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The black decade

Each June BP publishes its “Statistical Review of World Energy”, a compendium of the latest trends in the global energy system. After the June 2012 release, I commented on the remarkable trends in coal consumption indicated by BP’s analysis. In a piece titled “If you think King Coal is dead, think again …”, I speculated that coal seemed ready to resume its place as king of the energy fuels, displacing oil for the first time in 50 years.

In its latest update released June 2013, BP’s revised estimates show this hasn’t yet happened. As shown below, on an energy equivalent basis the gap between coal and oil remains pretty much the same as last year. Interestingly, despite the hype around the gas boom, BP’s data indicate little change in the relative proportions of gas, coal and oil between 2011 and 2012. If anything, the latest analysis suggests gas has gone back a bit.

The left panel shows total world production of fossil fuels by type, in millions of tonnes oil equivalent basis. The right panel shows the percentage contribution of the total fossil fuel energy contributed by the fuel type. Data from BP's Statistical Review of World Energy 2013, image by Mike Sandiford.

While the rate of increase in fossil fuel energy production has slowed to 2.3% in 2012, down from 3.2% in 2011 and 4.5% in 2010, a key message in the BP data is the continuing above trend growth in fossil fuel production.

Annual percentage growth rates for fossil fuel energy production over the last 30 years, coloured by the decade. Decadal means are indicated by horizontal lines. Data from BP's Statistical Review of World Energy 2013, image by Mike Sandiford.

And the story of the last decade has been all about the black stuff of coal.

In 2002, coal contributed around 28% of the total fossil fuel energy production. By last year it had risen to 35%. That rise has come almost entirely at the expense of oil, the proportion of which fell from 43% to 37% over the decade.

Since 2002, the energy content of fossil fuel production has risen by 33% from around 8.3 billion tonnes oil equivalent to about 11 billion tonnes. This was contributed by a percentage rise in coal of 55%, gas by 32% and oil by 10%.

At 2.8%, the average rate of increase in fossil fuels over the last decade was twice that of the previous decade, and in aggregate more than a 1% higher than the decade before that from 1983 and 1992.

Because the greenhouse gas emissions intensity of coal is higher than oil and gas, the CO2 intensity of the fossil fuel component of our energy system is also rising, making the challenge of reducing emissions by displacing fossil fuels ever more daunting.

Energy emissions intensity of our fossil fuel mix expressed as tonnes of CO2 emitted per tonne of oil equivalent. Data from BP's Statistical Review of World Energy 2013, image by Mike Sandiford.

Even though BP shows that the proportion of fossil fuels in our energy mix has pretty much stabilized over the last decade, the consequence of the changing mix in the fossil fuel component is leading to rises in the emissions intensity of our energy system. And that is not good news.

Proportion of fossil fuel energy consumption as a percentage of total energy consumption. Data from BP's Statistical Review of World Energy 2013, image by Mike Sandiford.

Energy emissions intensity of our total energy consumption from all sources expressed as tonnes of CO2 emitted per tonne of oil equivalent energy. Data from BP's Statistical Review of World Energy 2013, image by Mike Sandiford.

So, in terms of environmental outcomes, the epithet – the black decade – seems all the more appropriate.

What happens if we continue the trend of the last decade?

A growth rate of 2.8% gives a doubling every 25 years. So if we were to continue to expand at this rate for another half century, we will end up with an annual fossil fuel production of about 44 billion tonnes in oil equivalents.

Burning that would release energy at an average rate of 60 trillion joules per second - or 60 trillion watts.

The scale of that is simply unfathomable.

It is a faster rate than released in the process we call “plate tectonics” that shapes our planet Earth. As I outlined in a previous post in accounting for all the mountain building, volcanoes and earthquakes, plate tectonics operates at a rate of about 44 trillion watts.

The energy content released in burning 44 billion tonnes of oil each year would be equivalent to detonating one Hiroshima bomb per second, for which I, and no doubt others, have used the term “the hiro” to give a sense of the stupendous scale or our human energy system.

According to BP’s estimates, and as shown above, our energy system is emitting a bit over 3 tonnes of CO2 for each tonne of oil equivalent fossil fuel consumed - amounting to 34 billion tonnes last year. So if we continue on the trajectory set this past decade, we would end up releasing about 140 billion tonnes of CO2 annually by 2063.

While that is simply unimaginable, and unmanageable, it is the target we are on.

As a species whose destiny is intimately tied to the ecological services our natural world provides, we just can’t afford to go there.

The scale of our energy system points to the hugely problematic issue we face in contemplating change. With a century of investment we have constructed a behemoth that distributes fossil fuels around the globe, releasing energy at the rate comparable to the very processes that have shaped our planet over geological time.

And all our economic systems are tied to it.

As illustrated below, by combining estimates of our energy related emissions and global GDP growth, we can get a sense of just how tight this coupling is.

The intimate coupling of our global energy and economic systems, is illustrated by a strong correlation between annual global GDP growth on the bottom axis and annual global emissions growth on the side axis. Small yellow filled symbols are decadal averages. Historically, emissions reductions are symptomatic of deep recession. Our challenge is to find the way to into the bottom centre of this diagram with negative emissions growth and positive GDP growth. Emissions data from BP's Statistical Review of World Energy 2013, GDP data from the IMF, image by Mike Sandiford

In contemplating the range of issues that define the global energy challenge, including questions around poverty, equity, security, and sustainability, it is easy to feel trapped. Is our existing energy system, and the demands on it, just too huge to change?

If we are to meet the sustainability challenge and address global equity issues, we will need to move our ways of operating so that we can produce beneficial economic outcomes while reducing emissions globally at annual rates in excess of 3%. In effect, we need to find ways to move the global system into the bottom centre of the illustration above.

As alluded to in my last post, and shown in different form below, that is a place that Australia has found itself nudging towards for much of the last decade.

While we are just a small player, and while we may have achieved some of it by offshoring our emissions, it does perhaps provide a ray of sunshine in an otherwise black decade.

Annual Australian GDP growth on the bottom axis and annual Australian emissions growth on the side axis.Small yellow filled symbols are decadal averages. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, Australia seems to be edging its way to the bottom centre (i.e., negative emissions growth, positive GDP growth). Emissions data from BP's Statistical Review of World Energy 2013, GDP data from the IMF, image by Mike Sandiford

Join the conversation

29 Comments sorted by

  1. Dale Bloom

    Analyst

    Excellent article, very well researched and easy to understand.

    I was particularly intrigued by the relationship between GDP and emissions.

    If we increase our emission, then we are also increasing our consumption I would think, and that includes consuming more of our natural resources.

    When politicians and others speak of increasing growth and GDP, they are really saying we should increase our emissions and natural resource consumption.

    After the debacle of our political systems in recent years, I plan to vote for no political party ever in the future, but vote for independents only, but I was thinking Kevin Rudd's plan to boost national productivity missed something.

    https://theconversation.com/come-join-with-us-to-boost-productivity-rudd-tells-business-and-unions-15996

    He listed seven main points in his plan, but reducing emissions and reducing consumption wasn’t in the plan.

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  2. Lee Emmett

    Guest House Manager

    How is it possible for both the major parties to ignore these facts, and not argue to keep coal (and petrol and gas) in the ground, while urgently seeking alternative power generation methods?

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    1. Michael Wilbur-Ham (MWH)

      Writer (ex telecommunications engineer)

      In reply to Lee Emmett

      How is it possible that most people who are concerned about climate change and want real action by government vote Labor (or Liberal) and thus vote for the opposite of what they want?

      Things are only going to change once voters started to accept responsibility for getting what they vote for.

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    2. Jack McCadden

      Analyst

      In reply to Lee Emmett

      Easy, because you can't keep coal in the ground while seeking an alternative. An alternative has to be found, then the decision to keep coal in the ground can be taken.

      Accepting the fact that people don't want to periodically go without power, or pay 3-4x's more for it, the only immediate alternative is nuclear. Politically and socially a tough sell here, although it doesn't seem to trouble the French.

      The US has reduced it's emissions by 14% in the last 10 years, sped up recently via a move away from coal in favour of gas. This is not acceptable to the greens in Oz either.

      Renewables will only ever be part of the solution. If the situation is as desparate as some claim, might be time for a compromise to start a sustainable move in the right direction.

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    3. Greg North

      Retired Engineer

      In reply to Jack McCadden

      The US has been in a deep recession for a number of years now Jack and something I suspect most people do when things get tough is to stop all forms of consuming and that includes power directly as well as indirectly through less services and products that use power in their generation.
      Home abandonment, both older ones and more modern ones has been rampant across the US in the past decade with people living in cars, under bridges and anywhere that is free, all causing a substantial percentage of that 14% I suspect you would find.
      That kind of living on a smaller scale already exists in Australia and could easily become wider spread.

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    4. Jack McCadden

      Analyst

      In reply to Gary Murphy

      Wind generation could be built for $20/MWh and it still would change the tried and tested outcome of a government study in South Australia which showed wind power production and peak demand only coincided 8% of the time.

      http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:reX0Q5ngtqYJ:www.parliament.sa.gov.au/committees/pages/Committees.aspx%3FCTId%3D3%26CId%3D273%26DUId%3D54041928-5a68-43e2-af98-f6841ece5d49+&cd=1&hl=en&ct=clnk

      That's not to say wind power won't have it's place, but it would seem power storage technology needs to come a long way before wind can practicably augment base supply.

      That technology will come to be, but to get back to my point, if an urgent solution is required, renewables are at the periphery rather than the core of the solution.

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    5. Gary Murphy

      Independent Thinker

      In reply to Jack McCadden

      The studies show that with geographically distributed generation wind generation only requires around 10% gas generation to fill the gaps. Gas generation is still only $200 / MWh at just 10% cf. [BREE AETA]

      Wind / solar generation can be built far quicker than nuclear can in Australia.

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    6. Jack McCadden

      Analyst

      In reply to Gary Murphy

      "The studies show that with geographically distributed generation wind generation only requires around 10% gas generation to fill the gaps."

      Rubbish. Go past the findings and into assumptions for why this is a disingenuous statement.

      Studies can say whatever they want, reality says no.

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    7. David Hamilton

      Energy Consultant

      In reply to Lee Emmett

      Excellent article, thank you, Mike. Please do not stop bringing these very uncomfortable and inconvenient issues to the fore.

      We are certainly seeing a major failure of leadership in the Coalition and Labor parties. The implications of Mike's analysis are clear: the "endless growth, we can have everything" party is over. Business as usual is no longer an option, but the Coalition and Labor are in "pretend and extend" mode in which they pretend there is nothing wrong and try to patch over the looming…

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  3. John Rutherford

    Worker

    OH come on. WE are an advanced society. Our " leaders " in politics and " business" have everything under control and our best interests at heart while ever we fill their pockets.Just look and listen to what we tell you to and everything will seem ok.
    We are like sheep and thats the LAMB in the bible.......................

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  4. Leigh Burrell

    Trophy hunter at Trophy hunter

    That's a jam-packed report and fascinating reading. China doubled its coal consumption between 2003 and 2011, grew another 6% in 2012 and accounted for half of global consumption at the end of that period. That's just mind boggling. Their total consumption of renewables excluding hydro amounted to less than 2% of their coal consumption. Reminded me of this brazen deceit in March 2011:

    "You know, China closing down a dirty coal-fired power generation facility at the rate of one every one to two weeks. Putting up a wind turbine at the rate of one every hour."

    http://www.abc.net.au/tv/qanda/txt/s3157403.htm

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  5. John Doyle

    architect

    All the many graphs I have seen to date show Peak Oil [and gas] happening about now.
    There's no sign of that here.
    If so it casts our future as more perilous than has been forecast with energy consumption peaking now.

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    1. Michael Lardelli

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to John Doyle

      Oil and gas contribute more than double the energy that coal does to the world economy. You can see the fingerprint of peak oil in the fact that tonnes CO2 per tonne oil equivalent and energy intensity both began to rise in about 2002 which is when the price of oil began to rise due to difficulty in increasing conventional oil production. The price of oil doubled from 2002 to 2005 and then, after 2005, conventional oil production could no longer be increased despite a further doubling of the price…

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    2. John Doyle

      architect

      In reply to Michael Lardelli

      Thanks, Michael for that mine of data. A lot of reading there.
      Not half complex!
      Looks though that nuclear will be big on the agenda before too long.
      I did see that peak oil was going to be price driven as much as by availability and that it's already happening in the USA where max demand was in 2005[?]

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  6. Mike Pope

    logged in via email @hotmail.com

    The only safe way that coal can be burned to generate energy is if Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS) technology is used, particularly by coal-fired power plants. After a decade of spending billions on this technology, commercially affordable use has proven illusive but continues to be pursued.

    If CCS remains unaffordable (likely) burning fossil fuels will be curbed as a result of renewable energy production becoming relatively cheaper. In some cases it already is.

    What is certain is that on-going use of coal in the short-term is not compatible with maintaining a global climate which can sustain our species. This is well understood and, notwithstanding the avarice of vested interests, will result in decreasing use and eventual abandonment of fossil fuels as an energy source over the next decade or so. Nothing is more certain.

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    1. Greg North

      Retired Engineer

      In reply to Mike Pope

      Affordable is one thing Mike and as you say unaffordable is likely and that could be a godsend for re
      " The only safe way that coal can be burned to generate energy is if Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS) technology is used, "
      http://www.pbs.org/wnet/savageplanet/01volcano/01/indexmid.html will give an idea of safety possibilities.

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  7. Peter Barker

    logged in via Facebook

    Interesting article Mike. Could you tell us if the figures for coal only include coal used to produce energy, or also the coal used for steel production? I think replacing coal for energy may be easier than finding an alternative for steel

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  8. Jason Begg
    Jason Begg is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Perpetually Baffled Lawnmower Man

    "So if we continue on the trajectory set this past decade, we would end up releasing about 140 billion tonnes of CO2 annually by 2063.

    While that is simply unimaginable, and unmanageable, it is the target we are on.

    As a species whose destiny is intimately tied to the ecological services our natural world provides, we just can’t afford to go there."

    It is very sad that this message just doesn't gain any traction in the mainstream...

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  9. Bruce Tabor

    Research Scientist at CSIRO

    Thanks Mike. All this is worrying!

    Just a comment. My sums are not adding up. The total energy released by the 2011 Tohoku Earthquake is estimated at about 3.9*10^22 Joules (the moment magnitude), and a similar amount was released by the 2004 Indian Ocean Earthquake.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2011_T%C5%8Dhoku_earthquake_and_tsunami#Energy
    Each of these relesaed nearly 30 times the annual geothermal you quote (44*10^12 Watts * 3600 seconds * 24 hours * 365 days = 1.4*10^21 Joules).

    So is the estimate of geothermal energy (44 terawatts) not fully accounting for plate tectonics, or is there some other error in my reasoning?

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    1. Mike Sandiford

      Professor of Geology and Director of Melbourne Energy Institute at University of Melbourne

      In reply to Bruce Tabor

      Bruce,

      Good question. The 10^22 Nm estimate relates to the seismic moment of the Tohoku earthquake, a representation of the force system (moment) responsible for the earthquake. It provides an upper bound on the energy available to for the rupture. However, the actual energy release is significantly lower because of a range of factors.(for example, earthquake stress drops are typically much lower than the total stress across the rupture plane, fault rupture planes tend to be much weaker than…

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  10. Ian Colditz

    Research Scientist in Livestock Health and Welfare at CSIRO

    As compelling as these analyses are, in my view there are estimates in the BP review of even greater importance. Each year the review calculates the ratio of known energy reserves to current rates of consumption to estimate the likely time to exhaustion of each energy source.

    BP's 2013 estimates are that at ** current ** rates of consumption the known global reserves of oil will be exhausted in 55 years, natural gas in 56 years and coal in 112 years. And Mike reminds us that fossil fuel consumption…

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    1. Mike Sandiford

      Professor of Geology and Director of Melbourne Energy Institute at University of Melbourne

      In reply to Ian Colditz

      Ian,
      the caveat is that so-called unconventional resources (such as the shale-gas of the US, and oil sands of Canada) are now growing the size of the global fossil fuel reserve quite dramatically. It's not looking like there is the shortage of accessible carbon in the Earth's crust, that we might have thought just a few years ago.

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    2. Gerard Dean

      Managing Director

      In reply to Mike Sandiford

      I suggest you change the 'we' above to 'you' Mr Sandiford. You thought that there was a shortage of accessible carbon, the rest of us didn't. In fact only a year or so ago you trumpeted the death of King Coal.

      As for gloating over falling Australian emissions, spare me. Much of the reduction is due to the obliteration of Australian manufacturing.

      When our great Holden Commodores stop rolling down the line, Australia will be a big quarry that ships iron ore and coal out and cheap Chinese products and German cars in.

      By the way, how is the long awaited Melbourne Energy Institute going? I am still waiting for the much delayed Transport Plan.

      Gerard Dean
      Glen Iris

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  11. Greg North

    Retired Engineer

    It is no small wonder that energy consumption trends are continually up and with plentiful supplies of oil becoming harder and more costly to get that coal will have a bigger place in the future scheme of things.
    A lot of oil ( possibly lower quality ) gets used for all manner of heating applications, (residential, commercial and industrial) and as shortages and expense becomes greater, so the pressure will be on even more to use that heating oil for other purposes.
    If gas or electricity from renewables…

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  12. John Newton

    Author Journalist

    A excellent and depressing article, thank you Mike. A few points in relation to the comments below

    1. Nuclear energy is based on a non-renewable fuel. And if you think it's hard to get a few windmills up against the bleats of eagles falling out of the sky and lambs being born with no eyes, wait until someone seriously suggests a nuclear plant. It is not the best option for many many reasons – community resistance not the least

    2. Renewables will never replace fossil fuel. Well well well…

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  13. Doug Hutcheson

    Poet

    "As a species whose destiny is intimately tied to the ecological services our natural world provides, we just can’t afford to go there." Unfortunately, the corporations which hold such leverage over us are not of our species and corporately do not care about the damage they do, so long as their activities continue to increase their lifeblood: profits. They can't see that there has to be a viable human society to wring those profits from. They have not noticed that they are literally killing the golden goose: us!

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