Burning issues for the world's future

Fracking Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Fracking technology is changing the energy needs are met in the US

When forecasters struggle to know if we're heading for a triple dip of recession, and the risk of falling off a fiscal cliff next month, a much more distant horizon has been scanned this week.

This one gets less reliably predictable the further out you go, but allowing for that, the view is both fascinating and alarming.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) has published its annual World Energy Outlook, and it's hard to think of any time when there's been more change under way.

The element that caught a few headlines was the forecast that the US is on course to replace Saudi Arabia as the biggest producer of oil by 2020. Much of this is based on unconventional methods of fracturing 'tight' or shale rock.

That will surely mean America stops looking to the rest of the world for energy security, and by around 2030, it becomes a net oil exporter. In turn, that means that the Middle East will become relatively more important to Asia as its dominant energy source.

In geo-politics, India and China will be the countries with the biggest interest in ensuring the Straits of Hormuz stay open. So whose aircraft carriers are going to be policing it?

Among those sending oil out through those Straits is Iraq, which is on track to become the second biggest exporter of oil by 2035, after Russia. The IEA says that should earn it around $200bn per year up to 2035. Ensuring Iraq comes on stream is seen as vital to keeping oil prices under control.

Dash for gas

Among the other prospects set out by the IEA:

  • Cheap US gas is already driving down the price of the biggest substitute for generating electricity, coal, freeing it up for export to Europe, where it is displacing Europe's relatively highly-priced gas.
  • By 2030, the US will depend more on gas than on oil. while China is growing its use of natural gas from 130 billion cubic metres last year to 545 bcm in 2035.
  • Coal has been vital to meeting demand for energy over the past decade, growing even faster than renewable power.

China is the dominant coal-burner. Its increase in coal-burning is increasing almost as much as nuclear, wind and hydro combined. But by 2020, India is on course to become the biggest net importer of coal, to fuel its growth. Five years later, it will have overtaken the US as the second-largest user of coal.

  • The development of liquefied natural gas facilities will make gas moveable and more tradeable, meaning cheap prices in the US, and other areas where 'fracking' is developed, can help drive down prices around the world.

More efficient use of energy in developed economies is being outweighed by more demand for oil in emerging ones, notably in China's transport sector. Transport already accounts for more than half of global oil consumption, says the IEA, and that share will rise as the number of cars doubles to 1.7bn.

Freight transport accounts for 40% of the growth in demand, partly because trucks are growing more efficient at a slower rate than cars.


Europe appears to be a small player in these giant, long-term global trends. But what does it mean for your fuel bills? Well, global electricity prices are expected to increase in price, in real terms, by 15% by 2035.

They'll be pushed up by higher fuel input costs, the cost of renewing generating capacity and subsidies to renewables in some countries.

Those renewable subsidies are going to become a lot more expensive, rising from $88bn last year to nearly $240bn in 2035.

And despite all this development, the number of people living without electricity in their homes will have only fallen over the next two decades from 1.3bn to 1bn, with no fall in the number of people - 2.6bn - reckoned to have no clean cooking facilities.

On the back burner

At least as important as the human development index is the impact of all this on climate change.

The development of cheap gas, particularly in the US and at a time of economic hardship, has radically turned around perceptions of energy markets and the drive for cheaper fuel.

So the drive to get carbon emissions down appears to be on (excuse the pun) the back burner.

The IEA has looked at the attempt to limit global warming to an average 2 degrees Celsius, noting that each year, it looks more difficult and more costly to do so.

And here's an astonishing fact: four-fifths of the allowable carbon dioxide emissions by 2035 are already locked in by existing power plants, factories and buildings. If action isn't taken by 2017, all the allowable emissions for 18 years after that will be accounted for.

"Rapid deployment of energy-efficient technologies would postpone this complete lock-in to 2022, buying time to secure a much-needed global agreement to cut greenhouse-gas emissions," says the IEA outlook.

And unless carbon capture can work on a very large scale to bury emissions under ground and under the seabed, the 2 degree target means that no more than one third of proven reserves of fossil fuels can be consumed before 2050.

Close to home, that runs counter to the drive to extract every last drop of oil from under UK (or Scottish) waters.

Doing so makes sense in economic and taxation terms, but it runs into trouble if hydrocarbons are being sourced much more cheaply from unconventional sources, and it runs up against the drive to bring down emissions.

Stand by for more tomorrow on the future significance of oil under Scottish waters.

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