NASA

Many of them in urban areas.

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.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. A photo-illustration of several big-box retail stores.
    Equity

    After the Retail Apocalypse, Prepare for the Property Tax Meltdown

    Big-box retailers nationwide are slashing their property taxes through a legal loophole known as "dark store theory." For the towns that rely on that revenue, this could be a disaster.

  2. A man walks his dog on a hilltop overlooking San Francisco in the early morning hours on Mount Davidson.
    Equity

    When Millennials Battle Boomers Over Housing

    In Generation Priced Out, Randy Shaw examines how Boomers have blocked affordable housing in urban neighborhoods, leaving Millennial homebuyers in the lurch.

  3. Columbia University's Low Library
    Design

    Rediscover the Gilded Age’s Most Famous Architects

    McKim, Mead & White, Selected Works 1879-1915 highlights the nation’s defining classical structures from the late 19th century.

  4. A photo of a small small house in San Francisco's Noe Valley that sold for $1.8 million in 2014.
    Equity

    Why Cities Must Tackle Single-Family Zoning

    As cities wake up to their housing crises, the problems with single-family-home residential zoning will become too egregious to ignore.

  5. A photo shows the Amazon logo on a building.
    Amazon HQ2

    Amazon’s HQ2 Spectacle Isn’t Just Shameful—It Should Be Illegal

    Each year, local governments spend nearly $100 billion to move headquarters and factories between states. It’s a wasteful exercise that requires a national solution.