China coal, mind the gap and future global energy use

There has been a lot of coverage over the last week about China now consuming more coal than the rest of the world combined, also about how China wants cap its coal use at 4bn tonnes but that could hamper growth and how bad it is that China is now the highest carbon emitter in the world. But how does China’s growth compare to Australia or the US in coal, energy and emissions?

Using the absolutely awesome website Gapminder (go there you can lose hours of time!) I wanted to try and understand how China sits in relation to the rest of the world and if they continue along the path of economic growth to match Australia or the US where do we all end up? 

Well, the first thing to look at is total coal use. The chart below shows total coal consumption per country since 1850, it very quickly demonstrates the role coal has played in the rapid economic expansion of China since 2002. Now, we can argue about how much of China’s coal is used in making stuff for the rest of the world but lets ignore that because the future will be more local consumption in China than export. China is the red line, United States is hello, India is blue and Australia is the smaller dotted red line – the size of the circles relates to population. If you go to gapminder.org you can animate over time – awesome.

Coal Use Total over Time copy

So, China has been consuming more coal than the US since about 1987 and India is now approaching the point of consuming more coal than the US. Not a good picture.

But if we look at coal use per capita over time, it paints a very different picture.

coal use per person over time copy

Australia has been consuming more coal per capita than the US since about 1982, with a slight improvement in 2010 (maybe financial related) but an appearance of a downward trend since 2006. India is still way down in per capita terms, but China is definitely catching up fast to the US likely to surpass it in the next few years. But the per capita coal use of China is definitely not as high as the rest of the world combined. So is it all being consumed in the manufacturing of stuff for the rest of the world?

Coal consumption per capita against GDP per capita is a good way of assessing this.

coal use per person versus gdp per person copy

If the GDP per person was as high in China as it is in Australia today then China per capita coal use would probably be twice as much as it is now! In GDP per capita terms China is where Australia was in the 1950s and where the US was in the 1940s and strangely enough its coal use per capita is roughly where Australia was in the 1950s. So coal use per capita in China is in line with their current GDP per capita. Does that mean their coal use is typical of a 1940/50s developed country? It seems to me like it is, so with a population of 1.4 billion people (20% of global population) why is the fact that China is consuming more coal than the rest of the world surprise us?

So, the last one is future impact. Lets move beyond the coal debate for a moment, since burning oil, or natural gas, or shale gas, or hydroelectric or nuclear to produce electricity, manufacture stuff and live our lives can be as environmentally damaging (not just in emissions terms).

We all know that the developing countries are called that because they are developing. They are moving more people out of poverty, moving more people into the middle class and generally raising the GDP per capita. So lets look at energy use per capita against GDP per capita.

2 nergy use per person versus gdp per person copy

When we look at total energy use per capita rather coal use per capita China is nowhere near Australia or the US. Yes they are using a cheap form of energy to cheapen their growth (not sure what Australia’s excuse is) but China’s energy use per capita is almost 3 times less than Australia. What appears to be happening is the developing countries US and Australia seem to be improving efficiency and heading towards 5 kg of oil equivalent per person and the developing countries are heading to a similar point.

What about the future?

Well if you use the impact equation it brings up some terrifying results.

In 2012 the global population was 6.9billion, energy per capita was 1.8 kg of oil equivalent per capita giving a total of 12 billion kg of oil equivalent.

In 2050 the world population will be 9.5billion according to the UN medium projections, if the developing countries achieve a GDP per capita similar to Australia and therefore energy per capita equivalent to Australia the energy per capita is likely to go up to 5 kg of oil equivalent per capita. This would result in 47 billion kg of oil equivalent.

So by 2050 our population is predicted to increase by a factor of 1.4, whereas if everyone lived as consumptively as the average Australian does at the moment the global world energy use would go up by a factor of 4! In other words if the end goal is to live like the average Australian we would need to find enough energy to support the equivalent of 28 billion people today.

Yes coal use in China is now more than the rest of the world combined, but the energy use per capita is 5 times less than the US and if everyone lives like the average Australian by 2050 we will need to find 4 times the amount of energy every year than we currently consume.

I wonder if the world actually has 4 times the amount of energy? I wonder if we can afford to create that amount of energy?

5 Comments on “China coal, mind the gap and future global energy use

    • Not an easy answer. I believe giving people the information is the first step. I don’t believe you can force people to change – history shows that people break rules. The old adage – you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink.

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