World Energy Demand

Early in October 2007, there was an interview on CBC radio with a Canadian living in one of Ghana’s largest cities. During the interview he described how difficult it was to operate his bakery when the electricity ran every other day. The fact is that more than one third of the people on the planet don’t have access to electricity. More than half don’t have access to reliable and affordable electricity on a regular basis. Many of these people have never watched television, played a video game, or even made a phone call.

Satellite image of the earth at night
Satellite image of the earth at night.

The image on the left contains a series of satellite images stitched together by NASA showing what the Earth looks like at night. The white areas show lights from towns and cities around the globe. Notice the large areas of the globe where the lights are absent. Some of these areas are dark because few people live there. Other areas are dark because they simply have no electricity. North America has less than 15% of the world’s population yet uses over 30% of the world’s electricity. On average, you use 15 times more electricity than a person living in the developing world.

World population is projected to increase by some 2.5 billion people from its current level of 6.9 billion by the middle of the 21st century. Since almost all of the increase will be concentrated in developing countries, thirsty for energy, energy demand will grow even faster. Although modern economies are critically dependent on a reliable and affordable supply of energy, roughly 2 billion people currently do not have access to electricity in daily living. The developing world is not likely to accept limitations on either the form or the quantity of energy it uses prior to reaching some acceptable standard of living commensurate with other countries. That means the international demand for reliable energy supplies will increase over the foreseeable future.

world consumption of primary energy
World consumption of primary energy – 1987-2012 (million tonnes of oil equivalent per year).

As members of the global society it is morally responsible for each of us to do our part in reducing our environmental impact in terms of pollution and contributions to greenhouse gases — but what about the developing world? They want and deserve the same quality of life we have, but how can the energy needs of another 3 billion people be met without putting even more strain on the environment? Do we say, “Sorry, no television, computer, lights or refrigerators for you, because it will add to global warming”? Is it morally right to deny people in the developing world a better life? Do you think they will be willing to accept “No” as an answer?

China, which has the largest population in the world and is now the largest energy consumer in the world, is now chasing the dream of economic prosperity. Their economy and energy needs are growing at an astounding 20% per year. To achieve this, they are generating the majority of their electricity with the largest and cheapest energy resource they have available, coal. On average, China completes construction on a new coal-fired electrical plant every two weeks. At this rate, China alone will burn more fossil fuels in a few decades than the developed world has burned since the industrial revolution began over two centuries ago.

All over the globe, developing countries are trying to meet their energy needs any way they can because they know that economic success is directly tied to their access to affordable energy. Some developing countries still burn leaded gasoline in their cars and buses, a practice abandoned by developed countries for environmental reasons almost 40 years ago, but they cannot afford to even make the switch to lead-free gasoline. Global warming is not a priority in the minds of people in the developing world. Having enough food to eat and a warm place to sleep are their priorities. The sad part is many of these developing countries will be the hardest hit by a global warming situation which, until recently, many had no part in creating. It will be the responsibility of your generation and generations to come to see that the needs of the developing world are somehow met without adding even more strain on the environment.


Adapted from lectures given by Gwyn Dyer and Dr. John Sutherland.
Image Source: NASA.
Figure 3.10 from World Energy: The Past and Possible Futures, p. 46.
British Petroleum Company, BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2007, London, United Kingdom, 2007.