How is the world doing using less fossil fuels?


By Russell Bruce

Not very well is the conclusion of the Newsnet team having looked at where and for what fossil fuels are still much in demand. In 2020 the global share of renewables in power generation increased from 10.3% to 11.7%. As far as the cost of fuels is concerned 2021 is a very different year from 2020. Brent Oil averaged $41.84 in 2020 and is now standing at around $80. That hasn’t depressed demand from the panic queues at fuel stations in recent days. Natural gas was just $2.02 a year ago and is now $5.90 on international markets.

Coal consumption fell except in China and Malaysia where it increased. China was also the largest individual contributor to renewables growth followed by the US and Europe.

It is easy to be critical. Newsnet is not ignoring excellent work being done by energy companies, governments, academics and researchers working together for better solutions to the enormous and difficult challenges we are all facing. We have high hopes for international progress at COP26.

More on that later but first a summary of where the world was in 2020.

The following table does not relate just to electricity generation but to all energy consumed in the 7 global regions: e.g. Oil for transport and Coal for steel production.

Coal is the most polluting energy source so whilst many countries have phased out electricity generation from coal it is still widely used in some parts of the world. China still uses coal to generate most of its electricity. In 2019 62% of China’s electricity was generated from coal. Whilst as a percentage of the total coal had fallen from 80% in 2008, China has been generating more coal-fired electricity to feed power to its growing industrial base – 2,743,767 GWh in 2008 increased to 4,553,800 GWh in 2019. In the space of a decade China was actually burning more coal to produce a 66% increase in the amount of coal-fired electricity.

China used more coal in 2020 and as it’s economy recovers may well increase further over the next 2 years. Coal is also used for steel production. The US still uses a great deal of coal for generation and steel production. Whilst it has dropped steeply since the 2008 peak, the US produced 530.3 million short tons in 2020. A US short ton is 2000 pounds. The US consumed 477.31 million short tons and had net exports of 63.97 million short tons in 2020. Planning permission, currently with the UK government, for the controversial new mine in Cumbria is intended to produce coal for steel plants in Wales.

Oil still has the largest share of the market globally for transport by car, truck, train and shipping as well as for a range of industrial purposes.

The CIS is the biggest user of natural gas. CIS stands for Commonwealth of Independent States comprising the Russian Federation and a few states still strongly linked to Putin’s Russia like Kaszakhatan and Turkmenistan. Nuclear generation is relatively small in global terms with Europe and the US being the main users of nuclear generation. Hydro is a major contributor in South America with Europe a distant second.

When we come to the green bit at the head of the list the scale is depressingly small. Europe leads here with Central and South America in second place and North America a poor third with much still to do President Biden. In fairness, as far as coal is concerned the US has cut coal consumption from 2008 by 59.6% in 2020. Most of the gain is lost with take up of other fossil fuels. US dependence on fossil fuels only dropped by 13.2 % over this 12 year period.

Some individual countries within each global region are doing better than others but we all share the same planet. Just as in order to bring the Covid pandemic to an end by increasing the supply of vaccines to the third world we will have to share energy technology and expertise so they can take pride in being a part of the solution on climate change. Newsnet is not pretending this is not an exceptional challenge in getting our own house in order and also contributing at a global level. COP26 must establish some hard and fast rules as we are a long way behind keeping global warming to 1.5 degrees by 2050.

No doubt some of Europe’s petrol and diesel cars will find their way to Africa as they are increasing replaced by electric or hybrid so there must be a scrapage scheme in place to limit moving the problem to a continent that will be hit hard by global warming. Africa’s oil producers would be only too happy to fill those tanks.

Which Global Regions are doing best on fossil fuel reduction?

The Newsnet awards

Best is relative when moving from a high level of fossil fuel dependence. So the first Mini Green Globe goes to Central and South America with a fossil fuel score of 66.1%. Next a smaller Mini Green Globe to Europe on 71.2% remaining fossil fuel dependence. The Dark Grey Globe goes to North America on 80% dependency and to Asia Pacific on 86.3% fossil fuel dependency and the last Dark Grey Globe to the CIS on 88.3% dependency. The Black Heavy Hammer award goes to Africa on 90.4% and Giant Black Sledgehammer Award goes to the Middle East on 98.80 fossil fuel dependency.

Our next graph takes each global region’s individual share of consumption of the six fuel types as a percentage of their global contribution

The first thing to note is 83% of global fuel use is fossil fuel. The major contributor is Oil with Natural Gas a close second and Coal in third place on 16%. Nuclear is not renewable but claims to be carbon neutral. Certainly less than environmentally friendly given the 10,000+ year toxic radioactive legacy of the spent fuel rods. At 4 % it is only marginally relevant in the short term. It is also very expensive compared to the declining costs of renewables.

For those looking to use natural gas as a substitute for coal the interim outlook is bleak given Putin’s determination Russian gas supplies to Europe will no longer go through Ukraine. Demand from Asia is growing and China has told their state energy companies to source more gas for this winter at any cost. What this means for us in the UK, as an example, is increasing levels of fuel poverty as energy retailers go bust and the monthly cost of fuel bills goes through the roof.

England is dependent on gas for around 50% of electricity generation. 85% of homes in England have gas-fired boilers. In Scotland it is less at 65% with higher concentrations in urban areas as rural areas have greater fuel flexibility and often no access to the gas grid. Electricity prices are rising in tandem so Scotland will be just as affected by rising energy costs as the rest of the UK. It looks like a bleak winter even although Scotlland is energy rich and has the lowest gas generated electricity of the four UK nations, if not in Europe at just 12.1%. Scotland sends around 70% of gas from Scottish waters to England, Wales and Northern Ireland and supplies England and Wales with up to 20% of electricity at times to meet grid demand south of the border.

The UK, including Scotland, is facing a winter of growing fuel poverty that looks unprecedented, just when we are welcoming the rest of the world in a few weeks time to COP26. Scotland has a good story to tell having, like Norway, taken the move to renewables seriously for longer, yet our families will be hit just as hard by rising fuel prices as those elsewhere in the UK.

In moving away from coal the UK has increased the amount of energy generated from wind, as has much of Northern Europe. England is still very dependent on gas and the rapidly increasing costs of gas is hitting consumers hard. Gas had an environmental logic as it produces close to half the CO2 of coal. In 2015 the UK generated 23% of electricity from coal. Scotland’s Longannet coal-fired power station closed in 2016. The UK now produces around 2% of electricity from coal. Most of the former coal-fired Drax power stations at Selby in Yorkshire have been converted to biomass in the form of wood pellets that the UK government has been subsidising since 2012 and set to continue to 2027. Newsnet is not a fan of large scale biomass with its heavy long distance carbon footprint but for now it sits in the renewables folder.

The whole world it looking for more gas. The US is busy trying to recruit people to fire up its shale gas industry. There is little doubt the UK will have to ship in LNG (Liquid Natural Gas) this winter from the States as part of its energy imports to meet its gas for heat and energy shortfalls. Asia and Europe will also be in the market so our ‘friends’ in the US will, like President Putin the Gasman, be looking for best price based on strong demand. Recent talk of producing Blue Hydrogen from gas has gone quiet as there simply is not enough gas to meet world heat and energy demand. Newsnet has long been enthusiatic about Scotland’s Green Hydrogen propects from wind generation rather than payng energy companies to shut down turbines in periods of low grid demand. A subject we will return to.

Transport will be oil dependent for years yet

Oil is used for a variety of industrial purposes but the one that is most obvious is transport – cars, vans, buses, trucks, diesel trains, and shipping in the marine environment. On a global scale the numbers are massive so for the purpose of some understandable context we are going to look at the main forms of transport on the roads in the UK. We have dug through an enormous amount of data on transport in the UK in the last few days but will not deave you with it all at once.

It is easy to call for the end of oil and petrol and diesel vehicles on our roads but it is no mean task. We are not arguing against the need but we must have a plan and as far as we can see the UK doesn’t have one.

With over 40 million vehicles registered in the UK the task of replacing such large numbers is a colossal undertaking for car manufacturers and for the public in finding the means to replace their petrol and diesel cars. We recognise that good work is being done to bring more electric cars to market and there is encourging work on hydrogen for Heavy Goods vehicles (Trucks) which we will report on in another of our energy is changing articles, but much is still to be achieved. With over 33 million cars registered in the UK we are using that to illustrate the scale of the global issue in eventually achieving roads free of petrol and diesel cars.

So just how many vehicles need to be replaced globally?

There are about 1.446 billion vehicles in the world today. In the US there are 287 million vehicles on the road with an average age of 12.1 years.

Cars registered in UK as at June 2021

The UK Department of Transport statistics list all electric and hybrid cars as Ultra Low Emission Vehicles (ULEVs). Some are all electric, plug-in hybrid and others petrol with the capacity to generate and store power so for a certain amount of drive time on electricity. There are some smaller technologies that qualify for ULEV classification. In total cars registered as ULEVs since 2010 number just over half a million at 528,455 accounting for just 2% of the cars on UK roads. Petrol dominates with 59% and diesel with 39%. Diesels are becoming much less popular with a declining market share in recent quarterly registration statistics.


I began this article expressing concern for the state of progress in dealing with the challenges of climate change and that has not changed despite some very positive developments in energy technology that still have considerable scope for growth. The biggest problem has been the slow pace of change. Government is almost always focussed on short time-scales which is why so many of the world’s governments are having to react to an energy crisis caused by a volatility in energy prices that was long predictable.

Governments are too focussed on short-term responses to the demands of the electorate with an ever open eye on the electoral cycle. They are seldom judged on their failure to undertake long-term planning strategies. President Biden came to offce with a commitment to progress on climate change but the rising cost of petrol in the US resulted in a call for an increase in global oil production to reduce the cost at US pumps. Already the mid-term elections are on the horizon provoking confusing messages on climate change.

In the UK an absence of proper regulation on a multitude of small energy retailers operating on flawed business models has made a difficult global situation much worse for UK energy consumers. The 2008 financial crisis resulted in changes to ensure banks had the financial structures and resources to withstand periods of volatility during periods of economic downturn.

The winter of COP26 is unquestionably pointing to increased fossil fuel consumption. That might just be for months we would hope but does mean global determination and action to work much faster on phasing out fossil fuel consumption must get underway in 2022 – otherwise we will go on feeding the demon climate change demands we must defeat.

There are positives as this article acknowledges so to pick out just a few we commend Siemens Energy for their Haru Oni project in Chile, SSE for the UK’s largest onshore wind farm in the Shetlands that will be fully operational by 2024 with a high power grid connection, truck competitors Daimler and Volvo for working together on the challenges of hydrogen from linked researched centres in Germany and Canada, The Scottish Government for their hydrogen strategy published in December 2020 and the energy companies working on increasing pumped hydro capacity.

A note of thanks to The BP Statistical Review of World Energy who provided me with the unpublished tables that enabled me to produce the two diagrams in the first part this article. How I have interpreted the data in editorial analysis and commentary is entirely my responsibility.