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Fuel for the dragon

By Benedict De Meulemeester

By Benedict De Meulemeester on 25/08/2010

Last month, figures were published that made clear that China has surpassed the US as the world's largest consumer of energy.  Economic pessimists will probably interpret this as another sign that the Western economies are being surpassed by the Asian economies. It is true that for many years now, the economies of the East have grown faster than our economies. However, you are only surpassed when your competitor is becoming bigger than yours. And if we are discussing economic performance, you should watch for per capita figures rather than absolute figures. If you only watch absolute figures, the tiny country of Belgium that I live in, would never be good in anything. If you look at the energy consumption figures in that perspective, it still means that US energy consumption per capita is four times bigger than the Chinese. So, once again, we should remark that China is catching up rather than surpassing. In the past decades, this economic miracle has lifted 400 million Chinese out of poverty. Who can be against that?

The dragon economy of China has recovered more swiftly than that of any other country from the perils of the 2008 financial crisis. Moreover, it looks like they are managing to reduce the dependency on export (and American credit-based consumption) by stimulating inland demand. As the Chinese become richer (and wages are rising fastly), they buy more and more consumer goods. They also move into higher added value goods, which is a logic step. Being the world's cheap labor workshop is not a source of sustainable economic growth. The counterside of that economic growth is of course the rise in energy consumption. And this gives rise to some important reflections:

1. Since hitting their lowest point in the beginning of 2009, oil prices have more than doubled again, fueled by the rapid recovery of Chinese oil demand growth. Coal prices didn't grow as much, as increasing demand was matched by increasing supplies.  However, the evolution of oil prices shows that increasing Chinese demand has an important impact on commodities that are traded on a worldwide scale. This is also obvious in other commodity markets with tight supply such as copper.  What does this mean for natural gas markets, now that they are becoming more and more worldwide markets due to the LNG boom? Will China dash for gas and tap into the reserves of Russia, Southeast Asia and the worldwide LNG markets? And will the newly tapped reserves of shale gas be able to fuel an increase in worldwide gas demand? Will China itself be able to increase its production of gas due to the shale gas evolution?

2. Chinese energy demand growth has a big impact on the global carbon dioxide balance. China is growing fastly in renewable energy and for wind and solar power, it is a key market. But this renewable energy is unable to compensate for the even larger growth of coal-fired power plants. With its newly won status of being the world's largest consumer of energy, the pressure on China for taking more responsibility in terms of reducing carbon dioxide emissions will be bigger than ever.

3. Even if China is obviously the most important factor in determining oil prices, the market is still looking mostly at the US for its analysis of prices. See this previous entry for more on that. This is due to the lack of good quality data on Chinese oil consumption. In the past two years we have seen the market surprised again and again by unexpected growth in Chinese oil demand. It is clear that an improvement in Chinese energy statistics would make the markets a lot more transparent.

We will have to see in the next years if the Chinese economy can continue its economic success story. Anyhow, it is clear that we will have to look East for information about the energy markets.

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