Is a renewable world possible? What would it take for the world to make the switch from fossil fuels to clean, cheap renewable power?
We've looked at the world's energy usage as it is today, and three potential forecasts for our future from leading climate change research bodies. These are: What might happen if we continue as we are now, the impact of moderate positive adoption of renewable technologies, and the outcome of a complete energy revolution that takes us to 100% renewable energy by 2050.
Despite the rapid rise of technologies like wind and solar power, renewables only made up around 10% of the world’s energy mix in 2016. The rest is still dominated by fossil fuels like oil, gas and coal, which together make up around 86% of the world’s energy supply, and nuclear is responsible for the other 4%.
Fossil fuels currently make up 86% of the world’s energy supply
There’s no easy solution. For instance, electric cars are a great step in the right direction because they reduce the need for petrol - but they’re not much help if the electricity they run on is made by burning coal.
2016 energy consumption by source*
*biomass not included
Moving away from fossil fuels will be an enormous task, and doing it in a way that safeguards jobs, secures reliable power and doesn’t restrict the growth of developing nations will be even harder. But there are those who think it’s possible.
An estimated 161 gigawatts of renewable energy was added in 2016
Renewables are growing fast: global capacity increased by its highest ever amount in 2016, with an estimated 161 gigawatts (GW) added. There’s more renewable power capacity being added every year than from all fossil fuels combined.
But can this be sustained into the future - and what will be the result of continuing as we are now?
View data for use in:
Our baseline comparison point is the World Energy Council's figures for 2014, because it's consistent with the other data we're using.
However, there were unprecedented gains made by renewable energy sources in 2015 and 2016, so the real picture is brighter than it looks here!
The modern world is at a crossroads: will we continue using the fossil fuels that have driven industrial growth up until now, or step up the switch to renewable sources of energy?
Forecast 1: If nothing changes
1 Current Policies
The International Energy Agency’s (IEA) "Current Policies" projection is used as our "control" scenario. It assumes no new environmental policy commitments will be made beyond the ones currently in place, and the world will carry on more or less as it is today. Essentially, it shows the outcome of doing nothing.
To be clear, this isn’t the IEA’s view of what’s likely to happen – it’s just a thought experiment to show the outcome of no new policies. In its World Energy Outlook 2015 report, the IEA puts forward two other scenarios that offer a more positive outlook.
Forecast 2: The middle ground
2 Modern Jazz
The World Energy Council’s "Modern Jazz" scenario is more optimistic, but falls short of complete commitment to a renewable world. It assumes disruptive new renewable technologies and deployment models, alongside a broad but not universal positive action on climate policy, will have significant impacts on CO2 levels.
Forecast 3: Best case scenario
3 Advanced Energy Revolution
Greenpeace’s "Advanced Energy Revolution" scenario is the one that sees us achieve 100% use of renewable energy used globally by 2050 – no fossil fuels, no nuclear power, just clean energy. It assumes a combination of technological progress and a harmonised, worldwide commitment to tackling climate change.
We've included data on fuels by transport and electricity generation. The transport sector – which includes aeroplanes, rail and sea traffic as well as cars and trucks on the road – makes up a big chunk of global energy use. Electricity powers nearly everything we do, from industry and leisure to home comforts. As an economy grows, its electricity demand increases: it’s for this reason that forecasters pay so much attention to emerging economies like China and India for clues about the energy mix of the future.
Interested in a greener energy future?Compare green energy tariffs