The world’s energy outlook

by | Nov 16, 2007

I was about to pull together some of the main threads in the IEA’s 2007 World Energy Outlook (executive summary here), but Martin Wolf beat me to it in yesterday’s FT, so here are a few of his highlights from the new report:

If governments stick with current policies (which the IEA calls the “reference scenario”), the world’s energy needs will be more than 50 per cent higher in 2030 than today, with developing countries accounting for 74 per cent, and China and India alone for 45 per cent, of the growth in demand.

Fossil fuels are forecast to account for 84 per cent of the increase in global energy consumption between 2005 and 2030.

Some $22,000bn (a little under half of 2006 world gross product) will need to be invested in supply infrastructure, to meet demand over the next quarter century.

In the IEA’s own words, “a supply-side crunch in the period to 2015, involving an abrupt escalation in oil prices cannot be ruled out”.

Sitting straight yet?

For me, two big themes stand out in this year’s outlook.  The first is the oil markets, which remain extremely tight.  The overall figures for global production are not keeping pace with the increase in demand; Lester Brown at the Earth Policy Institute argues that they show “a pronounced loss of momentum in the growth of oil production” over the last few years.  In 2004, the total was 82.90 million barrels of oil a day (mb/d).  This rose to 84.15 mb/d in 2005, and then 84.80 mb/d in in 2006.  In the first ten months of this year, output has fallen back slightly to 84.62 mb/d.

Naturally, none of this has been lost on analysts who support the peak oil argument – an increasing number of whom now claim that the peak was passed some time between late 2005 and early 2007.  Their attention has in particular focused on a report from the Energy Watch Group, commissioned by the German government, which concluded that:

world oil production … peaked in 2006. Production will start to decline at a rate of several percent per year. By 2020, and even more by 2030, global oil supply will be dramatically lower. This will create a supply gap which can hardly be closed by growing contributions from other fossil, nuclear or alternative energy sources in this time frame.

Not being a geologist, I won’t attempt to pass judgement on that claim.  Many in the oil industry vehemently deny that a peak is anywhere close, and since peak oilers themselves tend to argue that the production peak will only be definitively discernable in retrospect, a few more years of falling production would presumably be needed before a peak could be called for sure.

But what the IEA’s new energy outlook really tells us is that you don’t have to be a peak oiler to be worried about the energy outlook.  Although some investment in new supply is happening, it’s a long way short of the astronomical levels called for by the IEA.  Take, for instance, Javier Blas’s excellent FT analysis piece today, which quotes the Secretary General of OPEC – which according to the IEA will account for a rapidly increasing proportion of global oil supply – as saying that its members have committed close to $120 billion in supply expansion projects. 

$120 billion?  Well, great. Only another $21,880 billion to go, then.

The second stand-out part of the report for me is the climate change part of the piece.  Among the highlights that Martin Wolf picks out from the report:

Under the reference scenario, emissions of carbon dioxide will jump by 57 per cent between 2005 and 2030. The US, China, Russia and India alone contribute two-thirds of this increase. China becomes the world’s biggest emitter this year and India the third largest by 2015.

Even under the IEA’s more radical “alternative policy scenario” CO2 emissions stabilise only by 2025 and remain almost 30 per cent above 2005 levels.

Look at these figures in the light of the IPCC figures on emissions levels and stabilisation scenarios (here‘s the relevant section of the latest assessment report – you want table 3.5 on page 198).  According to the IPCC, the ‘alternative scenario’ – with emissions peaking in 2025 – puts the world on course for a stabilisation level of around 590 parts per million carbon dioxide equivalent, and warming of around 4 degrees Celsius (though caveat recent data in Science about the risks of predicting temperature increase from concentration data). And that’s assuming a rapid decline in emissions after they peak in 2025.  It doesn’t look good.

Wolf is refreshingly blunt – and right on the mark – when he says that on global warming, “despite the blather, nothing effective has been done or yet seems likely to be done”.  And this is perhaps the most challenging element of the world’s energy outlook – not just the need to meet exploding demand for energy while slashing carbon dioxide emissions, but the fact that in order to pull off this extraordinary feat, the real heavy lifting is on the demand rather than the supply side of the equation.  According to the IEA’s own projections, it’s energy efficiency, more than renewables, nuclear, clean coal and so on, that make the difference between the reference scenario and the alternative policy scenario.

The problem is, tackling the demand side is the hard part of climate mitigation – and domestic energy efficiency and road transport (as opposed to business energy use) are the really hard part.  Changes of this kind are all about influencing the behaviour, values, assumptions and narratives of a very large number of people; technical policy fixes don’t go that far here.  David and I will be publishing a paper next month, commissioned by the London Accord, on public perceptions of climate change, which has a lot to say on this area.  There’s a lot of work to do…


  • Alex Evans

    Alex Evans is a Senior Fellow at the Center on International Cooperation (CIC) at New York University, and the author of The Myth Gap: What Happens When Evidence and Arguments Aren't Enough?(Penguin, 2017), a book about the power of deep stories to unlock transformational change. He lives in North Yorkshire and is currently working on political polarisation and learning dry stone walling.