energy equality poverty

Visualising global energy inequality

A third of the world’s population doesn’t have access to affordable electricity, and that presents us with one of the development conundrums of our era – how to deliver energy for everyone without destroying the climate in the process. Part of that is leapfrogging technologies that will see countries in the global south adopt renewable energy first time around, rather than building coal or gas power stations. Another aspect is richer countries reducing their energy use.

The current definition of ‘modern energy access‘, as used by the International Energy Agency, is 100 kWh per person per year. The image below, which is from the Center for Global Development, shows how far that amount of power would last us in different parts of the world. An American would use that in three days, a European in five. The average Ethiopian would use that much power in two years.


For more on delivering affordable energy, see The Poor People’s Energy Outlook.


  1. A great visual, though it seems to me a moot point; surely the reason African countries take so long to use 100kWh is that the energy and associated uses of it are simply not available to them – and if it was, they would soon be heading in the same direction as (over) developed nations.
    Something that I struggle with (and maybe I simply don’t have a good enough imagination) is the idea that if we suddenly stumbled upon access to unlimited free non polluting energy all problems would be solved. Whereas I think humans would be just as likely to continue to consume other resources until we reach a similar situation as we find ourselves in now.

    1. I agree with Martin totally. It was Amory Lovins who said something along the lines of we find a cheap source of energy we should not use it. We would merely find a way to damage something else…

      Great graphic and shocking.

  2. I’ve tried to understand the website showing the graphig, but I’m unclear:

    1. Is that energy taken as a whole, or pure electrical energy?

    2: is it found by taking total domestic energy consumption and dividing by the number of households, or total national consumption including industry; and thus the embodied energy of what we buy (some of it anyway)?

    The second question is in my mind because I’m looking at two places to work as a carpenter: one is a more atraditional company with smaller electrical tools, and the other is a very modern place with massive computer operated machines which must use a vast amount of energy to do the same task.

    For some reason the massive difference in the amount of energy hadn’t occured to me, so thanks for the reminder that this is a part of my decision…

    1. You have to think about the effieciency of the big machine vs the smaller one. If the big machine does the work of 4 smaller tools but uses three times the power to make the same number of things, less electricity is used overall.

      I don’t know about carpentary in particular so you would have to tell me how many biscuits they cut or legs they turn per hour compared to smaller tools.

      1. We also have to factor in the higher wastage of a bigger machine in terms of wood: a skilled carpenter wastes a fraction of the materials of the computer operated machines do. I doubt the extra power used to vacum all the sawdust out is included in the equation either. What is the economic cost of the loss of skill?

        I think we also need to add in the wellbeing of people who have to deal with those machines, and the endless cycle of waste that leads companies to make a shop interior and then destroy it three months later and install a different one. The demand for ‘better, bigger, newer’ drives this and we do it -partly- at the expense of people and the environment in our countries and worldwide.

        1. Again you have to factor in total process costs. Time costs money. The time a skilled carpenter takes to ensure they use all the materials might cost more than the materials themselves. Don’t forget waste wood can be sold to be used in making chipboard and other things to offset the cost.

          If we have machines to do the job we don’t need that skill so much. Skilled horse buggy wheel makers aren’t needed very much anymore. So little economic loss for an obsolete skill. But we do need skilled machine operators and programmers. Change is part of progress.

          I think you will find modern machine filled woodshops are safer than older ones. It is easier to vacuum dust from one big enclosed machine than lots of small ones.

          If we make the same things with less time, energy and cost it is hard to see how that is at the expense of the environment.

    2. ‘modern energy access’ has a somewhat technical definition. ‘Modern energy’ includes electricity, LPG or biogas for cooking, and excludes traditional fuels such as wood or dung. It’s also based on the household level, which they’ve then divided here, and there are different amounts for rural and urban households. It’s explained here if you want to get into the nuts and bolts of it:

      I agree with DevonChap, if the larger tools are more efficient and are doing more work per unit of energy, I wouldn’t worry too much about the raw amounts of energy used. If you have large machines running constantly but that aren’t being used well, then you’ve got a waste energy problem.

      1. Unfortunately there is a vast wastage in carpentry with machines like this because about half the energy we use in the industry, is take up by the massive vacum systems needed to avoid all carpenters dying of cancer at 50 from breathing in all that sawdust. It’s also catch 22 because the system needs more energy when it shuts down than when it is running.

        I understand that the bigger companies do get economies of scale from this, In these very odd times of cheap energy, the extra 50% doesn’t malkea massive dent in the finances of a company, but as energy becomes more epensive it will change.

        I still feel that misses the point of losing the skill base and the wellbieng of doing meaningful work.

  3. I love it when you put these kinds of things in front of my eyes…

    It is not about the number of people we have in the world it is about how much they consume – this is another important example. In my global awareness presentations we hear so often ‘we need to stop African’s having so many children!’. I want to hear ‘we need to consume less so the world can have access and share the basic resources in life!’

    Another graph and article I will keep in the memory bank and share with my audiences, thank you.

    1. You should look at the rest of the post at the Center for Global Development link above – there are six other graphics in the post. One of them in particular, about a fridge, is really eye-opening. I was going to post it another time.

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