Etam: 444,000 Semi-loads of Food? Just Another Day on Planet Earth

A friend of mine, always with a keen eye on interesting things, passed on an interesting quote from the CERA Week energy conference the other week. The head of the […]
Published on March 27, 2024

A friend of mine, always with a keen eye on interesting things, passed on an interesting quote from the CERA Week energy conference the other week. The head of the International Energy Forum mentioned a surprising statistic, as quoted by Javier Blas on Twitter: “Heathrow airport in London uses more energy than the whole African nation of Sierra Leone [population ~8.5 million].” Yikes!

Here’s another one that turned up randomly in the feed by a credible source: “If we keep growing our energy usage (2.9% CAGR last 350 years) we will use more energy in the next 25 years than in all prior human history. 3x in 39 years and 9x by the end of the century.”

Energy is an amazing topic, both sources and uses. The sheer scale of what we require for our present lifestyle is mind-blowing when placed in concrete contexts like above. In the abstract, the numbers don’t mean anything. The world consumes over 100 million barrels of oil per day. So what? Is that a lot? Sure it’s a big number but so is 8 billion people. Either stat is hard to wrap one’s head around.

Consider the following with respect to oil consumption/production: ExxonMobil made waves recently for a large oil discovery offshore Guyana, in an era when there aren’t that many discoveries being made (the flip side of the demand for oil/gas companies to return money to shareholders means exploration generally takes a back seat). Reuters picked up the story: ExxonMobil announced a new discovery, one of 30 since 2015, in a 6.6 million acre area that to date has been found to hold 11 billion barrels of recoverable oil, which also equals the country’s total. The results are significant, moving Guyana up to 17th on the world’s petroleum reserve rankings, similar to Norway, Brazil, or Algeria.

Now compare that number to consumption. At 100 million b/d, the world consumes a billion barrels of oil every ten days. Eleven billion barrels of recoverable reserves will meet the world’s needs for about 110 days, or just under four months. And global demand continues to grow.

The scope of this discussion goes far beyond oil demand. It is imperative that people understand energy demand, and particularly so on a global scale.

Look at this history of global energy consumption chart from Our World in Data:

It’s nuts. But it coincides very well with the rising standard of living attained by humanity, particularly in the west, an increase the rest of the world wants to emulate.

Consider the following statistics if you think that trajectory is going to slow down or reverse any time soon.

Africa has about 1.2 billion people, or roughly 15 percent of the earth’s population. Yet Africa accounts for 2 percent of global air traffic. By contrast, Europe has a population of about 740 million, and accounts for 31 percent of global air traffic.

What if Africans decide they want to live like Europeans, air-travel-wise, which is not just justified on moral grounds but actually more functionally logical, because Europe covers only 1/3 of Africa’s size of 30 million square kilometres?

What if the rest of the world wants to enjoy air conditioning to the extent the US does (and why on earth wouldn’t they)? According to the US Energy Information Agency, nearly 90 percent of US households use air conditioning, and virtually every office building does as well. The US has about 130 million households for 330 million people, or about 2.5 people per household. If Africa had a similar ratio, they would have 480,000 households, and if a similar proportion had AC there would be 430,000 households with AC. It’s safe to say that today in Africa the number of households with AC is far closer to zero than 90 percent. (Even communists/hardcore socialists support near-universal air conditioning, though they call it a ‘right’ by way of that fuzzy but firm ‘gimme that’ appropriation way of theirs.)

Now add in India, with another 1.4 billion people, and do the same math. A billion air conditioners worth of global demand is not a ridiculous estimate, not when considering Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, parts of South America… in addition to Africa, India…

Consider even food, and the logistical magnum opus required to keep countries food-riot-free. A typical western website says that the average person consumes 3-4 pounds of food per day. Let’s say the rest of the world isn’t so lucky, and we’ll call it 2.5 pounds per day for a global average (each new cruise ship drags the world average up considerably). There are 8 billion of us schlepping around planet earth. A semi trailer can carry about 45,000 pounds of cargo. So every day, the equivalent of about 444,000 semis full of food are forklifted out of trucks and down the gullets of 8 billion upturned mouths. Every freaking day, without a break.

And that’s just food. What about IKEA. And Costco. And Home Depot. And Walmart. And all the other stuff in our world.

And billions more people are striving to fill up the SUV (yes, everywhere you go, SUV) at their local Costco/Home Depot/Walmart, as soon as one arrives in their community.

Ah hell, I give up. The scale of all this stuff is unfathomable. And yet it all gets where it needs to go, every day, as long as there’s energy.

Any singular household staple must be there, in abundance, or all hell breaks loose. Remember Covid > toilet paper? What happens as soon as there is even a rumour of a shortage? Social deviants, which are harder to eradicate than (and just as useful as) STDs, get into gear and begin hoarding in order to resell at a profit. It just happens, one of the unfortunate costs of living in a free society. (I’m not suggesting that those people should be found and beaten with a tire iron, but then again I’m not suggesting that they shouldn’t.)

When we think of energy consumption, we tend to think of our hilariously comfortable lives in western nations, where supermarkets are perpetually full, where gasoline and heating fuels are available 24/7/365 at reasonable prices, where flying wherever and whenever we want, with minimal hassle, is one step away from being viewed as a human right. We are correct in that our energy consumption per capita in the west is very high. But on an outright total consumption basis, individual country statistics are pretty wild. And saddening, in some ways.

First the wild part: You would expect (or I did anyway) the US to be either at the top of the consumption pile or close; it is and has been an economic juggernaut for a century. But not even close: in 2022, the US consumed about 96 exajoules of energy, which is a lot – that number equals the consumption of India, Russia, Japan and Canada combined. But way out in front is China, with 2022 consumption of 159 exajoules. No one should be surprised China leads the world in renewables installation and coal fired power plant construction. They need it all.

Where it gets sad is to wander further down the list to the lowest consumers. The site linked above shows a graphic of the world, with each country colour-coded for total energy consumption. The lowest on the colour scale is a pale yellow representing 20 exajoules per year. The scale rises up through blues and towards a dark navy which represents China at the top of the heap.

Most African countries, and some South American ones, do not even warrant a definition in the legend at all, and are simply greyed out. They have so little energy consumption they hardly even make it onto the raw data table. Hundreds of millions of people live like that. But only as long as they have to.

It is very sobering to see how much of the world lives, and how very far they are from the West’s standard of living. The West’s leaders push the concept of ‘electrify everything’, a concept that only makes sense if one is looking no further than their backyard and has zero feel for the true global situation. In much of the world, they would just as happily get behind the slogan ‘electrify anything’.

It is hard to imagine this energy consumption trajectory falling; we’d be very lucky if it stayed flat. But that seems like an unrealistic hope. The developing world clearly has every incentive and right to advance towards the West’s standard of living, and if they get close global energy consumption will head off further into the stratosphere. Here in the West, we play cute little games like a forced switch to EVs, while ignoring almost totally any common sense commentary on the subject (For example, Toyota’s 1:6:90 rule which states that for the same amount of raw materials to manufacture one EV, Toyota can make six plug-in hybrids or 90 hybrids, and in doing so would achieve 37 times the emissions reduction of a single EV. Yet Toyota is scorned for such logic on the grounds that “Toyota’s reluctance to fully embrace EVs can hinder innovation in the EV industry.” Note that there is no challenge to the facts themselves, just a bruising of the ego of the think tanks.)

Anyone that provides energy of any kind should roll up their sleeves, there’s a lot of work to be done, and those who wish to hunt for energy villains will get run over, in due course.


Terry Etam is a columnist with the BOE Report, a leading energy industry newsletter based in Calgary.  He is the author of The End of Fossil Fuel Insanity.  You can watch his Policy on the Frontier session from May 5, 2022 here.

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