Traversing the mountaintop: world fossil fuel production to 2050

Richard Nehring


During the past century, fossil fuels—petroleum liquids, natural gas and coal—were the dominant source of world energy production. From 1950 to 2005, fossil fuels provided 85–93% of all energy production. All fossil fuels grew substantially during this period, their combined growth exceeding the increase in world population. This growth, however, was irregular, providing for rapidly growing per capita production from 1950 to 1980, stable per capita production from 1980 to 2000 and rising per capita production again after 2000. During the past half century, growth in fossil fuel production was essentially limited by energy demand. During the next half century, fossil fuel production will be limited primarily by the amount and characteristics of remaining fossil fuel resources. Three possible scenarios—low, medium and high—are developed for the production of each of the fossil fuels to 2050. These scenarios differ primarily by the amount of ultimate resources estimated for each fossil fuel. Total fossil fuel production will continue to grow, but only slowly for the next 15–30 years. The subsequent peak plateau will last for 10–15 years. These production peaks are robust; none of the fossil fuels, even with highly optimistic resource estimates, is projected to keep growing beyond 2050. World fossil fuel production per capita will thus begin an irreversible decline between 2020 and 2030.


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