Energy Forecast Sees Global Emissions Growing, Thwarting Paris Climate Accord

A new report from the U.S. energy forecasting agency sees the burning of fossil fuels continuing to dominate globally, even as renewable energy doubles.

A natural gas facility. Credit: Sean Gallup/Getty Images
The EIA's International Energy Outlook forecasts growth of natural gas, coal plateauing, and wind and solar growing rapidly but not fast enough to bring down global emissions. Credit: Sean Gallup/Getty

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The U.S. government’s energy forecasting branch issued its formal international prognosis on Thursday, and it paints a picture of a world still so addicted to fossil fuels that emissions of global warming pollution continue to increase for the foreseeable future.

The Energy Information Agency (EIA) projected that worldwide emissions of carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels would grow 16 percent by the year 2040 from the levels of 2015, the year that the nations of the world agreed to the landmark Paris Agreement on climate change that is intended to reverse the trend.

Absent any policy changes, the business-as-usual “reference case” findings at the heart of the agency’s International Energy Outlook 2017 report can’t be squared with the ambitions of Paris, which demand quick action to bring emissions down sharply and avoid the worst risks of a warming planet.

The EIA, despite being part of the U.S. Department of Energy, conducts its analyses without regard to the policy agenda of the administration that happens to be in office. In this case, that’s the Trump administration, which the report noted has announced its intention to quit the Paris accord, has jettisoned the emission pledge presented by the Obama administration during the treaty negotiations, and has announced that it wants to rewrite the centerpiece of federal climate policy, the Clean Power Plan, which is being challenged in court by the fossil fuel industry and its mainly Republican political allies.

The agency said it had “tried to incorporate” the actions of other countries, including China and European states that have made ambitious pledges to cut their emissions, but that “a great deal of uncertainty remains about the full implementation of policies to meet the stated goals, because most commitments have been made only through 2030, and it is uncertain how they will ultimately achieve these goals.”

The report shows coal at a 20-year-long plateau, natural gas plentiful and growing, carbon-free wind and solar growing rapidly in percentage terms but not fast enough to bring emissions down in absolute terms, and petroleum holding its own as the main source of energy for transportation, despite the arrival of electric vehicles.

With populations growing and developing nations getting richer, total energy consumption will keep climbing despite gains in energy efficiency. And with fossil fuels holding a 77 percent market share, greenhouse gas emissions will increase in lockstep.

The report recognizes that China and the United States, two of the biggest consumers of coal, are sharply reducing their use of this dirtiest of fossil fuels, but projects that India’s coal use will continue to increase. The net result, it predicts, is a global flattening of coal consumption, with carbon dioxide emissions from that source barely increasing over the forecast period.

Natural gas will grow significantly, the EIA says. It is a cleaner fuel than coal, but burning it does release carbon dioxide. The report sees CO2 emissions from its use growing 1.5 percent per year from 2015 to 2040, as gas displaces coal. (Natural gas wells and pipelines also leak methane, an even more potent greenhouse gas.)

The report makes cautious assumptions about the growth of electric vehicles. Like the big oil companies, it still sees a long line of cars powered by internal combustion engines on the road ahead. In this regard, it differs from many independent analysts who expect gas-powered cars to vanish more quickly into history’s rearview mirror.

Despite progress in bringing down the costs of wind and solar, the report sees their share of global energy generation only doubling by 2040. The agency has long been criticized by renewable advocates for underestimating their growth.

“Renewables are the fastest-growing source of energy for electricity generation, with average increases of 2.8 percent per year from 2015 to 2040,” the report projected, saying the growth would occur in both the more and the less industrialized countries. In 2015, non-hydropower renewable energy accounted for 7 percent of the world’s total generation. In 2040, EIA sees their share reaching 15 percent, with more than half that growth coming from wind power.

The carbon emissions estimates do not account for agricultural and land-use sources and sinks of greenhouse gases, such as grazing cattle or forestry. But they can hardly be expected to offset unconstrained growth in energy emissions.