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Haley Zaremba

Haley Zaremba

Haley Zaremba is a writer and journalist based in Mexico City. She has extensive experience writing and editing environmental features, travel pieces, local news in the…

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China Surpasses Europe in Per Capita Energy Consumption

  • China's energy consumption per capita has surpassed that of Europe, driven by decades of economic growth and infrastructure development.
  • China has made significant investments in renewable energy but remains the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases due to its manufacturing-heavy economy.
  • Achieving climate goals requires global cooperation, as policies aimed at reducing emissions in one country may inadvertently increase emissions elsewhere.
Dalian Zhongshan Square, Liaoning, China

“China has changed the energy world, but now China is changing,” the International Energy Agency  (IEA) reported in their 2023 flagship World Energy Outlook. The second-largest economy in the world has saturated its own market. After years and years of building roads, buildings and other infrastructure as fast as it possibly could, the vast Chinese domestic market is finally just about tapped.

But while China’s economic growth is plateauing, its energy demand just keeps growing. After decades of breakneck growth, China’s economy is slowing down, the country-wide property bubble is bursting, and unemployment rates are blisteringly high as a record number of students graduate only to face a stagnant job market. But instead of redirecting, Beijing is doubling down on manufacturing and leaning on exports to keep the country’s great economic gears turning. 

As a result, China’s energy consumption per capita has surpassed that of Europe for the first time in history. This eclipse has been a long time coming, as China’s energy consumption has grown at a brisk clip over the past decades. According to figures from the IEA, China’s per-person energy consumption grew a jaw-dropping 489% in the two-decade stretch from 2001 to 2021. 

While China’s greenhouse gas emissions have also climbed over the same time period, they haven’t kept pace with energy demand thanks to China’s unparalleled investments in renewable energy. Since 2000, China’s carbon dioxide emissions have climbed 244%. While that’s still a whole heck of a lot of carbon, it’s a pretty impressive figure at just half of the growth of energy consumption. 

In fact, China added more renewable energy capacity last year than the entire rest of the world combined, and renewables now make up half of China’s installed power generation capacity. However, due to the size of the nation’s economy and the gargantuan scale of its industrial sectors, China alone is responsible for a whopping 31.72% of global emissions according to IEA stats. 

Everything that China does therefore has major implications for the entire world’s energy and climate concerns. To be sure, China’s manufacturing-happy policy, which has led to overproduction of a great many goods, poses a threat to global climate goals. However, to place all the blame on Beijing would be a major oversimplification of a complex situation at best, and outright scapegoating at worst. As usual, the truth is likely somewhere in the middle.

While it’s true that China is overproducing a number of goods with the intent to inflate supply for export rather than to meet existing demand for export, that only represents a small share of the country’s overall manufacturing. Most of the manufacturing taking place in China is to meet very real overseas demand that is central to keeping the global economy humming along. And that requires a whole lot of energy and produces a whole lot of carbon. 

“We should not ignore the energy and emissions that Europeans have effectively exported to Chinese manufacturers,” Energy Institute Chief Executive Officer Nick Wayth recently told Bloomberg. “If a decline in energy consumption and emissions in Europe simply boosts carbon output elsewhere, policies to tackle global climate change aren’t working,” the Bloomberg article concludes.

This underscores the importance of looking at climate goals and pathways from a global perspective rather than focusing on the ‘successes’ and ‘failures’ of individual countries and economies. Achieving the pledges set forth in the Paris agreement will require unprecedented cooperation and coordination from developing and developed economies alike, and will require that nations overcome the political temptation to outsource their emissions to poorer countries for the sake of reaching their own, isolated emissions goals. At the end of the day, it’s a zero sum game. Without a global approach, everyone loses. 

By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com 

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  • Mamdouh Salameh on June 29 2024 said:
    It isn't surprising that China's per capita energy consumption has overtaken Europe's driven by the following factors:

    1- China's economy is the world's largest based on purchasing power parity (PPP). At $35 trillion in 2024 it is 31% bigger than than the EU's also based on PPP.

    2- China's economy is projected to grow at 5% this year compared with 0.5% for the EU according to the IMF.

    3- China is the workshop of the world with the most integrated economy in the global trade system thanks to the Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) while the EU's economy is contracting with many major European companies relocating to the United States seeking cheaper energy prices.

    Dr Mamdouh G Salameh
    International Oil Economist
    Global Energy Expert

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