1974 — That was the only year since 1965 in which global consumption of fossil fuels decreased while global energy consumption increased. In order to meet targets for deep decarbonization, the consumption of fossil fuels will have to decrease as overall energy consumption increases.
I am always looking for new ways to illustrate the magnitude of the challenge of achieving targets for deep decarbonization. An important step in solving a problem is understanding the magnitude of the challenge. In this post I am presenting the notion of the Green Quadrant as an experimental new way (for me at least) of visualizing the challenge.
Reducing fossil fuel consumption by 50% by 2030 — or more technically, the combined total of (a) fossil fuel consumption reductions plus (b) fossil fuel consumption with emissions fully captured and stored — implies a 7.4% annual rate of decline. Similarly, to achieve an 80% reduction by 2050 implies a 5.4% annual rate of decline. These figures are illustrated by the dashed blue line and blue line, respectively in the figure below.
The “Green Quadrant” — highlighted by the green square — denotes the space where fossil fuel consumption decreases while overall energy consumption increases. It is a lonely place. The only data point in the quadrant occurred during the midst of a global fossil fuel energy crisis combined with increases in nuclear power and even greater increases in hydro power.
Within the Green Quadrant the area shaded in red shows the range of global energy consumption growth rates of the SSP scenarios featured in the most recent reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (from -0.3% to 2.1% from 2020 to 2050, Median = 1.0%, and from 2000-2021 global energy consumption increased at a rate of 2.1% per year).
Reducing fossil fuel consumption by 80% by 2050 means that future data points on this figure — representing annual fossil fuel and total energy consumption — necessarily must fall on or to the left of the solid blue line. As you can see, since 1965 the relationship between overall energy consumption and that of fossil fuels is essentially linear, which makes sense as the world still depends on fossil fuels for about 85% of total energy consumption. So far, there is little or even no indication of movement towards the Green Quadrant, much less its far reaches.
I welcome your feedback. Does this graph make sense? Is it clear? When might we expect to see the Green Quadrant filled with data indicating accelerated progress towards climate targets? Does this graph vindicate those calling for intentional degrowth or energy consumption restrictions in order to hit climate targets?
All comments welcomed.
Does the graph make sense? Yes it does, When might we see dots in the Green Quadrant? Beats me. Does it vindicate the de-growthers and energy restricters? No.
To elaborate a little, while the graph makes sense, as many have pointed out it needs familiarity with the subject, the ability to crunch numbers and a bit of reflection before it hits you in the proper place. Thus I would say it provides another angle of the same view, but it is not easily accessible.
One problem I have with it is that it feeds the current "hell of percentages" that we are living in. Yes, I do agree that the relative movement of energy consumption vs energy source is interesting. It does feed the increasing number of people who see percentages as absolutes rather than relative. A lot of people actually believe that one percentage can be compared to another, directly. In this figure, relative growth of fossil fuel use in the 1970's is a very different absolute than the same relative growth in the 2010's. And that is important for understanding the magnitude of the problem.
I do not think the graph makes it easy to understand the magnitude of the problem ahead of us, nor what that magnitude means in terms of how we should go about facing the problem. I apologize for saying that without offering how it could achieve that goal, because I believe criticism should be constructive.
The problem is not merely one of energy use and energy source. It is also about quality of energy, which includes the rather important parts of energy density, power density and energy storage. Many of the solutions promoted as replacements of fossil fuels lack severely in one or more of these parts. And I really do not believe that one graph or figure could capture the complexities in this issue.
That said, I do believe you have made a graph that brings a new and important angle of view on the discussion. At least for me it is a useful, as I am in the business of helping global shipping figure out how to get from here to there in a realistic manner.
Andy in TX suggested coloring the dots by decade. That might be revealing, but my guess is that the decades would be spread out in uninterpretable ways (unless energy consumption increase shows some temporal pattern). More revealing might be coloring the dots by global GDP growth of the year represented. My guess is that this would show the direct correlation between energy consumption and GDP growth, which is also a valuable lesson. (Someone else suggested a separate graph on this, but you might be able to depict it by coloring the dots appropriately.)
Another small comment: There is a typo in the top blue box. It should say "implied by a 50% [not 80%] reduction from 2020, 7.4%."