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The world’s astonishing dependence on fossil fuels hasn’t changed in 40 years

I report on and write about energy, and this chart still blows my mind. Every year since 1971, more than 80% of all our energy has come from fossil fuels. That’s still true today, which is surprising for two reasons. Most nuclear power plants came online between 1971 and 1990, and most renewable energy farms were built in the last 10 years. We’ve added so many more non-fossil-fuel energy sources in the past 45 years, and yet it doesn’t seem to be at all reflected in the chart.

There are few ways to understand why. First, most of the world’s clean-energy sources are used to generate electricity. But electricity forms only 25% of the world’s energy consumption. Second, as the rich world moved towards a cleaner energy mix, much of the poor world was just starting to gain access to modern forms of energy. Inevitably, they chose the cheapest option, which was and remains fossil fuels.

So yes, we’re using much more clean energy than we used to. But the world’s energy demand has grown so steeply that we’re also using a lot more fossil fuels than in the past.

Historically, economic growth has been associated with growth in emissions. For the first time in many decades, between 2014 and 2016, the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions remained flat. It seemed like just maybe the world had figured out a way to keep growing without emitting more, possibly thanks to clean-energy use.

Unfortunately, new projections suggest we’re going to finish 2017 with more emissions than 2016. That’s because the rich world is not cutting its emissions fast enough, and the poor world continues to grow rapidly. All this is keeping in line with a long-standing trend of our startling dependence on fossil fuels.


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