In the West, sustainability often means a better light bulb, or a new lithium-ion battery in an electric car, or a smarter way of powering all the appliances we've long since grown dependent on. The fate of global sustainability, however, is ultimately tied to the billion-plus people worldwide who still have no electricity at all.
In the coming decades, we have to figure out how to rein in energy use as a planet – while ramping up alternative sources of it – even as we deliver electricity for the first time to 17 percent of the world's population.
According to a new report from the World Bank, 1.6 billion people gained access to electricity between 1990 and 2000, 70 percent of them in urban areas. But, as of 2010, 1.2 billion people were still living without it – 173 million of them in urban areas. Because urban populations have been swelling even as access to electricity has grown, the global urban electrification rate actually hasn't changed much in 30 years, sitting at around 95 percent:
The numbers in rapidly urbanizing countries like India are particularly stark. Here are the populations, in millions of people, without access to electricity in the 20 countries with the farthest to go, as of 2010:
And this is what that means inside some of the most important community institutions:
These graphs offer useful perspective for ongoing conversations in the west about what it means to achieve a more sustainable city and, by extension, a more sustainable planet. While we try to curtail energy use, more than a billion people are still hoping for basic access to things like a light over their head. The United Nations has set the goal of universal electricity by 2030, beyond which the challenge of global energy use will look dramatically different.
Above image via NASA.