Energy, affluence, and poverty: the cruel 21st Century disparity

Among the top ten countries of the world in terms of total primary energy supply (TPES), four—Germany, France, South Korea, and Canada—are nowhere even near the top ten in terms of population. And of the six that are in the top ten in population, three—China, India, and Brazil—have a per-capita energy supply that puts them into the poor country category. How poor is that? Here is a sortable list of the top ten energy-supply countries; have a look.

TPES 2011, top ten countries

CountryTPES 2011, billion kWhPer capita kWh per dayTop ten in population?
People's Rep. of China31,723.6165yes
United States 25,483.61224yes
Russian Federation8,501.11164yes
Japan 5,366.94115yes
Germany 3,625.83121no
Korea 3,028.88167no
France 2,940.27124no
Canada 2,928.88233no
source: International Energy Agency “CO2 Emissions from Fuel Combustion,” 2013 edition (URL here).

You will note that Canada, my country, ranks tenth in the top-ten list in terms of sheer kilowatt-hours of TPES, and first in terms of per-capita daily TPES. Of the average Canadian’s daily 233 kilowatt-hours of total energy, 45 kWh are from the electric grid. That is about the average Brazilian’s total daily kWh energy supply, and half that of the average Chinese. It is more than twice that of the average Indian.

Here is how Canada’s per capita energy supply and the electricity component of that supply compares with that of India, China, and Brazil:

Daily per capita energy supply, kWh, 2011

sources: total kWh from the IEA; electricity kWh from The World Bank

The difference between Canada’s supply and that of the others is stark, even in the case of China. That is the difference between affluence and poverty. If you are in Canada, or a comparably affluent country, imagine what it is like to be, say, a Chinese citizen getting by with nine kWh of electricity per day. That is one-fifth of what you have at your disposal right now.

What kind of “energy conservation” would you have to put into effect to power down to the Chinese level? Forget about having a washer, dryer, air conditioner, and electric heater, right off the bat. Your desktop computer with its monitor uses roughly 130 watts of power; that works out to just over 1 kWh over an 8-hour day. Your refrigerator and water heater (if you have either) each use roughly 1.2 kWh. After that, how many of the electric appliances listed here can you afford to (1) purchase in the first place and (2) run? Not very many. In Canada, you can run all of them if you have enough outlets. Nobody does this, even though those pushing energy conservation would have us believe that we do.

The “energy conservation” you would have to practice is the survival kind—conserving your own personal energy so that when circumstances demand your physical input, it’s available. Berndt Berglund, in his excellent book Wilderness Survival, offers this advice for anybody lost in the north woods:

Never stand when you can sit, and never sit when you can rest comfortably on your back.

You would practice this kind of energy conservation because most of your day would be spent in some kind of physical labour. You would be doing most of the work that electricity is doing for you right now. That is the lot of the majority of people living right this minute in countries like India, Brazil, and China.

Look again at the daily per capita energy supply in places like India, China, and Brazil. Take away the electricity component, and that was how life was like in Canada before the 1900s. Life in Canada without electricity and petroleum was a sheer grind. But at least 19th-Century Canadians were not aware of another country across the ocean where they did have electricity and petroleum. Indians, Chinese, and Brazilians are aware of places like Canada and the U.S. They feel the disparity, on their own skin. Nobody knows better than somebody living on 19 kWh of energy per day, what that is like. That is why they are striving like mad to increase their energy supply.

And here is a daunting fact. China would have to double its per capita energy supply in order to be at parity with, say, France (which is about half Canada’s level). China’s current TPES is nearly 32 trillion kWh, roughly 33 percent of the top-ten total.

China is already the world’s biggest carbon dioxide emitter, because most of its 32 trillion kWh are from burning fossil fuels. Its enormous population is, as you can see in the tables above, still egregiously under-supplied with energy. Energy conservation is, for the average Chinese, a cruel joke. Only energy, not energy conservation, will improve his life.

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