Just as the United States and China agreed on a landmark deal to curb greenhouse-gas emissions, the world’s leading energy think tank says that demand for fossil fuels is likely to keep growing for at least another 20 years.
In its latest World Energy Outlook, released on 12 November, the Paris-based International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that global consumption of primary energy — the energy contained in raw fossil fuels — will increase by 37% by 2040, driven mostly by growing demand in Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Latin America.
Crude-oil consumption is expected to rise from the current 90 million barrels a day to 104 million barrels a day, but demand for oil will plateau by 2040, according to IEA scenarios. Coal demand will already peak in the 2020s, thanks to efforts such as China’s to reduce air pollution and carbon emissions. But the demand for natural gas, the only fossil fuel that in the IEA’s scenarios is still growing after 2040, will rise by more than half, the report says.
The output from US shale projects, which has been booming — propelling the country to become the world’s largest producer of oil and gas — is expected to decline in the 2020s, the IEA says. Even so, there are sufficient untapped resources to meet the growth in consumption. And despite a recent slump in the prices of oil and gas, the IEA warns that rising tensions in parts of the Middle East and in Ukraine pose incalculable threats to global energy security.
“A well-supplied oil market in the short-term should not disguise the challenges that lie ahead, as the world is set to rely more heavily on a relatively small number of producing countries,” the IEA’s chief economist Fatih Birol said when the report was released in London. “The apparent breathing space provided by rising output in the Americas over the next decade provides little reassurance.”
Widespread safety concerns over the use of nuclear power mean that few countries — including China, India, Korea and Russia — are planning to increase their installed nuclear capacity. Nearly 200 of the 434 reactors that were operational at the end of 2013 are set to be retired in the period to 2040. Germany and other countries that decided after the Fukushima-Daiichi accident in 2011 to phase out nuclear power altogether are facing the challenge of addressing the resulting shortfall in electricity generation.
No country has as yet found a long-term solution to the problem of disposing of radioactive waste, the IEA notes.
The IEA reckons that renewable sources — mainly wind and solar — will provide nearly half of the global increase in power generation to 2040. By then, low-carbon sources, including nuclear, are expected to supply about a quarter of the global energy consumption.
However, the IEA also predicts that between now and 2040 the world will add 1 trillion tonnes of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere — using up the budget that climate scientists say can give the world a reasonable chance to limit the rise in global average temperatures to 2˚C or less.
That calculation will sound cynical to more than half a billion people in sub-Saharan Africa — the regional focus of the report — who live without access to modern energy. Africa’s poorest suffer in fact the most extreme form of energy insecurity in the world, says the IEA.