Despite concerted global efforts to reduce carbon emissions through the expansion of clean and renewable energy resources, fossil fuels continued to dominate the global energy sector in 2012, according to new figures released yesterday by the Worldwatch Institute.

Coal, natural gas and oil accounted for 87 percent of the world's primary energy consumption last year, the group reported in a new "Vital Signs Online" report.

"The relative weight of these energy sources keeps shifting, although only slightly," states the report by researchers Milena Gonzalez and Matt Lucky, members of the Worldwatch Institute's climate and energy team.

While the U.S. boom in shale gas helped push the fossil fuel's share of total global energy consumption from 23.8 to 23.9 percent, coal also increased its share, from 29.7 to 29.9 percent, as demand for coal-fired electricity remained strong across much of the developing world, including China and India, and parts of Europe.

As such, coal is expected to surpass oil as the most consumed primary energy source in the world, the report said. In 2012, China alone accounted for more than half the world's total coal consumption, mostly for electric power generation.

But natural gas is also seeing significant gains, both in the United States and in countries like Japan, which are shifting their energy portfolios away from nuclear power. "With increasing shale gas fracking and many countries' interest in displacing coal generation with natural gas due to the lower greenhouse gas emissions, natural gas use seems well poised to grow," the report states.

U.S. will dominate in oil and gas
For the first time in 2012, global gas production exceeded 3 billion metric tons, marking the third consecutive year of both rising production and consumption, according to the report. With the exception of 2009, when the Great Recession resulted in lower energy demand for all fuels, natural gas use has been steadily rising since 1970, according to the report.

Oil, too, has seen a surge in production in the United States, according to Worldwatch, even though globally, oil use accounted for a slightly smaller share of total energy consumption, from 33.4 to 33.1 percent. In 2012, the United States produced oil at record levels and is expected to overtake Russia this year as the world's largest producer of oil and natural gas combined, according to the report.

"Consequently, the [United States] is importing decreasing amounts of these two fossil fuels, while using rising levels of its natural gas for power generation," the report states.

In an email, co-author Lucky noted that although oil may be losing some share of the world's total primary energy consumption, it is still expected to be the dominant fuel for transportation globally and will continue to grow in absolute numbers going forward. The United States, for example, increased oil production by 13.9 percent last year, its highest recorded increase ever, according to the Worldwatch Institute.

"And even though natural gas, biofuels and electric vehicles are growing in popularity in many isolated parts around the world, the world's growing appetite for transportation fuels will likely keep oil as a dominant primary energy resource for the foreseeable future," he said.

U.S. coal production drops as world's rises
While the price of natural gas dropped to near record lows last year in the United States, driving much of the fuel switching by electric utilities, the fossil fuel was significantly more expensive in other parts of the world. In Japan, for example, which relies on imported liquefied natural gas, prices exceeded $16 per million British thermal units, six times higher that what U.S. consumers paid.

Global natural gas consumption grew by 2.2 percent to 2,987 million tons of oil equivalent (mtoe) in 2012 -- more than triple the consumption recording in 1970, according to the report. The largest increases took place in the United States (27.6 mtoe), China (12.0 mtoe) and Japan (10.1 mtoe).

Coal consumption, meanwhile, grew 2.5 percent in 2012, driven by rising demand in China (6.1 percent), India (9.9 percent), Japan (5.4 percent) and the European Union (3.4 percent) and generally falling prices across all markets. But that single-year growth paled in comparison with the 4.4 percent average annual increase in global coal consumption recorded in the last decade as the United States cut its coal consumption by nearly 12 percent, according to the report.

Meanwhile, coal production grew by 2 percent in 2012 despite a 7.5 percent reduction in output from U.S. mines. China, which increased its domestic coal production by 3.5 percent last year, now accounts for 47.5 percent of global coal production, followed by the United States (13.4 percent) and India (6 percent). But the United States still holds the largest share of proved coal reserves at 27.6 percent, followed by Russia, China, Australia and India.

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC., 202-628-6500