Summary

Although, in the global energy mix, renewable energies are still marginal compared with fossil fuels, they are rapidly expanding. Their recent development is above all a response to the need to combat climate change. However, the inertia of energy production systems and the reluctance of state authorities to make energy producers bear the social and environmental costs of their activities slow the transition to clean energy significantly.

The richer the country, the more energy it consumes. Access to energy is a key precondition for economic development, which almost inevitably entails an increase in energy needs. Every person in the world consumes on average around 2 tons of oil equivalent per year (TOE: the quantity of energy contained in a ton of oil, whether in the form of coal, electricity, gas or another energy source). Yet whereas per capita consumption is 0.6 TOE in Africa, in the OECD it is 4.2 TOE, with significant disparities: A Japanese, for example, consumes half as much (3.4 TOE) as a person in the US (6.8 TOE), despite similar living standards.

Growing electricity needs

Energy consumption levels depend not just on levels of development but also on each country’s energy policy and choices as a society. The energy mix breakdown varies significantly from one country to the next. China and India, respectively the world’s no. 1 and no. 4 producers of coal, use coal on a massive scale to produce their electricity, while Brazil uses hydropower, Russia uses natural gas (of which it has the largest reserves in the world) and France uses nuclear energy (which supplies 70% of its electricity, i.e. nearly 20% of its total energy consumption). A country’s energy mix might well exclude coal and/or nuclear, then – but oil remains vital for transport (despite the development of biofuels, used instead of gasoline for road transport in Brazil, for example).

Since the 1970s, global energy consumption has more than doubled, with little effort made to control it, let alone reduce it. Over the same period, societies’ needs have changed, with a fourfold surge in electricity consumption. This trend is set to accelerate, driven by growing internet use, connected devices and above all the power guzzling storage of computer data. After coal in the 19th century and oil in the 20th century, electricity is becoming the strategic energy of the 21st century. As it does not exist naturally, it has to be produced, using a primary energy source. While oil is barely used at all for this purpose (since the oil crunches of the 1970s it has been progressively reserved for the transport sector), coal remains central for electricity production in some countries (China in particular) and the use of natural gas – an energy-efficient source of electricity generation cleaner than coal – is steadily growing.

Growing awareness of the climate issue and rising oil prices during the 2000s boosted the development of renewable energies, which had previously been neglected in favor of fossil fuels. Despite lower oil prices from 2014 onward, renewable energies have not lost their popularity. While sustainable energy (renewable and non-pollutant) still accounts for a marginal share of the global energy mix, it has recorded exceptional growth over the last fifteen or so years, especially in the wind and solar sectors.

World consumption of renewable and nuclear energies, 1965-2016

Source: BP, The Statistical Review of World Energy 2017, www.bp.com

Comment: The curves show the age of so-called “renewable” and nuclear energies as part of global consumption. Hydropower, produced by dams, is an old form of energy and remained in the lead throughout the whole period. Nuclear energy had a sharp increase in the 1970s and 1980s but has since stagnated. The use of wind and solar power is more recent, starting in the 1990s, and in 2016 was still marginal by comparison with hydroelectric and nuclear power.

Wind and solar energy

These two energy sources have seen unprecedented growth worldwide, supported by government tax incentives promoting a transition to cleaner energy. China is now positioned as the leading producer and consumer of renewable energy. Wind power (onshore or offshore) is increasingly profitable, even without public subsidies, and already contributes a significant share of electricity production in countries like Germany, Spain and above all Denmark, where it covers 40% of the country’s electricity needs. Solar technology, wide-ranging in its applications (photovoltaic panels, solar thermal power plants, etc.), can still be developed further, but offers tremendous potential given that the sun sends earthwards 10,000 times the amount of energy currently consumed by humanity. Hydropower, the most widespread renewable energy, is making little headway despite its mature technology – and China’s drive to export its expertise, to Africa in particular – due to the scarcity of suitable areas for deploying it and the opposition it provokes due to its impact on ecosystems (flooding of vast areas) and societies (displacement of people). Biomass is widely used in countries of the South (charcoal), and biofuels are only sustainable energies if the resource is renewed, which is not always the case. Finally, other technologies are being developed, such as geothermal energy and, still at an experimental stage, marine energy (tidal power, current power, wave power).

Wind and solar energy consumption, 2016

Source: BP, Statistical Review of World Energy 2017, www.bp.com

Comment: The main consumers of wind and solar energy are China, the United States, certain European countries (particularly Germany, Spain, the United Kingdom, and Italy), Japan, and India. There is a clear preference for wind power, whose global consumption remains three times that of solar power, but this is the result not just of climate conditions, but of political choices and the ability to implement the high-technology infrastructure required.

Nonetheless, the development of sustainable energy faces a range of challenges: issues of storage and intermittent production (especially for wind energy), limited availability of the raw materials needed for these technologies (lithium for power-storing batteries, for example). Yet, above all, their expansion confronts the inertia of current production systems and the profit-focused mindset of the companies involved, which produce energy without bearing the costs of the pollution they are causing. Without a strong political will to internalize environmental externalities and bear the true costs of energy production (via fiscal measures such as a carbon tax, or by setting strict pollution standards), and while fossil fuels remain more profitable than renewable energies, the energy transition toward a decarbonized world will progress slowly.

Electricity production from renewable sources, 2015

Source: International Energy Agency (IEA), Electricity Information, 2017, www.iea.org

Comment: The map shows the production of electricity from renewable sources. With regard to total quantity – shown by the proportional dots or circles –, China clearly stands out as the main producer, far ahead of Canada, Brazil, or the United States. However, when compared to total electricity production – shown by the color shading –, the proportion of renewable electricity is highest only in those countries where a substantial amount of hydroelectricity is produced: South America, Canada, Scandinavia, the European Alps, New Zealand and, to a lesser extent because production is very low, Africa.

Renewable Electricity Worldwide, 1990-2014

Source: World Bank, https://data.worldbank.org
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