The Impossible Energy Equation

A spectacular transformation happened in the last 70 years that was not fully perceived by the general public. On one hand, the world population tremendously increased. The world population, which stood at 2.5 billion in 1950, now tops 7.6 billion, and should reach nine to ten billion by 2050. It would have thus been multiplied by four within one century. On the other hand, propelled by the benefits from successive industrial revolutions, the world population has been benefiting in the last century from a spectacular increase in living conditions, thanks to access to modern health services, food, clean water, and energy. Industrial revolutions have also brought wealth and opportunity to populations that were previously isolated. This has led to a massive increase in energy consumption. Overall, primary energy demand grew more than 45% in the last 20 years. This increase is just the beginning.

Global energy consumption is expected to continue to increase by almost 35% by 2035 (and 50% by 2050). The end-use energy consumption by industry is set to

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V. Petit, The Energy Transition, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-50292-2_5

grow 45% within this period, in buildings by 30%, and in transportation by almost 40%. Fossil fuels feed this spectacular increase in demand. On average, their consumption is set to increase by 25% by 2035. Oil shall increase by 15%, coal by 20% and natural gas by almost 50%. Electricity consumption, based on fossil fuels for 75% of its mix, will increase by more than 70% within this time period.

When burned, fossil fuels emit a variety of greenhouse gases which accumulate in the atmosphere. CO2 emissions take up the main share of greenhouse gas emissions. These emissions can stay within the atmosphere for as long as 200 years. Therefore, the concentration builds up as emissions continue to be released. The concentration of CO2 has risen by more than 40% in a century (OMM 2014). It is now 400 ppm, far higher than 280 ppm, the highest reading during the last 600,000 years (Durand 2007). According to the GIEC/IPCC (2007), emissions have grown by 70% in the last 70 years.

There is unanimous consensus in the scientific community that the increase in CO2 concentration will lead to unpredictable climatic changes. The detailed conclusions from the IPCC are supported by most national science academies in the world (National Academies 2009) and there is actually no debate within the scientific community on the urgent need to reduce CO2 concentration in the atmosphere, even though some scientists continue to question the models used by IPCC to relate greenhouse gas emissions to world temperature change.

The 450 scenario aims to limit the CO2 concentration level to 450 ppm in the coming decades (© OECD/IEA, WEO 2012). This scenario was developed to evaluate what it would require to actually prevent too high a concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere. According to the GIEC/IPCC (2007), this concentration would limit world temperature increase to two degrees. Achieving this scenario would require a massive reduction of CO2 emissions. CO2 emissions top today 32 Gt/year (© OECD/IEA, WEO 2012; © OECD/IEA, ETP 2012) and need to drop to 22 Gt/year by 2035 to achieve this scenario. Current forecasts, however, point to an increase of up to 44 Gt/year. While energy consumption is set to increase by 35% in the coming 20 years, fed by fossil fuels, the 450 scenario requires a drop of CO2 emissions of 35% within the same period. It is however currently set to mechanically increase by the same percentage over the period. This is the impossible energy equation which the world will face in the next two decades. Solving the equation will require that we deeply modify the way we use energy, and likely also the way humanity considers the world it lives in.

The “New Policy” scenario (© OECD/IEA, WEO 2012) estimates that primary energy demand worldwide will grow 35% from a 2010 base of 13,000 Mtoe. The 450 scenario would be viable if 2400 Mtoe of primary energy demand were saved out of this growth. This corresponds to taming primary energy demand growth by more than 50%. This is the target to reach.

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