Looking at the trends, it’s obvious that energy demand is growing. More people are demanding more energy for more affluent lifestyles. Our current energy mix is detailed by BP in their annual Statistical Review of World Energy. They have data going from 1965 to 2013. I’ve plotted the share of coal, oil, and natural gas in the world energy mix.
The International Energy Agency produces the World Energy Outlook each year. In their best guess as to where we’re headed with current policies, they suggest that overall energy demand will grow 37% by 2040 and that the mix of resources will be roughly equal parts low-carbon, coal, oil, and natural gas. I’ve included these projections to the plot above. Low-carbon sources experience the greatest growth which is good news. But the report also suggests that each fossil fuel will also experience growth out to the year 2040.
What about carbon emissions?
When burning fossil fuels you release heat. For the same amount of heat, you get different amounts of carbon emissions depending on the fuel. Coal releases about twice the carbon dioxide as natural gas, and petroleum is somewhere in between. So in most models, energy has corresponding emissions.
This ignores other important sources of greenhouse gases. For instance, land use change from forests to agriculture can add a further burden to the atmosphere. Also, raising livestock and cultivating rice can emit methane which is even more potent than carbon dioxide. Even poorly regulated natural gas mining could cancel the emissions-benefit natural gas has over coal if even a small percentage leaks from pipeline infrastructure.
But accounting only for the carbon contained in the fuel, check out the corresponding emissions given the expected growth in energy demand from above:
You can see that natural gas is less of a burden than coal, but that total emissions continue to grow because use of each fossil fuel is growing. I’ve added an area that represents the amount of emissions that Bill McKibben in his Rolling Stone article cites as the maximum amount (565 gigatons CO2) we can release to have an 80% chance at limiting warming to 2 degrees C. With a lower probability of limiting warming the IEA suggests that we can burn 1000 gigatons CO2, but this scenario still burns 95% (949 gigatons CO2) of that amount by 2040. It seems unlikely that our emissions would suddenly plummet to near-zero in 2041.
We all need to wake up to the reality of the warming climate and start advocating for change that will actually avoid the heavy impacts of warming beyond 2 degrees C. The World Bank suggests that we’re headed for 4 degrees C of warming and that:
the 4°C scenarios are potentially devastating: the inundation of coastal cities; increasing risks for food production potentially leading to higher under and malnutrition rates; many dry regions becoming dryer, wet regions wetter; unprecedented heat waves in many regions, especially in the tropics; substantially exacerbated water scarcity in many regions; increased intensity of tropical cyclones; and irreversible loss of biodiversity, including coral reef systems.
If you want to do something about it, join an activist branch of a group like 350.org or consider donating to grassroots efforts like Climate Summer, a program that trains students to become leaders and organizers in the climate justice movement.