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World Energy Use Over the Last 200 Years (Graphs)

By Brian Merchant - Updated May 28, 2020

WIN-Initiative / Getty Images

It's really an amazing thing, how quickly human civilization started using such a vast amount of energy. These charts, put together by the Oil Drum, tell a well-known, but fascinating story: they show the fast-accelerating energy consumption throughout the Industrial Revolution up through the modern era. And the bottom line of that story is relatively clear: per capita energy consumption is absolutely booming from a historical perspective, and that boom, of course, has been powered overwhelmingly with fossil fuels.

Energy Sources

The Oil Drum / CC BY-SA 3.0

Every person in the world, on average, is using much, much more energy than ever before. If you consider how quickly this has happened in the context of the lifespan of the human race, it's downright mind-blowing. And all that energy production has radically reshaped society; it has been invested in infrastructure, transportation, appliances, the general raising of the quality of life, and so on—as you're well aware. Of course, the vast majority of that energy is being used by relatively small pockets of civilization—places like U.S., Europe, and Canada are responsible for a lion's share of the world's historic energy consumption, so factor that in when you look at these.

Of course, none of this is new. But it's nice to get a visual reminder of where all that energy is coming from and to get a sense of how difficult it will be to transition away from the sources we've relied on thus far to produce it.

Per Capita Growth in Energy Consumption

The Oil Drum / CC BY-SA 3.0

As population growth continues to climb, so too will energy consumption. And the segments of the population currently considered energy-poor will likely be coming online in droves, especially as China and India rapidly modernize their economies.

Population Growth and Energy Consumption

The Oil Drum / CC BY-SA 3.0

Most of all, we should connect these charts to the concentration of greenhouse gases fossil-fuel based energy production has dumped into the atmosphere. To put it crudely, global temperatures will continue to climb, generally in correspondence with the trends in energy consumption outlined here—as long the global economy is predominantly powered by coal, oil, and gas.

Looking at these graphs, the absolutely massive scale of the effort required to wean the world off fossil fuels is striking. Our work is cut out for us.

Be sure to read the whole report over at the Oil Drum for many more fascinating graphs and analysis.

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