A source of power for states and a pillar of economic development, fossil fuels (coal, oil, and natural gas) provide nearly 80% of the world’s energy needs. Although their consumption needs to be reduced to combat climate change, this is a slow process because of the inertia of the energy systems in place, together with industrial lobbying and market dynamics, which organize production and energy consumption.

Access to energy is a key factor in economic development and one of the cornerstones of state power. People need energy to keep warm, cook food, light their homes, travel and operate machinery. The available sources of energy were long restricted to wind (maritime navigation, windmills), fire (from wood charcoal), river currents (watermills) and the muscle power of animals and humans – in some cases reduced to slavery. It was not until humans grasped the key principles of thermodynamics, and developed steam engines powered by coal, in the 18th century, that humanity moved into the industrial era. Nearly two centuries later, it is struggling to emerge from its dependency on fossil fuels.

Fossil fuel consumption, 2016

Source: BP, The Statistical Review of World Energy 2017,

Comment: The map shows the consumption of fossil fuels in 2016. In absolute quantities, China is the prime consumer, far ahead of the United States, which itself is far ahead of India and Russia. Once it is calculated per capita, this consumption is more reflective of lifestyles, which are particularly consumptive of energy in North America, the Gulf, South Korea, and Australia, whereas in Latin America, Africa, the rest of Asia and, to a lesser extent, Europe, consumption is lower.

Fossil fuels are produced by the decomposition of organic matter in the ground over millions of years – which means they are, by definition, non-renewable resources. Composed of a compound of carbon and hydrogen molecules (hydrocarbons), they exist in solid form (coal), as liquid (oil), or gas (natural gas). Their combustion, necessary to produce heat that can be converted into energy, inevitably produces carbon dioxide (CO ), one of the greenhouse gases whose accumulation in the atmosphere is responsible for global warming. A rapid decrease in our consumption of fossil fuels is now needed to halt the process of climate change.

Sources of power

Great Britain, birthplace of the industrial revolution, became the world’s leading power in the 19th century, its economic and military expansion founded on coal. Although many countries (France among them) have now stopped using coal, it still accounts for nearly 30% of global primary energy consumption and remains a major source of energy in countries that possess significant coal reserves. Intensively used in China (which alone consumes 50% of all the coal used in the world) and in other emerging countries (India, South Africa, Indonesia, etc.), it is also used in large quantities in several industrialized countries, including the United States (10% of global consumption), Japan and Germany, mainly for electricity production. Nonetheless, it lost its strategic role during the 20th century, when oil became established as the key energy source for mobility purposes. Relatively cheap, easy to produce, transport and store, oil today drives virtually all human transport (by road, air and sea) – and in turn, nearly two-thirds of oil production is consumed by transport.

Coal consumption, 2000-2016

Source: BP, The Statistical Review of World Energy 2017,

Comment: In 2016, China’s consumption represented over half the coal consumed in the world. But consumption patterns over the past fifteen years have varied according to region: coal consumption has declined in countries of the North (the United States, which remains the second consumer, before India) and Europe; conversely, it has increased in countries of the South (Asia, Latin America, South Africa, and Turkey).


Oil, a vital resource in a modern economy, has both a political and economic dimension. On the one hand, it is a territorialized resource, to which governments can control access – in accordance with the principle of sovereignty – by authorizing (or not authorizing) oil companies to exploit oil fields on their territory. This state control can lead to nationalizations, as with OPEC (the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) in the 1970s. On the other hand, oil is a market commodity, governed by the laws of supply and demand and traded in a globalized marketplace in which the price is set by financial markets. The oil sector therefore combines aspects of the inter-state sphere with aspects of the globalized .

Oil production and consumption, 2016

Source: BP, The Statistical Review of World Energy 2017,

Comment: The geography of oil consumption goes hand in hand with the geography of economic power (the economic heavyweights being the United States, China, Japan, the European states, large emerging countries, etc.), with the exception of the Gulf monarchies which overconsume. Oil production depends more on geological conditions. The main producing countries are the Gulf, Russia, Canada, Venezuela, Algeria, Norway, Angola, Nigeria, and Kazakhstan; all these countries have an oil surplus which they export. On the other hand, China and the United States, which are significant producers but also major consumers, have an oil deficit and therefore have to import, as does India.

Given this dual aspect and competition between oil-producing countries, security of supply for the major importing countries (United States, Europe, Japan, China, etc.) is based not on control of reserves or production, but on the control of oil trade flows, i.e. the sea routes used by oil tankers. Owing to its network of naval and military bases worldwide, the United States ensures the protection of these flows (especially in areas around straits) and has therefore become the de facto guardian of the global oil system, to the benefit of all oil-importing countries.

Oil trade, 2016

Source: BP, The Statistical Review of World Energy 2017,

Comment: This map shows the main trade routes for oil. It therefore complements the previous map, revealing how oil is diverted in the event of surplus or deficit. It is a global trade, with transportation carried out mainly by ship (tankers). Imports are quite often diversified, with a few exceptions (United States’ dependence on Canada or Europe’s on Russia). The major exporting regions are the Gulf (with Saudi Arabia in the lead), West Africa, Russia, Canada and, to a lesser extent, the northern part of South America.

Despite a (slight) decrease in recent years, fossil fuels still account for a high proportion of the global energy mix (nearly 80% of the energy consumed worldwide). The key factors explaining this persistence are political choices and the rigidity of energy systems and consumption habits: the heavy infrastructures in place (difficult and expensive to replace) and the interests of energy sector actors (including hydrocarbon multinationals) are making the transition to a decarbonized economy long and difficult, despite campaigns promoting divestment from fossil fuels (like the campaign launched by the NGO Above all these fossil fuels remain genuinely economically competitive, in the absence of a carbon tax to reflect the social and environmental externalities of using them (above all climate change). In many cases, the production and consumption of these fuels is actually supported by public authorities, or even subsidized, for social reasons: this happens with petrol in many oil-producing countries (Saudi Arabia, Iran, Venezuela, Nigeria, etc.), with coal in China, South Africa and Poland (where mining businesses are major employers) and natural gas in Russia (where it is used for heating on a massive scale). Ending these subsidies is often politically sensitive, because it directly impacts people’s buying power. Giving up fossil fuels to reduce pollution – and its impacts on the climate and on air quality in cities – has an economic cost as well as a political one, which explains the slow pace of the energy transition.

Change in primary energy production, 1900-2014

Source: The Shift Project Data Portal, from B. Etemad and J. Luciani (1900-1980) and US EIA Historical Statistics (1981-2014),

Comment: These graphs chart the development of global primary energy production between 1900 and 2014. The left-hand graph shows the steep rise in quantity over the whole period. The three fossil fuels, oil, coal and natural gas, experienced a strong increase – oil and natural gas in particular – but coal remained the primary source of energy until the mid-1960s, and today it is the second. The graph on the right shows the energy mix (the breakdown of production, in %). Overall, in 2014, fossil fuels represented over 90% of primary energy produced; only nuclear energy caused this percentage to decrease, and renewable energies remained marginal. In 1900, almost all energy was obtained from coal, compared with less than a third today, but the proportion has been stagnating since the mid-1970s, the period when oil reached a peak in terms of energy use (50%), but has been declining ever since.

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