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Brighter outlook ahead?

New data from an American research group suggests China’s energy demand will peak by 2030. Linden Ellis asked Mark Levine, the man behind the numbers, about their implications.

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For four years, the China Energy Group at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California has collected end-use energy data on appliances and buildings in China in order to  project the country’s energy demand to 2050 — 15 years beyond most other surveys, and in far greater detail. The results, to be published later this month, suggest China’s energy demand will peak between 2025 and 2030.
chinadialogue’s Linden Ellis discussed the research with China Energy Group director, Mark Levine.  

Linden Ellis: What did your report originally set out to find?  

Mark Levine: Originally, we were looking to improve our very detailed model of energy use in China, and we wanted to expand it to 2020, or 2030. As we did the work, it became clear that there were issues that could not be addressed if one ended the analysis at 2030.

LE: With the findings in hand, what is new or significant about the research?

ML: We developed an approach that, instead of relying on economic forecasts, looked at natural limits: for example, how much floor space per family might the Chinese need or want in the long term? We concluded that it would never be as much as the US has, because China does not have anything near the space we have; and we thought it would be more than what the Japanese have, because China has a little more space than the Japanese. When we did that, we discovered that in not too many years, China will have “saturated” the space per family, and the rest of construction would be replacement.  

We did the same thing with commercial space and concluded that China would never reach the US level and would exceed the Japanese level. And we did the same with fertiliser. We asked a different question: how much fertiliser could be used per hectare? Based on the fact that arable land in China is not growing, and the intensity of fertiliser use is already higher than desirable, we see no growth in fertiliser use. Furthermore, fertiliser in China is now made from coal, which is a very inefficient process. As time goes on, it is likely to be made from natural gas, which is more efficient. Instead of having energy from fertiliser increasing, we have it decreasing over time.  
Because the model looks at all the end uses of note and technologies to supply energy services at a very detailed level, we can say that these things saturate. Refrigerators have already saturated in urban China and will shortly saturate in rural China. Air conditioners will saturate a little later, cars much later, and once they've saturated all you have are replacements. At some point, China becomes a mature economy, much like the US, where even though we are, some might say, profligate in our use of energy and super consumers, we grow energy use at 1% to 1.5% a year.

LE: So when does that “saturation” take place in China?

ML: That is what this detailed modelling can tell you. Instead of saying “saturation”, because different things saturate at different times, we talk about a plateau for overall energy. When we reach 5% to 10% of the peak, we say that is the onset of the plateau.

The onset of the plateau for our continued improvement scenario – which is our guess at the policies that are likely to be pursued, technologies that are likely to be adopted and the behaviour patterns of people – the plateau begins around 2030. For the scenario where government is much more aggressively pursuing efficiency, where more aggressive technologies are pursued, it is about 2025. Now that is really significant. If you compare those results with all other work, they just keep growing after 2030. The other models don't know about saturation.

LE: Where is the data in your model from, and are you concerned about uncertainty in the data?

ML: The simple answer to your question is: they are official data, they are unofficial data, they are data that we found, they are data that other people found.

Let me give you an example. When we looked at commercial buildings, we discovered that the other work that had been done, including most but not all of the Chinese work, missed about half of the floor area of commercial buildings. How could they do that? The National Bureau of Statistics data provides commercial building floor space only for urban areas, it doesn’t include rural areas, which is about half of commercial floor space. Now that turns out to be a critical parameter, because if you are using half of what really exists, than saturation occurs further in the future.  

The reality is twofold as to why one can do this report. As troublesome as it is to find uncertainties in data, China has far better data than any other developing country; it almost competes with some developed countries in terms of quality of data. The second thing is that there are ways to check data. All the end uses have to equal total production minus exports plus imports. Typically we are off by 5% to 10%.

LE: What is the biggest impact of this study?

ML: The study is likely to impact both American and Chinese policy. The first time I presented this data was at a plenary talk at the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, which is very influential in Washington on energy-efficiency matters. One person in the audience was the chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, and he said he would arrange to have meetings with members of Congress and US climate-change negotiators.   

The second forum was as a plenary speaker at a conference at the Great Hall of the People in China. I assure you, the Chinese are aware of this data and it will influence their policy on such things as climate change. In fact, it will confirm their policy.   

LE: How will the report confirm Chinese climate policy?

ML: The data says that in the next 10, 15 or 20 years, it’s going to be extremely hard to know what energy use will be, because China is on a trajectory where it is still growing rapidly, but we don't know how rapidly. There are all kinds of uncertainties. For China, energy growth could be 5%, 10% or less – you just don't know.

That means that if you are China, and you take your commitment seriously, don't make a commitment for a [emissions] cap. The only way you could do that is if you are prepared to be dishonest as, shall we say, many people who signed on to a cap – many industrialised countries – were. However, when you get to 2025, 2030 you can actually commit to an absolute cap. Until then, you want to commit to intensity targets.

LE: So can China make its 40% to 45% carbon-intensity target by 2020?

ML: Let me answer in two ways. First, if China says they are going to make it, they are going to make it. The somersaults that they are making people do in order to reach their 20% target are unbelievable. People aren’t allowed to turn on heat in some provinces when it is cold because the provincial folks have to meet their targets. They are going to do whatever they can to make those targets. And that applies to the 40% to 45%.

Now, can they in fact reasonably do it? The answer is yes, in my own opinion. I don't think it will necessarily be easy, but it is achievable.

LE: Will China overwhelm the world with its greenhouse gases?

ML: If one recognises that China's emissions do not grow endlessly, the emissions aren’t so overwhelming. In our advanced case, emissions are about 50% higher than today's levels when they level off and that, on a per capita basis, is 30% as much as the US. In our continued improvement case, China’s emissions level off at less than 40% of US emissions. If the US can come down to 30% and China goes up to 30%, then you could say China is contributing an awful lot to greenhouse-gas emissions in a world where emissions are a lot lower than they are today. So the answer is no, and the argument that “China is going to overwhelm us, why should we do anything?” makes no sense at all.

Linden Ellis is US project director at chinadialogue. 

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它是一个权威的报告从一个驰名的劳伦斯・伯克利国家实验室在加利福尼亚。 我是肯定的,当由过去时观看,并且中国的当前成就在能量领域,它将接受未来挑战。

Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore (AP),印度

Excellent Forecast

It is an authoritative report from a reputed Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California. I am sure when viewed by the past and current achievements of China in Energy field, it will meet the future challenges.

Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore (AP), India

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Dr. Nellore, 劳伦斯伯克利国家实验室在科学研究的许多方面看起来很权威,但是这并不意味着它是完美的,特别是跟中国有关的事情。中国能源研究室以其平庸的方式或多或少在帮助中国。目前来看,这是一个不幸的事实。


Dr. Nellore, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory appears to be very authoritative in many aspects of science research, but this does not mean it is perfect in everything, especially on those things related to China. The China Energy Group is more or less mediocre in its way to help China. This is an unfortunately a truth, so far.

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more questions than answers

I wonder how valid these conclusions, which seem to be based on energy use for buildings and appliances (and of course a decline in population after 2035), are for China's main sources of energy demand: industry and transportation. Probably, these will reach a plateau, too, but the question is at which level? And to which extent will their energy be produced from non-carbon sources by 2030? Wind, nuclear and solar hold great promises, but less so for non-point sources (as conversion to electricity means considerable energy losses). Moreover, its use of gas is also expanding fast. Even if China may stabilize its level of emissions by 2030, that will contrast with western countries that should have much reduced emission levels by then.

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这是什么意思?——“当中国的排放趋于平稳时要比其国内生产总值(GDP)高出50%左右。” 排放与GDP怎么直接对比?这儿的有些词好像丢失了。


What does this mean? "emissions are about 50% higher than gross domestic product (GDP) when they level off"
How can you compare emissions and GDP directly? Some words seem to be missing here.

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Hopefully when this report is released, China Dialogue will cover the story. For example, interviewing Chinese experts and officials to get their opinions on this report, and also opinions of analysts from other developed countries who research Chinese energy use. Thanks!

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The Opinion of Chinese Experts and Officials

That's a great idea, and I hope Chinadialogue can do its utmost to make followup reports for its vast readership. But China's experts and scholars are all so busy; they might not take the time to read them. What's the likelihood of that? What do you think, dear reader?

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re: clarification

jrjr: Thanks for pointing that out! I re-contacted LBL to clarify and we've changed it above.

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Laurence's model

Predictions for the future are human preferences, Chinese and foreign alike. Predictions need models, and of course Americans are fairly “rational”, Chinese people though – they’re not so “scientific”, they’re more reliant on “intuition”. However, predictions are a difficult thing, and according to Sir John Maynard Keynes, “The long run is a misleading guide to current affairs. In the long run we are all dead.” Who would have imagined during the 80s that China’s GDP would come to exceed that of Japan, moreover- in 2011 - that China would become a “rich country”. To think at that time that we might have households who earn in excess of 10, 000 Yuan annually was already a truly remarkable thing. So, no matter which prediction it may be, in essence none are reliable, regardless of which model is used.

Predictions about energy are even more complicated because there is no way of mimicking China’s approach, and at the same time there is also no fixed method of providing research staff to whom to refer. Furthermore, don’t mention our basic data construction methods, which may perhaps be better than those of some developing nations, where even the indigenous population are ignorant. This energy statistics work has only just begun, and so, the author’s inference has a tendency to be a little “narcissistic”.

Whether the summit is reached or not, I believe that, firstly, it’s important to ascertain whether this is being done voluntarily or whether it is being forced upon and without choice. By ‘voluntary’ what is meant is ‘to exercise conscious control over’; by ‘without choice’ what is meant is the completely unrestrained use of Sino-foreign energies – ultimately consuming until satiated, really unable to consume any more, and is, naturally, to reach the aforementioned “summit” – and this – sadly – will be China’s great moment where she stands proud among the world’s peoples.

Now the USA has always had a “car driver” mentality. Americans rely on having a vehicle to drive, so in that regard Chinese and Americans automatically have this in common; there isn’t much connecting landmass, so where on earth would we find the space to drive and park cars. Therefore, this automatically means that an increase in the speed of cars would very quickly decrease again, and the way in which we travel in the future will be very different to how things are in the USA.

It’s the same with housing. In short, predictions are dangerous things, because very often we simply cannot see comparisons or things may be incorrect on that given day. Turning such a simple thing as non-renewable energy sources into something very complicated will never solve the problems we face nowadays, and it won’t turn around and produce a conclusive effect for the world to come – why should it?

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China's 12th FYP may be the game changer

This does sound like a very good study. Two years ago, during a conversation with Dr Jiang Kejun from China’s Energy Research Institute, he was quite confident that China’s CO2 emissions will peak much earlier than what the government predicted at that time. He used the 'saturation' argument i.e. by looking at China's development of and demand for housing, infrastructure etc, the trend will slow down in the near future, hence also the demand for cement, steel etc.

The Chinese government not only is pushing for ‘decarbonisation’ of its power sector etc in its forthcoming 12th FYP, it is also introducing an aggressive ‘green’ industrial strategy. If successful, the new industrial strategy will have a huge impact on China’s ‘green’ future and will help China's CO2 and energy use to peak earlier than thought.

It remains to be seen whether China will be able to make the transition over the next 10-20 years. However, its 12th FYP is certainly a good start. E3G recently produced a short briefing paper looking specifically at China's ‘green’ and investment goals announced so far


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It is a great pleasure to read that a huge event like Tchernobyl is not going to happen along the foreseeable horizon of China.