The world continues increasing its consumption of fossil fuels and is departing irremediably from the struggle against climate change.
Last June 11, the BP energy company presented its BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2019, as it does each year. This is not a minor report: it is one of the private statistical resources most utilised by academics and decision makers, and one of the most complete and trustworthy sources available.
The main presentation, by the chief economist of the company Spencer Dale, is entitled “Energy in 2018: an unsustainable path”. This not a reference to the economic sustainability of the enterprise, but to the trajectory of production and energy use that does not conform to the objectives contained in the Paris Agreement on Climate Change.
During 2018, the consumption of energy at a global level grew by 2.9%, nearly double the medium rate of the past decade that had been 1.5%. As has happened in previous years, India and China are two of the principal motors of the increase in demand. But this year, the US has also stood on the podium, with a growth in energy demand of 3.5%, the greatest increase of the past 30 years.
Oil consumption in the US increased by half a million barrels daily and their production of natural gas grew by 5.2%, the greatest annual increase in one country in all of history. This fact overturns the tendency of recent years in which developing countries were those responsible for the increase in energy consumption.
In spite of repeated prognostics of an “uncoupling” between the consumption of energy and the emissions of greenhouse gasses, these grew in parity, with an increase of 2%, the greatest increase over the past seven years. In fact, carbon, the most contaminating fossil fuel, increased its consumption by 1.4%, doubling the rate of growth of the past decade, when its final decline was proclaimed.
Renewable energies grew by 14.5%, slightly less than in previous years. But they nonetheless continue to represent a scarcely significant percentage. The so-called “modern” renewable sources (fundamentally wind and solar) accounted for barely 4% of the total, reaching 10% when hydroelectric power is included.
Nevertheless, in spite of being modest, this growth has had an important impact on the prices of some indispensable raw inputs for renewable resources, such as lithium and cobalt. The extraction of these minerals has grown in 2018 at a greater rate than in the last decade (13.9% and 17.6% respectively) and their prices in the international market have increased by 21% in the case of lithium and 30% in the case of cobalt.
“My guess”, Spencer Dale said, “is that when our successors look back at Statistical Reviews from around this period, they will observe a world in which there was growing societal awareness and demands for urgent action on climate change, but where the actual energy data continued to move stubbornly in the wrong direction.
“A growing mismatch between hopes and reality. In that context, I fear – or perhaps hope – that 2018 will represent the year in which this mismatch peaked”.
I would like to hold the same hope as Spencer, but unfortunately, there is no sign that this hope can be sustained. Investments destined to the energy sector in recent years only leave us to suppose that, in 2019, the tendency towards the increase in energy consumption and the consequent increase in the emissions of greenhouse gasses will persist.
In South and Central America, the increase in energy consumption was a modest 0.3%. But this fact is much influenced by a profound decrease in Venezuelan consumption of 12.2%. If we exclude Venezuela, the growth of energy consumption in the region was 1%. The greatest increases occurred in Peru (6.3%), Ecuador (5.8%) and Chile (4.7%).
The greatest oil producer was Brazil – with a production of 2.6 million barrels per day (mbd) – that for three years has surpassed Venezuela (with 1.5 mbd in 2018). The greatest producer of natural gas was Argentina, with 39 billion cubic metres, more than Trinidad and Tobago and Venezuela with 34 and 33 billion respectively.
Meanwhile, renewable energy sources (including hydroelectricity) reached 28% of total energy consumption. With an increase in electricity generation with wind power (17%) and solar (66%), the region reached 12% of participation of these sources in the electrical matrix in 2018, greater than the 9% registered at the global level.
This, added to a reduced consumption of petroleum and natural gas, has resulted in a 1.4% reduction of CO2 emissions of the South and Central American energy sector compared with the previous year, falling to the lowest level since 2012. Together with Europe, these were the only regions of the world that reduced their emissions in 2018.
The researchers who undertook this report and BP could not explain why world energy consumption has increased so much related to expectations. Economic growth is generally the greatest variable influence on the behaviour of energy consumption. However, the modest economic growth experienced in 2018 is insufficient to explain the whole phenomenon. So they went a little deeper into the data and found another factor: climate change.
According to the report, the greater quantity of days of extreme heat and cold, particularly in the US, China and Russia, have given rise to an increase in the demand of energy for heating and refrigeration. These would be the new factors that explain the unusual increase in energy demand. A troubling vicious circle: climate change induces energy consumption and increases the emissions of greenhouse gasses that exacerbate climate change.
“At a time when society is increasing its demands for an accelerated transition to a low carbon energy system, the energy data for 2018 paint a worrying picture, with both energy demand and carbon emissions growing at the fastest rates seen for years,” said Spencer Dale at the end of his presentation. And he concluded: “What does seem fairly clear is that the underlying picture is one in which the actual pace of progress is falling well short of the accelerated transition envisaged by the Paris climate goals.
“Last year’s developments sound yet another warning alarm that the world is on an unsustainable path.”
Gerardo Honty is a researcher with CLAES (Latin American Centre of Social Ecology)