A couple weeks ago in this space I noted the growth in China’s total energy use compared to energy use by the United States from 1980 projected through the year 2035. Let’s continue with this theme for a moment, and add in a crucial extra variable—the relationship between China’s energy use and its effect in raising hundreds of millions of people—hundreds of millions—out of poverty. According to World Bank figures, the number of people living in absolute poverty (defined as living on less than $1 a day) in China has declined from 652 million in 1981 to about 80 million or fewer by 2009. In other words, more than a half billion people have been lifted out of poverty over the last 30 years.
China’s total energy consumption during this period increased 406 percent. In concrete terms, it means that for every increase of 1 quadrillion BTUs, 8.2 million people were lifted out of poverty. Everyone likes to wring their hands over China’s coal use, but these figures work out as follows: for every additional 4.5 million tons of coal used in China, or for every additional 450,000 barrels of oil consumed, 1 million people were lifted out of poverty.
The motion graphic below demonstrates the relationship between rising energy use and falling poverty from 1981 through 2009. The vertical axis represents the number of people living on less than $1 a day in China, while the horizontal axis plots China’s total energy use.