The Great Migration and Its Energy Burden

There is no wall big enough to contain the great migration that is now in the process of changing the world.

This migration isn’t from Mexico to the U.S., or from Pakistan to the UK, or North Africa to Greece and Italy. It is happening within the borders of the countries of the developing world and consists of people leaving the farm for the city lights.

According to the FAO, in 1960 about 400 million people lived in cities. That number grew to 2.9 billion in 2008 and is expected to reach 4.9 billion in 2030.

That has an impact on energy consumption. Many in the developing world will be abandoning the burning of dung and firewood for the greater fuel density found in coal.  They will be turning on a light switch for the first time, and the consumption of electricity will extend to televisions, washing machines, computers and refrigerators. A study in Bhutan found that only 40% of rural households had electricity. 91% of their energy needs were met by firewood. Their biggest single need for fuel was for cooking. The biggest energy use in cities is for personal transportation, followed by washing machines.

Funnily enough, the overall trend is true even in the U.S.,  where rural households consume about 10% less energy than  do urban ones.  Update: Don’t want to start any urban legends here–I was looking at aggregate consumption, not per household or per capita. Big Whoops. Thanks BillC for calling it to my attention.

Perhaps more to the point, in China an urban household consumes 60% more than a rural one.

And the numbers get tougher. Currently, half of China’s population lives in cities. That is projected to grow to 75% by 2030–and that’s 75% of  a much larger population than they have today. And it’s just as true throughout the developing world:

Economist 2011

A larger number of people. A larger percentage of whom are moving to an urban environment where energy is more easily available–and less expensive. A larger number of people moving into the stage of the economic cycle where they can acquire the amenities that make life worth living–all of which consume energy.

I sometimes wonder if 3,000 quads is in fact an underestimate.

5 responses to “The Great Migration and Its Energy Burden

  1. Wow! I seems I read a study in the past year attributing lower usage in urban in the U.S.! Don’t remember the details unfortunately, but it seemed to make sense (apartment buildings more efficient, less use of cars, etc.)

  2. Hi Tom,

    Where in the linked article does the 10% lower energy consumption in rural households come in? All I see is transportation and housing, in both of which the per capita energy consumption is stated to be lower for urban households.

  3. Hi BillC. Thanks–whoops! I looked at aggregate totals instead of per household or per capita. Must have been in a hurry. I’ll fix it now–and thanks a lot.

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