ACROSS THE MORE heavily industrialised provinces, factories and plants are being ordered to shut down or limit production during the winter months. This is both to curtail excess industrial production and also to curb seasonal smog, a byproduct of China being the world’s largest consumer of coal, which provides 65% of its energy.
The newly published annual outlook from the International Energy Agency (IEA) brings a glimmer of a silver lining to that particular dark cloud. China, it says, will remain a ‘towering presence’ in coal markets, but it believes coal use peaked in 2013 and is set to decline by almost 15% over the period to 2040.
China burnt 2.75 billion tonnes of coal in 2013, more than the rest of the world put together.
It is no secret that Beijing sees pollution as a potential political problem and that it is keen for China to go green. Lian Weiliang, deputy head of the National Development and Reform Commission, said earlier this week that the country was ahead of pace in its goal to cut coal capacity by 500 million tonnes within three to five years of 2016, while the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology forecast that environmental protection equipment manufacturing would be a 1 trillion-yuan ($150 billion) industry by 2020.
The new era will be about energy policy where the focus is on electricity, natural gas and cleaner, high-efficiency and digital technologies, not an energy system dominated by coal and a legacy of serious environmental problems, giving rise to almost 2 million premature deaths each year from poor air quality.
The switch will also flow from rebalancing the economy from a development model based on heavy industry, infrastructure development and the export of manufactured goods to one driven by higher-value-added manufacturing, services and domestic consumption.
Signs of the new era are there to be seen. Energy demand growth slowed markedly from an average of 8% per year from 2000 to 2012 to less than 2% per year since 2012. Official plans call for it to slow further to an average of 1% per year to 2040.
Energy efficiency regulation is a large part of the explanation. Without new efficiency measures, the IEA reckons, end-use consumption in 2040 would be 40% higher.
Nonetheless, such is the compounding effect of economic growth that by 2040, per-capita energy consumption in China will exceed that of the European Union and electricity demand for cooling alone in China will exceed the total electricity demand of Japan today.
The IEA reckons that China will need to add the equivalent of today’s United States power system to its electricity infrastructure to meet the demand expected by 2040. Such will be the scale of China’s clean energy deployment, technology exports and outward investment that it will play a huge role in determining global energy trends and in particular provide the momentum behind the low-carbon transition.
“When China changes, everything changes”, as the IEA says.
The agency lays out the future thus:
One-third of the world’s new wind power and solar PV is installed in China … and China also accounts for more than 40% of global investment in electric vehicles. China provides a quarter of the projected rise in global gas demand and its projected imports of 280 billion cubic metres in 2040 are second only to those of the European Union, making China a lynchpin of global gas trade. China overtakes the United States as the largest oil consumer around 2030, and its net imports reach 13 million barrels per day in 2040. But stringent fuel-efficiency measures for cars and trucks, and a shift which sees one-in-four cars being electric by 2040, means that China is no longer the main driving force behind global oil use – demand growth is larger in India post-2025.
China will also continue to lead a gradual rise in nuclear output, overtaking the United States by 2030 to become the largest producer of nuclear-based electricity.
The shift to a more services-oriented economy and a cleaner energy mix will take a decade to have its effects on the skies above. The IEA projects carbon dioxide emissions will plateau at only slightly above current level by 2030 before starting to fall back.