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Peak oil and the low-carbon energy transition: A net-energy perspective

Peak oil and the low-carbon energy transition: A net-energy perspective


  • Global gross and net-energy of oil liquids production is determined from 1950 to 2050.
  • Energy required for production is estimated to be 15.5% of the actual gross energy.
  • Oil liquids become a limit to a rapid and global low-carbon energy transition.
  • The peak supply vs. peak demand dispute needs to be re-examined.
  • Focus should be put instead on net-energy transition and wise energy consumption.


Since the Pennsylvania oil rush of 1859, petroleum has quickly become the dominant fuel of industrial society. The “Peak Oil” debate focused on whether or not there was an impending production crunch of cheap oil, and whilst there have been no shortages across the globe, a shift from conventional to unconventional oil liquids has occurred. One aspect of this shift was not fully explored in previous discussions–although of some importance in a low-carbon energy transition context: the extent to which the net-energy supply of oil products is affected by the use of lower quality energy sources. To fill this gap, this paper incorporates standard EROI (energy-return-on-investment) estimates and dynamic decline functions in the GlobalShift all-liquids bottom-up model on a global scale. We determine the energy necessary for the production of oil liquids (including direct and indirect energy costs) to represent today 15.5% of the energy production of oil liquids, and growing at an exponential rate: by 2050, a proportion equivalent to half of the gross energy output will be engulfed in its own production. Our findings thus question the feasibility of a global and fast low-carbon energy transition. We therefore suggest an urgent return of the peak oil debate, but including net-energy issues and avoiding a narrow focus on ‘peak supply’ vs ‘peak demand’.

Graphical abstract


Today, oil is a critical supply chain component for 90% of all industrially manufactured products [1]; as such, it is the backbone of industrial civilization …

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