CLIMATE SPECTATOR: China's unsung efficiency fight

China is very serious about improving energy efficiency and has the results to prove it. Beijing's 2015 target to contain its energy demand and coal consumption shouldn't be dismissed.

Climate Spectator

When I say that I’ve been working in China since 2009 and the organisations I work with have been there since 1999, many people seem to have an irrepressible urge to tell me what they think is happening in the Middle Kingdom. Because most of these informants have never actually been to China, much of what they tell me is plain wrong.

One area about which there is much misinformation is China’s performance on energy efficiency and consequently emissions mitigation. I’m often told that China is doing little about reducing its use of energy and consequently emissions are rising uncontrollably. As with most things about China, the actual situation is more complex.

True, China uses a huge amount of energy and both energy use and emissions are increasing rapidly. As the chart below shows, in 2009 energy use in China surpassed that of the United States.

Energy Use in China and the United States 2000 to 2009 (Mtoe)

Source: International Energy Agency

However, China has a lot more people than the US ‒ 1.35 billion compared with 315 million ‒ and China’s per capita energy use is well below the world average, though it has been increasing sharply since 2001, as shown in the following chart.

Primary Energy Use Per Capita 1960 to 2007 (kgoe/capita)

Source: World Bank World Development Indicators

The most interesting story concerns what’s been happening with China’s energy intensity (energy use per unit of GDP). As shown in the following chart, energy intensity has been decreasing steadily since 1980, except for a short-term blip between 2002 and 2004. Though not shown on the chart, the decrease actually started in 1976.

Energy Intensity in China 1980 to 2009 (Btu/GDP in 2005 $US)

Source: US Energy Information Administration

The following chart shows that energy intensity in China is still higher than in the US but China is trending downwards, whereas the US is pretty static.

Energy Intensity in China and the United States 2005 to 2010 (Btu/$GDP)

Source: Climate Policy Institute/Tsinghua University

The major cause of the long-term and quite steep decline in energy intensity is the extensive, government-driven energy efficiency programs that have been implemented in China, about which little is known in the west.

In part two and three of this series I will expand on the nature of the energy efficiency policies and programs that have been implemented.

David Crossley is a senior advisor with the Regulatory Assistance Project. The Regulatory Assistance Project is a global, non-profit team of experts focused on the long-term economic and environmental sustainability of the power and natural gas sectors, providing assistance to government officials on a broad range of energy and environmental issues.

This is the first of a three part series of articles on China's efforts to improve energy efficiency. It is partly a response to an article in Climate Spectator by Tristan Edis questioning the Chinese Government's likelihood of delivering on a 2015 target that would cap coal consumption.