US fossil fuel consumption is at its lowest in 30 years. Here’s why

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Victoria Masterson, Senior Writer, Formative Content


  • US fossil fuel consumption fell by 9% in 2020, says the Energy Information Administration.
  • Coal accounted for 13% of US fossil fuel consumption in 2020, its lowest annual share since 1949.
  • Petroleum products were the most-used fossil fuels in the US in 2020. Natural gas, used mostly to generate electricity and heat, took its largest annual share on record.
  • While fossil fuel use falls, renewables are continuing to rise to new records.

The use of fossil fuels in the United States hit the lowest level in almost 30 years in 2020. You have to go as far back as 1991 to find a similar level of fossil fuel consumption. The COVID-19 pandemic and warmer weather have driven the decline, according to the United States Energy Information Administration’s Monthly Energy Review.

In 2020, total consumption of fossil fuels in the US, including petroleum, natural gas, and coal, fell by 9%.

graph-shows-fossil-fuel-consumption-in-the-United-States
Fossil fuel consumption in the United States is at its lowest level in 30 years. Image: US Energy Information Administration

Historic fall in fossil fuel consumption

It was the biggest annual fall in US fossil fuel consumption in both absolute and percentage terms since 1949, when the administration first published the annual data series.

“Economic responses to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, including a 15% decrease in energy consumption in the US transportation sector, drove much of the decline,” the EIA said.

Relatively warmer weather in the US in 2020 also reduced demand for heating fuels.

graph-fossil-fuel-consumption-was-biggest-since-1949
The fall in fossil fuel consumption was biggest since 1949, when its records began, the EIA said. Image: Monthly Energy Review, June 2021, EIA.

Fossil fuel drivers

Petroleum products including vehicle fuel and diesel, accounted for 44% of US fossil fuel consumption in 2020. At 68%, transport was the largest consumer of petroleum.

Natural gas accounted for 43% of US fossil fuel usage in 2020, mostly to generate electricity and heat. This is the largest annual share on record, the EIA said.

Coal accounted for 13% of US fossil fuel consumption in 2020, the lowest annual share since 1949.

petroleum-products-were-the-most-used-fossil-fuels-in-the-US-in-2020
Petroleum products were the most-used fossil fuels in the US in 2020. Image: Monthly Energy Review, June 2021, EIA

What’s the World Economic Forum doing about the transition to clean energy?

Moving to clean energy is key to combating climate change, yet in the past five years, the energy transition has stagnated.

Energy consumption and production contribute to two-thirds of global emissions, and 81% of the global energy system is still based on fossil fuels, the same percentage as 30 years ago. Plus, improvements in the energy intensity of the global economy (the amount of energy used per unit of economic activity) are slowing. In 2018 energy intensity improved by 1.2%, the slowest rate since 2010.

Effective policies, private-sector action and public-private cooperation are needed to create a more inclusive, sustainable, affordable and secure global energy system.

Benchmarking progress is essential to a successful transition. The World Economic Forum’s Energy Transition Index, which ranks 115 economies on how well they balance energy security and access with environmental sustainability and affordability, shows that the biggest challenge facing energy transition is the lack of readiness among the world’s largest emitters, including US, China, India and Russia. The 10 countries that score the highest in terms of readiness account for only 2.6% of global annual emissions.

To future-proof the global energy system, the Forum’s Shaping the Future of Energy and Materials Platform is working on initiatives including, Systemic Efficiency, Innovation and Clean Energy and the Global Battery Alliance to encourage and enable innovative energy investments, technologies and solutions.

Additionally, the Mission Possible Platform (MPP) is working to assemble public and private partners to further the industry transition to set heavy industry and mobility sectors on the pathway towards net-zero emissions. MPP is an initiative created by the World Economic Forum and the Energy Transitions Commission.

Is your organisation interested in working with the World Economic Forum? Find out more here.

Renewables revolution

The amount of fossil fuel consumption used at a global level is also declining and renewables are seeing a surge in demand.

The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) reported in June that renewables were now significantly undercutting fossil fuels as the world’s cheapest source of power.

Another record was set in 2020 for the amount of new renewable energy projects completed. According to IRENA, the world added more than 260 gigawatts of renewable energy capacity last year, exceeding expansion in 2019 by close to 50 per cent.

More needs to be done though. By 2030, the International Energy Agency says global clean energy investment needs to triple to around $4 trillion a year if the world is to reach net zero emissions by 2050.

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