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Global Energy Use Indicates We're Heading Toward Climate Emergency Faster Than We Thought

Without conversion to clean energy, rising energy demand worldwide will accelerate global warming. Here's what that means for the developing world—and for the rest of us too.
solar stove Kenya's Rift Valley province

A woman demonstrates solar utility stoves in Kenya's Rift Valley province. (Photo: Lillian Omariba/AFP/Getty Images)

Empowering women. Improving education. Expanding access to technology. Reducing infant mortality. These goals have all been heralded as keys to sparking sustainable economic growth in the developing world and improving the lives of billions of global citizens. But a new study suggests that if the planet is to avoid the most catastrophic impacts of climate change, there might need to be an even bigger development priority: scaling up clean energy.

The study, published in the journal PLoS One this month, warns that, if economic growth continues to be fueled by coal, natural gas, and other carbon-rich energy sources, global warming could surge past the two-degree Celsius threshold by 2030—an outcome expected to inflict severe economic consequences on the developing world. The researchers also project that continued, intense reliance on fossil fuels would result in cost-prohibitive energy prices, driven both by diminishing reserves (read: lower supply) as well as Gross Domestic Product and population growth (read: higher demand).

In short, global development fueled by coal, oil, and natural gas is a lose-lose scenario. On a global scale, rising carbon emissions would undermine the goals set at last year's Paris climate talks. And in the developing world, eventual energy insecurity and climate-driven economic downturns would unravel the decades-long effort to lift people out of poverty.

Even as Washington does its best to hinder progress, the free market is beginning to favor clean energy.

"The conclusion really is that economists and environmentalists are on the same side," co-author Ben Hankamer of the University of Queensland told the Guardian earlier this month. "We've got to act now, and we don't have much time."

The authors propose a rapid transition away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar. The first step, they say, is to stop subsidizing the fossil fuel industry, which globally receives about $523 billion in government support each year. "These subsidies have the effect of locking in the use of fossil fuel-based energy sources and slowing down the uptake of clean energy alternatives," the authors write. Flipping those subsidies into the renewable energy ledger would tilt the economics in favor of wind and solar, they argue, without causing a net increase in government spending.

This month's study is only the latest to suggest that the economic costs of transitioning to clean energy are much lower than the costs of unbridled global warming. A paper published in the journal Nature Climate Change last October predicted that unmitigated climate change would depress the global economy by 23 percent by century's end. And other studies have yielded similar results. "Reputable economists at national and international bodies and universities are reaching basically the same conclusion," Kristen Sheeran, the Oregon director of Climate Solutions, explained in January. "The economic damages of not acting immediately and aggressively on climate change far outweigh the expenses of shifting away from fossil fuels."

In the United States, clean-energy proposals of course face impossibly long odds in the current Congress. And if Republicans retain control of the Senate in November, the outlook won't get any brighter.

But even as Washington does its best to hinder progress, the free market is beginning to favor clean energy. Last year, for example, global investment in renewable energy totaled a record $329 billion, while the amount of coal-based electricity production in the U.S. hit a 45-year low. Meanwhile, another recent study found that building a national clean-energy network in the U.S. could reduce electricity-related carbon pollution by as much as 80 percent without increasing consumer costs.

All of this is good news, but only if coordinated climate action comes soon. According to the new study, there will be nine billion people on the planet by 2050, and their energy use per capita will be higher than ever. It's a recipe that's pointing toward climate and economic disaster, the authors argue, even as the solution—an end to fossil-fuel subsidies and a transition to renewable energy—is staring the world in the face.


Catastrophic Consequences of Climate Change is Pacific Standard's year-long investigation into the devastating effects of climate change—and how scholars, legislators, and citizen-activists can help stave off its most dire consequences.