While negotiators from 190 countries meet in Lima, Peru this week to figure out how to significantly reduce fossil fuel emissions, ExxonMobil released a report on global energy use that projects little success in transitioning to cleaner, greener ways of producing power.
The oil company predicts that carbon dioxide emissions from the energy sector will grow about 25 percent worldwide by 2030, then decline approximately five percent to 2040. That's consistent with projections by the Paris-based International Energy Agency (IEA). But the IEA has a much different perspective on the future than ExxonMobil.
While the oil major paints a picture of fossil-fueled prosperity in the developing world, the IEA anticipates a global energy system under stress by 2040. A key sign of that strain, the agency wrote in a report last month, is that by 2040 the world will have emitted enough carbon dioxide to eventually exceed a two degree Celsius rise in global average temperatures, compared to those prior to the Industrial Revolution.
That's meaningful because for years many diplomats, scientists, and environmentalists have aimed to cap average global temperature increase at two degrees. While not everyone agrees it's the best benchmark, it is widely accepted as what must be done to stave off dangerous levels global warming that could trigger rapid melting of the ice caps, threaten the world's agricultural production, and lead to more frequent — and costly — storms.
"No one from the developing world is coming to the climate negotiations saying 'keep us on fossil fuels, please.'"
"You have to be very optimistic to project that we're going to move swiftly on the path of the two degree target," Peter Frumoff of the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) told VICE News from the meetings in Lima. "What's different about Exxon, or Shell, or BP, is that they are not disinterested parties. They have business models to realize. It's not just the world that they think is likely; it's the world that they invest in to make it so."
Consistent with the IEA, ExxonMobil estimates the developing world will drive most of the growth in energy use. China and India will account for half of that growth and half of new demand for energy will come from electricity use. Meanwhile, increasing energy efficiency means demand will shrink seven percent in nations traditionally hooked on fossil fuels, including the United States and the European Union, even as their economies grow.
The report, which is released annually around the same time as the UN climate negotiations, frames growth in energy use as a humanitarian issue. For instance, cooking over smoky, inefficient stoves is known to be a significant global health problem, creating indoor air pollution that leads to four million premature deaths annually. Yet the biomass fuels burned in those stoves — charcoal, wood and dung — accounted for nearly 40 percent of residential energy demand worldwide in 2010. By 2040, ExxonMobil expects that share to have dropped to 30 percent.
This 10 percent decline in biomass use, presumably thanks to gas or electricity reaching those people, is one of the quality of life improvements that ExxonMobil cites when it connects energy use, economic development, and improved human health. The role of energy in improving quality of life and increasing Gross Domestic Product is a major talking point for Rex Tillerson, ExxonMobil's chairman and CEO.
"Approximately 1.3 billion people on our planet still do not have access to electricity for basic needs like clean water, cooking, sanitation, light, or for the safe storage of food and medicine," Tillerson said last year. "Therefore, whether we are leaders in business, policymakers in government, or decision makers in philanthropic organizations, the need to expand energy supplies has a humanitarian dimension that should inform and should guide our energy policy dialogue."
This is why the IEA described energy as "the answer to — and the cause of — some urgent problems," in its recent report. It projects that by 2040, global economic growth will be fueled using equal amounts of coal, oil, natural gas, and renewables. The tradeoff, though, is the world is on a path toward a 3.6 degree Celsius temperature increase. That is also a humanitarian problem as the world's poor will feel the impacts of climate change, such as sea level rise and extreme weather, most acutely.
Yet Exxon's outlook isn't nearly as bullish on solutions, such as renewables, as it is on the future of natural gas. Exxon projects that natural gas is expected to supply 135 percent more electricity in 2040 compared to 2010, overtaking coal as the largest electricity source. Plus, the United States will become a net exporter of liquid fuel, like liquefied natural gas, by 2020. In contrast, the IEA expects renewables to account for nearly half of the global increase in power generation to 2040, and overtake coal as the leading source of electricity.
The dichotomy between quality of life and reductions in fossil fuels is "an entirely false choice," said UCS's Frumhoff.
"The price of solar and wind are going down globally. No one from the developing world is coming to the climate negotiations saying 'keep us on fossil fuels, please,'" he told VICE News. "These countries are frustrated as hell that we're not getting faster action. What's humanitarian is responding to the needs of developing countries to transition to a low fossil fuel economy."
Follow Sarah Jane Keller on Twitter: @sjanekeller