Monday, September 25, 2006

Eye on China: Why Should We Care About China?


As frequent Watthead readers might have noticed, I've written a number of posts focusing on China in the past year (see here, here and here, for example). There are plenty of reasons to be interested in what's going on in China these days, especially in regards to their rapidly expanding and voracious thirst for energy.

China has been experiencing double digit economic growth for the past several years and now stands poised to emerge as an economic and political world-power. At the same time, China's demand for energy and resources - be it oil, coal, steel, cement, natual gas, copper etc., etc. - has been expanding at a mind-boggling pace, fueling the ever-growing Chinese economy.

I've decided that I am going to start another irregularly continueing series and begin to group any future posts on China under the headline, "Eye on China." I'll start off with this short essay written by University of Oregon Professor Greg Bothun that I think nicely sums up the many reasons we all ought to be concerned with the path of China's economic development and associated energy use and environmental impact:

China’s rapid emergence into the global marketplace carries with it a potential resource footprint that will negatively impact the entire world. While no one should deny China the right and capacity to emerge in this way, conditions are now different than they were 100 years ago when the US emerged to change the world forever. The US method of emergence was to do so as rapidly as possible, using energy sources as the basic foundation. No wisdom, forethought, or global consideration was applied in this case; we can not afford a similar oversight now.

Currently China is adding approximately 1 new 1000 Megawatt coal fired electricity plant, per week, to its energy infrastructure - this is approximately a 50,000 Megawatt increase in capacity per year. In the US, based on primary energy source, coal accounts for 44% of our annual production. This equates to approximately 275,000 Megawatts – China can therefore reach this level by continuing its current pace for the next 5 years – it certainly has the in country coal resources to do this. In addition, the transportation sector is the fastest growing energy sector in China. During the 1990’s, the volume of private cars in China grew by an average of 23% per year (or an exponential doubling time of 3 years). Presently the transportation sector accounts for 10% of total energy consumption in China, but at the rate of increase of private cars, this will increase to 1/3 by the year 2040.

Conclusion 1: At the present rate of fossil fuel usage in electricity production and transportation China’s output of greenhouse gases will exceed that of the US by around 2020 and this could occur even sooner if the transportation sector escalates even more rapidly.

Many climatologists and climate models are suggesting that we are nearing the point of irreversibility in terms of our ability to mitigate global climate change. Thus, the total greenhouse gas emissions by China over the next 10 years or so may ultimately prove to be critical in the kind of climate system that will dominate the earth for the next 100 years. If those emissions continue at the current rate, we may well cross the threshold. Indeed, a very disturbing piece of data began to emerge in 2003. Measurements of the buildup of atmospheric CO2 since 1960 indicate a mostly uniform increase of about 1.3 ppm per year. However, starting in 2003, those measurements reveal an increase of about 2.5 ppm per year – in other words, the planet has apparently doubled its yearly CO2 production. While the sources of this extra CO2 have not yet been unambiguously identified, the most scientifically plausible hypothesis is that this represents additional vehicular and fossil-fired power plant emissions from India and China.

In addition, China’s impact on the current “Peak Oil” situation is potentially very large. In principle, rapid escalation of gasoline usage in China could dramatically shorten the lifetime of known, conventional sources of oil. Not unreasonable scenarios lead to exhaustion of known resources by the year 2020 – leaving china out of the scenario leads to the more typical exhaustion year of about 2050. How the world will react to demonstrable oil shortages is completely unclear, however, clearly, it would be unwise to approach this state.

When considering the impact of China on the rest of the world it is useful to scale things as that gives a perhaps more revealing, provocative and, scary perspective.

  • Current per capita energy consumption in China is 11 times lower than that of the US. Thus 1000 MW of new capacity in China is equivalent to 11,000 MW in the US. The 18,000 MW Three Gorges Dam project (which does not output greenhouse gases) is therefore equivalent to nearly 200,000 MW in the US (or most of our coal fired energy production rate). When the Three Gorges Dam project was being planned in the early 1990’s – the per capita energy rate in China was 30 times lower than the US standard.

  • Fueled largely by the economic engine of the US during the 20th century, the world’s population experienced 2 doublings (from 1.5 billion to 6 billion). It is very likely that the planet can not sustain a similar increase in this century (thereby leading to 24 billion people by 2100).

  • Currently in the US there is 1 gasoline powered vehicle per 1.3 people. In China the ratio is closer to 1 in 115. Should China aspire to reach the US standard (for whatever reason) one runs into the interesting limit that there are not enough raw materials available in the Earth’s crust to build that many new vehicles.

  • The Chinese workforce is estimated to be approximately 750 million. Currently in the United States, the work force consumes 400 million gallons of gas per day. This consumption dumps out 1 billion dollars per day into the world economy. Scaling this to China leads to the absurd numbers of 2.4 billion barrels of gas per day and 6 billion dollars per day. Extant oil production and distribution infrastructure would never be able to supply anything close to this daily amount. Do, therefore, 200,000 cubic kilometers of Athabascan Tar sands need to be processed to provide just two years worth of potential Chinese consumption?

  • Conclusion 2: The world is not sufficiently resilient to the same Business As Usual growth as dominated the last century. We must act wiser.

    Conclusion 3: Resource rate usage in China potentially puts us in an Earth-material limited situation – humanity has never been there before. China’s growth therefore is not scalable by any measure.


    I think that it's clear that in the coming decades, China's influence on the global economy, from the prices of commodities, construction materials, energy resources, etc. will be inescapable. At the same time, if China's growth is not planned with foresight and concern for sustainabilty development, the nation's influence on the global environment may be inescapable as well.

    As Professor Bothun accurately pointed out, the world cannot afford to see China develop in the haphazard and environmentally destructive manner that the United States did in it's earlier days (India and other rapidly developing nations are also of concern, as well, of course). We who strive to bring about a transition to a sustainable energy future must keep China and other developing nation's in mind as we consider smart strategies to bring about that clean and sustainable future. No matter how well we may do to push the developed nations of the world onto a path towards a sustainable energy future, we must remember, in the 21st century, as goes China, so goes the world...

    [stay tuned for another installment of 'Eye on China', sometime soon...]

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