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China energy use surpasses US. Who didn't see that coming?

China passed the United States as the world's No. 1 energy consumer. China denies it. But followers of China energy use are not surprised by the International Energy Agency's announcement.

By Staff writer / July 20, 2010

In this March 31, 2009 file photo, a worker pushes a cart on a construction site of an electrical substation in Daying, in southwest China's Sichuan province. China has overtaken the United States as the world's largest energy consumer, the International Energy Agency said Tuesday. China immediately questioned the calculation.

CHINATOPIX/AP/File

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Amid the hoopla over the International Energy Agency (IEA) announcing that in 2009 China surpassed the United States as the world’s biggest energy user, followers of Sino affairs are responding with a shrug.

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“I don’t think there should be any great surprise,” says Elizabeth Economy, director for Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. “It’s not unexpected to people who follow Chinese energy issues.”

Even the IEA itself agrees with Ms. Economy. “For those who have been following energy consumption trends closely, this does not come as a surprise,” the Paris-based agency said in a statement today. Back in 2007, the IEA predicted that China world overtake the US in energy use by about 2010.

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As factory to the world, China has searched the earth for fuel to run its production plants, rapidly developing ties with oil-rich nations in the Middle East and Africa. Furthermore, Beijing’s recent economic stimulus package focused on heavy industry, which increased the domestic energy demand.

“It’s sort of news and sort of not news,” says Matthew Slaughter, professor of international economics at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College. “For the first time in a decade the US is no longer the biggest emitter. But in recent years, people realized this was coming.”

China denies

Even as China followers responded with a shrug, Beijing moved to swiftly rebut the IEA figures, drawing even more attention to the announcement.

"The IEA's data on China's energy use is unreliable," Zhou Xi'an, an official with the National Energy Administration (NEA), told the state-run Xinhua news agency. The agency paired his comments with a big photo of Chinese volunteers handing out green recyclable shopping bags.

China's push back is probably related to the fact that it has been positioning itself as a global leader in green energy. “All it does is potentially draw into question China’s ability to meet its own [carbon emission] reduction targets,” says Ms. Economy in a phone interview from New York. China is unhappy about now being vilified the world’s biggest energy user and carbon polluter, she adds.

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