The Central Role of Energy in the Urban Transition: Global Challenges for Sustainability

  • Joseph R. BurgerEmail author
  • James H. Brown
  • John W. DayJr.
  • Tatiana P. Flanagan
  • Eric D. Roy
Original Paper


The urban transition, the increased ratio of urban to rural population globally and within countries, is a hallmark of the twenty-first century. Our analysis of publicly available data from the World Bank spanning several decades for ~ 195 countries shows that across and within nations over time, per capita Gross Domestic Product (GDP), energy use, and CO2 emissions are lowest in predominantly rural countries (rural > urban pop.), increase rapidly across urbanizing countries (rural ≈ urban pop.), and are highest in the most urban countries (rural < urban pop.). These trends coincide with changes in employment by sector and gender. Rural economies are based largely on employment in the resource-extraction sector, which includes agriculture, fisheries, forestry, and mining. In urbanizing nations, male employment is predominantly in the industrial sector, including public utilities, while female employment is higher in service-based than resource-based economies. In the most urban nations, service economies predominate with some countries employing 90% of women and 65% of men in the service sector. Our analysis shows that per capita GDP, energy use, and CO2 emissions increase by over two orders of magnitude from low-income, resource-based rural countries to high-income, urbanized countries with predominantly service economies. Data from the U.S. over the past 200 years illuminate a socio-metabolic urban transition similar to that seen globally in recent decades across countries and through time. Our study suggests that increased energy demand and climate consequences of burning fossil fuels will continue to accompany a rapidly urbanizing planet posing major challenges for global sustainability.


Biophysical economics Climate change Economic demography Energy Employment Human ecology Sustainability Urban footprint Cities 



We thank members of the Human Macroecology Group at UNM for helpful discussion and Felisa Smith, Melanie Moses, Bruce Milne, and Mathew Moerschbaecher for feedback on earlier drafts. Travis Knowles enlightened us on Fee-and Dividend Policy. Partial support for JWD was from the Gulf Research Program of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine Award Number 2000005991. TPF was supported by a Postdoctoral Fellowship by a McDonnell Foundation Complex Systems Scholar Award to the Moses Lab at UNM. Sandia National Laboratories is a multimission laboratory managed and operated by National Technology & Engineering Solutions of Sandia, LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Honeywell International Inc., for the US Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration under contract DE-NA0003525. The views expressed in the article do not necessarily represent the views of the US Department of Energy or the United States Government.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of interest

On behalf of all authors, the corresponding author states that there is no conflict of interest.


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Joseph R. Burger
    • 1
    Email author
  • James H. Brown
    • 2
  • John W. DayJr.
    • 3
  • Tatiana P. Flanagan
    • 4
    • 5
  • Eric D. Roy
    • 6
  1. 1.Duke University Population Research Institute (DUPRI)DurhamUSA
  2. 2.Department of BiologyUniversity of New MexicoAlbuquerqueUSA
  3. 3.Department of Oceanography and Coastal Sciences, College of the Coast and EnvironmentLouisiana State UniversityBaton RougeUSA
  4. 4.Department of Computer ScienceUniversity of New MexicoAlbuquerqueUSA
  5. 5.Sandia National LaboratoriesAlbuquerqueUSA
  6. 6.Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural ResourcesUniversity of VermontBurlingtonUSA

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