The 2014 BP Statistical Review of World Energy, released this month, is a rather dry document made up of spreadsheets and a few charts filled with stats on global energy production and consumption during 2013. But look behind the numbers, and what you'll find is anything but dull: A detailed accounting of how much energy the globe's 7.2 billion people are using and where they are getting it.
Not surprisingly, the earth's citizens are together burning through more energy than ever before. On the one hand, this is a good thing. It means that more people are getting access to more forms of energy, the primary driver of civilization. But in all these numbers we can also find the quantification of doom and helplessness: While they show that the United States and Europe have made incremental progress in their efforts to be more efficient and get energy from cleaner sources, those efforts are suffocated by the massive growth in fossil fuel energy consumption worldwide.
No matter how many times I pore over the numbers, I can’t help but be overwhelmed by the sheer scale of our collective consumption. Our unit of measurement for oil is not the gallon, or even the barrel, but one million barrels, counted daily -- one can't help but wonder how long the Earth can stand our draining desire. Pumpjacks and draglines work tirelessly around the clock to suck rivers of oil and gouge mountains of coal out of the earth, gulping energy to do it. Then we expend more energy to move all the raw material of our energy-driven society around, via pipelines or tanker ships, by rail and truck, with an alarming nonchalance. As you might expect, the bp report doesn't say much about all the pollution or greenhouse gas emissions that result from our fossil fuel habit, but it's there, in the upward curving graphs of global oil and coal use -- a trend to which no end is in sight.
Yet amid all the darkness, there are glimmers of light. We’re building up our infrastructure to harness the energy of the sun and the wind at a rapid rate. The United States burns through far less coal than it did a half-decade ago, and Americans have mellowed their petroleum binge in recent years.
Here are some of the most telling takeaways from this year’s report:
If there’s a war on coal, then coal’s winning on the global scale: Here in the U.S., cheap natural gas has eaten into coal’s share of the energy mix, so that in 2013 we burned about 16 percent less coal than we did in 2007. Worldwide, things are looking a bit more sooty, though: The globe’s power plants and factories burned through almost 47 percent more coal than in 2003, and took up a larger share — about 30 percent — of the global primary energy mix than it’s held since 1970. China has mostly driven the growth, doubling its coal consumption between 2003 and 2013, and burning more than three times as much as the US.
The US is pumping oil out of the earth at an alarming rate, but it can’t keep up with the world’s addiction: Oil wells in the U.S. produced 1.1 million more barrels per day than in 2012, bringing the total up to 10 million barrels per day — three million more than in 2009. Meanwhile, Russia and Saudia Arabia, the other two biggest producers, also upped their oil-sucking powers. So with all that extra crude, prices should go down, right? Not exactly. See, global consumption just continues to climb faster than even the U.S. can up production, so prices stayed stubbornly in the $100 per barrel range. That didn’t keep us from guzzling the stuff here at home: The U.S. is by far the planet’s biggest consumer of oil, burning nearly twice as much as runner-up China, and requiring us to continue to import 6.5 million barrels of oil per day. Still, Americans collectively burn less oil now than in 2005.
Renewable energy sources are growing fast, but still take up a tiny portion of the overall energy mix: Here in the U.S., we upped our consumption of non-hydroelectric renewable energy — mostly solar and wind — by 16 percent between 2012 and 2013. Many other nations saw similar growth, but we remain the world’s top consumer of renewables. But even that has barely made a dent in the overall energy mix. Here at home we still consume eight times more coal-powered energy than we do wind, solar, geothermal and biomass combined. Worldwide, renewables (including hydroelectric, which has grown considerably in China) make up about 2.7 percent of the total primary energy mix, which includes transportation and the like. Looks like we have some work to do if we want to decarbonize our energy mix.
Nukes vs. Renewables vs. Coal -- again, coal is winning: After the Fukushima disaster in 2010, Japan pretty much eliminated nuclear power from its energy diet, and Germany doubled down on its nuclear phaseout. Both nations have turned to coal — at least in part — to replace their vanishing nukes. Japan now burns almost 20 percent more coal than it did in 2009, while Germany’s coal consumption is up by about 12 percent (though down another 12 percent from 2003). That’s in spite of Germany’s tremendous growth in renewables over the past decade.
Fossil Fuels are a global commodity: To see how oil and coal and even natural gas move across borders and seas is like watching some weird game. We export natural gas to Canada, even as we import natural gas from Canada. We export a lot of petroleum products even as we import a lot more petroleum. That's why instability in the Middle East can impact oil prices so significantly (see price graph).
Americans are gluttonous energy pigs: So sorry, but it’s true. Our 315 million people together gobble up 2.27 billion tonnes of oil equivalent each year; China’s 1.4 billion only consume 2.8 billion tonnes. That’s two tons for every person in China, and seven tons for each American. Developed countries, like Germany, France, Japan, burn up only about half the amount of energy as we do on a per capita basis. Yes, we’ve gone on a diet in recent years, cutting consumption even as our population continues to grow, but we still have a long ways to go. The problem is, even as we temper our hunger somewhat, the rest of the world seems to be emulating us.
And that, my friends, is not a good thing.
Jonathan Thompson is a senior editor at High Country News. He is based in Durango, Colorado, and tweets @jonnypeace.