widely employed than today.  Wind and solar energy will also play a bigger role in 2040, but - as the IEO sees it - will still represent only a small fraction of the global energy mix.

Admittedly, International Energy Outlook is a government product of this moment with all the limitations that implies.  It envisions the future by extrapolating from current developments.  It is not visionary.  Its authors can’t imagine energy breakthroughs that have yet to happen, or changes in world attitudes that may affect how energy is dealt with, or events like wars, environmental disasters, and global economic recessions or depressions that could alter the world’s energy situation.  Nonetheless, because it assesses current endeavors that are sure to have long-lasting repercussions, like the present massive worldwide investments in shale oil and shale gas extraction, it provides an extraordinary resource for imagining the energy crisis in our future.

Among its major findings are three fundamental developments:

* Global energy use will continue to rise rapidly, with total world consumption jumping from 524 quadrillion British thermal units (BTUs) in 2010 to an estimated 820 quadrillion in 2040, a net increase of 56%.  (A BTU is the amount of energy needed to heat one pound of water by one degree Fahrenheit.)

* An increasing share of world energy demand will be generated by developing countries, especially those in Asia.  Of the nearly 300 quadrillion BTUs in added energy needed to meet global requirements between now and 2040, some 250 quadrillion, or 85%, will be used to satisfy rising demand in the developing world.

* China, which only recently overtook the United States as the world’s leading energy consumer, will account for the largest share - 40% - of the growth in global consumption over the next 30 years.

These projections may not in themselves be surprising, but if accurate, the consequences for the global economy, world politics, and the health and well-being of the planetary environment will be staggering.  To meet constantly expanding world requirements, energy producers will be compelled to ramp up production of every kind of fossil fuel at a time of growing concern about the paramount role those fuels play in fostering runaway climate change.  Meanwhile, the shift in the center of gravity of energy consumption from the older industrial powers to the developing world will lead to intense competition for access to available supplies.

To fully appreciate the significance of the IEO’s findings, it is necessary to consider four critical trends: the surprising resilience of fossil fuels, the degree to which the world’s energy will be being provided by unconventional fossil fuels, the seemingly relentless global increase in emissions of carbon dioxide, and significant shifts in the geopolitics of energy.

The continuing predominance of fossil fuels

Anyone searching for evidence that we are transitioning to a system based on renewable sources of energy will be sorely disappointed by the projections in the 2013 International Energy Outlook.  Although the share of world energy provided by fossil fuels is expected to decline from 84% in 2010 to 78% in 2040, it will still tower over all other forms of energy.  In fact, in 2040 the projected share of global energy consumption provided by each of the fossil fuels (28% for oil, 27% for coal, and 23% for gas) will exceed that of renewables, nuclear, and hydropower combined (21%).

Oil and coal continue to dominate the fossil-fuel category despite all the talk of a massive increase in natural gas supplies - the so-called shale gas revolution - made possible by hydro-fracking.  Oil’s continued supremacy can be attributed, in part, to the endless growth in demand for cars, vans, and trucks in China, India, and other rising states in Asia.  The prominence of coal, however, is on the face of it less expectable.  Given the degree to which utilities in the United States and Western Europe are shunning coal in favor of natural gas, the prominence the IEO gives it in 2040 is startling.  But for each reduction in coal use in older industrialized nations, we are seeing a huge increase in the developing world, where the demand for affordable electricity trumps concern about greenhouse gas emissions. 

The continuing dominance of fossil fuels in the world’s energy mix will not only ensure the continued dominance of the great fossil-fuel companies - both private and state-owned - in the energy economy, but also bolster their political clout when it comes to decisions about new energy investment and climate policy.  Above all, however, soaring fossil-fuel consumption will result in a substantial boost in greenhouse gas emissions, and all the disastrous effects that come with it.

The rise of the “Unconventionals”

At present, most of our oil, coal, and natural gas still comes from “conventional” sources - deposits close to the surface, close to shore, and within easy reach of transportation and processing facilities.  But these reservoirs are being depleted at a rapid pace and by 2040 - or so the US Department of Energy’s report tells us - will be unable to supply more than a fraction of our needs.  Increasingly, fossil fuel supplies will be of an “unconventional” character - materials hard to refine and/or acquired from deposits deep underground, far from shore, or in relatively inaccessible locations.  These include Canadian tar sands, Venezuelan extra-heavy crude, shale gas, deep-offshore oil, and Arctic energy.

Until recently, unconventional oil and gas constituted only a tiny share of the world’s energy supply, but that is changing fast.  Shale gas, for example, provided a negligible share of the US natural gas supply in 2000; by 2010, it had risen to 23%; in 2040, it is expected to exceed 50%.  Comparable increases are expected in Canadian tar sands, Venezuelan extra-heavy crude, and US shale oil (also called “tight oil”).

By definition, unconventional fuels are harder to produce, refine, and transport than conventional ones.  In most cases, this means that more energy is consumed in their extraction than in the exploitation of conventional fuels, with more carbon dioxide being emitted per unit of energy produced.  As is especially the case with fracking, the extraction of unconventional fuels normally requires significant infusions of water, raising the possibility of competition and conflict among major water consumers over access to supplies that, by 2040, will be severely threatened by climate change.

Relentless growth in carbon emissions

By 2040, humanity will be burning far more fossil fuels than today: 673 quadrillion BTUs, compared to 440 quadrillion in 2010.   The continued dominance of fossil fuels, rising coal demand, and a growing reliance on unconventional sources of supply can only have one outcome, as the IEO makes clear: a huge jump in carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions.

Carbon dioxide is the most prominent of the anthropogenic greenhouse gases being pumped into the atmosphere, and the combustion of fossil fuels is the primary source of that CO2; hence, the IEO’s projections on energy-related carbon emissions constitute an important measure of humankind’s ongoing role in heating the planet.

And here’s the bad news: as a result of the continued reliance on fossil fuels, global carbon emissions from energy are projected to increase by a stunning 46% between 2010 and 2040, jumping from 31.2 billion to 45.5 billion metric tons.  No more ominous sign could be found of the kind of runaway global warming likely to be experienced in the decades to come than this grim figure.

In the IEO projections, all fossil fuels and all of the major consuming regions contribute to this nightmarish future, but coal is the greatest culprit.  Of the extra 14.3 billion metric tons of CO2 to be added to global emissions over the next 30 years, 6.8 billion, or 48%, will be generated by the combustion of coal.  Because most of the increase in coal consumption is occurring in China and India, these two countries will have a major responsibility for accelerating the pace of global warming. China alone is expected to contribute half of the added CO2 in these decades; India, 11%.

New geopolitical tensions

Finally, the 2013 edition of International Energy Outlook is rife with hints of possible new geopolitical tensions generated by these developments.  Of particular interest to its authors are the international implications of humanity’s growing reliance on unconventional sources of energy.  While the know-how to extract conventional energy resources is by now widely available, the specialized technology needed to exploit shale gas, tar sands, and other such materials is far less so, giving a clear economic advantage in the IEO’s projected energy future to countries which possess these capabilities.

One consequence, already evident, is the dramatic turnaround in America’s energy status.  Just a few years ago, many analysts were bemoaning the growing reliance of the United States on energy imports from Africa and the Middle East, with an attendant vulnerability to overseas chaos and conflict.  Now, thanks to American leadership in the development of shale and other unconventional resources, the US is becoming less dependent on imported energy and so finds itself in a stronger position to dominate the global energy marketplace.

In one of many celebratory passages on these developments, the IEO affirms that a key to “increasing natural gas production has been advances in the application of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing technologies, which made it possible to develop the country’s vast shale gas resources and contributed to a near doubling of total US technically recoverable natural gas resource estimates over the past decade.” 

At the same time, the report asserts that energy-producing countries that fail to gain mastery over these new technologies will be at a significant disadvantage in the energy marketplace of 2040. Russia is particularly vulnerable in this regard: heavily dependent on oil and gas revenues to finance government operations, it faces a significant decline in output from its conventional reserves and so must turn to unconventional supplies; its ability to acquire the needed technologies will, however, be hindered by its historically poor treatment of foreign companies.

China is also said to face significant challenges in the new energy environment.  Simply to meet the country’s growing need for energy is likely to prove an immense challenge for its leaders, given the magnitude of its requirements and the limits to China’s domestic supplies.  As the world’s fastest growing consumer of oil and gas, an increasing share of its energy supplies must be imported, posing the same sort of dependency problems that until recently plagued American leaders.  The country does possess substantial reserves of shale gas, but lacking the skills needed to exploit them, is unlikely to become a significant producer for years to come.

The IEO does not discuss the political implications of all this.  However, top US leaders, from the president on down, have been asserting that America’s mastery of new energy technologies is contributing to the nation’s economic vitality, and so enhancing its overseas influence.  “America’s new energy posture allows us to engage from a position of greater strength,” said National Security Advisor Tom Donilon in an April speech at Columbia University.  “Increasing US energy supplies act as a cushion that helps reduce our vulnerability to global supply disruptions and price shocks. It also affords us a stronger hand in pursuing and implementing our international security goals.”

The Department of Energy’s report avoids such explicit language, but no one reading it could doubt that its authors are thinking along similar lines.  Indeed, the whole report can be viewed as providing ammunition for the pundits and politicians who argue that the emerging global energy equation is unusually propitious for the United States (so long, of course, as everyone ignores the effects of climate change) - an assessment that can only energize advocates of a more assertive US stance abroad.

The world of 2040

The 2013 International Energy Outlook offers us a revealing peek into the thinking of U.S. government experts - and their assessment of the world of 2040 should depress us all.  But make no mistake, none of this can be said to constitute a reliable picture of what the world will actually look like at that time.

Many of the projected trends are likely to be altered, possibly unrecognizably, thanks to unforeseen developments of every sort, especially in the climate realm.  Nonetheless, the massive investments now being made in conventional and unconventional oil and gas operations will ensure that these fuels play a significant role in the energy mix for a long time to come - and this, in turn, means that international efforts to slow the pace of planetary warming are likely to be frustrated.  Similarly, Washington’s determination to maintain US dominance in the exploitation of unconventional fuel resources, combined with the desires of Chinese and Russian leaders to cut into the American lead in this field, is guaranteed to provoke friction and distrust in the decades to come.

If the trends identified in the Department of Energy report prove enduring, then the world of 2040 will be one of ever-rising temperatures and sea levels, ever more catastrophic storms, ever fiercer wildfires, ever more devastating droughts.  Can there, in fact, be a sadder conclusion when it comes to our future than the IEO’s insistence that, among all the resource shortages humanity may face in the decades to come, fossil fuels will be spared? Thanks to the exploitation of advanced technologies to extract “tough energy” globally, they will remain relatively abundant for decades to come.

So just how reliable is the IEO assessment?  Personally, I suspect that its scenarios will prove a good deal less than accurate for an obvious enough reason.  As the severity and destructiveness of climate change becomes increasingly evident in our lives, ever more people will be pressing governments around the world to undertake radical changes in global energy behavior and rein in the power of the giant energy companies.  This, in turn, will lead to a substantially greater emphasis on investment in the development of alternative energy systems plus significantly less reliance on fossil fuels than the IEO anticipates. 

Make no mistake about it, though: the major fossil fuel producers -- the world’s giant oil, gas, and coal corporations - are hardly going to acquiesce to this shift without a fight.  Given their staggering profits and their determination to perpetuate the fossil-fuel era for as a long as possible, they will employ every means at their command to postpone the age of renewables.  Eventually, however, the destructive effects of climate change will prove so severe and inescapable that the pressure to embrace changes in energy behavior will undoubtedly overpower the energy industry’s resistance.

Unfortunately, none of us can actually see into the future and so no one can know when such a shift will take place.  But here’s a simple reality: it had better happen before 2040 or, as the saying goes, our goose is cooked.

[NB: As most of this text is based on a single document, International Energy Outlook 2013, there are fewer hyperlinks to source material than usual.  The report can be viewed by clicking here.]

This piece, published on September 8, 2013, is reposted from Tom.Dispatch.com with that site's permission. 

About the author

Michael Klare is a professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College, a TomDispatch regular, and the author, most recently, of The Race for What’s Left, just published in paperback by Picador. A documentary movie version of his book Blood and Oil is available from the Media Education Foundation. You can follow Klare on Facebook by clicking here.