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Ever more energy, is sky the limit?

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By Greg de Temmerman

· 5 min read

The availability of abundant and relatively cheap fossil fuels, together with the development of technologies to extract and use them, are amongst the main factors behind the emergence of our industrial society. If many discussions evolve around the limits to economic growth, there is much less discussion about the ever-increasing energy consumption and its potential limit.

An ever-increasing energy demand

The world total primary energy demand has increased by a factor 22 between 1850 and 2019, reaching about 630 exajoules (1 exajoule=1018 joules). An increase which accelerated during the 20th century with a multiplication of almost 6 between 1950 and 2019- with no sign of stabilization in sight. That increase is explained by the increase in the average per-capita demand and by the strong increase in population. The latter has been multiplied by about 6 during the period 1850-2019. The average energy consumption per capita was about 71 GJ/yr/cap in 2019, about 4 times higher than in 1850. But this number masks extremely large inequalities. For France, the per-capita energy demand is about 133 J/yr/cap, it is about 265 in the USA and close to 600 in Qatar. The latter is 46 times higher than the average for Africa…

Those inequalities are even more pronounced if one considers electricity, which on average accounts for about 20% of the final energy demand. In 2017, electricity consumption per capita was about 140 kWh/yr in Nigeria and 400 in Ghana. To put those numbers in perspective, a typical fridge in France uses about 350 kWh/yr, the average electricity consumption per person being about 2200 kWh/cap. This means that inhabitants of those African countries use less electricity than a single appliance, which all households have got accustomed to in developed countries.

The availability of abundant energy has allowed a massive improvement of living standards in developed countries, as evidenced by the correlation, up to a point, between the human development index and the energy consumption per capita. The human development index (HDI) is calculated based on the indicators related to health, education and standards of living (through the gross national income per capita). The HDI is strongly correlated to the primary energy demand per capita up to about 100-150 GJ/yr/cap. Above that, strong differences arise- France and the USA have a very similar HDI but vastly different energy demand per capita.

How does the energy demand evolve in developed countries?

A proper assessment of the energy consumption in different countries requires to consider the energy footprint which includes the direct energy use and the embodied energy used to make products that are then traded. A recent study made for 44 countries on the hidden energy flows embedded in trade found that the ten most developed countries used in average 18.5 percent more energy than measured through the domestic primary energy demand. The higher the GDP, the larger the share of trade in the energy footprint. The energy footprint of developed countries stagnates or even decreases since the beginning of the 2000s. France, the UK, the USA and Denmark being good examples. The energy footprint of the EU a decreased by about 10% between 2006 and 2014. This decrease can therefore not be attributed to offshoring. Developed countries seem to reach a maximum in their energy demand and in some cases a slow decrease. The level of that maximum depends strongly on the country: the USA and Canada (both oil producing countries) have much higher energy footprints per capita than the EU or Japan. If the trends are clear, the reasons behind are not totally elucidated: peak in the consumption of goods (the ‘peak stuff’ postulated by Chris Goodall in 2011 for the UK, which is contested), deconsumption, slowed down economic growth, …

The energy consumption of countries is strongly linked with its GDP up to a point. It is clear that many countries will see their energy demand increase strongly in the coming years as they strive for economic development, and build the required infrastructure. In parallel, many scenarios foresee a decline in the energy demand in developed countries. The International Energy Agency in its ‘Net Zero by 2050’ scenario foresees that the total energy supply in 2050 (550 EJ) will be 7 percent lower than in 2020 despite significant increase in the global population and economic growth. This assumes strong improvements in the energy intensity of the GDP (twice higher than during the 2010-2020 period), gains in efficiency and behavioural changes. Since developing countries will see a strong increase in their energy demand, this implies a significant decrease in the energy demand in developed countries. And indeed, a recent report from the EU Joint Research Centre reviewing a range of scenarios compatible with the EU ambitions to reach carbon neutrality by 2050 found that the energy demand has to decrease in all scenarios by 20-45 percent. A recent foresight report for France also foresees a decrease in final energy use of about 40% by 2050. Those trends, stabilization of the energy demand as economies mature, decreased energy consumption in developed countries, and increased energy needs in developing countries imply that the world energy demand could reach a maximum in a not-so-distant future.

The elephant in the room, however, is that, so far, the increase in energy use globally is largely an increase in the use of fossil fuels, which still account for about 80% of the world primary energy mix. Electricity production from coal has for instance reached a record level in 2021 according to the IEA, and global coal consumption in 2022 could get back to its historic record of 2013-2014 to start declining only after 2024. This is in total contrast with what would be necessary to meet the climate objectives which have been re-affirmed at the COP26 in Glasgow. Transitioning away from fossil fuels will require that those countries can leapfrog their economic development by having direct access to cheap low-carbon energy.

Energy Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Energy & Sustainability writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Greg De Temmerman is managing director of Zenon Research, a think tank studying the links between energy and the economy. He is also associate researcher at MINES ParisTech PSL. He is a physicist by training, specialised in plasma physics and materials science. From 2014-2020 he was coordinating scientist at the ITER Organization.

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