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Some Applications of Non Equilibrium Thermodynamics Thinking to Current Geopolitical Issues

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In recent decades, there has been a development of several related concepts, some under the category of thermodynamics, which may be applied, to some degree, to the current geopolitical scene.

One is the perception of organization in this universe as ordered energy flows. This perspective can be characterized as ‘‘non equilibrium thermodynamics”. Probably the foremost and broadest scale explicant of this way of looking at the universe is cosmologist Eric Chaisson, now at Harvard. One of his signature books is ‘Cosmic Evolution’ .

Chaisson quantifies energy flows, and relates them to structures, at stellar, galactic, planetary, and even life levels. He relates complexity, at each of these levels, to ‘energy rate densities’. Somewhat surprisingly, he points out that energy rate densities in life forms exceeds those of cosmic structures such as suns. He also identifies energy rate densities of different types of life organization, such as plants and animals, and even the structure of industrial human activities, such as cities, airplanes, etc.

On separate but related themes, explorations of concepts such as ‘hierarchy theory’ and ‘emergence’ have shown that all structures at the scale humans perceive are in a sense hierarchic. Simple atoms make up complex, heavy atoms, atoms make up complex elements often described as molecules and chemical species, molecular structures make up, or are involved in, life structures, single cells make up multicellular organisms, both single cells, at their level, and multicellular organisations make up what we tend to call social systems, and so forth. (e.g. in currently visible human terms, cities are clumped in States, or provinces, states in an United States, ‘nation states’ around the world in the United Nations; or at lower levels franchisees under franchisors, etc,) In this framework, each level of aggregation is seen as a system of relationships, and a differentiated unit at that level joins with other elements, or systems, in a set of stabilized relationships to form the next level of hierarchy.

All these ordered systems involve — or more accurately consist of — stabilized energy flows, or, equivalently, stable systems of relationships, in energy flows. A condensed public summary of this perspective, with citations, is available.

Insights which arise in this perspective include that all organization is combinatorial — combinations of elements. Relatedly, ‘emergent’ effects of any combination of elements upon other combinations which it encounters are the effects of the organization as a whole as distinguished from the effects of its components might have were they not bound in their particular organization. That is, all organized systems are identified and in effect measured, or given meaning, by other systems in terms of the relationships system-to-system, so to speak.

This is an highly condensed overview, but one can get further, and somewhat complementary, clues concerning the stream of thought by looking at some of the work involved in the International Big History Association, including some of its leading members such as Fred Spier and David Christian. This Association traces cosmic evolution from its origins through human historical processes, in a variety of ways and from a variety of perspectives. The Association is recently formed, and its work is evolving in form and content.

Another architectural insight has been offered by Mark Buchanan, in his book ‘Ubiquity’ , to the effect that, as far as he could identify, all phenomena seemed to fall on ‘power law’, or log normal, statistical distributions — wars, city sizes, wealth distributions, earthquakes, etc.   This author has suggested that this is because all ordered phenomena consist of, or arise from, correlational processes, and such correlational processes produce this sort of statistical distribution.

Lastly, for initial introduction, a set of theories, or concepts, called ‘maximum entropy production’ (MEP) suggests, in general layman’s conceptualization, that given a differential (e.g. heat, or temperature, differential), it will be dissipated by all available means, and at situation-quantifiable rates, with common statistical signatures.  

Now to human societies, and the relationships between them. Each society is a group, and a group of groups. For each of these groups to have sustained coherence, its constituents must have stable inter-se relationships, or systems of relationships. But for any given group or set of groups to coexist with others, rather than devouring or being devoured by others, they must work out modi vivendi, so to speak. They must somehow establish complementarities, or symbiotic relationships, or at least non-lethal sets of relationships. Each and all must have an energy basis — a flow of energy into and through the stable system of relationships.

In large scale agricultural society examples, all ‘empires’ are hierarchic, in the sense of being made up by a coordinating mechanism which maintains relationships between component elements.

In analysing any given society, or set of them, we have to follow the energy flows. Karl Marx’s thesis that societies are structured by their means of production translates into the view that any given society, or set of them, will have institutions (regular patterns of activity embodying energy flows) which feed off of, embody and maintain the energetics of the system.

‘Agricultural’ societies can be seen as group-organized means of harvesting the photosynthetic capture of energy by plants, plus the energy of other-animal harvesters of the plants (‘livestock’). ‘Industrial’ societies maintain the plant and animal harvesting base, but have taken flight, so to speak, by capturing stored and concentrated energy of the residues of past eons of plant life on earth.

Since this cache of stored plant energy is finite and its boundaries are visible, it increasingly appears that if the multibillion human complex thus created is to be maintained in some form, over decades and centuries, humans will have to move to reliance on artifactual photosynthesis (AKA ’solar energy’), supplemented by wind energy, tapping the energy of breakdowns of heavy, complex atoms (nuclear energy), and perhaps some trace additions of current and earth-stored biological photosynthesis. Perhaps the best references for the data and analysis underlying this perspective are an international review of renewable energy sources,   and a conceptually elegant report by Sandia Laboratory personnel.  

We currently tend to call this a ‘renewable’ energy society. But it can be seen as a larger scale, current technological, or artifactual, or human-mediated, direct harvesting of sunlight, bypassing the biological processes of other organisms, past and present. In addition there seems a likelihood of harvesting of the differentials created by differentials in sunlight on the Earth’s surface (wind energy), with limited additional sourcing.

We tend to think of this all as a human created and engineered mastering of energy flows. But let us try to look at it from the Universe’s point of view, were the Universe to bother itself, apart from creating ourselves, to have one. From a thermodynamics perspective, from Chaisson on down, one can consider that life itself was created as a means of channelling energy flows to reducing differentials caused by universal ordering, as proposed by Santa Fe Institute researchers.   Derivatively, all our institutions, being driven by energy differentials and flows, and ourselves, can be seen as expressions of thermodynamic forces. We are, from such a point of view, but the enablers of Chaisson’s energy density rate functions.  

Lest this expression be interpreted as a whimsy to attract attention, I will use it to make suggestions about how current and future societies may tend to work out.

Let us consider the turbulent Middle East. Also we can consider the Soviet Union, and nearby Euro-asian areas.

Assuming no system-wide catastrophic breakdown, the stored plant energy potentials of these areas have been and will continue to be tapped. Pipelines will be built. Streams of oil tankers will continue.

This does not mean that there will not be intrastate and interstate maneuvering about where, when, and at what rate. Water flows downhill. But humans make dams, channels, irrigation projects, etc. And we humans do a lot of squabbling about how to create and divide up participation in reservoirs and flow systems over and outside political boundaries. Elinor Ostrom was given a Nobel prize for her careful and extensive work on how such situations, particularly those involving economic ‘commons’, have been successfully managed. Her prescriptions are worth careful attention.

The fractured and fractious political organizations of the Persian Gulf area have been, to some extent, and are likely gradually to be shaped to allow these energy concentrations to be distributed, or, to use MEP logic, dissipated. If democracies cannot reliably be constructed, autocracies and dynasties will have to conform themselves to these requirements. If they cannot do so, then possibly ‘trusteeships’ might be constructed by the world’s hydrocarbon thirsty and consuming polities. The political entities in the area will be monitored for efficiency and stability. This may lead to assistance, if possible; reshaping if necessary: both from outside their boundaries, and, possibly to a lesser degree, from within.  

Though thinly populated in many of its parts, Russia will, from its vast and central position on the Eurasian land mass, continue to feed gas into the highly organized energy transformation and use systems of Europe, and perhaps also China. It will also continue to be a source of other resources. (There may be some question whether the Easternmost portion of Russia remains European oriented, or becomes Sinified to such an extent as to lead to rearrangement of the State identification and administration.)

Around the globe the hydrocarbon potentials available from fracturing rocks will also continue to be developed, geographically unevenly but widely, on and adjacent to several continents. The phasing will be partially gated over time by relative efficiencies as between the hydrocarbon pools of the Middle East, Venezuela, and Canada, and ‘shale’ systems elsewhere. And the extent and rate of rock mining for hydrocarbons may be affected by the efficiencies of emerging photovoltaics based energy systems. But the techniques and tools are in hand, so to speak, in use, and expansible at current and sufficiently rewarded EROEI (energy return on energy investment) ratios.

Two factors seem likely to limit, or boundary, these extractions from the energy concentrations of life’s past, other than exhaustion. One is the possibility that the atmospheric temperature effects of the gaseous emissions from freeing up all these hydrocarbons — particularly carbon dioxide — will so disrupt the organic processes of current life as to arrest the whole process. The other is, as noted, the apparent potential of tapping the vastly larger solar energy flux of Earth to entrain larger energy flows with lesser disruption of current life patterns.

The first potential limitation has engendered much attention, but limited current effect, other than to lead to some effort to manage replacement of hydrocarbon mining by tapping the global solar energy flux — ‘renewable energy’ technologies, including the ancillary and necessary technologies to make solar energy universal, convenient, and supportive of at least the current level of human activity.

Efforts to coordinate limitations on ‘greenhouse gas’ emissions may slow the rate of increase, but seem far short of capping or reducing such emissions in immediately upcoming decades.

The salient geopolitical consequences of this projected transition to artifactual solar energy are interesting in a number of respects, prominently two.

First, artifactual solar energy capture, like biological, is inherently geographically extensive. The capture systems may be on the whole more southerly (take note, Northern Europe), and less co-located with water (but still dependent on some water to keep the needed biological support mechanisms in place). Whether this leads to massive territory wars like those of the agricultural era remains to be seen. We had best hope not, and strive to avoid them, for urgent reason.

The scope, efficiency and sustainability of this artifactual photosynthetic system seems likely to depend upon a complex web of interconnected resource, processing, and exchange systems implemented by humans, as distinguished from self sustaining (if we do not too much interfere) plants, ocean oxygen emitters, and generally the vast web of biological processes which we call Nature. The combinatorics of this system, globally employed, will be complex, subtle and demanding — of us.

In other words, whatever the array of geographically defined governance systems, if the systems for replacement of ‘fossil’ energy support for humans are to be realized, humans are going to have to construct and durably maintain large, and probably at best global, cooperation systems.

We may characterize these systems in economic, social, institutional, and other terms. But if we are going to get, for example, silicon, lithium, iron, copper, aluminum, etc. from where they are first found, and do all the intricate dances of transporting them, cunningly shaping them into microscopically toleranced formats, in large volume and at large scale, covering them with sand made into glass (or not), and have them harvest energy for decades, we have to have sophisticated coordinating mechanisms (including markets, and thus also including financial markets). And if humans seek a sustainable future of abundance of the sort many humans now enjoy, we can’t be blundering about periodically, or widely, destroying parts of such interconnected systems at will or impulse (read, if you wish, ISIL).

Lastly, for the moment, the imperative for hierarchical construction suggests that central coordinating functions, like those now embodied by the United Nations, will continue to evolve.

I have suggested that the above general directions, or tendencies, emerge from a consideration of order building, non equilibrium thermodynamic forces. However, I cannot assure my fellow humans that life on Earth, and our human part of it, must necessarily realize all the potentials one can envisage. Life, and order building in it, works in probabilistic increments. Over several billions of years, Earthlife has advanced as a whole in mass and complexity, it now appears, but also suffered some catastrophic setbacks in the process.

Whether our species of language and tool wielding ape will be able to achieve and maintain — over centuries — global integration at high levels of energy-fed activity, with current or better levels of individual welfare, is thus very much an open question. We have no good reason to think that an Abrahamic God, or other general Universal Governor, has decreed success for our hopeful projections of organizational potentials of human life on this Earth at this time. We are on our own, in an evolutionary adventure. In Star Wars terms, the force(s) may be with us, but guarantees are not on order.      

This leads to questions about what those concerned with ‘diplomacy’, or forms of facilitating international concert, may need to focus on in order to foster the needed, but far from guaranteed, international coherence. Modern Diplomacy, as a publication, is oriented to this topic.

In a prior post in another publication, I attempted an outline of some major themes, or focal points. In very brief summary, I suggested that we be aware of the central importance of energy flows and hierarchical ordering tendencies, mentioned here, that participants will be required to focus on arrangements which yield sustained mutual benefit to the participating parties (in current parlance, ‘win-win’ solutions), that there need to be monitoring of and controls on parasitism of the coordinated system by the coordinators, or ‘elites’ in the systems, that sound, objective knowledge systems of the sort developed in the sciences, and published through ‘free speech’ and ‘free presses’, be maintained, and that there is a need for continuity in systems (as massive breakdowns in an highly industrialized world may be very difficult, if not impossible, fully to repair).

Some of these suggestions relate to a need to prevent ossified, myopic national and international structures evolving, milked unproductively by national and international elites, stifling the growth potentials of the global human (and life) community.

I also pointed out that however much we wish completely to equalize welfare results for all participants globally, the prevalence of ‘power laws’ in the Universe counsels that we will never be able to do so. The operational possibility to be sought is that the various elements of the system be better off than if there were no system. (The philosopher John Rawls addressed this criterion in a way when he suggested that one approve or disapprove of a given system as if one did not know where one would fit in it.) A refinement of this concept is that an optimal system is one in which no one can be made more well off without making someone else less well off. But this logic does not, strictly, imply that in all circumstances complete equality applies as to all system participants.

On the global scene, both State and non-state actors seek to encourage successful and sustainable global integration. Some current organizations target selected international objectives from time to time, such as, but not limited to, Citizens for Global Solutions, and other organizations seek to create a global ‘parliament’ to parallel and inform the United Nations, promote a global ‘rule of law’ at the UN level and non governmental organization level, promote economic freedom, protect human rights, as by indexing State performance in human rights protection, and inhibit corruption in various polities by indexing State success in doing so. This is only a very limited sketch of such organizations. Please feel free to point up others in any comments on this essay.

The concepts I suggest here provide some support for the specifics of such efforts. Given my background as an attorney, I suggest that the ‘rule of law’ can be justified as an universal requirement by appeal to the basic nature of ordered processes — that is, that there be regularity and thus predictability in component processes — and the requirement that participating elements, such as ‘elites’, do not advantage themselves at the expense of the regularity and efficiency of the whole (the generic word for this is ‘corruption’). This basis goes deeper than others conventionally offered.  

I would also note that ‘human rights’ activities can be justified, perhaps somewhat undramatically and colorlessly, by the requirement that participating human elements in social groups, such as States, be accorded those nutrients and potentials for action which allow them to function with some equilibrium and effect.  

How well are such efforts succeeding? In the IA Forum piece, this author, perhaps parochially, attempted to rate the performance of his own native country, the United States, in meeting these criteria,, or requirements. Readers of this article are invited to correct this rating, and self-evaluate the conformance of their own polities by these criteria, if so inclined.

The effort reflected in this paper to to re-conceptualize some of traditional ‘statecraft’ has resulted in a limited and general set of suggested approaches. Broader efforts can be undertaken. Having had some connection with the US State Department and its education program for its foreign service officers, this author has proposed that such institutions might consider fostering research organizations (in a loose parallel to the US Defense Department’s DARPA) to probe analytically the theoretical and practical underpinnings of State construction and interaction.

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Energy

Five Reasons Why Countries in the Arabian Gulf are Turning to Renewables

MD Staff

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photo: IRENA

As global leaders look to renewables as a way address the growing and multi-dimensional threat of climate change, traditional energy countries in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) are embracing renewables faster than ever before. Led by efforts in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, the GCC has become crucial to global efforts in support of the energy transformation.

As the IRENA Director-General Francesco La Camera said recently at the International Energy Forum in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia: “It is perfectly possible to generate sufficient cheap, reliable energy from renewable sources. Not only is it possible, but it is also our best option, as it would bring higher socio-economic benefits than business as usual, and it would allow us to effectively address climate change.”

For the Gulf, renewables bolster energy security and support economic diversification whilst offering nations rich in renewable energy resources, an opportunity to explore their full economic potential. They also offer a second chance at energy leadership. Today, much of the global cost reductions witnessed in renewables have come from the Gulf. And by driving down the price of renewables and investing abroad, the Gulf is also shaping the energy transformation in other regions.

Here are five reasons why GCC countries are turning to renewables:

Renewables are the most practical and readily available climate solution

According to an IRENA analysis, the accelerated deployment of renewable energy in the GCC region can reduce emissions of C02 by 136 million tonnes. As nations are being urged to step up their renewable energy targets to keep the world well below 2° Celsius of warming, the UAE has more than doubled its existing pledge, committing to 50 per cent clean energy by 2050 at the UN Climate Action Summit in New York, resulting in even more C02 reductions than predicted.

Renewable energy is the most competitive form of power generation in the region

The business case for renewables is a central motivating factor for the Gulf’s transition towards renewables. Today, renewable energy is the most cost-competitive source of new power generation in the GCC, replacing traditional energy sources as the answer to the region’s fast-growing domestic energy demand. Recently, the 900 megawatt (MW) fifth phase of the Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum Solar Park in the UAE received one of the lowest bids for a solar PV project in the world at 1.7 cents per kilowatt hour (kWh).

Renewable energy creates jobs

Long-term policy objectives seen in the GCC region, including private enterprise, education, training and investment in local skills and human resources, can facilitate the rise in the number of jobs in the renewable energy sector. IRENA’s data suggests that renewable energy can create more than 207,000 jobs in the region by 2030 with solar technologies accounting for 89 per cent of them. The proliferation of rooftop solutions alone could employ 23,000 people by 2030 in the region.

The GCC region is endowed with considerable renewable energy potential – and not just solar

The suitability analysis for solar PV technology in the GCC reveals strong potential for deployment in all GCC countries, with Oman, Saudi Arabia, and UAE as leaders. Furthermore, areas in Kuwait, Oman and Saudi Arabia also boast good wind resources. Technologies such as biomass and geothermal power may hold additional potential but remain underexplored. According to IRENA analysis, based on targets in 2018, which, if met, could result in about 72 GW of renewable energy capacity in GCC by 2030.

Renewables save water

Water scarcity is an acute challenge in the region, with four of the six GCC countries ranking within the top 10 most water challenged on earth according to the World Resources Institute. And with one of the fastest-growing populations in the world, the region’s demand for water is expected to increase fivefold by 2050. If the GCC countries were to realise their renewable energy targets, this would lead to an estimated overall reduction of 17% and 12% in water withdrawal and consumption, respectively, in the power sectors of the region. Much of this reduction would be in Saudi Arabia and UAE, due to their plans to add significant shares of renewable energy in the power sector.

IRENA

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“Oil for development” budget, challenges and opportunities

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Iran has recently announced that its next fiscal year’s budget is going to be set with less reliance on oil revenues.

Last week, Head of the Country’s Budget and Planning Organization (BPO) Mohammad Baqer Nobakht said “In the next year’s budget – it starts on March 19, 2020 – oil revenues will be only spent for development projects and acquisition of capital asset, and not even one rial is going to go to government expenditures and other areas.”

At first glance, the idea is very appealing and it seems if the government manages to pull it off, it will be a significant step for Iran in its movement toward an oil-independent economy. However, it seems that cutting oil revenues from the budget and allocating them only to a specific part of the country’s expenditures is not going to be an easy task.

Although, BPO has already suggested various substitute sources of revenue to replace those of oil, some experts believe that the offered alternatives are not practical in the short-term.

So, how successful will the government be in executing this plan? What are the challenges in the way of this program? What are the chances for it to become fully practical next year?

To answer such questions and to have a clearer idea of the notion, let’s take a more detailed look into this [so called] ambitious program. 

The history of “oil for development”

It is not the first time that such a program is being offered in Iran. Removing oil revenues from the budget and allocating it to development projects goes way back in Iran’s modern history.

In 1927, the Iranian government at the time, decided to go through with a plan for removing oil revenues from the budget, so a bill was approved based on which oil incomes were merely allocated to the country’s development projects.

This law was executed until the year 1939 in which the plan was once again overruled due to what was claimed to be “financial difficulties”.

Since then up until recently, Iran has been heavily reliant on its oil revenues for managing the country’s expenses. However, in the past few years, and in the face of the U.S. sanctions, the issue of oil being used as a political weapon, made the Iranian authorities to, once again, think about reducing the country’s reliance on oil revenues.

In the past few years, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei has repeatedly emphasized the need for reducing reliance on oil and has tasked the government to find ways to move toward an oil-independent economy.

Now that Iran has once again decided to try the “oil for development” plan, the question is, what can be changed in a program that was aborted 80 years ago to make it more compatible with the country’s current economic needs and conditions.

The substitute sources of income

Shortly after BPO announced its decision for cutting the oil revenues from the next year’s budget, the Head of the organization Mohammad-Baqer Nobakht listed three alternative sources of income to offset oil revenues in the budget planning.

According to the official, elimination of hidden energy subsidies, using government assets to generate revenue and increasing tax incomes would be the main sources of revenues to compensate for the cut oil incomes.

In theory, the mentioned replacements for oil revenues, not only can generate a significant amount of income, but they could, in fact, be huge contributors to the stability of the country’s economy in the long run. 

For instance, considering the energy subsidies, it is obvious that allocating huge amounts of energy and fuel subsidies is not a good strategy to follow.

In 2018, Iran ranked first among the world’s top countries in terms of the number of subsidies which is allocated to energy consumption with $69 billion of subsidies allocated for various types of energy consumption including oil, natural gas, and electricity.

Based on data from the International Energy Agency (IEA), the total amount of allocated subsidies in Iran equals 15 percent of the country’s total GDP.

The budget that is allocated for subsidies every year could be spent in a variety of more purposeful, more fruitful areas. The country’s industry should compete in order to grow, people must learn to use more wisely and to protect the environment.

However, practically speaking, all the above-mentioned alternatives are in fact long term programs that take time to become fully operational. A huge step like eliminating hidden subsidiaries cannot be taken over a one or event two-year period.

The development aspect

One big aspect of the government’s current decision is the “development” part of the equation.

A big chunk of the country’s revenues is going to be spent on this part and so the government is obliged to make sure to choose such “development” projects very wisely.

Deciding to allocate a huge part of the country’s income on a specific sector, makes it more prone to corruption, and therefore, a plan which is aimed to help the country’s economy could become a deteriorating factor in itself if not wisely executed.

The question here is, “Is the government going to spend oil money on all the projects which are labeled as ‘development’ even if they lack the technical, economic and environmental justification?”

So, the government needs to screen development projects meticulously and eliminate the less vital ones and then plan according to the remaining truly-important projects.

Final thoughts

Even if the “oil-free” budget is a notion that seems a little ambitious at the moment, and even if there are great challenges in the way of its realization, but the decision itself is a huge step toward a better future for Iran’s economy. Although realizing this plan seems fairly impossible in the short-term, it surely can be realized with proper planning and consideration in the long term.

Sooner or later Iran has to cut off the ties of reliance on oil incomes and start moving toward a vibrant, dynamic and oil-free economy; a journey of which the first step has been already taken.

From our partner Tehran Times

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Growing preference for SUVs challenges emissions reductions in passenger car market

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Authors: Laura Cozzi and Apostolos Petropoulos*

With major automakers announcing new electric car models at a regular pace, there has been growing interest in recent years about the impact of electric vehicles on the overall car market, as well as global oil demand, carbon emissions, and air pollution.

Carmakers plan more than 350 electric models by 2025, mostly small-to-medium variants. Plans from the top 20 car manufacturers suggest a tenfold increase in annual electric car sales, to 20 million vehicles a year by 2030, from 2 million in 2018. Starting from a low base, less than 0.5% of the total car stock, this growth in electric vehicles means that nearly 7% of the car fleet will be electric by 2030.

Meanwhile, the conventional car market has been showing signs of fatigue, with sales declining in 2018 and 2019, due to slowing economies. Global sales of internal combustion engine (ICE) cars fell by around 2% to under 87 million in 2018, the first drop since the 2008 recession. Data for 2019 points to a continuation of this trend, led by China, where sales in the first half of the year fell nearly 14%, and India where they declined by 10%.

These trends have created a narrative of an imminent peak in passenger car oil demand, and related CO2 emissions, and the beginning of the end for the “ICE age.” As passenger cars consume nearly one-quarter of global oil demand today, does this signal the approaching erosion of a pillar of global oil consumption?

A more silent structural change may put this conclusion into question: consumers are buying ever larger and less fuel-efficient cars, known as Sport Utility Vehicles (SUVs).

This dramatic shift towards bigger and heavier cars has led to a doubling of the share of SUVs over the last decade. As a result, there are now over 200 million SUVs around the world, up from about 35 million in 2010, accounting for 60% of the increase in the global car fleet since 2010. Around 40% of annual car sales today are SUVs, compared with less than 20% a decade ago.

This trend is universal. Today, almost half of all cars sold in the United States and one-third of the cars sold in Europe are SUVs. In China, SUVs are considered symbols of wealth and status. In India, sales are currently lower, but consumer preferences are changing as more and more people can afford SUVs. Similarly, in Africa, the rapid pace of urbanisation and economic development means that demand for premium and luxury vehicles is relatively strong.

The impact of its rise on global emissions is nothing short of surprising. The global fleet of SUVs has seen its emissions growing by nearly 0.55 Gt CO2 during the last decade to roughly 0.7 Gt CO2. As a consequence, SUVs were the second-largest contributor to the increase in global CO2 emissions since 2010 after the power sector, but ahead of heavy industry (including iron & steel, cement, aluminium), as well as trucks and aviation.

On average, SUVs consume about a quarter more energy than medium-size cars. As a result, global fuel economy worsened caused in part by the rising SUV demand since the beginning of the decade, even though efficiency improvements in smaller cars saved over 2 million barrels a day, and electric cars displaced less than 100,000 barrels a day.

In fact, SUVs were responsible for all of the 3.3 million barrels a day growth in oil demand from passenger cars between 2010 and 2018, while oil use from other type of cars (excluding SUVs) declined slightly. If consumers’ appetite for SUVs continues to grow at a similar pace seen in the last decade, SUVs would add nearly 2 million barrels a day in global oil demand by 2040, offsetting the savings from nearly 150 million electric cars.

The upcoming World Energy Outlook will focus on this under-appreciated area in the energy debate today, and examines the possible evolution of the global car market, electrification trends, and consumer preferences and provides insights for policy makers.

While discussions today see significant focus on electric vehicles and fuel economy improvements, the analysis highlights the role of the average size of car fleet. Bigger and heavier cars, like SUVs, are harder to electrify and growth in their rising demand may slow down the development of clean and efficient car fleets. The development of SUV sales given its substantial role in oil demand and CO2 emissions would affect the outlook for passenger cars and the evolution of future oil demand and carbon emissions.

*Apostolos Petropoulos, Energy Modeler.

This commentary is derived from analysis that will be published on 13 November 2019 in the forthcoming World Energy Outlook 2019. IEA

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