Peak oil, gas, and coal.
It’s a possibility that many who believe the fossil fuel industry’s false dependency mantra look at with fear and trembling. Because, for years, that industry, through various public relations efforts, has perpetuated a myth that a loss of access to fossil fuels would ruin the modern global economy. That fossil fuels were so high-quality no other energy source could effectively replace them.
It’s a myth that, in many ways, competes with the threat of human-caused climate change for space in the public’s collective imagination. One that is not without a few valid supports. For the shifting of energy use away from one set of sources and on toward another set is a massive, disruptive undertaking even in the case where the new energy sources are superior to the old.
(This is what a real existential threat to global civilization looks like. From the 1880s to the six month cold season of 2015-2016, global temperatures warmed by 1.38 degrees Celsius. At the end of the last ice age, it took about 3,000 years for as much warming to occur as human fossil fuel burning has achieved over just the last 136 years. Dealing with what is a problem of geological scale ramping up with lightning speed will require a necessarily rapid reduction to zero fossil fuel burning over the coming decades. Recent swift curtailments of coal use provide some hope that such a reduction may be possible. But rates of fossil fuel use will have to peak soon and be cut even more swiftly to prevent a very rapidly intensifying global emergency. Image source: NASA GISS.)
But despite a few reasonable worries, the overall effect is to generate a decoy existential threat to the very real threat of a new global mass extinction event if fossil fuel burning isn’t somehow halted in very short order. One that removes innovative thinking and generates a false impression that there really is no way to effectively mitigate and respond to the impacts of an ever-worsening long climate emergency.
The World Health Organization implicates fossil fuel based carbon emissions as one of the greatest risks to human health this Century stating:
Climate change is among the greatest health risks of the 21st Century. Rising temperatures and more extreme weather events cost lives directly, increase transmission and spread of infectious diseases, and undermine the environmental determinants of health, including clean air and water, and sufficient food.
At the same time, many of the same policy and technology choices that drive climate change, such as polluting energy sources and unsustainable transport systems, also have large immediate and local health impacts – most notably the more than seven million deaths that are caused each year by air pollution (emphasis added).
Given what is a very real danger to human health and well-being arising out of the practice of burning fossil fuels coupled with potential human civilization collapses due to severe climate change, sea level rise, disruptions to the growing season, and extreme weather, it’s worth considering the notion that a functional world without them is not only possible — it is absolutely necessary. For shift away from what some have called energy sources from hell and we open up the potential to expand prosperity, to increase prospects for not just the rich, but for practically everyone. For by doing so we shift away from fuels that result in severe systemic harms in a transition to new, less damaging, more distributed and democratic fuels.
And with a massive curtailment of coal energy use, with a rapidly growing adoption of renewables, and with increasing challenges to growth in natural gas and oil consumption all showing up during 2015, it appears that just such a shift may have already started.
Today’s harbinger of what may well now be an ongoing massive move away from harmful fossil fuel energy is itself a bit ironic. For the message comes in the form of a new report out from the fossil fuel giant British Petroleum. And it’s a real eye-catcher. For this fossil fuel industry based report found that global coal use fell by the largest margin ever recorded. With oil and gas struggling to make up the difference, with the fortunes of renewable energy on the rise, and with fossil fuel energy use growing at a very sluggish net annual rate of about 0.56 percent, we’ve got to ask the question — have we reached the age of peak fossil fuels? And, if so, why isn’t the world economy falling apart as some predicted?
Record Drop in Coal Use
The big shock comes in the form of a massive 1.8 percent annual drop in coal use globally. Lead by China and the US, total global coal curtailment reached 71 million tons of oil equivalent during 2015. This was the greatest single annual drop in coal use in the entirety of the 50 year BP record.
(According to fossil fuel industry giant, BP, global coal use fell by its largest margin ever. Image source: Carbon Brief.)
The massive drop in coal also occurred at a time when prices for the carbon-emitting commodity were at or near historical lows. A situation that would normally stimulate demand — all other things being equal.
But with coal, all things are not equal. China suffers from some of the worst air and water pollution conditions in the world due to its reliance on the stuff. Its people are getting sick from emissions particulate related lung damage and from coal-based water contamination. Many are dying prematurely as a result. And since coal use is the greatest contributor to China’s air and water woes, China has undertaken a massive effort to curtail its burning.
Globally, coal is also the worst fossil fuel contributor to Earth System warming on a pound-burned for pound-burned comparison. With global temperatures now hitting near the 1.3 C above 1880s temperature marks on an annual basis — a level high enough to begin to inflict severe climate change related harms — world leaders are increasingly feeling the heat to cut coal.
No Global Recession, But Fossil Fuel Use Stagnates
Curtailment of coal use on such a large scale due to climate, health, welfare, and environmental concerns is unprecedented. In the past, large drops in coal use have only occurred during times of economic recession or when another major fossil fuel source such as natural gas out-competed coal on the global market. During this year of greatest coal losses, neither was the case. Coal remained competitive with natural gas on a cost vs cost comparison basis during 2015 even as the global economy grew by about 3 percent according to International Monetary Fund estimates.
(Despite stagnating fossil fuel use and plummeting rates of coal use, the global economy grew by 3.1 percent during 2015. Image source: The International Monetary Fund.)
Coal’s loss also comes in the context of a declining fossil fuel share in the global energy mix. According to BP, fossil fuels accounted for only 86 percent of global energy use — which was the lowest level ever recorded. Non fossil fuel interest sources such as the recent REN21 paper on the global state of renewable energy put that number even lower — close to 80 percent.
But the BP numbers look bad enough from the fossil fuel industry perspective. Globally, both gas and oil use increased by a combined 134 million tons of oil equivalent. A gradual rate of growth that follows historical lines for those two sources. However, when you account for the loss of coal, net fossil fuel energy use only grew by 63 million tons of oil equivalent — and that represents just a 0.56 percent annual rate of growth for the fossil fuel sector. This compares to a historical annual growth rate in fossil fuel use of 1 to 3 percent during non recession years.
Peak Fossil Fuel Use as Boon Not Bane
Rising rates of renewable energy adoption are the primary reason for coal’s fall and fossil fuel stagnation. Globally, according to BP figures, the net add in non-hydro renewables energy use was equivalent to 48 million tons of oil. A number that, if BP is correct, is nipping away at fossil fuel market dominance by achieving a rate of adoption similar to that of a mainstream energy source.
(Renewable rise while coal plummets, dragging down fossil fuels’ overall share of the global energy supply during 2015. Image source: Carbon Brief.)
Falling rates of overall energy gain for fossil fuels may well represent the start of a period when oil, gas, and coal begin to go into net decline. This has not happened yet. But it will be necessary if the world is to have much hope of preventing extremely catastrophic rates of warming by greater than 2 C above pre-industrial levels this Century. So the big coal curtailment during 2015 as the global economy continued a 3 percent annual growth rate was a huge step in the right direction. But to prevent a future in which ever-more-harmful rates of warming occur. In which 3 C, 4 C, or even 5 C warming becomes likely during this Century, then we will need to continue seeing renewables advance. Then we will need to see what would be a benevolent peak in fossil fuel use. One that is coming on a bit late for comfort and that couldn’t happen soon enough.