Back in Black: Fossil Fuels the Energy Carriers of the Future?

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supporting information: [1], [2], [3], [4], [5]


The global energy map is changing, with potentially far-reaching consequences for energy markets and trade. It is being redrawn by the resurgence in oil and gas production in the United States and could be further reshaped by a retreat from nuclear power in some countries, continued rapid growth in the use of wind and solar technologies and by the global spread of unconventional gas production. Perspectives for international oil markets hinge on Iraq’s success in revitalising its oil sector. If new policy initiatives are broadened and implemented in a concerted effort to improve global energy efficiency, this could likewise be a game-changer. On the basis of global scenarios and multiple case studies, this World Energy Outlook assesses how these new developments might affect global energy and climate trends over the coming decades. It examines their impact on the critical challenges facing the energy system: to meet the world’s ever-growing energy needs, led by rising incomes and populations in emerging economies; to provide energy access to the world’s poorest; and to bring the world towards meeting its climate change objectives. Taking all new developments and policies into account, the world is still failing to put the global energy system onto a more sustainable path. Global energy demand grows by more than one-third over the period to 2035 in the New Policies Scenario (our  central scenario), with China, India and the Middle East accounting for 60% of the increase. Energy demand barely rises in OECD countries, although there is a pronounced shift away from oil, coal (and, in some countries, nuclear) towards natural gas and renewables. Despite the growth in low-carbon sources of energy, fossil fuels remain dominant in the global energy mix, supported by subsidies that amounted to $523 billion in 2011, up almost 30% on 2010 and six times more than subsidies to renewables. The cost of fossil-fuel subsidies has been driven up by higher oil prices; they remain most prevalent in the Middle East and North Africa, where momentum towards their reform appears to have been lost. Emissions in the New Policies Scenario correspond to a long-term average global temperature increase of 3.6 °C.

Energy developments in the United States are profound and their effect will be felt well beyond North America – and the energy sector. The recent rebound in US oil and gas production, driven by upstream technologies that are unlocking light tight oil and shale gas resources, is spurring economic activity – with less expensive gas and electricity prices giving industry a competitive edge – and steadily changing the role of North America in global energy trade. By around 2020, the United States is projected to become the largest global oil producer (overtaking Saudi Arabia until the mid-2020s) and starts to see the impact of new fuel-efficiency measures in transport. The result is a continued fall in US oil imports, to the extent that North America becomes a net oil exporter around 2030. This accelerates the switch in direction of international oil trade towards Asia, putting a focus on the security of the strategic routes that bring Middle East oil to Asian markets. The United States, which currently imports around 20% of its total energy needs, becomes all but self-sufficient in net terms – a dramatic reversal of the trend seen in most other energy-importing countries. Continue...