Framing the picture of energy consumption in China

Abstract

China plays a critical role in global carbon reduction in the context of mitigating climate change as the essence of climate change and the associated environmental issues is energy consumption, especially the combustion of fossil fuels. This paper provides a clear picture of China’s energy consumption in the past, present and future to facilitate the understanding of what has happened, the main cause and what is likely coming. First, an extended energy flow chart is presented based on the adjusted energy balance table for China, and the detailed energy chains of final services, subsectors and the corresponding technologies are linked to the chart. This work enriches the information about sources of energy demand and contributes to the identification of key areas that should be given priority for energy transitions and technological innovations. Second, three development modes describing the relationship between energy consumption and GDP per capita are proposed based on the experiences of developed countries, and it is noted that China’s trajectory is more likely to follow the medium or low energy consumption modes. Finally, the future energy demand of China is projected in a more comprehensive and precise manner by summarizing and comparing the results of outlook reports published by well-known international organizations. The overall trend is that China’s energy consumption will continue to grow, while the growth rate will gradually slow.

Introduction

Energy consumption causes serious environmental problems, such as air pollution and climate change. According to the latest WHO (2018) Ambient Air Quality Database, 58.7% of reporting cities do not satisfy its exposure standards of PM2.5, and furthermore, energy consumption, especially the burning of fossil fuels, leads directly to greenhouse gas emissions. In 2016, fossil fuel combustion caused 36.18 billion tons of global CO2 emissions, accounting for 88.6% of the total CO2 emissions (40.84 billion tons) from human activities (Quéré et al. 2018). As a consequence, human-induced warming has caused an increase in temperature of 1.021 °C as of Jan 15, 2018, relative to the period of 1850–1879 (Haustein et al. 2017). Therefore, as a major cause, energy consumption has become one of the core fundamental elements for mitigating climate change (IPCC 2014; Wei et al. 2018).

China is the largest energy consumer and carbon emitter, responsible for 23.0% (3.05 billion tons of oil equivalent) of the global consumption (BP 2017) and 28.1% (10.15 billion tons of CO2) of global emissions in 2016 (Quéré et al. 2018). However, consumption and emissions per capita are another case in spite of the huge gross. Figure 1 shows the energy consumption and CO2 emissions per capita of some representative countries around the world, and there is generally a positive correlation between energy consumption per capita and carbon emissions per capita because fossil fuels account for a large proportion of the primary energy structure. For example, the proportions of fossil fuels consumed throughout the world and in China in 2016 were 85.5% and 87.2%, respectively (BP 2017). Four quadrants can be identified based on the global average energy consumption and emissions per capita values: the first quadrant (high energy consumption and high emissions), second quadrant (high energy consumption and low emissions), third quadrant (low energy consumption and low emissions) and fourth quadrant (low energy consumption and high emissions). Ultimately, all high-income countries (blue points) fall into the first quadrant, indicating that both consumption and emissions per capita in these countries exceed the global average value. Some middle-income countries (orange points), such as China and South Africa, also appear in the first quadrant, but their consumption and emissions per capita are significantly lower compared to high-income countries. The low-income countries (purple points) are in the lower-left corner of the third quadrant, and the lower-middle-income countries (green points) are in the upper-right of the same quadrant. These results indicate that there is a positive correlation between both energy consumption and CO2 emissions per capita and economic levels. Regarding the current situation in China, both the consumption and emissions per capita are higher than the global average but lower than in the majority of high-income economies.

Fig. 1
figure1

Energy consumption per capita versus CO2 emissions per capita in developed and developing countries in 2016. Note: Here, China refers to mainland China and does not include Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan, and the dots of different colors indicate countries with different levels of income. Following the World Bank (2018) classification (FY2019), low-income economies are defined as those with a GNI per capita of US$995 or less; lower-middle-income countries are between $996 and $3895; upper middle-income countries are between $3896 and $12,055; and high-income countries are $12,056 and above. The energy consumption data come from BP (2017); the CO2 data come from Quéré et al. (2018); and the population data come from the World Bank (2018)

China’s energy consumption per capita may increase as it enters the high-income economic group, thereby resulting in more carbon emissions. Total energy consumption and CO2 emissions by China are likely to be approximately 3.2 and 2.2 times current levels, respectively, if the future per capita level for China reaches the current level of the USA. Therefore, the future trend and peak of China’s energy consumption are not only important for domestic energy security and environmental governance but also play a significant role in the global energy structure and the process of carbon emission reduction. Accordingly, this study aims to frame a concrete picture of past and current energy consumption in China and then investigate future pathways based on this conception. More specifically, we would like to answer the following three questions related to China’s energy consumption: (1) What is the current status of China’s energy consumption? (2) What trends would the consumption pattern follow, and what would be the results? (3) What is the future outlook of China’s energy demand?

The literature related to these three issues is very broad. Sources of energy consumption can be identified by systematically decomposing the current status of energy consumption, which is the basis for policy making and demand forecasting. Generally, an energy balance table serves as the database, and an energy flow chart is a useful tool for sorting out and displaying the sources of energy consumption. Davis et al. (2018) illustrated Canadian energy flow from primary fuel to the end uses, and their diagrams clearly showed the energy supply, energy conversion and final energy consumption at the provincial level. Zhang and Wang (2011) mapped China’s useful energy flow using the adjusted energy balance data, and the results revealed the characteristics of the energy system and the thermal utilization efficiency of each process. Cullen and Allwood (2010) and Ma et al. (2012) traced the energy flow from fuel to services for both the world and China, focusing on technical conversion devices, and the results could identify the key areas with the potential to deliver the largest gains in efficiency. However, the energy flow chart analysis in the existing literature does not cover information for subsectors, industrial processes and related technologies. In addition, there are many differences between Chinese and international standards in terms of statistical specifications and accounting method. Therefore, it is meaningful to enrich the energy flow chart and standardize the current statistical data.

Understanding the historical development patterns of energy consumption is helpful for predicting future trends, and since energy is one of the drivers of economic growth, much research has explored the evolution of energy utilization based on the relationship between energy consumption and economic growth. Wang et al. (2015) observed an S-curve pattern in the historical relationship between energy consumption and GDP per capita for most developed economies; this pattern can reflect the characteristics of energy consumption in different economic stages. However, this previous study did not describe the energy consumption patterns of developing countries, so whether the energy use in developing countries will follow the footprint of developed countries remains unknown. Wu et al. (2018) studied the relationship between energy consumption and economic growth in developed and developing countries from the decoupling perspective and divided the decoupling status into three categories: not decoupled, relative decoupling and absolute decoupling. The results showed that developed countries have already completed the not-decoupled status and are gradually changing from relative decoupling to absolute decoupling. From the perspective of decoupling changes, developing countries have experienced similar trends with the increase in income level. For us, the revelation is that countries at different stages of economic development have different energy consumption patterns, and developing countries are very likely to follow the footprints of developed countries. Therefore, this paper explores the energy demand pathway of developing countries by referring to the route of developed countries.

Scientific projections play an important role in guiding the design of energy strategies. Many short- and long-term global energy outlooks are issued by well-known international organizations, such as the International Energy Agency, the US Energy Information Administration, BP, ExxonMobil. These reports, which are highly reputable and influential, usually project 20 to 30 years into future using their own models and assumptions. However, there are obvious differences between these reports in terms of objectives, models and results (Newell et al. 2018), so it would be one-sided to only refer to one. At present, an in-depth statistical summary and comparative analysis of the results of these reports for China’s energy outlook are lacking.

In this context, this paper makes up for the shortcomings of the previous literature, and three unique contributions can be highlighted.

  1. 1.

    With regard to the status quo of China’s energy consumption, this paper examines, in detail, the energy demand sources from the perspective of the final services, industrial processes and technology. An extended energy flow chart is presented based on the adjusted latest energy balance table for China, which enriches the perception of the entire energy system and is informative for identifying the critical areas that energy transitions and improvements in technological efficiency should target.

  2. 2.

    Three development modes of energy consumption are refined from the historical experience of 12 developed countries, and China’s future demand and time of peak consumption are projected under different socioeconomic pathway scenarios (i.e., shared socioeconomic pathways, SSPs).

  3. 3.

    This paper collects the results projecting China’s energy demand from eight well-known international energy outlook reports and compares them from the perspective of the total consumption, end-use consumption and energy structure. This helps avoid the limitations of the projections by specific scholars or institutions and provides a more comprehensive and precise outlook.

The paper is structured as follows. Section 2 illustrates the status quo of China’s energy consumption by introducing a detailed energy flow. Section 3 presents typical energy consumption patterns throughout the world and discusses the likely trends for China. Section 4 gives a detailed picture of the future energy demand in China. Section 5 draws conclusions from the research findings.

Status quo of China’s energy consumption

This section concentrates on the status quo of China’s energy consumption through an analysis of energy distributions, the primary energy structure and the consumption by final sectors and subsectors (Fig. 2). It is worth noting that this paper modified the original energy balance table for China (NBS 2017a) in the following three aspects.

Fig. 2
figure2

China energy flow chart in 2016 (unit: 10,000 toe). Note: Energy flows and distributions are visualized based on the modified energy balance sheet for China. Different colors represent different energy types, and the width of the line represents the value. The energy consumption of subsectors and technologies is shown as a total number following that of their corresponding final sectors (in brown); inconsistency in the data is due to rounding. The lower heating values of each energy type are adopted, and a conversion efficiency of 40% is assumed as the equivalent amount of fossil fuels and clean energy (including hydroelectricity, wind, solar and nuclear energy) required to generate the same volume of electricity in a thermal power station

  1. 1.

    Because the industrial classifications of the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) of China differ from international classifications, we first implement some transformations. Specifically, the “non-energy use sector” is stripped from the “industry sector”; the “construction sector” is merged with the “industry sector”; and the “wholesale, retail trade and hotel, restaurants” and “other sectors” are merged into the “commercial and public service sector.”

  2. 2.

    ‘Transport sector’ only includes commercial vehicles, and it does not cover transportation consumption from other industries and private sectors. In addition, ‘building consumption’ is uncounted in other final sectors, so the transport and building energy data are revised in the new energy balance table (Wang 2009).

  3. 3.

    The energy consumption data of some representative subsectors and associated technologies are specifically collected to extend the original table, as shown in Fig. 2.

Energy flows and distributions

There are five primary energy sources in China: crude oil, raw coal, natural gas, primary electricity and other renewables. From left to right in Fig. 2, each energy type goes through four stages: primary energy supply, transformation input and output, final distributions and end use.

Table 1 presents the lateral energy flows and final distributions of each primary energy product. In 2016, China’s output and net import of crude oil were 199.69 and 378.07 Mtoe (million tons of oil equivalent) (NBS 2017a), and the external dependence was 67.3%. Oil was mainly imported from the Middle East, West Africa, Russia and Central and South America. Of the crude oil, 98.8% entered the transformation process for refining, leaving 1.2% to directly enter industry and non-energy sectors as raw materials. Basically, all oil products (543.78 Mtoe) were allocated to final sectors, of which the transport sector accounted for more than half of the total consumption.

Table 1 Lateral flows and final distributions by energy types

The output and net import of raw coal were 1691.39 and 112.2 Mtoe, respectively, in 2016, and the external dependence was 5.4%. Coal was mainly imported from Indonesia, Australia, Mongolia, Russia and so on. Of the raw coal, 45.9% was applied for thermal power generation; 29.3% was used for coking and heating; and the rest and almost all coking products (891.79 Mtoe) were distributed to final sectors, of which the industry sector was responsible for 80.3% of the total consumption. The output and net import of natural gas were 125.5 and 64.35 Mtoe, respectively, and the external dependence was 33.9%. Gas was mainly imported from Turkmenistan, the Middle East, Australia, Qatar and so on. Of the total, 21.2% of natural gas entered the transformation stage mainly for thermal power generation, and the remainder (147.26 Mtoe) was distributed to final sectors, of which the industry sector accounted for nearly half of the total consumption followed by the residential sector. The output of primary electricity (referring to power generation by renewables) and secondary electricity (referring to thermal power generation) was 365.05 and 944.57 Mtoe, respectively. In addition to power loss, a total of 1239.7 Mtoe of electricity entered end-use sectors, of which the industry sector accounted for 70% of the total consumption. Renewable energy (including geothermal, biomass, etc., except primary electricity) had a capacity of 42.59 Mtoe, and most was directly distributed to final sectors, of which the residential sector consumed the most. The total output of heat generated by various energy sources was 102.95 Mtoe, and the industry sector consumed the most followed by the residential sector.

Primary energy consumption structure

China’s primary energy structure in 2016 was 62% coal, 18.5% oil, 6.2% gas, 8.3% hydroelectricity, 1.5% nuclear and 3.5% renewables. Figure 3a illustrates the historical changes in China’s energy structure, and it can be seen that the energy structure has been continuously optimized and that the dependence on fossil energy has been gradually reduced, mainly due to a reduction in coal capacity and the vigorous development of renewable energy.

Fig. 3
figure3

Primary energy consumption structure, a historical changes in China’s energy structure from 2006 to 2016, b comparison with representative global economies in 2016

More specifically, China is the largest coal producer and consumer in the world. Coal has always been the dominant source in China’s energy structure, although the physical consumption began to decline after 2013 (1.97 billion toes), and according to the 13th Five-Year Plan of China, the proportion of coal will fall to 58% by 2020. Oil consumption continues to grow at an average annual growth rate of 4.9% (2006–2016), but its proportion in the energy structure was much lower than the global average (33.3%, Fig. 3b). Natural gas consumption is growing rapidly at an average annual rate of 13.3% (2006–2016), but it accounts for only 6.2% of the energy structure, far below the global average (24.1%). China is the largest producer of hydroelectricity in the world; the installed capacity reached 3.4 GW (gigawatt) at the end of 2017, accounting for 19.2% of the total national installed power generation capacity. China is already the largest producer of nuclear power, and the consumption has grown rapidly with an average annual growth rate of 12.9% (2006–2016). Of all the sources, renewable energy (except hydroelectricity and nuclear power) is growing most rapidly, and China has become the largest producer of renewable energy in the world.

Final energy consumption

China’s final energy consumption was 2969.89 Mtoe in 2016, and the final consumption structure was 61.7% industry, 12.1% transport, 11.5% residential, 7.3% commercial, 5.5% non-energy use and 1.9% agriculture. The final energy consumption share of the industry sector has significantly declined (Fig. 4a), but it remains much higher than the global average value (44.9%, Fig. 4b) and more than twice the share of the USA (27.9%) and Japan (28.5%). The industry sector mainly consumed coal and electricity, and the total amount began to decline after 2014 (1925.64 Mtoe).

Fig. 4
figure4

Share of final energy consumption by sectors, a historical changes in China’s final consumption structure from 2006 to 2016, b comparison with representative global economies in 2016

Several typical subsectors and related technologies were listed after “Industry” in the energy flow chart, including the steel, cement, aluminum and ethylene industries. In 2016, China’s crude steel output was 808 million tons, and the comprehensive energy consumption per ton of steel was 409.95 kgoe/t (NBS 2017b). The total energy consumption was 331.08 Mtoe, accounting for 17.5% of the total industry consumption and 11.1% of the national final consumption. Among the production processes of the steel industry, blast furnace ironmaking consumed the most energy, 66.9% (CLET 2015; An et al. 2018). The national cement output was 2.41 billion tons, and the comprehensive energy consumption per ton of cement was 94.5 kgoe/t. The total energy consumption was 227.74 Mtoe, accounting for 12.4% of industry consumption and 7.7% of national consumption, and the clinker burning process used the most energy, 85.1% (Zhang et al. 2018). The alumina and primary aluminum outputs were 60.91 and 33.65 million tons, and the total energy consumption of the aluminum industry was 59.25 Mtoe, accounting for 3.2% of industry consumption. The alumina production process consumed approximately one-third of the total energy consumption, and the electrolytic aluminum process consumed approximately two-third (Chinalco 2016). Ethylene output was 17.18 million tons, and its energy consumption was 18.63 Mtoe with a 1% share of the industry consumption. There are various methods for producing ethylene, and the steam cracking method consumed the most energy, 56.3% (Chen et al. 2018).

Energy consumption by the transport sector is growing rapidly, with an average annual growth rate of 7.3% (2006–2016), and the proportion of the final consumption structure was well below the global average value (20.1%). The transport sector mainly consumed oil (83.2%) followed by electricity (7.4%) and natural gas (6.1%), and passenger and freight transports accounted for 60.9% (218.1 Mtoe) and 39.1% (140.15 Mtoe) of the total transport consumption, respectively. From the perspective of transportation structure, roads consumed the most energy (90.9%) in passenger transport followed by aviation, railway and water (Wang et al. 2017); roads also used the most energy (80%) in freight transport followed by water, aviation, railway and pipeline (Hao et al. 2015).

The energy consumption of the building sector (which includes energy used in the residential, commercial and agriculture sectors) has grown quickly, with an average annual growth rate of 5.3% (2006–2016), and the proportion of the final consumption structure was far lower than the global average value (28.9%). Residential consumption (341.49 Mtoe) accounted for 11.5% of the final national consumption. For the end-use structure, the major activities were cooking and space heating followed by home appliances, water heating, space cooling and lighting (Zheng et al. 2016); commercial consumption (218.31 Mtoe) accounted for 7.4% of national consumption. For the end-use structure, lighting consumed the most energy followed by equipment operation, space heating, space cooling and water heating (Fridley et al. 2011).

Energy consumption of the non-energy use sector has grown rapidly, with an average annual growth rate of 5.3% (2006–2016), and the share of the final consumption structure exceeded that of the USA or the European Union.

Patterns of historical energy consumption

As the economy of China grows, understanding the expected trend in future energy demand requires exploring general patterns of energy consumption. As developed countries have already experienced the transformation in economic development, social improvement, political reformation and eco-environmental management, they have basically completed the processes of both industrialization and urbanization. Hence, the historical energy consumption patterns of developed countries can inform the understanding of the future of China. Since the concept of socioeconomic development is broad, it can be measured by multiple indicators, and GDP per capita, which is the most widely used, is adopted here.

Consumption patterns in developed countries

Figure 5 describes the historical relationship between the energy consumption per capita and GDP per capita of twelve developed countries and China (BP 2017; Bolt et al. 2018). The fitting curves of various countries follow an inverted U-shaped trajectory; i.e., the energy consumption first rises and later descends as GDP per capita increases, which reveals a decoupling of the relationship between energy consumption and GDP growth in the later development stage. Meanwhile, different economies have different development pathways that result from different socioeconomic attributes within developed countries. At different stages of economic development, the relationship between energy consumption and GDP presents different characteristics due to differences in the attributes of the stage, such as industrial structure, energy efficiency. According to the distribution of peak energy consumption per capita values, the energy consumption pathways that accompany GDP growth can be classified into three groups: high consumption mode, medium consumption mode and low consumption mode. The high consumption mode refers to high incomes and high energy consumption per capita, and the corresponding energy consumption characteristic is that the consumption per capita peaks at a value of 8–10 toe when the GDP per capita reaches 37–41 thousand US$. Countries with a high consumption mode, including the USA and Canada, are characterized by a higher proportion of energy-intensive industries and higher energy use in the transport sector but lower energy efficiency. The medium consumption mode refers to high incomes and medium energy consumption, and the corresponding characteristic is that the consumption per capita peaks at a value of 5.6–6 toe when the GDP per capita reaches 32–41 thousand US$. Countries with a medium consumption mode, including Australia, the Netherlands, Sweden and South Korea, are characterized by a large proportion of energy-intensive industries but higher energy efficiency. The low consumption mode refers to high incomes and low energy consumption, and the corresponding characteristic is that the consumption per capita peaks at a value of 3–4.3 toe when the GDP per capita reaches 27–35 thousand US$. Countries with a low consumption mode, including Germany, France, Japan, the UK, Spain and Italy, benefit from a large proportion of light industries, lower transportation demand and higher energy efficiency.

Fig. 5
figure5

Energy consumption per capita versus GDP per capita from 1965 to 2016

Likely future trends for China

China’s GDP per capita was 12.3 thousand US$ in 2016, equivalent to the level of the USA and Australia in the 1940s, the UK, Germany and France in the 1960s, Japan in the 1970s and Korea in the 1990s. With reference to the three historical energy consumption modes of developed countries, China may follow similar routes in the future (see red-dotted lines in Fig. 2), but it is estimated that the future trend will be more similar to the medium or low consumption modes based on the current situation. If China follows the medium consumption mode, the energy consumption per capita will increase to 5.6–6 toe from 2.2 toe in 2016, and the GDP per capita will be 32–41 thousand US$. If it follows the low consumption mode, the energy consumption per capita will peak at 3–4.3 toe, and the corresponding GDP per capita will be 27–35 thousand US$.

In the context of climate change mitigation, the SSPs scenarios are adopted to predict the time of peak total energy consumption and consumption per capita. Table 2 shows the future growth rates of GDP and the population in China under the SSPs scenarios (IIASA 2016), so the GDP per capita can be calculated accordingly. China’s energy consumption per capita will peak when GDP per capita reaches 32–41 thousand US$ in a medium consumption mode, and the matching peak time can be deduced, which is shown in Table 3. For example, GDP per capita will reach 32–41 thousand US$ by the 2030–2036 period under the SSP1 scenario, and the total national primary energy consumption is estimated to be 7549–8274 Mtoe. Similarly, the peak time can be obtained if the country follows a low consumption mode. For example, GDP per capita will reach 27–35 thousand US$ by the 2028–2032 period under the SSP1 scenario, and the total national energy consumption at this time will be approximately 4106–5940 Mtoe.

Table 2 Future growth rates of China’s GDP and population in SSPs scenarios (unit: %)
Table 3 Peak time of China energy consumption in medium and low consumption modes

Projections of future energy demand

In addition to the qualitative descriptions of energy consumption patterns, energy forecasting models are applied in much of the literature to quantitatively determine the future energy demand. This section collects eight of the latest energy outlook reports from globally authoritative organizations (shown in Table 4) and then analyzes the total demand of China as well as the primary energy structure and the consumption in final sectors.

Table 4 Growth rates of national GDP and energy consumption in various scenarios

Primary energy demand

Figure 6 presents China’s future energy demand across seventeen scenarios, and the institutions are consistent in the view that total energy consumption will continue to grow, while the growth rate will gradually decline. The total consumption is likely to peak in 2030 with a value of 3272 Mtoe under IEA-450 ppm Scenario, or peak in 2040 with values ranging from 3591 to 4060 Mtoe according to the Advanced Technologies Scenario of IEEJ, the Reference Scenario of ETRI and the Voluntary Reduction Scenario of SGERI.

Fig. 6
figure6

Growth trends of China’s primary energy demand from 2010 to 2050

China’s primary energy demand will increase to 3144–3767 Mtoe by 2020, an increase of 3.9%–16.7% over that in 2015. The annual energy consumption growth rate from 2015 to 2020 ranges from 0.76% (ERIRAS-Critical Scenario, presented in Table 4) to 3.13% (SGERI-Voluntary Reduction Scenario), and the demand will rise to 3272–4183 Mtoe by 2030, an increase of 9.5%–33.6% over that in 2015. The annual growth rate from 2020 to 2030 will range from 0.1% (IEA-450 ppm Scenario) to 1.72% (BP-Evolving Transition scenario), and the demand will reach 3236–4657 Mtoe by 2040, an increase of 8.3%–38.8% over that in 2015. The annual growth rate from 2030 to 2040 ranges from − 0.11% (IEA-450 ppm Scenario) to 1.15% (EIA-High Oil Price), and the demand will reach 3416–5072 Mtoe by 2050, an increase of 14.9%–51.2% over that in 2015. The annual growth rate from 2040 to 2050 ranges from − 0.5% (IEEJ-Advanced Technologies Scenario) to 0.86% (EIA-High Oil Price).

Compared with the results in Sect. 3 (see Table 4), the energy consumption estimates of the organizations are likely to follow the trajectory under the low consumption mode. From the perspective of the time of peak energy consumption, there are four scenarios that are similar to the low consumption mode, but the peak time is expected to be delayed under other scenarios. In general, China’s future energy pathway is more inclined to adopt a mode characterized by low energy consumption and high-income levels.

Primary energy structure

Some outlook reports contain forecasts of the primary energy structure and energy consumption of final sectors, and Fig. 7 shows the future energy structure under different scenarios. In general, fossil fuels will remain the dominant energy sources, but their share of the energy structure will fall from 87.9% (NBS 2017a) in 2015 to 71.7% (IEA-450 ppm Scenario)–86.6% (IEEJ-Reference Scenario) by 2030. In 2040, the share reaches 60.1% (IEA-450 ppm Scenario)–84.5% (IEEJ-Reference Scenario) and then declines to 57% (SGERI-Voluntary Reduction Scenario)–81.8% (IEEJ-Reference Scenario) by 2050.

Fig. 7
figure7

Future changes on primary energy structure of China

The share of coal will drop significantly from 63.7% (NBS 2017a) in 2015 to 29% (SGERI-Voluntary Reduction Scenario)–48.1% (IEEJ-Reference Scenario) in 2050, but it will continue to rank first among all energy sources. Coal consumption had already peaked in 2015 (1914 Mtoe) under most scenarios (BP 2018) and will then drop to 1137–1650 Mtoe by 2050 (see Table 5). While coal consumption continues to grow in individual scenarios, there is limited room for growth, and the amounts of coal consumption in both 2016 and 2017 were less than in 2015. It is believed that coal consumption has reached its peak in the short term, which is consistent with most scenarios.

Table 5 Future demand by energy types

Oil still ranks second among energy sources, and its share in the energy structure will not change greatly (18.3% in 2015) (BP 2018), remaining at 15%–20% in the future. Oil consumption continues to grow and will reach its peak in 2020 at the earliest or 2040 at the latest with values ranging from 587 to 856 Mtoe. Natural gas is currently the fourth largest energy source in China, and its share of the energy structure will rise from 5.9% (175 Mtoe in 2015) to 13.1%–18% by 2050. Gas consumption will grow more rapidly, reaching 448–744 Mtoe by 2050, 2.6–4.3 times that of 2015. China has accelerated its “coal-to-gas” project in northern China, especially in the Beijing–Tianjin–Hebei region, since 2017, which will help the country enter an era of natural gas. In contrast, the proportion of non-fossil fuels in the energy structure has gradually increased. Hydroelectricity consumption is growing slowly, and it will reach 135–156 Mtoe by 2050. Due to statistical differences, the base year data for the scenarios that are similar to the NBS (2017a) data are considered first when evaluating the future trend. The consumption of other renewables is noticeably increasing. By 2040, it will reach 784 Mtoe (BP-Evolving Transition scenario), 12.2 times that of 2015, and its proportion in the energy structure will rise to 18.2% from 2.9% in 2015. The share of nuclear power will increase to 7%–16% by 2050, and its consumption will reach 282–548 Mtoe, which is 6.3–12.2 times that of 2015.

Energy consumption in final sectors

China’s final energy consumption will continue to grow, and Fig. 8 shows the future consumption structure of final sectors under different scenarios. The industry sector will remain the largest sector in terms of energy consumption, while its share in the final consumption structure will gradually decline from the base year of 2015. In contrast, the consumption proportions of the building, transport and non-energy sectors are on the rise.

Fig. 8
figure8

Future changes on consumption structure of final sectors

As for the industry sector, the proportion of the consumption in the final structure will fall from 50.7% (IEA 2016) in 2015 to 36.3% (IEEJ-Advanced Technologies Scenario)–36.7% (IEEJ-Reference Scenario) by 2050; that is, it will remain higher than the current proportion in the USA or Japan. Industry energy consumption already peaked in 2015 according to IEEJ’s Advanced Technologies Scenario, but the consumption will continue to increase with a gradual deceleration under other scenarios, peaking in 2040 at the latest with a value of 973 Mtoe (IEEJ-Reference Scenario, see Table 6). The share of the transport sector in the final consumption will increase from 15.7% in 2015 to 20.6% (IEEJ-Advanced Technologies Scenario)–21% (IEEJ-Reference Scenario) by 2050. Physical consumption is growing rapidly and will peak by 2040 at the earliest with a value ranging from 476 Mtoe (IEEJ-Advanced Technologies Scenario) to 541 Mtoe (IEEJ-Reference Scenario). The share of the building sector will increase from 22.7% in 2015 to 31.1% (IEEJ-Advanced Technologies Scenario) by 2050. Physical consumption is also growing rapidly, peaking at 2020–2030 only in the 450 ppm Scenario of IEA. Moreover, primary energy sources enter the non-energy use sector as raw materials, and taking the IEA data as an example, the share in the final consumption will rise from 11% (209 Mtoe) in 2015 to 12.2% (IEA-Current Policies Scenario)–14.1% (IEA-450 ppm Scenario) by 2040, with values ranging from 312 to 358 Mtoe.

Table 6 Future energy demand of final sectors

Conclusions

China’s economic transition has entered a critical period, leading to a sharp contradiction between energy consumption and environmental protection. This paper provides a detailed picture of China’s energy consumption in the past, present and future to help understand what has happened, the main cause and the likely future for changing consumption, and this framework provides a basis for climate change mitigation from the perspective of the energy system. Through an understanding of the patterns and projections of China’s energy consumption, this paper draws the following conclusions.

On the energy supply side, coal has always been the dominant source and accounted for 62% of China’s primary structure in 2016. The external dependencies for oil and natural gas were 67.3% and 33.9%, respectively, posing a threat to national energy security, so China needs to develop diversified clean energy resources and accelerate research into new technologies, such as coal-to-liquids and coal-to-gas, in the future. On the consumption side, the share of the industry sector has significantly declined in recent years, but it is still much higher than the global average. Illustrating energy consumption in a flow chart is beneficial for identifying key sectors and technologies that use the most energy. Blast furnace ironmaking consumed the most energy, 66.9%, of that of the steel industry; the clinker burning process used 66.9% of cement energy consumption; the electrolytic aluminum process consumed approximately 2/3 in the aluminum industry; and the steam cracking method consumed 56.3% in the ethylene industry. Oil was the dominant energy source for the transport sector, and roads consumed the most energy. For end-use structure in the building sector, cooking, space heating and lighting were the major activities, so these areas should be prioritized in the development of new technologies and the pursuit of energy transitions.

China’s future consumption pathways are inspired by those of developed countries through the qualitatively analysis of the historical relationships between energy consumption and GDP growth. It is estimated that China’s future trend will be more similar to the medium or low energy consumption modes. If it follows a medium consumption mode, the energy consumption per capita would peak at 5.6–6 toe once the GDP per capita reaches 32–41 thousand US$ by the 2030–2036 period under the SSP1 scenario, and the total national consumption is estimated to be 7549–8274 Mtoe, approximately 2.5–2.8 times that in 2015. If China follows a low consumption mode, the consumption per capita would peak at 3–4.3 toe when the GDP per capita reaches 27–35 thousand US$ by the 2028–2032 period under the SSP1 scenario, and the total consumption is estimated to be 4106–5940 Mtoe, approximately 1.4–2.0 times that in 2015. In fact, China’s future trends are not limited to these two modes, but it is possible to achieve a leapfrog development through an energy revolution, that is, a cleaner and more efficient energy consumption mode accompanied by high incomes.

According to the existing projections conducted by the main organizations worldwide, the overall trend in China’s future energy consumption is likely to follow the pathway under the low energy consumption mode. Total primary demand would reach 3416–5072 Mtoe by 2050, an increase of 14.9%–51.2% over that is 2015. Fossil fuels will remain the dominant sources, but their share in the energy structure will fall from 87.9% to 57%–81.8%. It is believed that coal consumption has reached its peak, but it still ranks first among all energy supplies in 2050. The share of natural gas will increase remarkably, while there are significant differences in the development speeds among the renewables. The proportion of the industry sector in the final consumption structure will decline remarkably, and it is estimated that the consumption will peak at 2040 at the latest. Finally, the consumption in both the transport and building sectors will grow rapidly. These outlook reports differ in many aspects due to the different perspectives held by these organizations when analyzing and forecasting energy consumption. Generally, western institutions generate higher estimates, while those of eastern institutions are lower. The EIA, BP and ERIRAS results are similar, while ETRI, SGERI, IEEJ and ExxonMobil get close results.

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Acknowledgements

The authors acknowledge financial support received through National Key R&D Program of China (2016YFA0602603) and from the National Natural Science Foundation of China (Nos. 71822401, 71603020, 71521002 and 71642004), Key Project of Beijing Social Science Foundation Research Base (Grant No. 18JDGLB039) and the support from the Joint Development Program of Beijing Municipal Commission of Education. We are also thankful for the support provided by CEEP-BIT colleagues.

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Yu, B., Zhao, G. & An, R. Framing the picture of energy consumption in China. Nat Hazards 99, 1469–1490 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11069-019-03576-6

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Keywords

  • Energy flow chart
  • Energy consumption patterns
  • Energy outlook
  • China