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.
“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.
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.”
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.
According to the IEA, China consumed the equivalent of 2.265 billion tons of oil in 2009, about 4 percent more than the 2.169 billion tons used in the United States. Xinhua says China's National Bureau of Statistics reported 2009 energy consumption equal to 2.132 billion tons of oil.
That number, however, is almost exactly what the IEA tallied China’s energy consumption at in 2008. The IEA points out, as well, that China’s energy consumption statistics for 2009 did not match up with 2009 GDP statistics.
Beijing was also quick to deny the 2007 report from the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency that found that China had surpassed the US as the world’s biggest carbon dioxide emitter. Such is commonly accepted now.
“Someone there is fudging data,” says Ms. Economy, author of “The River Runs Black: The Environmental Challenges to China’s Future,” adding that she is inclined to trust the data from the non-partisan IEA.
Caught off guard
Beijing tightly censors Chinese media and data, and was caught off guard by the original July 18 article in The Wall Street Journal. It quoted IEA chief economist Fatih Birol saying China's ascent to No. 1 energy consumer marked "a new age in the history of energy.”
The Journal highlighted how China's energy appetite over the decade had already had major geopolitical implications and changed global politics.
"Its increasing reliance on imports has sustained higher energy prices worldwide and underpinned a natural-resource boom in Africa, the Middle East and Australia. ... Chinese oil and coal companies have been looking overseas in their quest to secure energy supplies, pitching the Chinese flag in places like Sudan, which Western companies had largely abandoned under international pressure," according to the Journal.
The IEA confirmed the news today in a statement on its web site, pointedly drawing attention to China’s efforts to reduce its carbon footprint.
“China’s demand today would be even higher still if the government had not made such progress in reducing the energy intensity (the energy input per dollar of output) of its economy. It has also very quickly become one of the world’s leaders in renewable energy, particularly wind power and solar energy, and paved the way for a big expansion of nuclear power.”