No more than one-third of proven reserves of fossil fuels can be consumed prior to 2050 if the world is to achieve the 2 °C goal, unless carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology is widely deployed.

- 2012 IEA World Energy Outlook

Because our modern lives run on various forms of energy, we need to find a way to manage our energy challenges before they begin to manage us.

- Professor Nathan Lewis, Lewis Research Group, California Institute of Technology

Energy and economic activity are linked. That’s one of the big reasons that humans find it so difficult to share energy resources and the obligations that come with them. It’s unlikely that citizens of the rich world will willingly part with their high standards of living. It’s even less likely that the world’s poor will cease the push to increase their own.

- Ozzie Zehner, Author of Green Illusions

The fossil fuel industry is a relatively new industry but it has come to dominate the production of global energy. Our modern society is dangerously dependent on it. Without it, it could not run. For this reason, our modern fossil-fuel based modern society has become the ultimate progress trap of all times.
There is a big question about whether renewable energy can replace in a few years, the entire fossil fuel system evolved over a century. In 2013, fossil fuel comprised 82% of the total energy mix and by 2035, The IEA projects that it will still comprise 75% [Birol 2013]. Obviously, this is only possible if Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) technology comes of age. Currently the IEA is very worried at the slowness of progress in CCS.

Author Robert Jensen states that the attitude of domination of nature was accelerated exponentially by two critical singularities in human history; agriculture and the industrial revolution.

The agricultural revolution started about 10,000 years ago. Two crucial things resulted from that, one ecological and one political:

  1. Ecologically, the invention of agriculture kicked off an intensive human assault on natural systems. Gathering-hunting humans were capable of damaging a local ecosystem, but the large-scale destruction we cope with today has its origins in agriculture when humans began exhausting the energy-rich carbon of the soil. (Jensen, 2013)
  2. Politically, the ability to stockpile food made possible concentrations of power and resulting hierarchies that were foreign to gathering-hunting societies. Again, this is not to say that humans were not capable of doing bad things to each other prior to agriculture, but only that what we understand, as large-scale institutionalized oppression has its roots in agriculture. We need not romanticize pre-agricultural life to recognize the ways in which agriculture made possible dramatically different levels of unsustainability and injustice. (Jensen, 2013)

We are stuck in a trap of consumption. The rich want to keep their spoils and the poor cannot stop striving towards them. Both these trends are responsible for increasing demand on dwindling fossil fuels and resources.  The extensive use of fossil fuels creates the dual problem of Peak Oil and Global Warming. Economists of the unlimited growth school blindly say growth is good. Really?- is it really prudent to stoke the fires of consumption when their net effect is resource depletion, runaway pollution and social unrest?

The 2 Deg. C global temperature limit however, is a hard limit that even traditional energy agencies like the IEA respect. Humanity has already burned through a lot of carbon and to keep below this limit, we only have a limited supply left to burn. The rest is called unburnable carbon. This poses a grave economic threat to the fossil fuel industry as their stock market valuation is based upon exploiting their future reserves. However, the amount we can safely burn is far less than the total available reserves. Stranded assets are a threat to the bottom line of all fossil fuel businesses.

The Energy Information Administration (EIA) of the US government released a graph showing energy usage since the 1800’s


Figure 1: History of energy usage in the United States (Source: EIA)


The interesting thing to note about this graph is coal. Everytime a new energy source became available, coal use decreased. However, after awhile, it’s usage climbed up again. It happened with oil, then natural gas and it will probably happen with renewables as well. Both the EIA and the IEA show oil, gas and coal still dominating energy usage by 2050 with up to 70% of the market. This explains the IEA’s urgency in developing clean coal and Carbon Capture and Storage technology to allow the continual usage of fossil fuels while capturing and mitigating their dirty emissions.


This is our Energy Reality – Promoting the new photo book – ENERGY: Overdevelopment & the Delusion of Endless Growth (Source: Post Carbon Institute)

Energy Addiction

Our entire modern society depends on Energy. Without it, it would collapse. In particuliar, we depend on Fossil Fuels. When combined, oil, natural gas and coal make up a whopping 80% of the total global energy supply. The remaining 20% is mostly biomass and nuclear. Renewables account for only 2%. The big question is, do we have enough time to develop alternative energy sources to replace carbon sources? To scale from 2% to 80% in a few decades will be one of the greatest feats of human civilization.

Diminishing oil supplies along with unabated CO2 emissions act like a tightening vice squeezing us from both sides. As these pressures continue to mount, the time window for an effective response grows smaller and smaller. Not only does the North consume most of the world’s supply of carbon-based energy, but, incredibly it wastes over half of it.

Figure 2: Global Energy Consumption was a total of 13.5 Terrawatts in 2001 (Source: Powering the Planet, Nathan S. Lewis, California Institute of Technology)


Figure 3: Global Power Plant Map (Source: GE Industrial Internet: Pushing the Boundaries of Minds and Machines, Nov 2012)


Global energy supplies for oil are already flatlined as shown here and it’s only going to get worse. Cheap dirty fuel powers the majority of our society but our global tank is beginning to run dry. There are important questions that we, as a society must ask:

  1. Is it actually economically and ecologically viable to continue the high energy use paradigm that developed countries have grown accustomed to?
  2. If so, can renewables realistically scale to replace cheap, dirty energy supplies? – At this point in time, there is no concrete roadmap to do this.
  3. If not, how do we gracefully degrade from a high energy consumption society to a low one?

Some Projections of Global Future Energy Needs

Below are a number of different analysis of future global energy requirements. The first youtube analysis is from Wes Hermann, 2006, the second is from Dr. Nathan Lewis from the University of California Berkeley and the third is from the International Energy Agency (IEA). While Lewis uses units of Terrawatts, the IEA uses units of Exajoules.

Wes Hermann, 2006 – Quantifying Global Exergy Sources

Exergy is defined is usable energy (ie. low temperature heat is not usable) 


Annual global energy usage from Wes Hermann, Quantifying Global Exergy Sources 2006 Energy 31 (12) :1349-1366 presented by Linda Vanasupa
Renewable vs nonrenewable energy sources presented by Linda Vanasupa

Lewis Research Group Projections

Top row (tree): Adam Pietrick, Matt Bierman, James McKone, Chengxiang Xiang, Jessie Ku, Nick Strandwitz, Qixi Mi, Leslie O’Leary, Jacob Good, Shane Ardo
Second row (standing): Joseph Beardslee, SangHee Park, Andrew Meng, Tina Ding, Emily Warren, Rob Rosenberg
Third row (standing and sitting): Matt Shaner, Ben Yin, Heather Audesirk, David Gleason-Roher, Rob Coridan, Greg Kimball, Craig Wiggenhorn, Bryce Satler, Mike Rose, Glorious Leader
Fourth row (sitting): Liz Santori, Bruce Brunschwig


The Lewis Research Group at Caltech has been performing extensive analysis of total global energy requirements in an attempt to genetically engineer a new plant that converts sunlight directly into energy.  Table below is taken from professor Nathan S. Lewis’s 2006 research paper entitled:  Powering the planet: Chemical challenges in solar energy utilization

(Source: Lewis et al, Powering the planet: Chemical challenges in solar energy utilization, 2006)

The main figure to note is the Energy Consumption Rate. It is 13.5 Terrawatts in 2001 and projected to double to 27.6 by mid-century. Note how Carbon Emission and Equivalent CO2 Emission is predicted to continue increasing into 2100 in a Business-as-usual model, pushing already unacceptable CO2 levels to  critically dangerous levels.

These figures are based on a Business-as-usual model in which society maintains unsustainable levels of economic growth, replicating current high energy consumption lifestyle.

The Big Questions we must ask are:

  1. Where will we find between 13.5 and 27.6 Terrawatts of Carbon Neutral Power so that we may avoid the potentially devastating harm of Peak Oil or Global Warming?
  2. If we cannot find or develop these energy sources in time, how do we scale down our energy usage?

As we shall, see, it is no easy feat to find a sustainable substitute for cheap but non-renewable and dirty fossil fuels.  Carbon based fuels have extremely high energy densities which few other forms of alternative energy can match.

Energy Returned On Energy Invested (EROI)

Oil has an extremely high energy density. One barrel of oil is equivalent to about 32,000 hours of human labor.  Another key factor in is called the Energy Returned On Investment. This is the amount of energy we must invest into a fuel source before it can perform useful work for us. It is figure that measures the return on investment in energy production and is the ratio of energy invested to energy returned. When oil was first discovered, the EROI was at its highest level, perhaps around 100 to 1. That is, 1 barrel of oil worth of energy was expended to produce 100 barrels of oil output. As resources are depleted due to increasing demand, it becomes more and more difficult to extract the same amount of energy because those resources are increasingly difficult to get to.

Figure 4: EROI and Net Energy Cliff


The EROI can be plotted on an EROI graph. For many renewables, they have a very low EROI compared to fossil fuels. For finite resources, as supplies dwindle, we must invest more energy and risk to extract the resource. Witness the risk that did not pay off for BP’s oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. The part of the EROI curve where the amount of energy invested begins to be equal to the amount of energy invested is called the Net Energy Cliff. This is where the amount of energy required becomes so large that it is no longer economically feasible to extract the energy. Notice how many renewable energy sources have a low EROI so sit near the Net Energy Cliff.

In light of this, we must seriously ask whether the only practical solution will be to radically downsize our per capital energy consumption. This is, of course, a question only for developed countries, since developing countries in general have very low per capita energy consumption. One consequence of the Lewis research group study is that in order to avoid catastrophic temperature rise,  we must leave most of the carbon fuels in the ground. This has huge implications for the economy as most fossil fuel companies are capitalized to find future deposits based on the assumption that we can burn them. This assumption turns out to be false and what we have is an incredible market bubble called the Carbon bubble.

This all begs the question: :

Where are we going to find all that energy from to sustain this amount of economic growth?

Click here for the Lewis Research Groups detailed analysis

International Energy Agency Outlooks and Projections

Executive Summary of IEA 2012 World Energy Outlook, Global Warming Section

Taking all new developments and policies into account, the world is still failing to put the global energy system onto a more sustainable path. Global energy demand grows by more than one-third over the period to 2035 in the New Policies Scenario (our central scenario), with China, India and the Middle East accounting for 60% of the increase.

Energy demand barely rises in OECD countries, although there is a pronounced shift away from oil, coal (and, in some countries, nuclear) towards natural gas and renewables. Despite the growth in lowcarbon sources of energy, fossil fuels remain dominant in the global energy mix, supported by subsidies that amounted to $523 billion in 2011, up almost 30% on 2010 and six times more than subsidies to renewables. The cost of fossil-fuel subsidies has been driven up by higher oil prices; they remain most prevalent in the Middle East and North Africa, where momentum towards their reform appears to have been lost. Emissions in the New Policies Scenario correspond to a long-term average global temperature increase of 3.6 °C.

Successive editions of this report have shown that the climate goal of limiting warming to 2 °C is becoming more difficult and more costly with each year that passes. Our 450 Scenario examines the actions necessary to achieve this goal and finds that almost four-fifths of the CO2 emissions allowable by 2035 are already locked-in by existing power plants, factories, buildings, etc. If action to reduce CO2 emissions is not taken before 2017, all the allowable CO2 emissions would be locked-in by energy infrastructure existing at that time. Rapid deployment of energy-efficient technologies – as in our Efficient World Scenario – would postpone this complete lock-in to 2022, buying time to secure a much needed global agreement to cut greenhouse-gas emissions.

No more than one-third of proven reserves of fossil fuels can be consumed prior to 2050 if the world is to achieve the 2 °C goal, unless carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology is widely deployed. This finding is based on our assessment of global “carbon reserves”, measured as the potential CO2 emissions from proven fossil-fuel reserves.

Almost two-thirds of these carbon reserves are related to coal, 22% to oil and 15% to gas. Geographically, two-thirds are held by North America, the Middle East, China and Russia. These findings underline the importance of CCS as a key option to mitigate CO2 emissions,but its pace of deployment remains highly uncertain, with only a handful of commercial scale projects currently in operation.


The International Energy Agency (IEA)  has released a three-part interactive visualisation drawing upon the data and figures behind Energy Technology Perspectives 2012, the IEA’s flagship publication on energy technologies. It shows projections for three CO2 scenarios:

6°C Scenario (6DS) is largely an extension of current trends: Business-as-usual. By 2050, energy use almost doubles (compared with 2009) and total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions rise even more. In the absence of efforts to stabilise atmospheric concentrations of GHGs, average global temperature rise is projected to be at least 6°C in the long term.

4°C Scenario (4DS) takes into account recent pledges made by countries to limit emissions and step up efforts to improve energy efficiency. It serves as the primary benchmark in ETP 2012 when comparisons are made between scenarios. Projecting a long-term temperature rise of 4°C, the 4DS is already an ambitious scenario that requires significant changes in policy and technologies.  Moreover, capping the temperature increase at 4°C requires significant additional cuts in emissions in the period after 2050.

2°C Scenario (2DS) is the focus of ETP 2012. This is a very aggressive target. It is what climate scientists say must be our goal but is it achievable given our historic lack of will? The 2DS describes an energy system consistent with an emissions trajectory that recent climate science research indicates would give an 80% chance of limiting average global temperature increase to 2°C. It sets the target of cutting energy-related CO2 emissions by more than half in 2050 (compared with 2009) and ensuring that they continue to fall thereafter. Importantly, the 2DS acknowledges that transforming the energy sector is vital, but not the sole solution: the goal can only be achieved provided that CO2 and GHG emissions in non-energy sectors are also reduced.

 NOTE: Click on any graph to get an expanded view

IEA Global CO2 Projections: 2 deg and 6 deg pathways to 2050

Add Intervention: Carbon Sequestration

Add intervention: Carbon Sequestration and Renewables

Commentary: It is clear that Renewable Energy is projected to play a significant role in reducing global warming

Add intervention: Carbon Sequestration, Renewables & Efficiency Improvements

Add intervention: Carbon Sequestration, Renewables, Efficiency Improvements & Fuel Switching

Add intervention: Carbon Sequestration, Renewables, Efficiency Improvements, Fuel Switching & Nuclear

Commentary: It is clear that the greatest factor in impacting global warming will be efficiency savings of existing energy use.

IEA Energy Usage 2009

IEA Energy Usage 2030

IEA Energy Usage 2050



  • Total Energy produced = 508.7 Exajoules,
  • Total consumed = 355 Exajoules,
  • Efficiency = 69.78%,
  • Carbon-based energy = 415 Exajoules,
  • Carbon-based energy % of Total = 81.58%


  • Total Energy produced = 661.6. Exajoules,
  • Total consumed = 463 Exajoules,
  • Efficiency = 69.98%,
  • Carbon-based energy = 326 Exajoules,
  • Carbon-based energy % of Total = 49.27%

Question: Since the IEA graph above shows that improvements in Energy Efficiency are going to have the greatest impact on CO2 emissions, this does not appear to be reflected in IEA calculated efficiency improvements- efficiency remains more or less the same in 2050 as it was in 2009, about 70%.

IEA Global CO2 Projections: Contributions from the Big 3: China, India, United States

IEA Transportation Energy Usage 2 deg, 4 deg, 6 deg[/one_third]

The Impact of Peak Oil on Society

Major energy organizations such as IEA are waking up to the precarious position that burning fossil fuels has placed human civilization in. We face crisis no matter which way we turn. We cannot burn much more fossil fuel due to what is now termed unburnable carbon.  There are vast fossil fuel reserves but we must actually keep 80% of these known reserves in the ground or risk runaway global warming.  On the other hand, if there really is peak oil, we need to prepare ourselves for that as well or we will be in for a very damaging shock.

The figures below illustrate our dependency on oil and what happens to society if oil supplies begin to dwindle. These diagrams are from Associate Professor George Mobus’s website Question Everything and it shows the dependency of major segments of  modern society upon our cheap nonrenewable energy supplies in a clear and simple way. Cheap energy is the prime input to every single activity in our economy.

Where Energy Goes, All Else Shall Follow: View 1

Figure 3 and 4 below are from diagrams from professor George Moros that depict the situation when energy sources diminish, post peak oil. Combined with the rapidly declining EROI (i.e. higher costs for extracting energy) there is a necessary shrinkage of net energy available to do the useful work in the economy. In this situation, both biomass and assets shrink since their production rates and maintenance are curtailed.



(Contraction of energy contracts our entire human society. Source: Biophysical Economics, George Mobus, Associate Professor, Institute of Technology, Computer Science & Systems, University of Washington, Tacoma)

As Morus explains:

“This is what is staring us in the face right now. We have reached, by all reasonable indications, the peak of oil production in total barrels pumped. We seem to be on what is called a bumpy plateau rather than a definitive peak owing to the response of the economy (contraction or recession) that lowers demand for energy and thus slows the pumping rate temporarily. As the economy has seemed to pick up growth momentum (don’t try to sell that to those whose jobs went missing or lost their homes to foreclosure of course) the speculation of higher demand and a non-ability to actually increase production over what the likely peak number was appears to be elevating the futures price for oil and thus we find ourselves back at the 2008 situation once again.

There is every likelihood that the $85+ price level is putting a tremendous drag on every global economy, even, or especially the Chinese and Indian economies. If the price of oil stays at that level for much longer, say two more months, I would not be surprised to see us in what economists call a double dip recession, but where the next low will be much lower than that of 2009. As the oil further depletes there is nothing but upward pressure on prices even as recessions seem to temporarily cause a decline in short-term prices. The daily, even weekly ups and downs of oil prices are just market jitters — noise. The long term trend (as in Graph 1) is terribly clear.

Compounding this issue is the fact that new oil finds have been getting smaller and smaller as far as field size goes. And they have been happening in more remote, and hence more costly, locations like deep water. Or the oil is actually not found in pools but embedded in shales and tar sands which require extremely expensive extraction methods and technologies. So the likelihood of bringing more capacity on line as a result of higher prices is getting smaller and smaller over time. The net payoff of investments in new oil production is approaching zero. The marginal returns are already in decline.

There is no solution to the fundamental problem. There will be contraction even if we were to somehow find the resources to invest massively in alternative energy projects. The latter simply cannot scale up to meet the same level of demand as is currently met by fossil fuels. If the rate of depletion of the latter is high, then it becomes unlikely that we would even be able to muster that investment since it means diverting a substantial amount of energy from even necessary asset production/maintenance (forget about discretionary spending). The Chinese government, with their more autocratic abilities, seem to be trying this now. They are investing more energy into alternative sources, but as they do they are having to substantially increase their imports of oil and even coal. Not that many years ago we told stories about how much coal China and the US had to provide energy for perhaps several centuries. But that was just a story and not a very good one at that.”

Where Energy Goes, All Else Shall Follow: View 2

Figure 7: A Comparison of the Limits of Growth with Thirty Years of Reality, June 2008, ISSN: 1834-5638, Graham Turner, senior scientist, CSIRO

 30 years of data since the 1970 Club of Rome report and the MIT Computer model, and we see the real data is trending with the original predictions very accurately. How are we going to slow down the momentum? The catastrophic event is projected to occur sometime in 2030. Put on your thinking caps, folks!

For more information on peak oil, go here.