Fossil fuels are forecast to dry up, but not soon enough

This decade could see the beginning of the end of fossil fuels’ dominance as a source of energy, according to a new report from an agency that was formed to safeguard the world’s oil supply. It’s the latest signal that the global energy economy is on the verge of a dramatic transformation.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) came together in the midst of the 1970s oil crisis to monitor global supply and demand and foster cooperation on energy policy. For the first time, its annual World Energy Outlook predicts that oil demand will reach a peak and begin to decline in all the future scenarios the agency examined — and it sees that as a good thing.

In the most optimistic scenario, with countries standing by their leaders’ pledges on climate change, fossil fuel use overall — which also includes coal and gas — will peak around 2025 and begin to fall soon after. In the most pessimistic scenario, which only takes into consideration existing policies on climate change, fossil fuel use would likely stagnate over the next couple decades.

“We stand on the cusp of a new era,” Mark Campanale, founder and executive chair of London-based nonprofit think tank Carbon Tracker Initiative, said in a statement responding to the IEA’s new outlook. In its own analysis, Carbon Tracker predicted that demand for all fossil fuels would peak this decade as renewable energy gets cheaper and economies try to tackle climate change.

The speed of the energy transition, however, is still too slow to keep the climate crisis at a level humans would be better able to cope with. Greenhouse gas emissions globally need to be essentially eliminated by around 2050, according to leading climate scientists, in order to keep global warming from surpassing 1.5 degrees Celsius. The world has already reached 1.2 degrees Celsius of warming, and we’re seeing more catastrophic storms, floods, heatwaves, fires, and drought as a result. Breaching 1.5 degrees will trigger significantly worse conditions, scientists expect.

More than fifty countries around the world have pledged to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions by the middle of the century. Even with their commitments, global carbon dioxide emissions will only fall by about 40 percent by 2050, the IEA found, far short of what’s needed to keep warming limited to 1.5 degrees.

A fault that more progressive environmental activists have found with net zero goals is that they might not aim to reach absolute zero emissions. Instead, net zero pledges allow polluters to continue burning fossil fuels as long as they try to cancel out some of their emissions by turning to unreliable carbon offsets and still unproven technologies that capture CO2.

“The world’s hugely encouraging clean energy momentum is running up against the stubborn incumbency of fossil fuels in our energy systems,” IEA executive director Fatih Birol said in a statement today.

What’s more, the most optimistic scenario charted out by the IEA assumes that world leaders will be able to make good on mere climate promises. The problem is that the world’s biggest polluters, China and the US, don’t have actual laws yet in place to mandate fossil fuel pollution cuts reaching net zero.

The IEA called the Energy Outlook it published today a “handbook” for global climate negotiations scheduled to start at the end of the month. The United Nations climate summit, called COP26, marks a deadline for countries to raise their carbon-cutting commitments, five years after the adoption of the landmark Paris Agreement. There ought to be no new investments in any new fossil fuel projects if the world is to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement and stave off global heating beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius, the IEA determined in another groundbreaking report in May.

“Governments, businesses, industry groups, and investors rely on analysis by the IEA to guide their energy decisions. They have the power to influence key stakeholders, and we are counting on them to do so,” May Boeve, executive director of the international environmental organization 350.org, said in a statement today.

Hundreds of demonstrators, led by Indigenous activists, are rallying in Washington, DC this week to demand not only a stop to new fossil fuel projects, or an emphasis on “net zero” pledges, but a stop to fossil fuel drilling in the first place.

“[The IEA] report is an important milestone that hopefully sends a message ahead of these important climate negotiations, but net-zero is not enough,” Boeve said.