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China To Hold Growing Sway Over World Energy Industry

The International Energy Agency’s latest World Energy Outlook (to 2035) says China’s demand for energy will rise by 75% between 2008 and 2035, accounting for 22% of the world’s energy consumption, up from 17% today. Put another way, China will account for 36% of the growth in the world’s energy demand (see snapshot of IEA graph below). The IEA’s projections are based on the assumption that governments will do no more than meet any commitments already given on energy conservation, greenhouse gas emission reductions and the phasing out of fossil-fuel subsidies. (That so-called New Policies Scenario is the most conservative of the three sets of assumptions about governments’ intentions the IEA makes.)

It is hard to overstate the growing importance of China in global energy markets. [The IEA’s] preliminary data suggest that China overtook the United States in 2009 to become the world’s largest energy user, Strikingly, Chinese energy use was only half that of the United States in 2000….Prospects for further growth remain strong, given that China’s per-capital consumption level remains low, at only one-third of the OECD average.

The IEA also says that China’s growing need to import fossil fuels will have an increasingly large impact on international markets. It will account for half the net growth in global crude oil demand over the period, largely because it will need more fuel for cars and lorries. It will also have a voracious appetite for natural gas, the more so if coal use is restrained on environmental grounds. Its needs are likely to make the oil and gas producing nations of Central Asia such as Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan which draw from the Caspian basin a significant new energy region. Similarly, Beijing’s push to develop new low-carbon energy technologies could help drive down the costs of those through economies of scale.

In China, energy demand triples between 2008 and 2035. Over the next 15 years, China is projected to add generating capacity equivalent to the current total installed capacity of the United States.

Electricity generation is likely to be at the forefront of the transition to low-carbon technologies. The greatest scope for increasing the use of renewable energy sources in absolute terms, the IEA says, lies in power generation. China is already a leader in wind power and solar photovoltaic (PV) production as well as having become a leading supplier of the equipment thanks to strong government investment support. The IEA says China will add 335 gigawatts of wind generation capacity, 105 gigawatts of nuclear and 85 gigawatts of solar PV by 2035 (and put 8.5 million electric vehicles on its roads).  That said, coal-fired generation will remain substantial in China, with 600 gigawatts of new capacity exceeding the growth of the renewables and exceeding the current capacity of the U.S., E.U. and Japan.

The IEA takes aim at subsidies for fossil fuels, which it calls the “single most effective measure to cut energy demand”. It wants them phased out to end the market distortions that make it more difficult for low-carbon technologies to get development investment. It says that such subsidies amounted to $312 billion worldwide in 2009, though that was down from $558 billion the previous year. China was the fifth largest subsidizer in 2009, behind Iran, Saudi Arabia, Russia and India, at just shy of $20 billion. About half of that went to electricity generated from fossil fuels and most of the rest equally to coal and oil. Beijing has been moving towards more market based pricing for energy, but as the figures show, there is still a ways to go.

The subsidies analysis was done at the behest to the G-20, whose leaders are meeting in Seoul shortly and where climate change and the successor to the expiring Kyoto protocol on climate change will be on the agenda. The IEA lays out how heavily the burden lies on China and the U.S. to cut back emissions if the ideal target of limiting the increase in global temperatures to 2°C is to be hit by 2035: 32% China, 18% the U.S. 50% rest of the world. Low-carbon technologies would need to account, the IEA reckons, for over three-quarters of global power generation by then and plug-in hybrids & electric vehicles for 39% of new sales. That day may not come, or at least not fully, but the era of cheap fossil fuels is over. China is already investing heavily in those areas and giving itself a first mover advantage that the rest of the world may find difficult to claw back.

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