About this report
China is changing and its energy future promises to be quite different from its energy past.
For years, the dominant energy narrative on China concentrated on the extraordinary pace of its development, the country’s success in lifting hundreds of millions of its citizens out of poverty (including energy poverty), the scale of its industrialisation and its demand for energy resources, most notably for coal.
While elements of this narrative remain true, the country is quickly changing course in the direction of a much more services-based economy and a much cleaner energy mix. This new direction will have consequences that are no less significant for China and the world than its earlier period of energy-intensive development.
Slowing pace of growth
The pace of growth in China’s energy demand slows dramatically in the New Policies Scenario to around 1% per year, less than one-sixth the average that the country has experienced each year since 2000. This is due to the combined effects of structural shifts in the economy, strong energy efficiency policies and demographic changes: total energy demand growth to 2040 is roughly the same level of growth as China experienced in the eight years between 2008 and 2016.
Since the economy continues to grow rapidly, at an average rate of 4.5% per year, this equates to an improvement of 3.4% per year in energy intensity, the fastest rate of improvement seen worldwide in our projections to 2040. Per-capita energy consumption also grows, by one-quarter through to 2040, overtaking that of the European Union by around 2035.
Increasingly diversified energy mix
China’s growing energy needs are increasingly met by renewables, natural gas and electricity while coal demand falls back.
The rise of electricity and of renewables are closely interlinked as China diversifies and cleans up its power mix – the share of coal in total generation falls from two-thirds today to less than 40% in 2040 as a result.
The rise of electricity and natural gas is closely connected in the industrial and residential sectors, as these energy sources provide a good match for the needs of lighter industrial sectors and for a population increasingly concerned about local air quality.
China also increases the direct use of renewables in end-use sectors, via bioenergy in industry, solar thermal for heating and biofuels for transport. By 2040, electricity becomes the leading source of final energy consumption in China, overtaking coal in the late 2020s, and oil shortly thereafter.
Natural gas demand rises to over 600 billion cubic metres (bcm) by 2040, making China the second-largest market globally behind the United States and the largest source of global gas demand growth: the share of gas in China’s primary energy mix rises from under 6% to over 12% during this period.
Meanwhile, as output from coal-fired power plants flattens out and the use of coal in heavy industrial sectors and for residential heat goes into structural decline, China’s coal demand ends up well below today’s level. The share of coal in China’s primary energy mix shrinks by almost 20 percentage points, to around 45% in 2040.
China becomes the world’s largest consumer of oil, but no longer the largest source of oil demand growth. China is a major force in oil markets, and the gap between rising demand of 11.5 million barrels per day (mb/d) in 2016 and falling production of 4 mb/d has made China the largest oil importer in the world.
By 2030, continued increases in demand for transport fuels means that China becomes the world’s largest oil consumer, taking over from the United States. But this is also the moment when China’s growth levels off, with India projected to become the main contributor to global oil consumption growth post-2025. The rise in the passenger vehicle ownership slows; one in four cars on the road in China are electric by 2040; and stringent fuel-economy standards limit the oil consumed in the remainder of the fleet. Oil consumption for passenger vehicles in China is projected to decline post-2030.
Strong deployment and policy support continue to bring costs down for renewables, and solar PV becomes China’s cheapest form of electricity generation.
Installed low-carbon capacity, led by hydropower, wind and solar PV, grows rapidly and makes up 60% of total capacity by 2040. Average solar PV projects in China become cheaper than both new and existing gas-fired power plants around 2020 and cheaper than new coal-fired capacity and onshore wind by 2030.
By 2040, the cost of generating electricity from new solar PV is also lower than the projected operating costs of existing coal-fired power plants. This upending of the traditional merit order has huge implications, but also requires major power market reforms and a strengthening of the network to integrate a higher share of variable wind and solar PV output.
Already today, some 15% of China’s wind and solar PV generation is being curtailed because it cannot be accommodated by the existing power system. In our projections, a major investment in new power transmission lines eases these constraints, enabling China’s inland renewable potential to bring cheaper power to demand centres closer to the coast.
Alongside renewables, gas-fired capacity triples but its share of generation remains below 10%. The projected role of nuclear power also continues to grow: China overtakes the European Union and the United States by 2030 to become the global leader in nuclear-based electricity generation.
China remains a towering presence in global coal markets and the restructuring of its coal sector is a critically important element of the global outlook. A coal investment boom in the early 2000s, combined with the turnaround in demand since 2013, has left China with significant over-capacity in coal supply.
A complex administrative process of restructuring is targeting a coal price that allows most mines to operate profitably (while cutting the least efficient capacity) without putting undue strain on the economics of China’s coal-fired power fleet. This process in turn defines China’s demand for imported coal and determines in large part the dynamics of international coal prices and trade.
Once over-capacity is reduced, our projections assume that the coal sector in China becomes increasingly market-driven. The projected gradual reduction in output remains a challenge for an industry that directly employs around 4 million people, although prospects are helped somewhat by a shift in coal demand away from coastal areas and towards inland regions, where domestic coal is more competitive.
Oil and gas
Market reforms, mature conventional production and uncertain prospects for shale gas are the main factors determining China’s oil and gas supply. China is the world’s seventh-largest oil producer but the outlook has been hit hard by the fall in the oil price since 2014 that has cut investment and accelerated declines at mature conventional fields.
In our projections, a continued gradual fall in oil output proves difficult to reverse, although the arrival of new players to the upstream and a focus on enhanced oil recovery helps to slow the pace of decline: projected oil output is just over 3 mb/d in 2040.
China’s refining sector becomes the largest in the world, although faces major challenges with a changing product mix and increasingly stringent fuel quality standards. The outlook for gas production is more upbeat than for oil, the increase from 140 mb/d today to 340 mb/d in 2040 due almost entirely to an expected expansion in unconventional production, largely from shale.
The assumption of enhanced access to acreage and to networks, in line with proposed gas market reforms, underpins this projection – although there remain significant uncertainties about the quality of China’s shale resource and the eventual costs of its production. Even with this increase in domestic output, meeting China’s gas needs requires a large rise in imports: 150 bcm of imports in 2040 come via pipelines (new links with Russia supplementing strengthened ties with Central Asia) and 130 bcm via LNG.
China’s energy transformation has a major impact on energy-related emissions, with CO2 peaking by 2030 and all of the main air pollutants in decline.
China’s coal- and oil-fuelled rise over recent decades has had a major impact on its environment and public health, as local air quality in many of its major cities deteriorated. The path to cleaner air promises to be a long one, but efforts to “make the skies blue again” are now a central focus for government policy.
By 2040, almost half of China’s population live in areas where air quality is compatible with the National Ambient Air Quality Standard, although vulnerability to the health impacts remains substantial because of urbanisation and an ageing population.
In the case of CO2, only transport sector emissions do not peak before 2040, with this milestone achieved in the power sector just after 2030, and earlier in buildings and industry.
The peak in national CO2 emissions, although not pronounced, comes against a backdrop of continued strong economic growth, reflects a profound policy effort that touches all parts of the energy sector.
A dynamic backdrop of policy and technology evolution means that China’s future energy pathway is subject to considerable uncertainty. We explore some key elements of that uncertainty with alternative scenarios and multiple case studies.
For example, an ambitious but plausible suite of additional policies to limit growth in car ownership and promote faster electrification of mobility in China’s cities could cut the country’s oil demand (and imports) by 2.5 mb/d in 2040, an amount sufficient – all else being equal – for global oil use to plateau by 2030.
The pace of China’s economic transition is also a major uncertainty for energy markets: our main scenario is based on pronounced shifts towards services in the Chinese economy and towards higher value-added manufacturing, in line with the “Made in China 2025” initiative. Delaying this transition by ten years and slowing the move away from heavy industrial sectors would keep China on a much more energy- and CO2-intensive pathway. In this case, China’s coal demand in 2040 could be up to 850 Mtce (or 35%) above the level of our main scenario, and oil demand higher by 2.7 mb/d (18%).
The outcomes in our main scenario suggest the prospect for China to move ahead even more quickly with its energy transformation. Although there has been considerable progress, air quality continues to be a major public health hazard. Import dependence, especially for oil, reaches levels that require annual spending of nearly half a trillion dollars on energy imports by 2040, posing potential risks to energy security.
In a Sustainable Development Scenario, we consider options to hasten the pace of change, in line with the spirit of China’s “Energy Revolution” strategy. In this scenario, an even greater policy push on energy efficiency, allied with greater deployment of clean energy technologies and greater displacement of coal (and oil) by natural gas, bring significant additional reductions in energy-related emissions and a reduction in import bills.
Consumption of coal and oil are cut significantly compared with our main scenario and the share of low-carbon generation in the power sector rises to above 90% by 2040 (compared with around 50% in our main scenario). By 2040, in the Sustainable Development Scenario, nearly all the population live in areas where air quality is compatible with the National Air Quality Standard, up from 36% today.
The path China takes will have a profound impact on global markets, trade and investment flows, technology costs and the achievement of shared global goals. Over the period to 2040, China’s policy choices and import needs have a huge impact on global trade and investment in oil, gas and coal: by 2040, in our main scenario, almost 30% of the oil traded internationally is making its way towards China, and likewise almost one-quarter of the gas traded over long distances.
China’s influence on global efforts to address climate change can be equally profound: already in our main scenario, China is responsible for a large share of global investment in a range of clean energy technologies and applications, including electric vehicles, batteries, carbon capture and storage, nuclear power, and solar and wind power, with the potential to bend downwards the global cost curve in each case.
The scale of China’s clean energy deployment, technology exports and outward investment make it even more influential in an accelerated transition, of the sort outlined in the Sustainable Development Scenario.