Why China’s Energy Consumption Will Keep Rising

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In 1997, the Kyoto Protocol was signed. This was to usher in an era where the planet was to tackle climate change, and we were to see an energy transition from dirty, polluting fossil fuels to their low-carbon alternatives.

Instead, here is what happened. Global coal consumption grew more in the last ten years than it did in the previous forty. After decades of global energy consumption growth being dominated by oil and natural gas, coal grew more in the last decade than oil did in the last 25 years and more than gas did in the last 22 years. The comparisons with low-carbon energy sources is even more stark. In the years since the Kyoto Protocol was signed, growth in primary energy consumption from coal was eight times larger than for wind, solar and nuclear energy put together. This incredible growth in coal consumption means that the global energy system is no less carbon intensive than it was when the Kyoto Protocol was signed in 1997.

And this growth in coal was dominated by one country: China. 87% of the growth in global coal consumption in the years 2003 to 2013 came in China alone, and China now consumes just over half of the world’s coal.

Coal however is not the only thing that China produces or consumes half of. Production of almost all major materials is now dominated by China. Most remarkable is China’s dominance of cement making, with China laying down more concrete in the last three years than America did in the last century; probably the most astounding, and almost literally unbelievable, fact demonstrating the rapid growth of China.

Production of these materials also comes with a massive energy and carbon emissions footprint. Cement and steel making in China alone now require more energy and emit more carbon dioxide each year than major economies such as Germany and Japan.

The rapid expansion of coal in China saw it overtake America as the world’s biggest emitter of carbon dioxide in the late 2000s. However, more importantly it is now about to take over the European Union in terms of per-capita carbon dioxide emissions. China now emits over 7 tonnes of carbon dioxide per-capita, more than France, Spain or Italy. And given that China’s carbon dioxide emissions are continuing to rise, while the European Union falls, we can be highly certain that China’s per-capita carbon dioxide emissions will be will above those in the European Union’s by the end of the decade.

However, while China is now at the EU level in terms of per-capita carbon dioxide emissions, it is much lower in terms of per-capita energy consumption. This can be made clear by comparing China’s per-capita coal consumption last year with Britain’s 100 years ago. In 1913, per-capita annual coal consumption was 5 tonnes in the United Kingdom, whereas it was only 2.9 tonnes in China. China then has a long way to go simply to catch up with where Britain was a century ago.

Per-capita energy consumption in Europe and Japan is roughly two times higher than it is in China, while in North America it is four times higher. The United Kingdom’s energy consumption per-capita is closer to those in China. However, this highlights a clear problem. A lot of Britain’s, and other countries’, energy consumption has been outsourced to China. I sit typing this in Britain, yet of the things around me – my computer, my smartphone, my clothes – almost none were made in Britain. Similarly, a large amount of China’s energy consumption is to make stuff for other countries. As shown by the work of Glen Peters and others, China’s per-capita energy consumption is clearly two times lower than any developed country once you recognise that a lot of the energy consumed in China is used to produce stuff for Western consumers.

So China’s energy consumption appears certain to increase significantly, and this can be illustrated by comparing China’s travel patterns with those of the United Kingdom and by considering China’s relatively low levels of domestic electricity consumption.

In 2011, total passenger kilometres over all forms of transport in the United Kingdom was just under 800 billion kilometres, that is around 13,000 kilometres per-capita. In contrast, in China the total was 3,100 billion passenger kilometres, that is around 2,400 kilometres per-capita. So, people in Britain travel around five times further than those in China. This disparity is not likely to persist. Official Chinese statistics indicate that per-capita travel in China roughly doubled in the last decade, while travel in Britain, like many developed countries, appears to have peaked.

Low per-capita travel in China is reflected in its oil consumption. The average person in China consumes almost ten times less oil than someone in Canada. And it is still three times lower than the United Kingdom, which has one of the lowest rates of consumption of developed countries. Naturally, these statistics demonstrate both the low rates of consumption in China and the excessive rates of consumption in North America. Americans may consume two times more energy than Europeans, but they have very little to show for it in terms of quality of life.

In typical Western economies one third of electricity is consumed in people’s homes, whereas in China it is only 12%. China may make our TVs, but they are much less prone to watch them. As a result there are stark differences in how much electricity the average person in China. The average American consumes almost ten times more electricity in their home than the average person in China, while the average person in Britain consumes four times more. This reflects the extent to which China’s economic model is based on production, and not consumption. China’s transition to higher personal consumption levels will inevitably see a marked increase in electricity consumption.

These differences are not likely to persist for long. Per-capita energy consumption in most Western economies has been flat for the last two decades. In fact, it was higher in the 1970s than today in both the United Kingdom and America. However, per-capita energy consumption in China, which has risen by over 5% each year for the last decade, will inevitably continue to rise over the next couple of decades, probably longer.

But two fundamental questions remain. Will China consume energy like Europeans or follow the more excessive American model? And will China’s energy consumption continue to be dominated by coal? The future of the planet may rest on the answers.


1. Global Energy Consumption statistics taken from BP’s Statistical Review of World Energy.

2. Chinese travel and  domestic electricity consumption statistics are taken from the China Energy Databook.

3. UK Travel Statistics from the UK government’s National Travel Survey.

4. US domestic electricity consumption statistics are taken from the Energy Information Agency.

5. China’s minerals production statistics are taken from the United States Geological Survey.

6. Population data was taken from Gapminder.



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