Geography and Energy Use

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Geography looks for patterns in the distribution of diverse phenomena, and it tries to explain their variation by examining a wide range of underlying environmental and socioeconomic factors. Many fundamental realities of modern civilization cannot be fully appreciated without the basic understanding of the geography of energy use. There is a very high degree of inequality in the use of energy resources throughout the word: this is true for aggregate use of energy, for every individual fuel or renewable energy flow, as well as for the consumption of electricity. These consumption disparities are inevitably accompanied by large differences in energy self-sufficiency and trade.

A country's dependence on energy imports, its size and climate, its stage of economic development, and the average quality of life of its inhabitants are the key variables determining the patterns of fuel and electricity consumption among the world's 180 countries. Large countries also have distinct regional patterns of energy consumption, but the progressing homogenization of energy use has been reducing some of these differences. For example, in the United States sports utility vehicles are now favored by both urban and rural drivers, and, unlike a few decades ago, utilities in both southern and northern states have summer peak loads due to air conditioning.


Energy self-sufficiency is not just a matter of possessing substantial domestic resources; it is also determined by the overall rate of consumption. The United States, following the sharp decline of Russian's output, is now the world's second largest producer of crude oil (after Saudi Arabia); it is also the world's largest importer of crude oil, buying more than 50 percent of it in order to satisfy its high demand for transportation energy. The only affluent economies self-sufficient in fossil fuels are Canada (due to its relatively small population and vast mineral resources), and the United Kingdom and Norway (thanks to the North Sea oil and gas fields).

Russia is the most notable case of a middle-income country with large surpluses of energy. Its huge oil and gas exports are now surpassed only by Saudi Arabia, the largest OPEC oil producer. OPEC produces about 40 percent of the world's crude oil output and it supplies about 45 percent of all traded petroleum. In total, almost 60 percent of the world's crude oil extraction is exported from about forty-five hydrocarbon-producing countries—but the six largest exporters (Saudi Arabia, Iran, Russia, Norway, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates) sell just over 50 percent of the traded total. In contrast, more than 130 countries import crude oil and refined oil products; besides the United States, the largest buyers are Japan, Germany, France, and Italy.

About 20 percent of the world's natural gas production was exported during the late 1990s, three-quarters of it through pipelines, and the rest by LNG tankers. The former Soviet Union, Canada, the Netherlands, and Norway are the largest pipeline exporters, while Indonesia, Algeria, and Malaysia dominate the LNG trade. The largest importers of piped gas are the United States, Germany, Italy, and France; Japan and South Korea buy most of the LNG.

In comparison to hydrocarbons, coal trade is rather limited, with only about a tenth of annual extraction of hard coals and lignites exported, mainly from Australia, United States, South Africa, and Canada. Because of their lack of domestic resources and large iron and steel industries, Japan and South Korea are the two biggest buyers of steam and metallurgical coal. Although the development of high-voltage networks has led to rising exports of electricity, less than 4 percent of the global generation is traded internationally; France (mainly due to its large nuclear capacity), Canada, Russia, and Switzerland are the largest exporters. This trade will rise as the markets for electricity grow, and electricity transmission and distribution improves. Only 33 of the 180 countries are net energy exporters, and about 70 countries do not export any commercial energy. Self-sufficiency in energy supply was a major goal of many nations following the first "Energy Crisis" in 1973, but the collapse of OPEC's high crude oil prices in 1985 and the subsequent stabilization of the world's oil supply have greatly lessened these concerns during the 1990s.


During the late 1990s annual consumption rates of commercial energy ranged from less than 25 kgoe (or

 Energy Consumption
Source 1950 1973 1985 1990 1998
Solid fuels10401700217023302220
Liquid fuels4602450252027903010
Natural gas1701100146017202020
Primary Electricity30130300360440

less than 1 GJ) per capita in the poorest countries of sub-Saharan Africa to nearly 8 toe (or more than 300 GJ) per capita in the United States and Canada. The global mean was close to 1.5 toe (or 60 GJ) per capita—but the sharply bimodal distribution of the world's energy use reflecting the rich-poor divide meant that only a few countries (including Argentina and Portugal) were close to this level. Affluent countries outside North America averaged close to 3.5 toe per capita, while the mean for low-income economies was just 0.6 toe, close to the Chinese average. This huge gap in aggregate energy consumption has been narrowing slowly. In 1950 industrialized countries consumed about 93 percent of the world's commercial primary energy. Subsequent economic development in Asia and Latin America reduced this share, but by 1998 industrialized countries containing just one fifth of global population still consumed about 70 percent of all primary energy.

The United States alone, with less than 5 percent of the world population, claims about 25 percent of the world in total commercial energy use. Among the world's affluent countries only Canada has a similarly high per capita use of fossil fuels and primary electricity (about 8 t of crude oil equivalent per year). In spite of its huge fuel and electricity production, the United States imports more than a fifth of its total energy use, including more than half of its crude oil consumption. Almost two fifths of all commercial energy is used by industry, a quarter in transportation, a fifth by households, and a bit over one sixth goes into the commercial sector.

In contrast, during the late 1990s the poorest quarter of humanity—made up of about fifteen sub-Saharan African countries, Nepal, Bangladesh, Indochina, and most of rural India—consumed a mere 2.5 percent of all commercial energy. The poorest people in the poorest countries, including mostly subsistence peasants but also millions of destitute people in large cities, do not directly consume any commercial fuels or electricity at all!

All of the world's major economies, as well as scores of smaller, low-income nations, rely mainly on hydrocarbons. Crude oil now supplies two-fifths of the world's primary energy (Table 1). There are distinct consumption patterns in the shares of light and heavy oil products: the United States burns more than 40 percent of all its liquid fuels as gasoline, Japan just a fifth; and the residual fuel oil accounts for nearly a third of Japanese use, but for less than 3 percent of the U.S. total. Small countries of the Persian Gulf have the highest per capita oil consumption (more than 5 t a year in the United Arab Emirates and in Qatar); the U.S. rate is more than 2.5 t a year; European means are around 1 t; China's mean is about 120 kg, and sub-Saharan Africa is well below 100 kg per capita.

Natural gas supplies nearly a quarter of the world's primary commercial energy, with regional shares ranging from one half in the former Soviet Union to less than 10 percent in the Asia Pacific. The United States and Russia are by far the largest consumers, followed by the United Kingdom, Germany, Canada, Ukraine, and Japan; leaving the small Persian Gulf emirates aside, Canada, the Netherlands, the United States, Russia, and Saudi Arabia have the highest per capita consumption. Coal still provides 30 percent of the world's primary commercial energy, but outside China and India—where it is still used widely for heating, cooking, and in transportation, and where it supplies, respectively, about three quarters and two

Global Electricity Production (in TWh)

Global Electricity Production (in TWh) Year
Source 1950 1973 1985 1990 1997
Fossil Fueled6204560626075508290
Wind, Solar5080

thirds of commercial energy consumption—it has only two major markets: electricity generation and production of metallurgical coke.

When converted at its heat value (1 kWh = 3.6 MJ) primary electricity supplied about 6 percent of global commercial energy consumption during the late 1990s. Hydro and nuclear generation account for about 97 percent of all primary electricity, wind, geothermal, and solar—in that order—for the rest (Table 2). Canada, the United States, Russia, and China are the largest producers of hydroelectricity; the United States, Japan, and France lead in nuclear generation; and the United States, Mexico, and the Philippines are the world's largest producers of geothermal electricity.


On the global level the national per capita rates of energy consumption (Table 3) correlate highly (r ≥ 0.9) with per capita gross domestic product (GDP): the line of the best fit runs diagonally from Nepal (in the lower left corner of a scattergram) to the United States (in the upper right corner). This commonly used presentation has two serious shortcomings: the exclusion of biomass fuels and the use of exchange rates in calculating national GDPs in dollars. Omission of biomass energies substantially under-rates actual fuel use in low-income countries where wood and crop residues still supply large shares of total energy demand (more than 90% in the poorest regions of sub-Saharan Africa; about a fifth in China), and official exchange rates almost invariably undervalue the GDP of low-income countries.

Inclusion of biomass energies and comparison of

Countries Energy consumption
 1950 1973 1985 1995
Developed countries
Largest oil exporters
Saudi Arabia11069043904360
Developing countries
Poorest economies
All fuel conversions according to the UN rates; all primary electricity expressed in terms of its thermal equivalent.

GDPs in terms of purchasing power parities (PPP) weaken the overall energy-economy correlation, and disaggregated analyses for more homogeneous regions show that energy-GDP correlations are masking very large differences at all levels of the economic spectrum. Absence of any strong energy-GDP correlation is perhaps most obvious in Europe: while France and Germany have very similar PPP-adjusted GDPs, Germany's per capita energy use is much higher; similar, or even larger, differences can be seen when comparing Switzerland and Denmark or Austria and Finland.

Another revealing look at the energy-economy link is to compare national energy/GDP intensities (i.e., how many joules are used, on the average, to produce a unit of GDP) expressed in constant monies. These rates follow a nearly universal pattern of historical changes, rising during the early stages of economic development and eventually commencing gradual declines as economies mature and become more efficient in their use of energy. This shared trend still leaves the economies at very different energy-intensity levels. The U.S. energy intensity fell by more than a third since the mid-1970s—but this impressive decline has still left the country far behind Japan and the most affluent European countries. China cut its energy intensity by half since the early 1980s—but it still lags behind Japan.

Weak energy-GDP correlations for comparatively homogeneous groups of countries and substantial differences in energy intensities of similarly affluent economies have a number of causes. A country's size plays an obvious role: there are higher energy burdens in integrating larger, and often sparsely inhabited, territories by road and rail, and in affluent countries the need to span long distances promotes air travel and freight, the most energy-intensive form of transportation. Not surprisingly, Canadians fly two to three times more frequently than most Europeans do. Even within countries, there are wide consumption disparities. In the United States, gasoline and diesel fuel consumption by private cars is highest in Wyoming where an average car travels nearly 60 percent more miles annually than the national mean; Montana and Idaho are the other two thinly populated states with considerably longer average car travel.

Climate is another obvious determinant of a country's energy use. For example, Canada averages annually about 4,600 heating degree days compared to Japan's 1,800, and this large difference is reflected in a much higher level of household and institutional fuel consumption. But climate's effects are either partially negated or highly potentiated by different lifestyles and by prevailing affluence. The Japanese and British not only tolerate much lower indoor temperatures (below 15°C) than Americans and Canadians (typically above 20°C), but they also commonly heat only some rooms in the house or, in the case of Japan, merely parts of some rooms (using kotatsufoot warmers).

Larger, overheated and often poorly insulated American houses mean that the U.S., with the national annual mean of 2,600 heating degree days, uses relatively more fuel and electricity for heating than does Germany with its mean of 3,200 heating degree days. Space heating takes half of U.S. residential consumption, water heating (with about 20%) comes second, ahead of air conditioning. Widespread adoption of air conditioning erased most of the previously large differences in residential energy consumption between the U.S. snowbelt and the sun-belt: now Minnesota and Texas, or Nevada and Montana have nearly identical per capita averages of household energy use. The most notable outliers are Hawaii (40% below the national mean: no heating, limited air conditioning) and Maine (almost 30% above the mean due to heating).

Composition of the primary energy consumption makes a great deal of difference. Because coal combustion is inherently less efficient due to the presence of combustible ash than the burning of hydrocarbons, the economies that are more dependent on coal (China, United States) are handicapped in comparison with nations relying much more on liquid fuels, natural gas, and primary electricity (Japan, France). So are the energy exporting countries: energy self-sufficiency (be it in Russia or Saudi Arabia) is not conducive to efficient conversions, but high dependence on highly taxed imports (as in Japan or Italy) promotes frugality.

Differences in industrial structure are also important: Canada is the world's leading producer of energy-intensive aluminum—but Japan does not smelt the metal at all. And as the only remaining super-power, the United States still invests heavily in energy-intensive production of weapons and in the maintenance of military capacity. Annual energy consumption of all branches of the U.S. military averaged about 25 million t of oil equivalent during the 1990s (more than half of it as jet fuel): that is more than the total primary commercial consumption of nearly two-thirds of the world's countries! In contrast, the size of Japan's military forces is restricted by the country's constitution.

But no single factor is more responsible for variations in energy intensity among high-income countries than the level of private, and increasingly discretionary (as opposed to essential), energy use. During the late 1990s, the Japanese used only about 0.4 toe in their generally cramped and poorly heated apartments and houses, but U.S. residential consumption was about 1 toe. Ubiquitous air-conditioning, over-heating of oversized houses, and heating of large volumes of water explain the difference. Refrigerator and washing machine ownership is nearly universal throughout the rich world, but the appliances are smaller outside of North America where clothes dryers, dishwashers, and freezers are also much rarer.

There are even greater disparities in energy used for transportation: North American commuters commonly consume three times as much gasoline per year as do their European counterparts who rely much more on energy-efficient trains; and Americans and Canadians also take many more short-haul flights, the most energy-intensive form of transportation, in order to visit families and friends or to go for vacation. They also consume much more fuel during frequent pastime driving and in a still growing range of energy-intensive recreation machines (SUVs, RVs, ATVs, boats, snowmobiles, seadoos).

In total, cars and light trucks consume nearly three-fifths of all fuel used by U.S. transportation. In spite of a more than 50 percent increase in average fuel efficiency since 1973, the U.S. cars still consume between 25 to 55 percent more fuel per unit distance than the average in European countries (11.6 l per 100 kilometers compared to 9.1 l in Germany, and 7.4 l in Denmark in 1995). All forms of residential consumption and private transportation thus claim more than 2 toe per capita in the United States, compared to less than 1 toe in Europe and about 0.75 toe in Japan.


But does the higher use of energy correlate closely with the higher quality of life? The answer is both yes and no. There are obvious links between per capita energy use and the physical quality of life characterized above all by adequate health care, nutrition, and housing. Life expectancy at birth and infant mortality are perhaps the two most revealing indicators of the physical quality of life. The first variable subsumes decades of nutritional, health-care and environmental effects and the second one finesses these factors for the most vulnerable age group. During the 1990s average national life expectancies above 70 years required generally annual per capita use of 40 to 50 GJ of primary energy—as did the infant mortality rate below 40 (per thousand newborn).

Increased commercial energy use beyond this range brought first rapidly diminishing improvements of the two variables and soon a levelling-off with hardly any additional gains. Best national achievements—combined male and female life expectancies of 75 years and infant mortalities below ten—can be sustained with energy use of 70 GJ per year, or roughly half of the current European mean, and less than a quarter of the North American average. Annual commercial energy consumption around 70 GJ per capita is also needed in order to provide ample opportunities for postsecondary schooling—and it appears to be the desirable minimum for any society striving to combine a decent physical quality of life with adequate opportunities for intellectual advancement.

On the other hand, many social and mental components of the quality of life—including such critical but intangible matters as political and religious freedoms, or satisfying pastimes—do not depend on high energy use. Reading, listening to music, hiking, sports, gardening and craft hobbies require only modest amounts of energy embodied in books, recordings, and appropriate equipment or tools—and they are surely no less rewarding than high-energy pastimes requiring combustion of liquid fuels.

It is salutary to recall that the free press and the ideas of fundamental personal freedoms and democratic institutions were introduced and codified by our ancestors at times when their energy use was a mere fraction of ours. As a result, contemporary suppression or cultivation of these freedoms has little to do with overall energy consumption: they thrive in energy-rich United States as they do in energy-poor India, and they are repressed in energy-rich Saudi Arabia as they are in energy-scarce North Korea. Public opinion polls also make it clear that higher energy use does not necessarily enhance feelings of personal and economic security, optimism about the future, and general satisfaction with national or family affairs.

The combination of abundant food energy supplies and of the widespread ownership of exertion-saving appliances has been a major contributor to an epidemic of obesity (being at least a 35% over ideal body weight) in North America. National health and nutrition surveys in the United States how that during the 1990s every third adult was obese, and an astonishing three-quarters of all adults had body weights higher than the values associated with the lowest mortality for their height.

Vaclav Smil

See also: Agriculture; Energy Economics; Energy Intensity Trends; Reserves and Resources.


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