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A Lifetime’s Consumption of Fossil Fuels, Visualized

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A Lifetime’s Consumption of Fossil Fuels, Visualized

Visualizing the Fossil Fuels we Consume in a Lifetime

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From burning natural gas to heat our homes to the petroleum-based materials found in everyday products like pharmaceuticals and plastics, we all consume fossil fuels in one form or another.

In 2021, the world consumed nearly 490 exajoules of fossil fuels, an unfathomable figure of epic proportions.

To put fossil fuel consumption into perspective on a more individual basis, this graphic visualizes the average person’s fossil fuel use over a lifetime of 80 years using data from the National Mining Association and BP’s Statistical Review of World Energy.

How Many Fossil Fuels a Person Consumes Every Year

On a day-to-day basis, our fossil fuel consumption might seem minimal, however, in just a year the average American consumes more than 23 barrels of petroleum products like gasoline, propane, or jet fuel.

The cube of the average individual’s yearly petroleum product consumption reaches around 1.5 meters (4.9 feet) tall. When you consider varying transportation choices and lifestyles, from public transit to private jets, the yearly cube of petroleum product consumption for some people may easily overtake their height.

annual fossil fuel consumption

To calculate the volume needed to visualize the petroleum products and coal cubes (natural gas figures were already in volume format), we used the densities of bulk bituminous coal (833kg/m3) and petroleum products (800kg/m3) along with the weights of per capita consumption in the U.S. from the National Mining Association.

These figures are averages, and can differ per person depending on a region’s energy mix, transportation choices, and consumption habits, along with other factors.

Global Fossil Fuel Consumption Rebounds Post-Pandemic

When the global economy reopened post-pandemic, energy demand and consumption rebounded past 2019 levels with fossil fuels largely leading the way. While global primary energy demand grew 5.8% in 2021, coal consumption rose by 6% reaching highs not seen since 2014.

In 2021, renewables and hydroelectricity made up nearly 14% of the world’s primary energy use, with fossil fuels (oil, natural gas, and coal) accounting for 82% (down from 83% in 2020), and nuclear energy accounting for the remaining 4%.

Recent demand for fossil fuels has been underpinned by their reliability as generating energy from renewables in Germany has been inconsistent when it’s been needed most.

Now the country grapples with energy rations as it restarts coal-fired power plants in response to its overdependence on Russian fossil fuel energy as the potential permanence of the Nord Stream 1 natural gas pipeline shutdown looms.

Growing Green Energy Amidst Geopolitical Instability

Domestic energy and material supply chain independence quickly became a top priority for many nations amidst Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Western trade sanctions, and increasingly unpredictable COVID-19 lockdowns in China.

Trade and energy dependence risks still remain a major concern as many nations transition towards renewable energy. For example, essential rare earth mineral production, and solar PV manufacturing supply chains remain dominated by China.

Despite looming storm clouds over global energy and materials trade, renewable energy’s green linings are growing on the global scale. The world’s renewable primary energy consumption reached an annual growth rate of 15%, outgrowing all other energy fuels as wind and solar provided a milestone 10% of global electricity in 2021.

If the global energy mix continues to get greener fast enough, the cubes of our personal fossil fuel consumption may manage to get smaller in the future.

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Visualized: Renewable Energy Capacity Through Time (2000–2023)

This streamgraph shows the growth in renewable energy capacity by country and region since 2000.

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The preview image for a streamgraph showing the change in renewable energy capacity over time by country and region.

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The following content is sponsored by National Public Utilities Council

Visualized: Renewable Energy Capacity Through Time (2000–2023)

Global renewable energy capacity has grown by 415% since 2000, or at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 7.4%.

However, many large and wealthy regions, including the United States and Europe, maintain lower average annual renewable capacity growth.

This chart, created in partnership with the National Public Utilities Council, shows how each world region has contributed to the growth in renewable energy capacity since 2000, using the latest data release from the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA).

Renewable Energy Trends in Developed Economies

Between 2000 and 2023, global renewable capacity increased from 0.8 to 3.9 TW. This was led by China, which added 1.4 TW, more than Africa, Europe, and North America combined. Renewable energy here includes solar, wind, hydro (excluding pumped storage), bioenergy, geothermal, and marine energy.

During this period, capacity growth in the U.S. has been slightly faster than what’s been seen in Europe, but much slower than in China. However, U.S. renewable growth is expected to accelerate due to the recent implementation of the Inflation Reduction Act.

Overall, Asia has shown the greatest regional growth, with China being the standout country in the continent.

Region2000–2023 Growth10-Year Growth (2013–2023)1-Year Growth (2022–2023)
Europe313%88%10%
China1,817%304%26%
United States322%126%9%
Canada57%25%2%

It’s worth noting that Canada has fared significantly worse than the rest of the developed world since 2000 when it comes to renewable capacity additions. Between 2000 and 2023, the country’s renewable capacity grew only by 57%.  

Trends in Developing Economies

Africa’s renewable capacity has grown by 184% since 2000 with a CAGR of 4%. 

India is now the most populous country on the planet, and its renewable capacity is also rapidly growing. From 2000–2023, it grew by 604%, or a CAGR of 8%.

It is worth remembering that energy capacity is not always equivalent to power generation. This is especially the case for intermittent sources of energy, such as solar and wind, which depend on natural phenomena.

Despite the widespread growth of renewable energy worldwide, IRENA emphasizes that global renewable generation capacity must triple from its 2023 levels by 2030 to meet the ambitious targets set by the Paris Agreement.

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