Global Fossil Fuel Consumption Surges

Washington, DC—World use of oil—the dominant fossil fuel—surged by 3.4 percent in 2004, to 82.4 million barrels per day. This represents the fastest rate of increase in 16 years, according to Vital Signs 2005, a Worldwatch Institute report published today.

China and the United States were the main engines driving fossil fuel markets in 2004, accounting between them for nearly half the increase in world oil demand. China’s consumption soared by 11 percent in 2004, cementing its position as the world’s number two user at 6.6 million barrels per day. (See charts for media use) Daily demand in the United States rose to 20.5 million barrels a day—nearly 25 percent of the world total.

A growing number of geologists question whether oil reserves are sufficient to keep up with rising global demand, and many experts project that annual production will fall short of consumption as early as the middle of the next decade. They argue that oil companies have not been finding as much oil as they have been extracting over the past three decades, and this gap has widened in recent years. Declining output in Russia and elsewhere, and limited spare capacity in Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf countries, suggest that the era of relatively stable oil prices is at an end.

As the world’s fossil fuel consumption rises, so does the risk of global climate change. Carbon emissions from fossil fuels are believed to be the main factor behind the rise in atmospheric concentrations and global temperatures. Nearly three times as much carbon was released in 2004 as in 1960. Preliminary data indicate that fossil fuel burning released more than 7 billion tons of carbon in 2004, an increase of at least 3 percent over 2003, continuing the accelerating release rate of that year, when emissions rose 3.8 percent. In 2004, the average atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration reached 377.4 parts per million by volume.

Ten countries are responsible for about two thirds of global carbon emissions from fuel use. The United States, with 5 percent of the world’s population, accounts for nearly a quarter of the total. Between 1990 and 2003, U.S. energy-related emissions rose 16 percent. China ranks second, with a 14-percent share. Emissions there are up more than 47 percent since 1990, and China accounted for half of the global increase in 2003, although it still ranks far behind the industrial world in emissions per person.

Climate change is considered one of the world’s most pressing challenges today, but it is far from the only cost associated with the burning of fossil fuels. In China and India, where pollution controls are minimal, the continued rapid growth in the use of coal is exacerbating local and regional pollution problems, ranging from sulfur and nitrogen oxides to mercury contamination. Scientists have concluded that growing up in a city with polluted air is about as harmful to a person’s health as living with a parent who smokes.

Although air pollution is concentrated in cities, it can move well beyond them; the U. N. Environment Programme reported in 2002 that the “Asian Brown Cloud”—a two-mile-thick collection of soot, fly ash, and sulfuric acid that has been parked over South Asia for more than a decade—had killed tens of thousands of people in the past 10 years, including 52,000 in India in 1995 alone. A World Bank study projected that on average 1.8 million people would die prematurely each year between 2001 and 2020 because of air pollution.

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(References: Fossil Fuel Use Surges, Vital Signs 2005, pp. 30-31, Figures 1, 2 and 3; Air Pollution Still a Problem, Vital Signs 2005, pp. 94-95, Table 1; Climate Change Indicators on the Rise, Vital Signs 2005, pp. 40-41, Figures 1 and 3)

For more information or to schedule interviews with Vital Signs 2005 Project Director Lisa Mastny or other authors, contact: Darcey Rakestraw at 202.452.1992 x517 or


Web-Based Press Resources on Vital Signs 2005: Starting on May 12, 2005 at 6:00 PM EDT (2200 GMT), the following will be available for press at

  • Spokespersons List—A complete listing of all Vital Signs authors and their areas of expertise.
  • Vital Facts—Thought-provoking story ideas with facts, referenced back to the book’s chapters.
  • What You Can Do—Ideas, links, and resources for addressing the issues discussed in Vital Signs. 
  • Vital Signs 2005 Web Chat Series—View the complete schedule and introductions to each topic.
  • Vital Sign of the Week—Brief, compelling facts from individual Vital Signs chapters. Contact us to discuss adapting these for your news outlet. (Note: these will continue through December 2005.)

Vital Signs 2005 Image Resources—Downloadable High Resolution Photos for Press

World Oil Consumption, 1950–2004
World Consumption of Coal and Natural Gas, 1950–2003
Oil Consumption and Production in China, 1973–2004
Atmospheric Concentrations of Carbon Dioxide, 1960–2004
Carbon Emissions from Fossil Fuel Burning, 1950–2003
Projected Premature Annual Deaths due to Urban Air Pollution, Total and by Economic Group or Region, 2001–2020