The World Energy Outlook report on energy supplies, peak oil and climate change

The World Energy Outlook (WEO-2009) is a yearly report issued by the International Energy Agency (IEA).  This years report was issued on Nov 10, 2009, and due to next months climate change summit in Copenhagen the WEO-2009 report includes extensive information on the climate change impact which comes from energy use.   As they say in the Climate Change Excerpt document, “Energy, which accounts for two-thirds of today’s greenhouse-gas emissions, is at the heart of the problem – and so must form the core of the solution. We need urgently to set in motion an energy and environmental revolution, to transform the way we use energy and to deliver a sustainable future.”  Transportation is a large part of that energy use and the WEO-2009 report includes recommendations on changing the transportation system to have a smaller CO2 intensity making less greenhouse gas contribution.

The WEO-2009 presents two variations of the energy and climate change impact projections.  One variation is their “Reference Scenario” which simply continues business-as-usual with no regulatory changes.  The other variation is their recommendations for policy and technology use changes that target a 450 parts per million of CO2 equivalent in the atmosphere.  Other organizations recommend other targets for CO2 concentrations, but there is wide ranging attention on the rising CO2 concentration in the atmosphere and its greenhouse effect which appears to induce climate change effects.  Clearly many voices seek to deny human effects on climate change, or deny the role CO2 plays in climate change.  The WEO report does not address this at all, however it’s well known how much fossil fuel is burned and how much resulting pollution goes into the environment and atmosphere, and it is obvious that human activity does have an impact on the amounts of CO2 and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.  What they do say is that in the Reference Scenario:-

In the absence of new initiatives to tackle climate change, rising global fossil fuel use in [the Reference Scenario] increases energy-related CO2 emissions from 29 gigatons in 2007 to over 40 gigatons in 2030 and contributes to the deterioration of ambient air quality, with serious public health and environmental effects.  The rise in emissions due to increased fossil fuel use, …, would result in a concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere of around 1000 parts per million CO2 equivalent over the long term.

At 1000 ppm we are essentially guaranteed to experience catastrophic climate change.

The WEO-2009 report recommends massive investments, worldwide, in infrastructure changes and changes to energy usage.  These investments are required to avoid not only climate change but also energy security.  Transportation system change is perhaps the largest part of that investment, and they recommend a large-scale switch to less carbon intensive vehicles.  They describe todays transportation system as 100% internal combustion fossil fuel burning vehicles with a carbon intensity of “205”, and to meet the 450 ppm scenario requires a switch to 40% internal combustion fossil fuel vehicles with a carbon intensity of “90”.

The WEO-2009 report includes a sobering look at projected global liquid fuel production, in both the reference scenario (no regulatory changes) and 450 ppm scenario.  The 450 ppm scenario of course includes recommended reductions of coal use, replacing it with natural gas use, and reductions in fossil oil use.  In the reference scenario (no regulatory changes) there are sobering warnings of difficulty in supplying the projected increases in energy use.

This chart (from the WEO-2008 report) shows that “oil from fields currently producing” is projected to enter a steep decline in production.  That decline in production is the definition of peak oil, namely the point after which oil production cannot be increased.  But the chart shows an increase in total production.  The production shortfall is projected to be made up for by production increases coming from “oil fields yet to be developed”, “oil fields YET TO BE FOUND”, “natural gas liquefaction”, and “unconventional oil” (aka tarsands).  While the WEO figures project this new production will occur, it requires large scale investments in new infrastructure to produce this fuel, and it requires FINDING new oil fields.  The low rate of oil field discovery existing since the early 1960’s does not raise much hope for significant major new oil fields to be found.

The Guardian of London newspaper reported on Tuesday that several IEA whistleblowers have stepped forward.  They allege that the U.S. government pressured the IEA to paint a rosier picture of oil supplies to avoid panicking the public.  They went on to allege that the global energy producers would have difficulty achieving a 90-95 million barrel per day production level (from the current 85 million barrels per day) making the IEA projection of 105 mbd in production seem fanciful.  The IEA has denied the allegations of the whistleblowers, of course.

Regardless of whether the IEA fudged the numbers in the WEO, the WEO makes a strong case to anyway choose to decrease fossil fuel use.  This is due to the environmental and climate change impacts of fossil fuel use.  The focus is of course on expected climate change impacts but there are known negative health impacts from fossil fuel use as well.

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About David Herron

David Herron is a writer and software engineer living in Silicon Valley. He primarily writes about electric vehicles, clean energy systems, climate change, peak oil and related issues. When not writing he indulges in software projects and is sometimes employed as a software engineer. David has written for sites like PlugInCars and TorqueNews, and worked for companies like Sun Microsystems and Yahoo.
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