Where are we in the energy transition?

The annual publication of the BP Statistical Review of World Energy provides an in-depth look at energy statistics and their evolution. Let’s start first by recalling what we are talking about. Energy characterizes our ability to transform the world. And what better way to illustrate this than to look at the material footprint of the global economy? In 2021, humanity used 100 billion tons of matter – so about 13.4 tons per capita (there are obviously big increases). Half of this mass comes from minerals such as sand, clay, various rocks. Biomass represents approximately 25 billion tonnes, which includes agricultural production and the exploitation of wood.

For reference, world grain production in 2018 was 2.7 billion tons in 2018. Metallic minerals (from metals facts) account for about 10 billion tons of mined rock. Among the metals, iron (main constituent of steel) represents 94% of the total mass. About 12% of the world’s energy is used to produce the metals and cement we use.

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To illustrate the human influence, it can be proven that in 2020, the anthropogenic mass exceeded the total mass of biomass present on Earth. This anthropogenic mass is defined as the mass of all manufactured objects and includes in particular metals, rubble, cement, wood, glass and plastic. It is thus estimated that 1,100 billion tonnes (Gt) of biomass is present on earth. By counting the mass of all the buildings and infrastructures constructed since 1900, we arrive at the same total. This figure has doubled every 20 years since 1900 – and the trend has accelerated since 2000.

A relative energy transition

Let’s go back to the energy balance of 2021. Consumption in 2021 was 595 exajoules, up 1.3% compared to 2019. By removing the one-off drops due to wars or crises (the most recent being that linked to the Covid in 2020), global energy consumption has been on an increasing trend for 200 years. It has thus been multiplied by 26 since 1820, and by almost 6 since 1950. This corresponded to 15.1 billion tonnes of fossil energy, nearly 2 tonnes per earthling… This share of fossil fuels was 83% in 2019 and 85% in 2016. Some might see this as good news since the share of fossil fuels in the energy mix should drop sharply.

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If we consider in absolute terms, however, the trends are quite different. Thus over the past 20 years, fossil energy consumption has increased sharply: +20% for oil (knowing that demand in 2021 had not yet returned to its pre-Covid level), +68% for coal and +62% on gas. Which means that, far from decarbonising, we are always using more fossil fuels. And so we emitted ever more CO2: CO2 emissions increased at a rate of 1.7% per year over the period 2010-2019 (and 2.7% per year over the previous decade) and the sharp decline (around 6%) linked to the Covid had already been compensated at the end of 2021.

Admittedly, renewables are developing very rapidly. Since 2015, installed photovoltaic solar power has increased at an average rate of 26% per year, while wind power growth is around 13% per year over the same period. Between 2019 and 2021, the drop in oil consumption (-8 exajoules) was compensated by coal (+3) and gas (+5), which means that the increase in demand is mainly supported by renewables . An observation to put into perspective because the demand for oil in 2021 was still used by the Covid.

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But which shows the paradox of the energy transition: yes, low-carbon energies are being deployed rapidly (even if not yet enough), but the consumption of fossil fuels is not decreasing. While to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees, we will have to reduce our emissions (and therefore our consumption of fossil fuels) by almost 50% by 2030. Another way of looking at things is that this implies that 89% of coal reserves and nearly 60% of gas and oil reserves must not be extracted or burned. Because paradoxically, the reserves are certainly finite and diminishing, but they are also too abundant for the climate.

As the IPCC pointed out in its report released in April, the solutions to significantly reduce emissions in the coming decade exist, but they must be deployed massively. And yet, despite this and the climate and energy emergency, discussions on the solutions to be put in place (see the controversies over electric vehicles or renewables) can leave people skeptical about the rapid declines in the use of fossil fuels.

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