As Oil Demand Rebounds, Nations Will Need to Make Big Changes to Meet Paris Goals, Report Says

Covid-19 decreased oil demand by almost 9 percent last year, according to the International Energy Agency. But it could surpass pre-pandemic levels within a few years.

Oil demand is expected to grow in the next five years, contrary to the goals in the Paris climate agreement. Credit: David McNew/Getty Images

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Global oil demand is expected to grow steadily over the next five years and quickly surge past pre-pandemic levels, a path that could put climate goals out of reach, according to the International Energy Agency.

In a report released Wednesday, the agency said that while the pandemic will have lasting effects on the world’s oil consumption, governments have to act immediately to set the global energy system on a more sustainable path.

Oil demand needs to fall by about 3 million barrels per day below 2019 levels by the middle of the decade to meet the goals of the Paris climate agreement, the report said. But on the current trajectory, consumption is instead set to increase by 3.5 million barrels per day.

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“Achieving an orderly transition away from oil is essential to meet climate goals, but it will require major policy changes from governments, as well as accelerated behavioral changes,” said Fatih Birol, the IEA’s executive director. “Without that, global oil demand is set to increase every year between now and 2026.”

While Covid-19 sent oil demand plummeting last year by nearly 9 percent, the report said demand is set to surpass pre-pandemic levels by 2023. Nearly all that growth will come from developing and emerging economies, particularly in Asia, and the bulk will come not from transportation but from petrochemicals used to make plastics.

Oil Demand Set to Reach New Highs

The agency, made up of 30 member countries including the United States, stressed that the future is not preordained. But the report also underscored the huge policy and other changes that will be needed—including faster adoption of electric vehicles and a doubling of plastics recycling rates—to meet the Paris Agreement goal of limiting warming to well below 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit (2 degrees Celsius).

Bending Down the Curve

The report did deliver some good news. Global demand for gasoline may already be on the decline, driven by improved fuel efficiency and growth in electric vehicle sales.

But that decline is more than offset by growth in other uses, especially petrochemicals, which the report said will make up about 70 percent of the expansion in global oil consumption through 2026.

To turn this around, governments will have to reach into nearly all corners of their economies.

Bending Down the Curve

Faster improvements in automobile fuel economy could cut global demand by nearly 1 million barrels per day by 2026, the report said. If businesses expand remote working and cut their air travel by 50 percent, that could slash another 1.7 million barrels per day, together with modest decreases in leisure travel. The IEA expects 60 million electric cars will be on the road by 2026, but governments and cities could expand incentives and increase that figure to 90 million.

All these measures together, however, wouldn’t be enough, the report said. In order to bend the curve, governments will also have to cut down on the use of oil for power generation and home heating, ramp-up recycling and expand stringent bans on single-use plastics. Only if global society takes all these steps will the world look back on 2019 as the year oil demand peaked, the report concluded.

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This uncertainty has put producers in a difficult spot. Oil companies cut their spending on production and exploration by 30 percent last year as demand plummeted, the report said. Multinational oil companies also slashed the value of their assets by $105 billion since late 2019 in response to cratering prices. Many governments and investors have been pressing companies to take this moment to shift their business models by continuing to restrain spending on new oil and gas development.

But the IEA warned this trend could lead to underinvestment in the oil sector and a supply shortage in the future. Companies and oil-producing nations are effectively in a guessing game over whether governments will or won’t adopt more stringent climate policies and hasten the shift from oil.

Not covered by the report is how those companies will help shape that future not only by their investments but also through lobbying and political contributions. In the United States, at least, the oil industry has already made clear it will oppose aggressive policies to shift away from its core product.