The most depressing energy chart of the year
Coal has got to go.
16 June, 2018
The energy giant BP’s annual Statistical Review of World Energy is a compendium of facts, figures, charts, and graphs on global energy use. This year’s edition is out, and it contains one of the more alarming, not to mention depressing, charts I’ve seen in a long while.
It’s not the chart most of the media coverage has focused on, which shows coal having a sharp reversal of fortune after several years of decline.
Nor is it this one, which shows the rate of growth in energy productivity — the amount of GDP the economy extracts from a unit of energy — slowing all over the world, and the growth in primary energy consumption rising sharply in Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries:
Both those graphs are disheartening, I grant you, and they help explain why global carbon dioxide emissions, after holding roughly steady for three years, started edging back up in 2017.
As BP chief economist Spencer Dale explains in an analysis that accompanies the report, this is is evidence that some of the short-term, cyclical trends that were helping drive the happy results of the past few years (energy demand growth slowing, energy productivity increasing, carbon emissions holding steady) have played themselves out. Heavy industry is picking up again in China; coal is growing quickly in India and ticked up again in China after years of decline.
Most of all, economic growth accelerated. Renewables continued their gangbusters growth, but as long as the majority of the world economy is powered by fossil fuels, a macro trend like economic growth is going to overwhelm the rise of clean energy on the margins.
That’s what happened in 2017: Growth, which had slowed for a few years, serving to highlight the rise of clean energy, cranked up again. The connection between economic growth and growth in carbon emissions is not quite “decoupled,” it seems.
But Dale warns against overreacting to these short-term swings. He writes that “many of the structural forces shaping the energy transition continued, particularly robust growth in renewables and natural gas.” Year-to-year fluctuations are less important than those bigger trends.
Coal has the same share of global power generation it had 20 years ago
No, those aren’t the most depressing graphs. The one that spooked me (and Dale, who calls it “the most striking — and worrying — chart in the whole of this Statistical Review”) is this one: