Navigant Research Blog

China Looks to Cap Energy Consumption

Lisa Jerram — March 1, 2012

In a webinar earlier this year, my colleague Kerry-Ann Adamson forecast that that governments will move toward a more prescriptive approach to energy policy.  In other words, they will not simply set broad efficiency or emissions targets but will specifically identify the clean energy technologies to reach those targets.  Examples are Australia, with its recommendations for distributed generation and solar power to meet energy efficiency goals, and the EU countries, which Kerry-Ann says will adopt increasingly prescriptive policies to achieve the EU’s mind-boggling goal of cutting carbon emissions by over 80% by 2050.

We can add China to that list, if reports are accurate that the country is considering putting a cap on energy consumption.  You read that right: a national cap on energy consumption.

It’s challenging to pin down details of this reported proposal.  From my reading of China’s 12th Five-Year Plan, which covers 2011 to 2015, the country is still focused on energy-intensity targets, not absolute caps.  The highlights from the English translation that I found are that, from 2010 to 2015, energy consumption per unit of GDP is targeted to drop by 16%, while CO2 emissions per unit of GDP will decrease by 17%.  Another major goal over the next five years is energy diversification.  The plan sets a target for non-fossil fuel resources to rise from 8.3% to 11.4% of primary energy consumption between 2010 to 2015.

Reports of the possible national cap seem to have come from public statements by officials at China’s National Energy Administration (NEA).  According to China Daily, in 2011 a National Energy Administration official said that China was considering a limit on energy consumption for localities, with a goal of “cap[ping] its total energy consumption at four billion tons of coal equivalent by 2015.“  Other reports confirm this.  It has also been reported that renewable energy will be excluded from the cap.

As yet, I have not seen an official policy announcement with details as to how the cap would be implemented.  Certainly the five-year plan goals confirm that China is hoping to shift from a pure growth mode to a sustainable growth model: the five-year plan also calls for a much less heated 7% growth rate in GDP to go along with the focus on decreasing energy intensity.  But setting a cap on the total energy consumption would be an extraordinary step, albeit one that seems to fit within China’s form of “communist capitalism.”  But in trying to build a more sustainable economy, China still faces many of the same pressures that capitalist democracies face.  For example, large swathes of the country have not developed to a modern standard of living and are not likely to be willing to slow their efforts to do so.  Moreover, energy consumption in China is dominated by coal, one of its few domestic energy sources, and it will not be easy to wean the country off this plentiful energy source.  The Guardian recently reported that the energy cap is provoking much debate from provincial governments that want to grow faster than the national government target would allow.  This will be a fascinating story to watch this year, and even more fascinating to see how China might implement a national cap should such a policy come to fruition.

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