China to mold future world energy use: IEA

China will drive rising energy consumption and carbon dioxide emissions over the next 25 years, says Fatih Birol, chief economist of the International Energy Agency. But it will also lead the way in new sources of renewable energy.

David Gray/Reuters
A large rock monument bearing a sign in Chinese that reads 'The Home Town of Rare Earths Welcomes You' is seen amongst a field of wind turbines near the town of Damao, located in China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region.
Rich Clabaugh

China’s increasing appetite for energy will drive rising global energy demand over the coming decades, putting the country in position to mold the future of both energy security and alternative energy sources.

"I see a double role for China in the future," says Fatih Birol, the chief economist of the International Energy Agency (IEA).

While China will drive rising energy consumption and carbon dioxide pollution, Mr. Birol says it will also lead the way in building sources of renewable energy that will allow the world to diversify away from coal and gas.

“This will be a major service from China and for the rest of the world,” he says.

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China's daily demand for oil is projected to triple to 13 million barrels a day by 2035, according to the 2010 World Energy Outlook, released Nov. 9. At the same time, the country's per capita carbon dioxide emissions will also grow 41 percent, to 6.9 metric tons in 2035

China will account for 58 percent of the global increase in carbon dioxide emissions by 2035, according to the report, and also for 39 percent of the increase in global energy demand. The second-largest contributor to the increase in global energy demand, India, accounts for 18 percent of the rise.

95 million new car owners

“[China] may well put pressure on the oil markets, gas markets, and the coal markets,” says Birol in a telephone interview from Brussels, adding: “It is very well justified because the economy is big, the country is getting developed, and 1.3 billion people live there.”

A primary driver of China's rising energy demand will be the increasing number of car owners, says Birol. In China today, 30 out of 1,000 people own a car, compared with the US, where 700 out of 1,000 people own a car. By 2035, 240 out of 1,000 people in China will own a car – an 800 percent increase, yet still one-third of where the US is today. China's car fleet, today estimated at 40 million, is projected to grow to 135 million by 2035.

But China is also a leading investor in renewable energy sources, as the Monitor's Peter Ford reported in 2009. "China is going green. And as the authorities here spur manufacturers of all kinds of alternative energy equipment to make more for less, 'China price' and 'China speed' are poised to snatch the lion’s share of the next multitrillion-dollar global industry – energy technology."

China will become a global leader in solar, wind, nuclear, and advanced car technologies over the next 35 years, Birol says, which will have enormous implications for world energy use.

“Given the sheer scale of China’s domestic market, its push to increase the share of new low-carbon energy technologies could play an important role in driving down their costs through faster rates of technology learning and economies of scale,” according to the IEA report.

'Far-reaching consequences'

China, which consumed half as much energy as the United States in 2000, surpassed the US in 2009 to become the world’s largest energy user. China will overtake the US in 2025 as the world's biggest spender on oil imports, according to the IEA.

“How the country responds to the threats to global energy security and climate posed by rising fossil-fuel use will have far-reaching consequences for the rest of the world,” IEA executive director Nobuo Tanaka said in a statement.

The country's intense economic growth will slow, however, according to the report. China's GDP growth rate looks set to settle down from 9.5 percent from 2010-2015 to an average of 3.9 percent from 2020-2035.

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