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General · 16th October 2013
Ray Grigg
When asked by the United States government to provide a prediction of world energy use in 2040, its Department of Energy used present trends to compile a carefully researched 2013 study called the International Energy Outlook (IEO). The forecast is that the principal sources of power energizing our modern technological civilization 27 years from now will still be fossil fuels — coal, oil and gas (Michael Klare, Common Dreams, Our Fossil-Fueled Future: World Energy in 2040, Sept. 10/13). If the IEO's conclusion is even remotely accurate, then our long-term environmental future is not promising.

Some trends seem to be certain, according to the IEO. Energy demand from all sources will increase by an estimated 56% by 2040. Developing countries, particularly those in Asia, will account for about 85% of this rise in consumption, of which China's share will be about 40%.

Those who placed hope in the ascent of clean and renewable energy sources will be sorely disappointed by the IEO's prediction. The contribution of fossil fuels to the international energy mix in 2040 will fall from 84% to 78%, an amount that does not come close to offsetting the 56% increase in total energy consumption. The entire contribution of wind, solar, tidal, geothermal, hydro and nuclear will be only 21%, compared to 28% for oil, 27% for coal and 23% for natural gas. The minor benefits derived from a wholesale conversion to cleaner gas, therefore, will not materialize. Furthermore, any benefits gained from weaning developed countries of coal consumption for heavy industry and electricity production will be lost to developing countries using more coal.

Expect the search for fossil fuels to continue intruding on places that are geologically remote, ecologically sensitive and technologically risky. Dirty oil from tar sands in Canada and Venezuela will be more fully exploited. Deep-sea drilling will become more adventurous, dangerous and common. Hydraulic fracturing for so-called “tight oil” in shale rock will contribute an increasing proportion of drilled production. And natural gas extracted by this same fracking process — barely registering in production in 2000 but hitting 23% in 2010 — will constitute about 50% by 2040, according to IEO predictions.

The sobering consequences of the IEO's forecast will be an increase in carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere by an astounding 46% — from 31.2 million metric tonnes in 2010 to 45.5 million metric tonnes in 2040. Almost half of this increase will be due to the combustion of coal in China and India as they race toward industrialization.

The geopolitical ramifications of this heightened demand for fossil fuels will create new and significant global tensions. Both China and India, unable to meet their own burgeoning energy needs, will become increasingly dependent on foreign sources, and will likely resort to more aggressive strategies of investment and protection to safeguard their economic security. This tension will be magnified by the higher expectations of a rising population living in an era of more climate instability — the perfect conditions for raising the likelihood of political and social unrest.

The environmental consequences of this increase in fossil fuel use will be more extreme weather events, the incessant upward creep of sea levels, and continuing ocean acidification, each of which has the potential to be an extremely serious problem with global implications. The cumulative effects could be worse. Higher temperatures from elevated levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide and methane — presently 42% and 100%, respectively, above pre-industrial levels — will further unsettle the hydrological cycle, thereby increasing the frequency of floods, droughts and serious storms. Meanwhile, the planet's aberrant weather will create new dimensions of civic stress as countries struggle with climate refugees, infrastructure damage, internal displacement of people, allocation of blame, and reparation demands. All this threatens order, predictability, economies and governments.

As Shakespeare's Macbeth so poignantly and plaintively announced after his murder of Duncan began to have uncontrollable effects, “What's done cannot be undone.” Thus, the consequences of another 27 years of heavy fossil fuel use will create conditions which will be both unpredictable and irreversible. Some benefits may accrue from the brief splurge in fossil fuel consumption. But they will likely be few, isolated and temporary. Meanwhile, the costs to our environment, to our security and to our stability may be astronomically expensive.

Perhaps the most important legacy of the International Energy Outlook may be not be its predictions but its implicitly cautionary message. If we proceed according to the scenario it outlines, then we can reasonably expect a future that will be short in comfort but long in regret. We may continue with some semblance of normalcy until 2040. But the years beyond look increasingly tenuous. Mistakes are much easier made than consequences are fixed.

Of course, the future outlined in the Department of Energy's scenario may be inaccurate. Perhaps technological surprises and radical innovations will alter the energy equation. Perhaps fossil fuel corporations will relinquish their quest to exploit and sell all the lethal wealth they presently hold in known reserves. Perhaps we will gather our collective wisdom and direct our governments to institute a change of direction. Perhaps. Otherwise, the International Energy Outlook has all the attributes of a doomsday prediction.