Economics, Energy and the Environment

Energy Fact of the Week: Energy and Poverty in China

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.

One thought on “Energy Fact of the Week: Energy and Poverty in China

  1. Some soft facts which paralleled China’s increased standard of living:
    China now graduates about eight engineers to one American engineer. (This is a rough comparison because there is no universal definition of an engineer.)
    The US graduates seven lawyers for one graduate engineer.
    45% of the graduate engineers in the US were born in another nation, mostly Asian nations.
    Over 75% of the PhDs in engineering, in the US, were also born in another nation, mostly Asian nations.
    In the interval stated in the article, the number of employees in US “Smoke stack” industries has dropped to almost 1/3. There are areas within Detroit containing abandoned buildings which are larger than Manhattan and San Francisco combined.

    There are over four times as many Chinese, as Americans, and their growth is in heavy industrial processes. Example: China contains 97% of the world’s known resources in rare earth deposits. These materials are essential to advanced energy systems e.g. advanced permanent magnets. Example: China is currently building nuclear power plants on a scale and speed never achieved in the US. Example: China is completing a new coal fired power plant about once every several days. The US has not built a new large coal fired power plant in the last two generations. Example: China has opened a Beijing-Shanghai high-speed railway operating at 300 KMPH train. Most US passenger trains are limited to 129 KMPH. Example: In late 2010, the Chinese National University of Defense Technology introduced the fastest supercomputer on earth. A spokesman for our Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory called it a “game changer…. a phase transition, representative of the shift of economic competitiveness from the West to the East”

    At current growth rates, (or decline rates) it can be estimated that China may well become a peer of the US within the next generation, on a per capita energy basis. This is not a certainty, there are enormous social and foreign relation stresses, which influence energy creation and distribution, but the Chinese, and Indian, advances will probably redefine the energy levels of the world. And energy is the bedrock of national power.

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