Despite decades of promises to prevent a climate crisis, the primary cause of it, global fossil fuel burning, continues to increase rapidly. Last year's fossil burn broke all records.

That's according to data released by the multinational oil and gas company BP, in the latest "BP Statistical Review of World Energy."

To illustrate humanity's relentless acceleration off the climate cliff, and Canadians' role as top one-percenters, I've dug into the latest BP energy report and created the “missing charts” that show fossil burning trends — both here at home and worldwide.

Biggest global burn pile ever

My first chart shows BP's data for global fossil fuel use since 1990. This is the combined energy from all fossil oil, gas and coal burned each year. As you can clearly see, humanity just keeps burning more and more.

Global fossil fuel burning 1990 to 2019

Back in 1992, the world gathered at the Rio Summit promising to prevent our collective fossil fuel pollution from unleashing a full-blown climate crisis onto future generations.

Back then, humans were burning around 300 exajoules (EJ) worth of fossil fuels each year.

But instead of reducing the threat as promised, we collectively cranked up the burning to a record 492 EJ last year.

(Note: An “exajoule” (EJ) is an energy metric used by BP and others to compare different sources of energy. It is roughly equal to the energy from burning 163 million barrels of oil.)

Since that Rio Summit, there has been another quarter century of annual international climate summits. And yet fossil fuel burning has risen in every one of those years.

Except one. In 2009, a sudden worldwide recession caused the one small dip you can see in the chart. However, the very next year fossil fuel burning increased by the most ever recorded. The short-lived hope that the dip and crisis might lead to sustained climate progress turned out to be an illusion as business-as-usual fossil burning returned both fast and furious.

"It turns out that we are currently burning more fossil fuels per person than 99 per cent of humanity -- nearly five times the global median."

What about the pandemic?

The COVID-19 pandemic is expected to create another yearly drop. But once again, global climate pollution is projected to rebound and continue rising afterwards, under business-as-usual. That's according to a recent analysis by the International Energy Agency (IEA).

In that same report, the IEA puts forward an alternative to business-as-usual. They call it a global “sustainable recovery” investment plan. If widely adopted, this plan would prevent emissions from continuing to rise. Of course, plans like this have been created and promoted for decades now. The climate crisis has not been caused by a lack of options and plans. It's been caused by a lack of will to implement them at the scale needed.

What about renewable energy?

One of the great climate hopes has been that rising amounts of renewables and nuclear energy would cause fossil fuel burning to start falling. My next chart shows what happened instead.

Global fossil fuel burning vs climate-safe energy 1990 to 2019

The green bars combine the BP data for all climate-safe energy sources. This includes all renewables (such as hydro, solar and wind) plus nuclear energy.

As you can see, climate-safe energy has indeed grown robustly over the last three decades — rising by 48 EJ.

But, as you can also see, fossil fuel burning has risen four times more — adding 193 EJ.

As a result, fossil burning hasn't just been rising — it's been pulling away from the climate-safe alternatives. In 1990, the energy gap was an eye-watering 255 EJ. Now it's more than 400 EJ.

In the Greek myth symbolizing futility, Sisyphus had to repeatedly push the same boulder up the same hill. When it comes to humanity's primary climate task — replacing fossil carbon burning — we are stuck in the same kind of endless struggle. Each year, the world builds heaps of new climate-safe energy sources. And yet, at the start of the next year, the amount that needs to be built is even larger. Our boulder keeps getting bigger.

One clean step forward and four dirty steps back.

Beware the siren's song

One beguiling statistic is that fossil fuels are losing market share to renewables. That's often held up as a sign of climate progress. Unfortunately, it hasn't been so far. My next chart digs into the BP data to illustrate why.

Change in fossil fuel burning from 1990 to 2019. Market share and total amounts.

See that dotted line at the bottom? That shows the market share for fossil fuels since 1990. Sure enough, it has fallen from 87 per cent of global energy use, down to 84 per cent.

The reason that isn't climate progress is that the climate doesn't care about “market share” or how much renewable energy we use. What our climate system reacts to is the total amount of fossil fuels burned. That's the solid black line on the chart. And it, clearly, hasn't fallen. It's rocketed up by 65 per cent. That's what is fuelling the climate crisis. That's what is threatening our future. And that's the line that must fall quickly if we hope to preserve and pass along the safe and sane climate that most of us were fortunate enough to be born into.

Rising fossil burning is not climate progress. It is accelerating climate failure.

This chimera of falling-share-with-rising-amounts can continue for thousands of years, as long as the total energy market keeps growing. So, beware the lovely and comforting siren's song of “worry not, fossil carbon is losing market share to renewables.” It deceptively hides the increasing fury of the storm waves breaking on the rocks dead ahead.

What about Canada?

The BP data shows that Canada is one of the world's top-10 fossil burners — both in total amount and per person.

So, our actions and leadership in the fight for a safe climate matter more than those of nearly every other country. And Canada also has what it takes to help lead the world toward a safe climate future. We are one of the world's wealthiest, most tech-savvy, get-it-done countries. And we pride ourselves on doing the right thing and being a force for good in the world.

Plus, politically, both Liberal and Conservative federal governments over the years have stated that Canada aims to be a global climate leader and have collectively pledged to reduce our climate pollution — nine times.

Canada fossil fuel burning 1990 to 2019

So, how are we doing?

My chart on the right shows Canada's annual fossil burn since 1990.

You can see that we haven't been cutting back as promised. We keep burning more.

One bright spot is that our coal burning has declined. But that relatively small bit of climate progress has been wiped out many times over by our increases in both fossil oil and fossil gas burning.

At this point, eliminating coal won't even get us to back to our starting line. As the chart shows, our rising fossil oil and gas burn is now higher than all our fossil burning (including coal) was in 2005. That's the baseline year we promised to make big cuts from in our Copenhagen and Paris Agreement climate targets.

If we want to start making climate progress in Canada, we'll need to start making significant and sustained reductions in the amount of fossil oil and gas we burn, as well.

Renewables versus fossil in Canada

What role are renewables playing in Canada's climate efforts? My chart below lets you compare how much of each type of energy we've added since 1990.

Change in fossil fuel use vs renewables in Canada from 1990 to 2019

The dotted-green line shows the increase in climate-safe energy since 1990. We've added 1.1 EJ worth.

The black line shows the increase in fossil fuel burning. As you can see, we've added twice as much fossil during that time.

In fact, we've continued to add twice as much fossil even since 2005 — our baseline climate year. As a result, climate-safe energy sources in Canada keep falling ever farther behind climate-damaging ones.

Increasing fossil burning is climate failure.

Increasing fossil burning more than climate-safe alternatives amplifies our exposure to the gathering climate crisis.

Compared to our peers

How does our fossil burn in Canada compare to our global peers?

My chart below compiles the BP data for fossil burning per person in the world's top eight economies — which includes Canada. Combined, this group accounts for around 80 per cent of global GDP. Obviously, any solution to the climate crisis will require the action and leadership from all these countries.

Fossil fuel burning in 2019 in top-8 economies, including Canada

Two things immediately jump out at me about Canada.

First, Canada burns the most per person. We now burn even more than the Americans; twice as much as the Europeans; and three times the global average.

Second, Canadians are still burning as much as we did back in 1990. In fact, we burn a bit more per person now.

In contrast, the Americans cut their fossil burn by 15 per cent per person. The Europeans now burn 22 per cent less. And the U.K. burns 37 per cent less per person than they did in 1990. So, clearly it is possible for wealthy, technologically advanced countries to turn down the fossil burner — at least at the per-person level.

My final chart expands the scope to include the entire world. In this chart, the x-axis shows the running total of the global population. For example, it shows that half the world lives in countries that burn less than 33 GJ per person. While 90 per cent of humanity burns less than 135 GJ per year.

Where are Canadians?

Fossil fuel burning per capita in 2019. All countries and 100% of global population.

It turns out that we are currently burning more fossil fuels per person than 99 per cent of humanity — nearly five times the global median.

Does this look to you like Canada is doing our fair share in the fight to prevent a full-blown climate crisis?

It sure looks like a top one per cent climate failure to me. Fossil fuels don't burn themselves. We choose to burn them. We could choose to burn less — just like many of our peers have. So far, we've chosen not to. In my opinion, our failure to aggressively turn down our oversized fossil burn is both excessively risky and morally wrong.

What now?

If Canadians want to finally get started in the right direction in the climate fight, where could we start? Here are a few options:

  • Create a plan. Canada is great at setting climate targets. Nine federal targets have been pledged so far. But we've never once taken the next step of creating a plan to fully achieve them. Zero for nine. No wonder we keep failing to meet them. We need a plan.
  • Adopt a climate policy framework that has worked elsewhere. For example, our Commonwealth peer, the U.K., cut their climate pollution by 42 per cent since 1990. In contrast, we've increased ours by 21 per cent. We could adopt the key parts of their innovative Carbon Budget law that has worked so well for them.
  • Require proposed new mega-projects prove they are compatible with our climate targets. We often don't. Just a few examples: oilsands, LNG, bio-energy.
  • Choose cleaner transport. One of the biggest climate polluting decisions Canadians ever make is the vehicles we buy. Sadly, Canadians are currently choosing to buy the world's dirtiest new passenger vehicles. On average, each one sold locks in future demand to burn 21 more tonnes of gasoline and emit 66 tonnes of CO2. In most of Canada, however, choosing an electric vehicle instead will reduce those fuel emissions by 98 per cent. As a bonus, switching to electric transportation will dramatically reduce air pollution in our cities and our lungs. And, of course, there is that other hugely climate polluting transportation problem: jet-setting. Canadians have plenty of transportation options that will turn down our crazy-high fossil burn. If we want climate progress, we all need to start choosing options that are compatible with a safe climate future.

Keep reading

This is pretty damning. I can't see how much it is a result of our fossil fuels production, rather than our consumption in other ways? Are our cities consuming that much more than equivalent cities worldwide?
Obviously, the approaches that have been tried over the past 25 years haven't worked well. Is there better potential in redesign of cities to be less consuming?

Good questions, Brian. The BP data unfortunately only breaks it down to the country level. So we can't say anything about Canadian sectors from it. But according to the annual GHG data published by Environment Canada, the biggest emitting sectors in Canada are oil & gas production and transportation. And both continue to rise. So those are the biggest Canadian challenges moving forward. If you are interested in some more details on per-capita breakdown you might enjoy an article I wrote that covers some of that when Greta Thunberg was visiting:

Bless You

I don't understand why the transportation sector GHG emissions are still going up. Do you? Of not, that warrants investigation. Newer vehicles should emit less than older ones and EVs are becoming more common. Is it population growth, or more transportation of goods, or something else?

EVs are becoming more common, but it's another one of those things like renewable energy. Sure, they're growing . . . by a couple of percent. Still a drop in the bucket. Meanwhile, I wouldn't be surprised if the private vehicle fleet has been getting bigger . . . not as in more numerous, although that too, but simply in size. If the average hatchback is more fuel efficient than it used to be, but successful advertising campaigns got everyone to switch to SUVs and jacked-up pickups, did the average vehicle get more fuel efficient? Then there's all the extra delivery vans for all the online shopping . . .
That said, it is possible that both electric vehicles and renewable energy will beat the fossil fuel growth effects yet. If their percentage growth rate is higher but they start much smaller, a crossover point should arrive where renewables start replacing fossil fuels faster than energy use grows.
Unfortunately, CO2 emissions aren't our only problem. There are a ton of reasons why we need to get away from exponential economic growth. Global warming is just the one that's currently the most noticeable.

If you lived near a highway, you'd understand.
There is perceptively more traffic every year. Living in Toronto, I started using a bicycle for transportation in 1972 when there was a transit strike. I noticed that every summer, the traffic coming off the highways would increase ... but it didn't decrease come fall.
I hear from friends and relatives that they are being forced to buy vehicles and drive, given that train and bus passenger service has ceased in all but the main E-W corridor. It used to be that bus and train were affordable.
When de-regulation happened, when every route had to pay for itself, prices became prohibitive. I could no longer visit family "out west." All of a sudden, the fares lept to 400% what they'd been.
When I called the head office of VIA rail, to ask how to access affordable tickets, they told me, "Japanese and German tourists are happy paying the fares, and they reserve a year in advance." And that was that. Mass transport had come to serve "industry," including the tourism industry, and was no longer interested in their earlier image, as the safe way for families to travel.
People *have* to travel by car: there's no other way.
It's probably not fair to compare Canada with countries like Europe, when travel over long distances isn't necessary to, say, access basic healthcare services. And that problem is ever worsening, as well, as governments fall prey to the idea that all services should come from "centres of excellence."
Excellent my buttski. Excellent at reaping profits for 3P arrangements. Not much else.

To your last question: Google: Heat Island Effect (note: black pavement vs white colored permeable pavers)

Agreed. We need to change our energy use behaviour, but what are the incentives and disincentives? Appeals to ethical and moral reasons don't work well on an everyday basis, so what about economics? I live in a Passive House in BC. Totally electric. BC's electricity is over 90% renewable. But have my electricity bills gone down? The amount I pay for electrical energy has gone down drastically, but the other charges on the bill, ostensibly to cover the network and grid connection, have increased exponentially. The bottom line is that it costs Fortis and Hydro just as much to run the grid as it did before I reduced my energy use by 50%, so my total cost for electricity has plateaued, and I suspect it will go up in the future. The good news is that I no longer use natural gas for heating. But the savings don't pay for the extra cost involved in building an all electric Passive House. A moral victory perhaps, but an economic loss. Very few can afford that kind of incentive, so communally, we need to make non-carbon energy sources much more affordable. That requires subsidies for non-carbon infrastructure as a carrot to balance the stick of carbon use charges.

Go off -grid

Yes, the financial incentives in Canada have to change for Canadians to make climate-safe choices at the pace and scale needed. That's why climate policy is critical...and why I think Canada needs to adopt a climate policy toolkit -- like the Carbon Budget Law that U.K. has. It has proven to work for them by requiring the government to come up with policy solutions more than a decade in advance. Status quo and entrenched subsidies make it hard to change course for govts as well as citizens -- if you aren't incentivized to make the changes. Canada's climate policy toolkit, such as it is, is proven failure for decades.

While governments and energy pricing authorities all claim to want to reduce usage, they do nothing to discourage high usage.
All of my utilities bills charge more for the initial fraction of energy consumption than for the larger amounts. If one is a low volume consumer, one pays more per unit than those who consume more.

Great article. I am referencing it in a letter to the Minister of Natural Resources.

Surely that should be 251 GJ, not 251 EJ, near the top right corner of the last figure.

Yes, that should be 251 EJ on last chart. Thanks for catching that and letting me know. I'll fix that today.

Looking back 3 1/2 months to your March 30/20 article I don't imagine the massive net carbon emissions from Canada's managed forest lands have found their way into the BP energy report you have reviewed to generate these latest graphs!
Some of my more enlightened friends were encouraged to see the Federal Liberals back in power in October 2015. Although, I too was eternally grateful to see the Harper government shown the door, unlike my friends I was deeply skeptical of the return to a Liberal government. Rightfully so, as the last 5 years have proven time and again. Trudeau's Feb. 2017 cynical betrayal of his election promise from June 2015 to rid us of the "first-past-the-post" electoral system, was an oppressive return to the Canadian plutocracy we continue to suffocate under – whether Conservative or Liberal government.
In my 15+ years of trying to understand why Canadian governments fail to take serious steps to reduce carbon emissions, despite dire warnings and compelling evidence-based science of the profound and growing threat posed by the climate crisis, I haven't found a better exposé than Kevin Taft's 2017 book "Oil's Deep State - How the petroleum industry undermines democracy and stops action on global warming - in Alberta, and in Ottawa." What do you think?
Additionally, each of us has the power to vote with the way we chose to spend whatever money we may have. Predictably, I continue to see far too many apparently well-educated Canadians, who in self-serving fashion, conveniently chose not to "connect the dots" when it comes to their gas-guzzling SUVs, trucks and every other motorized toy imaginable. Not to mention the points-driven "cheap" (let our imploding environment pay) flights we're addicted to. PLEASE bring on MAJOR CARBON TAXES immediately, to herd us into less destructive ways of living, working and travel, or we'll surely self-destruct.

Good points, Alex. As you point out, Canada's federal government, under all parties, has failed to reduce Canada's climate pollution as promised. They have proven to be unable to even create a plan to meet our less implement it. According to Environment Canada's official GHG inventory (1990-2018): * GHGs increased under PC govts of Mulroney and Campell; * GHGs increased under Liberal govts of Chrétien and Martin; * GHGs decreased slightly under Conservative govt of Harper; * GHGs increased under Liberal govt of Trudeau (thru 2018 which is last year of govt data). And, as you also point out, Canadians haven't stepped in to fill the void by cutting back on their own significantly either. There is just no excuse at this point in the climate crisis to be buying the world's most climate polluting new cars, for example. The big question, in my mind, is how to change direction in Canada. In my view, as I've written about many times, what is needed to adopt a climate toolkit -- like the UK's Carbon Budget Law that removes politics from the design of climate policies. Political parties have all failed when in power. We need an independent commission like UK has that is required by law to come up with plan to meet targets and then they take that plan to MPs to vote up or down on.

Great description of the problem. Not so great on prescribing solutions. Transportation emissions are going up largely because governments are spending public funds to expand highways and airports. They do this deliberately to increase fossil fuel consumption (or, alternately you could presume they are a basket of mindless turnips - both politicians and civil servants). We know how to make traffic evaporate, and reduce GHG pollution.