Surprising Forecast of China's Energy Future

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During China’s dramatic and rapid rise to world prominence, pollution and resource use have rocketed up as well.

Though some fear that as the Middle Kingdom’s economy continues to expand, the associated problems will, too, a recent analysis by researchers are the University of California and U.S. Department of Energy’s Berkeley Lab suggests that by mid-century China’s demand for resources and electricity will plateau.

“I think this is very good news,’’ says Mark Levine, co-author of the report, “China’s Energy and Carbon Emissions Outlook to 2050,” and director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’s China Energy Group.

“There’s been a perception that China’s rising prosperity means runaway growth in energy consumption. Our study shows this won’t be the case,” Levine said in a press release.

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Levine’s group predicts that between 2030 and 2035, China will be thoroughly covered by road and rail. The number of people buying new cars and appliances will also hit a peak. This phenomenon, known as saturation, should result in a dramatic decrease in demand for iron and other raw materials for construction and consumer goods.

“Once nearly every household owns a refrigerator, a washing machine, air conditioners and other appliances, and once housing area per capita has stabilized, per household electricity growth will slow,’’ Levine explains.

As electricity growth slows, so too will the demand for new power plants.

Along with the reduced demand for energy, the researchers also modeled two scenarios of China moving toward cleaner, more efficient electricity production. The result was two different pictures of how China, the Earth’s largest producer of greenhouses gases since 2007, could change its pollution habits in the years to come.

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The most optimistic forecast predicts that China’s emissions of the greenhouse gas are predicted to peak in 2027 at 9.7 billion metric tons. By 2050, they would fall significantly, to about 7 billion metric tons

Under the more conservative scenario, emissions plateau at 12 billion metric tons by 2033, and reduce to 11 billion metric tons at mid-century.

The optimist’s view of China’s future includes:

– Less coal in the energy plan, to as low as 30 percent by 2050, compared to 74 percent in 2005

– More nuclear power from 8 gigwatts in 2005 to 86 gigawatts by 2020, followed by a rise to as much as 550 gigawatts in 2050

– Electric cars. The assumption is that urban private car ownership will reach 356 million vehicles by 2050, under the optimistic prediction 70 percent will be electric.

Levine believes the Berkeley Lab’s analysis to be deeper and more detailed than others.

“Other studies don’t have this kind of detail,’’ said Levine. “There’s no model outside of China that even comes close to having this kind of information, such as our data on housing stock and appliances.

For example in the two energy production scenarios, previous predictions were developed “without reference to saturation, efficiency, or usage of energy-using devices, e.g., air conditioners,’’ according to the Berkeley Lab report.

“For energy analysts and policymakers, this is a serious omission, in some cases calling into question the very meaning of the scenarios,’’ continued the report.