Beijing Disputes Energy Record

Officials call the claim that China is the world's biggest energy consumer 'inaccurate.'
By Michael Lelyveld
Traffic passes below power lines in Beijing, July 20, 2010.

BOSTON—China has reacted angrily to estimates that it has become the world's largest energy user as it struggles to get its consumption under control.

On July 20, the Paris-based International Energy Agency (IEA) said China had for the first time surpassed the United States as the top energy consumer.

But Zhou Xi'an, head of the General Affairs Department of the National Energy Administration (NEA), called the IEA's data "neither accurate nor credible," the official English-language China Daily reported.

"If the IEA data [are] calculated by using sources other than China's official figures, it must be wrong and meaningless," said Lin Boqiang, director of Xiamen University's Center for Economic Research of China, according to the paper.

Despite the objections, energy experts say there is little reason to doubt the IEA's estimates, first reported by The Wall Street Journal on July 18.

'Trajectory is clear'

If China is not the world's biggest energy consumer now, it soon will be, whether the finding is based on China's data or not, said Mikkal Herberg, research director for energy security at the Seattle-based National Bureau of Asian Research.

"It'll be true in six months, or five months, or 10 months, depending on how closely we can estimate these numbers, but the trajectory is entirely clear," Herberg said.

According to IEA figures provided to Radio Free Asia, China's energy use has grown nearly every year in the past decade, more than doubling since 2000 to 2.265 billion tons of oil equivalent (btoe) last year.

During the same period, U.S. consumption stayed relatively flat, declining 4.5 percent to 2.169 btoe, IEA said.

China disputes the figures, saying its own data show the country used 2.132 btoe last year. Analysts see the difference as splitting hairs.

Although the United States still uses four times as much energy on a per capita basis, China's consumption has grown by leaps and bounds as its economy expands at double-digit rates.

Growing consumption

While the trends are clear, China is concerned about the "big-consumer" label.

"The real question is why they react," said Herberg, pointing to tensions between political forces that have pushed high-growth policies and those that worry about sustainable development.

"Any time the outside world starts highlighting China's huge and growing energy consumption or carbon emissions, to them that sounds a little bit like intervening in their domestic politics," he said.

Even on a per-capita basis, China's energy gap with the United States has been narrowing. Chinese consumers used only one-ninth as much energy as U.S. counterparts a decade ago, the IEA said.

But Chinese officials complain that the figures give short shrift to the country's progress in increasing non-fossil fuel use and promoting efficiency.

China has already raced past the United States in developing new energy sources like solar and wind power, said NEA head Zhou.

But other forms of energy are an environmental concern. While China consumes far less oil and gas, it burns three times as much high-polluting coal.

Reaction to finding

China rejects the IEA finding because of concern that its record on greenhouse gas emissions may depend on who is keeping score, said Michael Levi, director of the energy security and climate change program at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

"First, they don't like the vilification that comes along with it and so they're going to push back. Second, they don't necessarily want to see the IEA established as the authority for judging their energy use," Levi said.

Since last December, China has been negotiating measures to verify progress on its commitment to cut the carbon content of its economic growth by 40 to 45 percent between 2005 and 2020.

Last October, China reached an agreement with the IEA to "cooperate in the development of internationally comparable statistics and indicators of energy efficiency in all sectors, to support energy policy making in China."

It is unclear whether China's reaction to the IEA finding will affect its cooperation. But Levi said the agency's estimate reflects the importance of China to world energy and emissions growth.

"China matters in a big way when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions, when it comes to demand for oil, when it comes to demand for other energy resources. Its growing weight as an energy consumer just reinforces that," said Levi.

"This finding itself is not much of a surprise. We've been anticipating this for a long time," he said.


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