Q7 – Fossil fuels

This question was asked to the public in Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark and the UK in the Sustainable Development Misconception Study 2020

In December 2020 Gapminder launches a brand new service for upgrading your worldview, where you will be able to take this (and many other) tests and become certified gapm.io/upgrader


Of all energy used in the world, how much comes from natural gas, coal and oil?

a) Around 41%

b) Around 61%

c) Around 81%

Correct answer

Around 81% of all energy used in the world comes from coal, oil and natural gas.

The switch to clean energy has barely begun!

We are bombarded by news and commercials about new and clean technologies and maybe the amount of news makes people believe that a lot of fossil fuels have already been replaced. Such a misconception risks making people assume that enough of a change has already happened. 

But 81% of energy still comes from fossil fuels (coal, oil and natural gas). It’s easy to assume that the remaining 19% comes from modern clean energy sources, but that is not the case. Almost 10% comes from burning plants (wood, charcoal and waste), which produces smoke that adds to the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere until new plants have grown, while nuclear adds 5% and water and wind/solar only contribute around 2-3% each. 

The three fossil fuels (coal, oil and natural gas), are mainly burnt by rich people and rich countries and, despite all the talk, so far only a few high-income countries have cut their fossil use, and only by a fraction. To summarize it: The required switch to clean energy has not really started.

See energy consumption by energy type [here]. See a rough overview of emissions by income [here].

Data sources

We use three data sources for Primary Energy Consumption from fossil fuels, which have very similar estimates for their most recent year: EIA (85.1% year 2017); IEA (81.2% year 2018); and BP (84.3% in 2019). As many people think the number is lower than that, we use the smallest estimate, 81%, to avoid giving an impression that we are trying to exaggerate the number. The real number might very well be above 81%, maybe even 85% like EIA reports. Primary Energy Consumption is the total amount of energy that is used. It includes final consumption by end users plus energy used for transport and transformation into a usable product.

Source 1 – BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2020

Source 2 – International Energy Agency

Source 3 – EIA