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China's Energy Future: An Introductory Comment

Author: Elizabeth C. Economy, C.V. Starr Senior Fellow and Director for Asia Studies
July-August 2011
Eurasian Geography and Economics


China's breakneck economic growth over the past three decades has been matched by an equally dramatic increase in the country's demand for energy. Moreover, growth in Chinese energy demand shows no signs of abating. After having doubled its energy consumption during 2000–2007 (EIA, 2010b, p. 87), China is poised to more than double it again by 2035 (e.g., see O'Hara and Lai, 2011, p. 501). China will not only continue to rank as the world's number one energy consumer, but it also will account for almost a quarter of global energy consumption (EIA, 2010b, p. 47). According to the International Energy Agency, accomplishing this will require that China add 1.5 times the generation capacity of the current installed capacity of the United States (ibid., p. 98).

Recent history underscores the challenges at hand. Over the past decade or two, China has transformed from a net exporter of a number of primary energy resources to a net importer. A net exporter of oil in the 1980s and early 1990s, China became a net importer in 1993; by 2009, the country ranked as the world's second-largest oil importer (EIA, 2010a). Over the course of that year, as Leung et al. (2011, p. 483) point out, while world oil demand declined by 1.24 million barrels per day, China's daily demand increased by 0.7 million barrels. The country's natural gas consumption has similarly increased, tripling in less than a decade and transforming it into a net importer in 2007 (EIA, 2010a). The largest coal producer and consumer in the world, China became a net importer in 2009 (ibid.). And as Thomson (2011, p. 466) notes, China is now also responsible for about 40 percent of all new reactors currently under construction in the world.

The papers in this issue of Eurasian Geography and Economics suggest—through careful detailing of the history and challenges within three of China's rapidly growing energy sectors (oil, gas, and nuclear)—that China's leaders are not only cognizant of the challenges before them but also working feverishly, if imperfectly, to meet them. They have made massive investments in all energy sectors and become major players in global energy markets. Yet China's projected growth in energy demand will require even more investment and almost certainly more imports. The scale of the country's future energy demand, not surprisingly, raises a number of questions, both for China and for the rest of the world. What will be the make-up of China's energy mix? How will China's energy demand be met in terms of internal versus external resources? What are the potential resource, infrastructure, and geostrategic issues at play?

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