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Do alternative energy sources displace fossil fuels?

Abstract

A fundamental, generally implicit, assumption of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports and many energy analysts is that each unit of energy supplied by non-fossil-fuel sources takes the place of a unit of energy supplied by fossil-fuel sources1,2,3,4. However, owing to the complexity of economic systems and human behaviour, it is often the case that changes aimed at reducing one type of resource consumption, either through improvements in efficiency of use or by developing substitutes, do not lead to the intended outcome when net effects are considered5,6,7,8,9. Here, I show that the average pattern across most nations of the world over the past fifty years is one where each unit of total national energy use from non-fossil-fuel sources displaced less than one-quarter of a unit of fossil-fuel energy use and, focusing specifically on electricity, each unit of electricity generated by non-fossil-fuel sources displaced less than one-tenth of a unit of fossil-fuel-generated electricity. These results challenge conventional thinking in that they indicate that suppressing the use of fossil fuel will require changes other than simply technical ones such as expanding non-fossil-fuel energy production.

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Acknowledgements

I thank T. Koford for helpful comments.

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R.Y. designed the research, analysed the data and wrote the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Richard York.

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The author declares no competing financial interests.

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York, R. Do alternative energy sources displace fossil fuels?. Nature Clim Change 2, 441–443 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate1451

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