China and America and Energy

In 1999, the International Energy Agency produced its annual forecast of the future of global energy production and consumption. Here is what it predicted would be China's annual carbon dioxide emissions in the year 2020: 7,081 million tonnes. In the real world, i.e. not the one that exists in the spreadsheets of the IEA, China's carbon dioxide emissions had already reached 8,271 million tonnes by the year 2010. This is a mere 17% higher than the IEA predicted they would be a decade later. It is also 55% higher than it predicted they would be that year.

So much for our abiltiy to forecast the future of energy consumption, even over timescales as short as a decade.

This rapid growth of China should be contrasted with the relative decline of America. Who would have predicted a decade ago that, in the absence of any real climate policy, America's carbon dioxide emissions would have declined by 10% between 2005 and 2012? The main reasons for this - economic collapse and the diffusion of shale gas - were not exactly at the top of the many turn-of the millenium forecasts by the world's quick to prophecy pundits.

But this much is obvious: China has now passed America and is now the most physically important country on the planet. No other country has a more important influence on the biosphere, whether in terms of what we take from it or what we dump in to it.

Here I will demonstrate this point by making simple and illustrative quantitative comparisons between China and America's materials and energy production and consumption in the early 2000s with those of today.

Cement Production

China's rapid urbanisation, and industrialisation, has some obvious requirements. Roads, houses, hospitals, power plants all require concrete. Even individual pieces of infrastructure can require astounding amounts of concrete. Three Gorges Dam required the poring of 16 million tonnes of it.

And by concrete we really mean cement. China now produces, and consumes, approximately 60% of the world's cement. These figures are not merely incredible but close to being literally unbelievable. Between 2002 and 2012 China's annual cement production grew from 725 million to 2,3000 million tonnes. That is the equivalent of an annual average growth of over 150 million tonnes. Only two countries on the planet produce more than 150 million tonnes of cement each year: China and India.

So as far as cement goes, China towers over America. It produces thirty times more cement each year, and its annual growth in cement production is about 50% higher than the total cement production of America.

And China's cement industry is now a significant contributor to global carbon dioxide emissions. This industry alone emits around 1.2 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide each year, more than the total emissions of Germany or Japan.

Steel Production

A simple rule of thumb is that if humanity makes something, then it is highly likely that half of it is made in China. This is certainly the case for steel, the most fundamentally important material for industrial civilization. Last year China produced 779 million tonnes of crude steel, 49% of the global total.

In the space of a single decade China went from producing 20% of the world's steel to producing half of it. The comparison with America is equally striking. In 2002 China produced two times more steel than America, but by 2012 it was producing eight times more. Given that almost 7% of global carbon dioxide emissions come from iron and steel making, this has obvious and important consequences.

 Aluminium Production

China now produces ten times more aluminium than America does each year. This change in production ratio is even more stark than that for steel. In 2002, China only produced 60% more alumnium than America. However in this period American aluminium production declined by 25%, while China's increased by almost 400%.

Electricity Generation

Modernisation equals electrification, and China's electrification has been historically unprecedented. Between 2001 and 2011, China's total electricity capacity increased from 344 to 1,100 gigawatts, and in some years it was adding a generating capacity the equivalent of the entire capacity of the German electricity grid.

In contrast America's electricity generation has barely budged since 2002, increasing only 5%. So, in only ten years America has gone from producing 150% more electricity than China to producing 15% less. This perhaps should be re-phrased: China has taken less than a decade and a half to build electricity capacity the equivalent of the entire American grid. And China's demand is practically certain to continue increasing for the next couple of decades, while significant future increases in American energy consumption are questionable.

Energy Consumption

It all adds up. China is now the world's biggest consumer of energy and will remain so for a long time. In contrast American energy consumption is lower today than it was a decade ago. While China's primary energy consumption increased by 150% in a single decade, America's declined by 4%.

Coal Consumption

One hundred years ago, the cheapest way to generate electricity was to take coal out of the ground and generate electricity using a steam turbine. After one hundred of years of supposed technological innovation, the cheapest way to generate electricity is to take coal out of the ground and generate electricity using a steam turbine.

So, the rapid growth of China was not powered by wind, solar, nuclear fission, natural gas, or oil. It was powered by the same fuel that powered the British Industrial Revolution: coal. And most of the machines involved - blast furnaces, steam turbines, cement kilns - would have been recognisable to Thomas Edison. The challenges posed by a transition away from fossil fuels are best illustrated by the understandable preference of rapidly developing countries to use coal.

And no-one has used coal on the scale of China. Today it consumes half of the world's coal, about four billion tonnes of the stuff.

America however is now using much less of it, with a decline of 20% between 2002 and 2012. Meanwhile China's coal consumption grew by 160% over this period.

In fact China's annual coal production in this period rose by 2.1 billion tonnes. This is more than the total annual coal production of America, Canada, and the EU combined.