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New BP data highlights persistence of fossil fuels

Global carbon dioxide emissions and coal consumption both rose in 2017, and the fuel mix in the electric power sector has changed little in 20 years, according to a newly released BP report on worldwide energy data.

Reproduced from BP Statistical Review of World Energy, June 2018; Chart: Axios Visuals

Why it matters: The findings underscore how, despite gains in low-carbon energy technologies, the world is nowhere near an emissions-cutting pathway that avoids highly dangerous levels of warming.

Trend-spotting: The report shows a 1.6% rise in energy-related emissions — the overwhelming majority — and follows two other recent analyses showing an uptick in CO2 emissions after a three-year hiatus.

  • The BP analysis also shows that global coal consumption ticked up slightly for the first time in four years, fueled by increases in India and — to a lesser extent — China.
  • Improvements in an efficiency metric called energy intensity — that is, energy use per unit of economic output — have slowed.
  • Overall global energy consumption grew by 2.2% in 2017, compared to 1.2% the prior year.

The big picture: BP Chief Economist Spencer Dale cautioned against being "too alarmed" by what the data says about the global shift toward a lower-carbon energy system.

  • He said that promising data in recent years stemmed partly from short-term cyclical factors, such as below-average GDP growth affected by weakness in energy-intensive industrial sectors.
"And sure enough, some of those short-run adjustments came to an end last year. But many of the structural forces shaping the energy transition continued, particularly robust growth in renewables and natural gas."
— BP Chief Economist Spencer Dale, in remarks prepared for the report's release in London

Yes, but: BP's summary of the report notes that the fuel mix in the worldwide electric power sector — which accounts for around 40% of global energy — is "strikingly" unchanged over the last two decades.

  • That is, the relative shares of coal vs. oil-and-gas- vs. non-fossil resources has not shifted greatly. While renewables generation been surging, its happening in the context of growing overall power demand growth that's almost entirely centered in emerging economies.
  • Coal's share of the global power mix in 1998 was 38%, and in 2017 it was...38%. The share of non-fossil resources has actually decreased slightly compared to 20 years ago because the growth of renewables hasn't offset nuclear power's declining slice of the pie, Dale said.

Quoted: Dale, in his speech, says he's more troubled by the persistence of this mix than the recent uptick in CO2 emissions. He called it "striking" in light of the major growth of renewables and policy efforts to shift from coal to cleaner fuels.

  • "To have any chance of getting on a path consistent with meeting the Paris climate goals, there will need to be significant improvements in the power sector," he said.

One level deeper: Here's a few other takeaways from the annual report . . .

  • Natural gas consumption grew by 3%, thanks in part to surging Chinese demand, and oil consumption grew by 1.8%.
  • Renewable power increased by 17%, with wind and solar accounting for the most of the growth.
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