The Climate Is Basically Doomed If We Build the Fossil Fuel Infrastructure That's Already in the Pipeline

We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Boiled down, climate change is a simple math problem. There’s a finite amount of carbon the world can chuck in the atmosphere and still have a stable climate. Each passing year we plunk more of it up there, the smaller the amount we have left to burn.

That what makes the findings of a new International Energy Agency (IEA) report released on Tuesday so daunting. Rather than working to solve global warming, the report shows that the world is on track to take the climate math test, bathe it in gasoline, set it on fire, and then toss it into a dumpster of oily rags for good measure.

The latest iteration of the annual World Energy Outlook report takes stock of where the world’s energy mix is at today and where it’s headed out until 2040. It confirms that after a few years of flatlining, global carbon emissions rose again in 2017. And unless we issue a dramatic course correction, they’ll keep rising into the coming decades thanks to a glut of fossil fuel power plants under construction, cheap natural gas, our love of plastic, and an extra 1.7 billion Earthlings that will call our planet home by 2040. 


All told, fossil fuel infrastructure already built or scheduled “will account for some 95 percent of all emissions permitted under international climate targets in coming decades,” IEA director Faith Bristol said in a statement.

Almost all of the growth in emissions and consumption will happen in Asia, and in China and India in particular. By 2040, China is projected to become the largest net oil importer in history even as demand slows in the developed world. But even if demand slows in the developed world, production isn’t likely to. The U.S., in particular, is slated to “pull away from the rest of the field as the world’s largest oil and gas producer” thanks to fracking. America will account for more than half of all oil and gas produced globally by 2025, according to the report.


Scientists recently laid out the reality that we need to decrease carbon emissions 45 percent by 2030 in order to keep global warming to within 1.5 degrees Celsius of pre-industrial level. The IEA analysis shows that hope is basically in the toilet the way things are going, and that at our current rate we’ll essentially have a single year’s-worth of emissions wiggle room left to meet the 2 degrees Celsius goal by 2040.

The report had some small bits of good news the world could build on. The IEA itself has modeled massive renewable energy growth over the next five years, while the new report shows electricity now accounts for a fifth of all energy consumption thanks to increasing electrification and digification around the world. That means effectively decarbonizing the electricity sector could pay massive climate dividends, something power-hogging companies like Apple and Facebook are already doing because it makes economic sense. 


According to the IEA, 70 percent of new energy investments are coming from or largely influenced by government. That means that stronger climate regulations and commitments—like the ones that will be under consideration at international climate talks next month—also have a huge role to play. But as with all things climate, everything is going to have to happen faster than it currently is.