The new bp Statistical Review of World Energy—what does it mean?
The bp Statistical Review of World Energy is a venerable survey of the world’s energy production and consumption—the oil giant has been publishing it yearly since 1952. It’s an extremely detailed report—it lists the amounts of energy generated and consumed, as well as the means of generation, for just about every country and region of the world.
Above: A field of solar panels. Photo: Andreas Gücklhorn / Unsplash
The overall picture presents a mix of good news and bad. The good: renewable energy, led by wind and solar power, continues to see strong growth, and now accounts for 13% of total generation. The share of fossil fuels in the global energy mix is falling, albeit at a barely-measurable rate—fossils accounted for 82% of primary energy use in 2021, down from 83% in 2019 and 85% five years ago.
The bad: overall energy use is skyrocketing. Global primary energy use increased by almost 6% in 2021, more than reversing the sharp drop in consumption in lockdown year 2020. Primary energy use in 2021 is estimated to be around 1% above its 2019 level.
The ugly: coal is making a comeback. Coal consumption grew by over 6% in 2021, slightly above 2019 levels and its highest level since 2014.
The release of the latest edition of the Review has generated quite a few articles and comments. In particular, one chart, which depicts how the global mix of energy sources has changed over the last 21 years (see page 10 of the full report), has cropped up again and again on LinkedIn, with partisans on either side of the energy debate using it to support opposing opinions.
Techno-greenies point to the significant growth of renewable generation over this period, and say that the data shows that decarbonization is within reach. For fossil fans, the fact that the majority of the world’s energy still comes from fossil fuels proves that it will be impossible to replace fossil fuels.
The latter position is of course a logical absurdity. Some of our great-grandparents still used horses to get around, but that doesn’t mean our children will. New technologies replace old ones, and sometimes the transition is a fairly swift one. On the other hand, the fact that renewable generation has grown from nominal to substantial over the course of a decade doesn’t mean that the end of the Oil Age is at hand. Political and economic forces (to say nothing of geopolitical events such as wars and pandemics) can hold back new technologies for long periods—and bp and other deep-pocketed oil producers are working hard to do just that, whatever their marketing departments may say.
And how is bp itself spinning the data? In a self-serving direction, of course.
A foreword to the report, written by Spencer Dale, bp’s Chief Economist, acknowledges “the need for the world to achieve a deep and rapid decarbonization consistent with meeting the Paris climate goals,” but also concedes that all the talk about reducing emissions has “yet to translate into tangible progress on the ground,” and that “the world remains on an unsustainable path.”
Furthermore, Mr. Dale insightfully notes that mankind is caught in an “energy trilemma.” Supply shortages and increasing prices are forcing decision-makers to choose among the conflicting priorities of energy security, affordability and lower carbon.
However, while acknowledging that low-carbon energy sources—wind and solar power—are viable today, the oil industry exec also touts “solutions” such as biofuels, hydrogen, carbon capture and storage, and “carbon dioxide removals,” which are widely seen as boondoggles intended to secure continued demand for oil and gas.
Furthermore, Mr. Dale fails to mention that bp and its industry colleagues put many times more effort into increasing oil production than they do into reducing emissions. Oil companies no longer pretend that they don’t believe climate change is happening—rather, they try to present themselves as responsibly working to solve the problem, and bp has been quite successful at crafting this “poacher-turned-gamekeeper” image. The company has become a major player in public EV charging in several global markets, and has also invested in wind energy. However, its green investments to date represent a tiny fraction of the money it pours into exploring new oil resources—to say nothing of the vast sums spent on lobbying and campaign contributions in order to discourage climate-related action by governments.