Betting the World on an Imaginary Energy Future

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Government leaders tell us that the world is moving toward a renewable energy future. At the recent COP 28 climate meeting in the United Arab Emirates, those leaders agreed to a transition away from fossil fuels to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

COP 28 was the thirty-sixth international climate conference at which some version of that message was sent and yet carbon emissions and temperature continue to increase.

Since the first World Climate Conference in 1979, carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions have increased 18 gigatons (+93%) per year (Figure 1). Emissions have risen 15 gigatons (+61%) per year since the first COP meeting in 1995.

Global CO₂ emissions have increased +18 gigatons (+93%) since the first World Climate Conference in 1979 and +15 gigatons (+61%) since COP 1 in 1995
Figure 1. Global CO₂ emissions have increased +18 gigatons (+93%) since the first World Climate Conference in 1979 and +15 gigatons (+61%) since COP 1 in 1995. Source: Our World In Data, Stanford University & Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.

Is the popular energy transition narrative valid or is it imaginary?

The world used almost 180,000 terawatt hours of primary energy in 2022. Less than 5% of that was from wind and solar. That’s not a lot to show for total investment in renewable energy of more than $16 trillion over the last twenty years.

Perhaps the truest thing to come out of COP 28 was a signal that present levels of renewable investment will need to triple if we’re going to limit global heating. That means that renewable investment has to increase to between $2.5 to $4 trillion per year from an average level of $0.8 trillion per year over the last 20 years, and $1.3 trillion per year over the last decade.

How will the world pay for that? For reference, the global cost of the 2008 Financial Crisis is estimated at $2 trillion.

It’s difficult to see any evidence that an energy transition away from fossil fuels is happening based on the data in Figure 2. The previous transition from biomass to fossil fuels indicates that transitions are additive. In other words, the world uses as much biomass today than it did in 1800 but the percent of total energy consumption is smaller because of the growth of fossil energy.

That suggests that the world will not use much less fossil energy in a few decades—it will merely add more renewable energy on top of present levels of consumption. That’s not a solution and is also the reason that carbon emissions haven’t decreased over the last two decades.

Coal use increased 24% over the last fifteen years compared to the previous 15 years. Speculative projections for its future decrease do not offer much comfort in the face of global heating urgency.

Figure 2. A renewable world is far in the future based on present rates of increase. Wind and solar accounted for less than 5% of global energy use in 2022. Wind, solar and nuclear accounted for less than 9%. Source:  Our World in Data & Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.  

The popular energy transition narrative is mostly good news. If we just substitute renewables for fossil fuels, life goes on more-or-less as before—just with more electric cars, solar panels and windmills. Sure, there will be challenges but those are mostly about getting the necessary commitments from world governments to make the transition.

The truth is that much of the net zero roadmap is based on technologies that do not exist today.

“I am told by scientists that 50% of the reductions we have to make to get to net zero are going to come from technologies that we don’t yet have.

U.S. Climate Envoy John Kerry

Another problem is that energy consumption and global temperature correlate strongly over the last 120 years (Figure 3). Fossil fuels accounted for almost 80% of energy consumption in 2022 and optimistic projections for its future decrease are speculative. We don’t have decades to do something about global heating. Projections don’t affect that sense of urgency because they are based on guesses using technologies that don’t exist today.

Figure 3. Global temperature and energy consumption correlate strongly over the last 120 years. Source: Our World in Data, Columbia University & Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.

In fact, carbon emissions, GDP, population and society’s ecological footprint all correlate with energy consumption (Figure 4).

Carbon emissions, heating, overshoot of planetary boundaries unlikely to decrease as long as energy consumption, world GDP and population continue to increase.
Figure 4. Carbon emissions, heating, overshoot of planetary boundaries unlikely to decrease as long as energy consumption, world GDP and population continue to increase. Source: OWID, Global Footprint Network , Global Carbon Atlas, NOAA & Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.

That means that there is a cost for lower emissions. Unless the future is somehow completely different from the past and present, the only solution to climate change is a radical reduction in energy consumption. Lower economic growth and a lower population will be unavoidable components of a renewable energy future. That’s not part of the transition narrative.

That said, carbon emissions from renewable energy are lower than from fossil fuels even including the fossil energy that goes into mining, manufacture and transport of wind and solar machines. The problem is that we cannot replace fossil energy fast enough because we waited too long to begin. Civilization’s energy splurge must end.

“Solar panels and wind turbines can power a perfectly good civilization for quite some time, just not this one.”

DJ White and NJ Hagens

Do world leaders understand this and the charts in this post?

If they don’t, it makes sense that they might mistakenly believe that a renewable energy future is possible in time to reverse the effects of global heating.

If they do, it helps to explain why they continue the charade of annual climate conferences without telling the public the truth.

A renewable energy future is probably well beyond the climate-change window of urgency. The plan to substitute renewable energy for fossil fuels hasn’t changed the upward march of carbon emissions.

Is that plan reasonable or are we betting on an imaginary energy future?

At what point do we call their bet and force our leaders to show us what’s in their hand?

Art Berman is anything but your run-of-the-mill energy consultant. With a résumé boasting over 40 years as a petroleum geologist, he’s here to annihilate your preconceived notions and rearm you with unfiltered, data-backed takes on energy and its colossal role in the world's economic pulse. Learn more about Art here.

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33 Comments

  1. Ian Walker on February 11, 2024 at 3:39 pm

    Here are two more statistics to include in your analysis:
    – Global per capita GHG (CO2e) peaked in the early 1970’s
    – Global per capita CO2 emissions peaked in 2012.
    (Source: Our World In Data)
    …Population is a key driver.

    • Art Berman on February 12, 2024 at 4:31 am

      Ian,

      Thanks but per-capita data is interesting only to humans. Total emissions is what matters to the planet.

      Burning fuel causes emissions so energy consumption is the driver. Population is secondary. A smaller population could burn more or more dangerous fuel and the outcome would be similar.

      All the best,

      Art

  2. gerald j hoefs on February 10, 2024 at 5:44 pm

    As usual, thanks for your insights Art.
    Given the failures of the previous COPOUT 28s, I can barely contain myself waiting for the solutions coming in COPOUT 29.
    Jerry

    • Art Berman on February 12, 2024 at 4:32 am

      Thanks, Jerry.

      All the best,

      Art

  3. Kevin J Dueck on February 9, 2024 at 4:50 am

    All human activity contributes about 1% to overall global warming. Read the IPCC reports. Also, read Steve Koonin-Unsettled.
    One must be careful not to confuse correlation with causation. CO2 levels on the planet are dramatically lower than they have been in prior epochs and are at dangerously low levels for supporting plant life. The main causes of planetary warming are things out of human control. Solar cycles, Earth orbits and irregularities in its rotation. Volcanoes above and below the water etc, etc. I remember in the 70’s we were supposed to be afraid of a new coming ice age. Follow the money and you find the purveyors of your propaganda

    • Art Berman on February 9, 2024 at 12:51 pm

      Kevin,

      The IPCC clearly states that human activity is the main cause of global heating.

      “Human activities have caused unprecedented changes in Earth’s climate.”
      https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar6/wg1/resources/climate-change-in-data/#

      I have written about Steve Koonin’s misleading book Unsettled:

      https://www.artberman.com/blog/steven-koonins-unsettled-much-to-like-and-to-dislike/

      As I wrote in that post,

      “There’s a lot to like in Unsettled but there’s also plenty to dislike. Koonin sees no reason for panic over climate change and believes that humans will adapt. I suspect that adaptation will be traumatic and will probably involve widespread death and civil disorder.

      “Whether or not we can do much about climate change, Unsettled fails to provide people realistic expectations about potential future outcomes. Worse, his incorrect interpretations of polar melting and the role of CO2 in warming give skeptics justification to dismiss climate change altogether. For its many merits, people deserve better information and guidance than Unsettled provides.”

    • Yevhenii on February 9, 2024 at 12:51 pm

      Гарно відпрацьовуєш гроші, які тобі платять xD
      Глобальна зміна клімату, незаперечний факт, як і те що вона викликана діяльністю людини.

  4. Frankie on February 8, 2024 at 9:56 pm

    I’ve been saying much of what you present here for a long time without much effect. I hope you are able to cause some meaningful questioning.

    Given there are no concentrated energy sources to replace oil, gas and coal now or in the foreseeable future, I see some very hard times coming for most of the worlds population and governments.

    If that is true, shipping our energy offshore, especially at the rates it is now leaving our shores, begins to sound anti-american.

    • Art Berman on February 12, 2024 at 4:36 am

      Frankie,

      My objective is not to change anything but merely to provide information and interpretation to those who are interested.

      All the best,

      Art

  5. Steve Genco on February 8, 2024 at 9:38 pm

    Your diagnosis of our current failure to address climate change is right on, but I think the renewable future narrative you present here is a straw man. It is indeed the narrative of our political and economic elites, but it is well-known within the climate science community to be pure BS. No responsible observer of our current climate and resource depletion predicament believes we can sustain this fossil fuel-based civilization without fossil fuels. You describe quite well the actual future we can expect once the oil stops flowing:

    “the only solution to climate change is a radical reduction in energy consumption. Lower economic growth and a lower population will be unavoidable components of a renewable energy future.”

    As you note, “that’s not part of the transition narrative.” I agree it’s not a part of the false political narrative, but it is part of many responsible degrowth narratives that do take our upcoming energy descent seriously. These narratives accept that the future is going to look very different from the past. They recognize that the end of fossil fuels is inevitable and ask “how can we survive this transition with minimal pain, ecological damage, and loss of life?” I’d be very interested to hear what you think of these degrowth narratives, as opposed to the straw man narrative you criticize in this piece.

    • Art Berman on February 12, 2024 at 4:35 am

      Steve,

      I disagree based on attending many conferences whose participants were climate experts.

      All the best,

      Art

      • Steve Genco on February 12, 2024 at 6:50 pm

        The popular energy transition narrative you describe (and correctly dismiss as unrealistic) is essentially the Green Growth narrative currently being promoted as the rationale for selling climate mitigation solutions to a skeptical public. It’s the climate scientists (not the mainstream economists or govt officials) who have pointed out its fundamental internal contradiction (which you also acknowledge): we can’t simultaneously grow the economy and also curtail our GHG emissions. We can do one or the other, but not both.

        So, if you could indulge me, perhaps you could say a bit more about what exactly you (and those climate experts you’ve met at many conferences) disagree with in my little comment? I thought I was simply pointing out a pretty obvious implication of your argument … that some form of degrowth is inevitable once the oil runs out … and was asking how you thought that would play out, if not along the lines suggested by the degrowth advocates. Do you see any hope for our post-carbon future at all?

        • Art Berman on February 15, 2024 at 4:45 pm

          Steve,

          Climate scientists are like all people–subject to their own biases, beliefs and psychological strategies for coping with cognitive dissonance.

          Almost by definition, climate scientists have a narrow view of things. This accentuates what I said in the previous sentence.

          Many of them actually believe that we can fix things and continue some level of economic prosperity.

          Everything is psychological in the end for humans. Those who are able to adjust to the post-growth world will have to do considerable inner work to get there.

          All the best,

          Art

  6. Chris on February 8, 2024 at 9:22 pm

    Hi Art,

    Thanks for doing what you do. Please keep fighting the good fight.

    I find it very interesting that there seems to be just about enough carbon locked up in fossil fuel to allow us to burn up the planet before it runs out. Does this “carbon pulse” have a meaningful tie-in to some bio-physical limit from past cycles of climate change? It’s just too poetic to be be coincidence.

    I also want to offer that there’s a lot of waste in the global North at least to cut once energy gets expensive on the downslope. No reason why people should be able to afford 9mpg SUVs to drive alone to work. I really look forward to the dorky golf carts with a PV panel as a roof being the norm. Good for the soul I think. Slower, smaller, more social connection, safer. It doesn’t all have to be bad. Have you considered system modeling of how marginal consumers turn off as energy increases in the future?

    I’m worried about poor people not eating.

    • Art Berman on February 12, 2024 at 4:33 am

      Chris,

      The universe doesn’t make plans as far as I can tell.

      All the best,

      Art

  7. Mark on February 8, 2024 at 6:31 pm

    Informed people know that liquid hydrocarbon consumption will be reducing soon as to how that pans out is antibodies guess.

  8. Jack Alpert on February 8, 2024 at 1:34 pm

    Thanks Art

    I welcome any design of a civilization that is supported by solar and wind. Let’s put some numbers into this model to demonstrate its ability to sustain itself.

    See:
    Sustainable Civilization Analysis Project 10 min video
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EEqCabuiHJM

    Jack Alpert. http://Www.skil.org

    • Art Berman on February 9, 2024 at 4:03 am

      Jack,

      I have stated my views on solutions and there is only one—a radical reduction in energy consumption. Energy substitution is a dangerous fantasy.

      All the best,

      Art

  9. kali on February 8, 2024 at 1:23 pm

    Dear Art, People are not even ready to accept a diet lower sourced in the trophic chain, to the detriment of their own health. Can you imagine the reactionary outrage if world leaders told people the truth about all of their consumption habits? As the German activist Tadzio Müller said: there is soft and hard support for such measures. Soft support is agreeing with harsher climate policy when asked on the street, like: “Sure i am for saving the planet, who could be against that”. Hard support means actually doing these things, living with less and not throwing a temper tantrum upon being asked to get a smaller car. And as Tadzio said: atm there is 0 hard public support anywhere in the world, not even in Germany where there was so much soft support. So my question is: how do we generate that hard support when most people are basically giant emotional children? That is the question no one seems to have an answer to.

    • Art Berman on February 9, 2024 at 4:02 am

      Hi Kali,

      It’s good to hear from you!

      My objective is not to convince people who are not ready to change their lives or their thinking. It is, rather, to provide information and perspective for those who are.

      All the best,

      Art

    • Chris on February 10, 2024 at 6:26 pm

      Hi Kali,

      Thanks for your thoughtful post! I agree we are all giant emotional children and hypocritical ones at that!

      I think the only mechanism of change is the price signal. Price signals will happen, rest assured, for any restricted resource. Governments can fight it in the short term, but not long. A globally enforced carbon tax is one way we might speed the needed changes of an energy constraint along that I could see maybe (tiny chance) happening. Probably we just run into the wall though.

      I highly doubt we stop being giant emotional children on our own. Just not human nature really. Not something I’m really angry about anymore.

  10. David Messler on February 8, 2024 at 12:42 pm

    If there is a solution here other than reducing the human population, I am not seeing it. The middle classes-where most of the energy is consumed is on the increase globally. We will use more energy, not less. Unless… In areas where renewables are being forced, energy costs skyrocket-Germany, California…so far, industry leaves or shuts down. Food production is challenged. At some point the population will begin to drop. Can’t happen any other way.

    • Richard DP on February 9, 2024 at 5:29 am

      The middle classes do not use most of the energy. It is the upper 10% that uses 50% of energy. All of those private jets flying into these conferences add to the carbon footprint. Why can’t it be done on a Zoom call?

      The same is true of other luxury items. I think it was Jeff Bezos who built a yacht so big that they had to remove a bridge to get it out. It was over 500 feet long. If the people who believe in climate change shamed these billionaires into not building these yachts and other things that increase their carbon footprint, then the middle class will listen to the lectures. Without that, it is not going to give up its far less polluting lifestyle.

      2% of electricity in the US is used mining bitcoin. Maybe we can regulate that.

      Art is right, and I think we will need to reduce our carbon footprint, if only because of geological depletion. We won’t have a choice. To start, I think that the upper classes will have to make some real sacrifices beyond buying electric cars.

      BTW, population is falling in Europe and parts of Asia. Birthrates are low. That is not because of starvation.

      • Rick on March 25, 2024 at 1:39 pm

        Hi Richard,
        No argument about who’s doing the most burning, but last time I looked it up, for N. America the upper 10% are those earning $25/hour or more, while globally the upper 10% are those earning about $7/hour or more.

  11. Scott R Relien on February 8, 2024 at 12:23 pm

    The Malthusian’s have predicted the end of the world since the time of the Ancient Greeks. In my lifetime the climate narrative has been ‘scientifically’ sold as:

    1. 1970’s, Global Cooling. Time Magazine front cover, Return of the Ice Age. Solution, cover North & South Pols with black coal dust to encourage melting.

    2. 1980’s, Acid Rain. All lakes would die.

    3. 1990’s, Global Warming.

    4. 2000’s, Oceans rise and flood the earth.

    5. 2010’s Climate Change. No scientists alive can argue that the climate has ever been in stasis. Lol

    6. 2020’s, CO2 (Plant Food by the way) we must end farming. Though farmers grow plants which consume CO2.

    Note: While promoting ocean rising/global flooding, AL Gore & Barack Obama purchased ocean front property. Only virtual signaling attention seeking people believe any of this plant food (CO2) nonsense. But yes, reduce farming in the E.U. to help eliminate CO2.

    You can’t make this ‘stuff’ up.

    The only common denominator in all this nonsense is W.E.F. attempting to control food & enenergy. Period.

    • Art Berman on February 9, 2024 at 3:42 am

      Scott,

      Everything you state is part of the shop-worn lexicon of discredited denial.

      I recommend that you read my posts on the psychological resistance that humans have for accepting what data shows to be true.

      We Can’t Handle The Truth About The Human Predicament:
      https://www.artberman.com/blog/we-cant-handle-the-truth-about-the-human-predicament/

      Here’s the first few paragraphs:

      “Climate change is as obvious as gravity. The only people who debate gravity have advanced degrees in theoretical physics. Almost everyone in America—regardless of training or experience—has a strong opinion about climate change for some reason.

      “Cognitive dissonance is part of the problem. This is what happens when two strongly held beliefs conflict.

      “Most Americans believe in the progress narrative—that human ingenuity, technology and hard work can overcome almost any obstacle. The idea that the effects of progress may be harming the planet, other species and future generations of humans creates psychologic conflict or cognitive dissonance. We cannot hold both beliefs at the same time so we deny the existence of one or the other—in this case, climate change.”

      All the best,

      Art

      • Frankie on February 22, 2024 at 6:45 pm

        The term “shop worn” may have negative connotations for some but for others but it can describe the source of the best information.

        • Art Berman on February 22, 2024 at 11:30 pm

          Frankie,

          I’m not going to argue with you.

          For me, shop-worn means equipment that has outlived is usefulness a long time ago. Using shop-worn tools risks danger to the user and those around him. Drive on a shop-worn tire, and you may get a blowout and wreck.

          Choose wisely.

          Art

  12. Yevhenii on February 7, 2024 at 6:34 pm

    The problem is that biological evolution does not keep up with cultural evolution.
    The only thing that history teaches people is that history does not teach anything.
    You can imagine the end of the world, but not the end of capitalism 🙂

    • Art Berman on February 7, 2024 at 9:47 pm

      Yevhenii,

      There is a lot to learn from history about human behavior.There is nothing unique about capitalism. All forms of economy follow the Maximum Power Principle.

      All the best,

      Art

      • Yevhenii on February 8, 2024 at 9:36 am

        The principle of maximum power falsely assumes that a system reaching the limits of expansion and transmission of energy will not try to continue doing so in the conditions of competition with other systems that are at other stages of energy and resource availability. If some system reached its limits and stopped and stabilized (carried out a controlled decline), another system would immediately take advantage of this and seize unused sources and resources for its own benefit. None of the existing conscious systems will allow this. Therefore, the only consequence of the principle of maximum power in conscious systems (civilization, economy, society) is collapse. Therefore, there will be no end to mining, expansion, wars, capitalism, etc. until the very end.

        • Art Berman on February 9, 2024 at 3:37 am

          Yevhenii,

          Since you want to correct my views, perhaps you should write your own posts.

          All the best,

          Art

          • Yevhenii on February 9, 2024 at 7:22 am

            Dear Arthur!
            I’m not questioning Your posts in any way, I’m questioning Odum and Pinkerton’s conclusions, which suggest that “conscious systems” can collectively decide to stop futile growth attempts. The only way out of the crisis in which we found ourselves will be collapse. There will be no collective decision. Only some of those who are familiar with such conclusions as Yours will be able to untangle themselves 🙂
            Good luck!



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