18 June 2014

Increasing Carbon Intensity of Global Energy Consumption

I have been continuing to look at the BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2014, which was released earlier this week. It is a wonderful resource, kudos to BP.

The graph above shows the carbon intensity of global energy consumption from 1965 to 2013. Specifically, it shows the amount of carbon emissions (in tons) for every "ton of oil equivalent" consumed in the global economy. Thus, the consumption data includes both carbon intensive sources of energy (coal, gas, oil) and also the less carbon intensive sources (hydro, wind, solar, nuclear, etc.).

The graph shows that global energy consumption decarbonized at a remarkably steady rate from 1965 to the late 1990s. Since then, global energy consumption has become slightly more carbon intensive. In 2013 the carbon intensity of global energy consumption was just about the same as it was in 1991. Since 1999, this metric of carbon intensity has increased by 1.5%. The graph indicates that in the 21st century, whatever gains are being made by low carbon energy technologies, they continue to be equaled or even outpaced by continuing gains in fossil fuels.

To place this analysis in perspective: Cutting global carbon dioxide emissions by 50% (just to pick a round number) while increasing global energy consumption by 50% (another round number) implies a carbon intensity of 0.25 tons carbon per ton of oil equivalent.

For those wanting to explore a little deeper into why this analysis matters for how we might think about climate policies, have a look at this paper in PDF.


  1. So we were making proigress against global warming until we decided we needed to deal with global warming? :-)

    I suspect what the graph reflects is primarily the near-freeze in nuclear plant construction in the last part of the last century.

  2. In the west there is more than a "freeze" on nuclear plant construction there is an active shutdown program, for example in Germany and Japan. But in China and India, and other rational countries, nuclear is accelerating.

    I suspect what this graph illustrates is the growing importance of China, and the rest of what used to be called the "third world" to the world's economy. We continue to hold the comforting belief that what we in the west do and think decides everything, but that is becoming less and less true.

  3. Here's what appears to be that same metric, but broken down into different countries.


    It appears Germany has had success in reducing it's carbon intensity while also increasing it's GDP, but it has the advantage of being a massive exporter nation within the Euro (including fossil fuels), whilst the periphery suffers more.

  4. "... from 1965 to the late 1990s. Since then, global energy consumption has become slightly more carbon intensive."
    First thought: what happens if you divide the world into China and not-China?

  5. @The Right Wing Professor
    That's a good question. The decarbonization was occurring well before the nuclear power plants came on line and continued well after the last plants started operation. It is far more likely a function of efficiency gains in fossil fuel utilization for transportation.

    @Salamano Germany numbers are about to turn around as the nuclear freeze combined with new coal plants comes into play

    @Bill Dividing into China and not-China is pointless because the not-China enjoyed all those goods shipped from China. Thus to say that China is solely responsible for increases in carbon emissions fails to note that some significant part of this increase was due solely to exports. Another big portion is the buildup of infrastructure there as the economy grew.

  6. Since 2007 the US has decreased CO2 emissions by 9%, while decreasing primary energy consumption by 4.5%, resulting in a net decrease in CO2/primary energy decrease of 3.7%. The U.S. figures no doubt reflect the lousy economic performance during this period. China increased CO2 emissions by 46% and primary energy consumption by 52%, while decreasing its CO2/primary energy by 3.7% same as the US. Over a much longer period going back to the 1970s U.S. primary energy consumption has been roughly flat at 2 billion TOE. The U.S. is doing ok.

  7. you just tweeted that this is an excellent essay on climate policy ? http://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/jeffrey-d-sachs-says-that-the-fight-against-global-warming-is-mainly-a-technological-problem
    - It starts off by saying "If the world is to solve the climate-change crisis, we will need a new approach. Currently, the major powers view climate change as a negotiation over who will reduce their CO2 emissions" and goes downhill from then on. "Decarbonizing the world’s energy system requires preventing our production of vast and growing amounts of electricity from boosting atmospheric CO2 emissions." Oh dear.

  8. The decarbonization of the developed countries at the same time as the increased carbonization of the undeveloped/developing countries is a real green quandry. India, China, Africa have no intention of decreasing their CO2 production, with the two specific countries being forthright about it. It doesn't matter that the developed countries have outsourced their CO2 production (as pointed out in a prior comment).

    The responsibility for CO2 increases is now firmly in the developing nations. Global treaties are ineffective without the governmental cooperation of these; Greenpeace tilts at windmills if it thinks the solution lies with the U.S. or the EU.

  9. It is not unusual that when extremists hijack the issue of their obsession things do not improve.
    CO2 extremists have hijacked the public square regarding climate and energy and they are failing to do any of things they claim to care about. But the extremist opinion leaders and workers do manage to get really well paid.
    Now for some studies to question the issue the climate obsessed are too fearful to question: Is there a climate crisis worth all of this sturm and drang?