Columnists: Andrew Warren, British Energy Efficiency Federation

Published on: 1 Aug 2011

Follow China's example on energy efficiency

‘Why bother if China continues to grow?’ This excuse for avoiding energy conservation may no longer be valid if new studies are to be believed

I must be honest. Like many who recognise the urgency of addressing the threat of climate change, I sometimes get very pessimistic. Laudable that we in the developed world cut back our own emissions by 80 per cent+ from current levels - but what about China?

The world’s most populous nation is growing its GDP at a rate comparable to that of our own Industrial Revolution. The GDP graph heads steadily towards the top right corner. All the macro-economists produce energy consumption, and hence greenhouse gas emission, graphs looking alarmingly similar. Surely China's inexorable expansion will swamp everything we do? As the chair of the House of Commons' influential Environmental Audit Committee, Joan Walley MP wryly puts it: “Too often the cry goes up: China will in any case dwarf all that is done. So why bother?”

That is certainly the conventional wisdom. To which if I am honest, I always used to subscribe. But then I met Mark Levine. And he banished my preconceptions (follow link to his presentation), and gave me hope.

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Micro-economic data

Mark Levine is the senior staff scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratories in California. But for the last 25 years he seems scarcely to have been in California. Instead, he and his growing team of energy analysts – nearly all of Chinese origin – have been working over the other side of the Pacific. They have been developing the most detailed micro-economic data regarding actual energy use in China. And Levine’s conclusions run entirely contrary to received wisdom.

He does not believe that Chinese energy consumption will grow inexorably. On the contrary, Levine reckons that within two decades many of the standard drivers of consumption growth – commercial and residential floor area, appliances use, heavy industrialisation, population levels – will have reached saturation point. And emissions could then start tapering off. Why is he confident? Past experience. And a solid database covering present consumption patterns.

When he first arrived in China, there were no energy appliance standards worthy of the name. Then tough new standards for basic items like refrigerators and air conditioning equipment were introduced. And then tightened. And then tightened again. So that between them these and related products will shortly be delivering savings worth over 500TWh each year. To put this in context, savings from appliances “deliver” more than five times the output of the world’s largest, and most controversial, hydro-electric dam, Three Gorges.

Between 1980 and 2002, China decoupled energy consumption from growth. GDP rose eight-fold, energy use only doubled. But then China joined the World Trade Organization, and launched the Big Expansion turning China into the great world economy. Sadly, between 2002 and 2005, that proud energy intensity record went into reverse. Overwhelmed by the dash for growth, it actually worsened by 5 per cent each year.

At the very top, the trend was spotted. Most unusually the Politburo itself intervened. It demanded that this trend be reversed. For the five year period from 2005 energy intensity was required to improve by 20 per cent. That happened. There is now a mandated 15.6 per cent improvement.

Plethora of initiatives

This occurred in part because those running China demanded it. But also because there was a whole plethora of initiatives created – the Ten Key Projects with an $8bn incentive budget; the Top Thousand Enterprise programme covering 40 per cent of energy consumption; tough and effective building regulation enforcement.

Unlike other commentators, Levine and his team are crunching the detailed on-the-ground numbers of actual energy usage in China. He can see precisely why the nation has felt able to commit immediately to reductions in carbon intensity, but not to absolute reductions. For all its growth, Chinese GDP per head is still lower than that of Namibia. But he can also see that greenhouse gas emissions are on course at worst to plateau, even hopefully decline, in the 2030s.

The Chinese government has committed to reducing the energy-related CO2 emissions intensity by 40 to 45% from 2005 to 2020. Of these intensity reductions, almost 90% will come from energy efficiency gains and reducing the percentage of energy intensive industry in the economy. Less than 5% will come from increased renewables. Too few people realize the crucial importance of energy efficiency over the coming decades in reducing growth of CO2 emissions.

I heard Mark Levine give these (and many more) details of actual Chinese energy usage patterns at a conference at the International Energy Agency in Paris. I was bowled over. He and his wife were stopping off in London afterwards for a couple of days. During which he gave his fascinating presentation to as many people as we could round up with 48 hours’ notice.

Among those to whom he presented was Joan Walley MP. She ended her meeting with a broad grin. And told me “Mark Levine’s presentation reminds us that China is indeed a force to be reckoned with - one that is putting into practice a commitment to energy efficiency on an unprecedented scale. We would be wise to understand that better, follow suit, and take heart.” Let us hope we all do.

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The views expressed in this column are those of the columnist and do not necessarily reflect the views of eceee or any of its members.

Other columns by Andrew Warren