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Berkeley Lab study forecasts China energy use will peak within 20 years; 356 million private cars by 2050

Projected saturation of private cars in China by fuel type under the two scenarios. Source: LBL. Click to enlarge.

China’s energy use will level off well before mid-century even as its population edges past 1.4 billion due to the phenomenon of saturation, according to a new study by Berkeley Lab’s China Energy Group.

According to this new forecast, the current steeply rising curve of energy demand in China will begin to moderate between 2030 and 2035 and flatten thereafter. There will come a time—within the next two decades—when the number of people in China acquiring cars, larger homes, and other accouterments of industrialized societies will peak—a phenomenon known as saturation.

Similarly, China will reach saturation in road and rail construction before the 2030-2035 time frame, resulting in very large decreases in iron and steel demand. Additionally, other energy-intensive industries will see demand for their products flatten.

In the years since 2005, we have established and significantly enhanced the LBNL China End-Use Energy Model based on the level of diffusion of end use technologies and other drivers of energy demand. The model addresses end-use energy demand characteristics including sectoral patterns of energy consumption, change in subsectoral industrial output, trends in saturation and usage of energy-using equipment, technological change including efficiency improvements, and links between economic growth and energy demand. A baseline (Continued Improvement Scenario or CIS) and an alternative energy efficiency scenario (Accelerated Improvement Scenario or AIS) have been developed to assess the impact of actions already taken by the Chinese government, planned or proposed actions, and actions that may not yet have been considered, in order to evaluate the potential for China to control energy demand growth and mitigate CO2 emissions. In addition, we have used our judgment about timing and extent of commercialization of carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) to describe our scenario with CCS (CIS and AIS assume no CCS).

—“China’s Energy and Carbon Emissions Outlook”

The key results include:

  • By 2050, primary energy consumption will rise continuously in both scenarios but approach a plateau around 2040 for CIS and AIS. Energy demand grows from 2250 Mtce to 5500 Mtce in 2050 under CIS. It is reduced by 900 Mtce to 4600 Mtce in AIS in 2050, a cumulative energy reduction of 26 billion tonnes of coal equivalent from 2005 to 2050. If CCS were implemented under the CIS scenario, with 500 Mt CO2 captured and sequestered by 2050, total primary energy use would increase by 36 Mtce to 5517 Mtce in 2050 due to CCS energy requirements for carbon separation, pumping and long-term storage, but carbon emissions would decline by 4% in 2050.

  • CO2 emissions under both scenarios approach a plateau or peak in 2025 (AIS) and 2030 (CIS). CIS reaches a plateau between 2030 and 2035 with 12 billion tonnes in 2033, while the more aggressive energy efficiency improvement and faster decarbonization of the power supply under AIS peak between 2025 and 2030 at 9.7 billion tonnes in 2027. CCS at the current level of efficiency and from an integrated system point of view, however, will only have a small net CO2 mitigation impact of 475 million tonnes in 2050.

  • China’s current per capita GDP and average per capita energy use is still very low compared to developed countries but has the potential to catch up by 2050 (Figure ES-2). Both LBNL and ERI’s 2050 scenarios show that China will likely surpass Portugal’s current level of per capita GDP, but its GDP will still remain below more developed countries like Singapore, US, and Japan. However, China’s projected 2050 pathways are also noteworthy in that their per capita energy use will remain below most other countries with similar GDP levels. Under CIS, China’s per capita energy use will be below South Korea and Spain in 2050 while under ERI’s base scenario, China will be well below the per capita energy use in Australia and France. These trends underscore the important role China can play in pursuing a more energy efficient pathway of economic development.

Other aggregate results include:

  • Future energy demand reduction potential (CIS minus AIS) is greatest in the industry sector in the earlier years and in the buildings sector in the long run.

  • The total national CO2 emissions mitigation potential of moving from a CIS to AIS trajectory of development is 3.8 billion tonnes in 2050 with the power sector having the greatest mitigation potential. In 2050, over 70% of the inter-sector mitigation is from the power sector whereas 12% is from the transport sector.

  • Both the CIS and AIS scenarios suggest that the goal of 40% to 45% carbon intensity reduction by 2020 announced in 2009 is possible. It will, however, require strengthening or expansion of energy efficiency policies in industry, buildings, appliances, and motor vehicles, as well as further expansion of renewable and nuclear power capacity.

  • The share of coal will be reduced from 74% in 2005 to about 47% by 2050 in CIS, and to 30% in AIS. Coal demand in CIS will approach its peak in the late 2020s and reach it in 2031 at 3,000 Mtce. Most of the increase in crude oil demand is driven by a burgeoning transport sector with a growing share of oil demand. While other sectors have declining shares of total oil final demand, the transport sector will reach 66% share of oil demand in 2050 in CIS. This is comparable to the current US transport share of 69%.

  • The commercial building sector’s emerging role as a major energy consumer is most evident in the rise of final electricity demand, more than offsetting industry’s declining share. Under CIS, the commercial sector will be responsible for nearly one-third of all electricity demand. Under AIS, the transport sector has growing share of electricity demand because of more aggressive rail and road electrification.

  • Saturation effects are important in this outlook. The saturation of commercial space per employee reduces construction of commercial space. This in turn has a very significant effect on the demand for steel and cement. Similarly, the saturation of fertilizer use per hectare of land results in a flattening of chemical fertilizer production from ammonia. In contrast, expected growth in per-capita consumption of plastic supports strong continued growth in ethylene production. Appliance sales and expansion of urban areas also drive electricity demand.

  • Heavy-industrialization-led energy demand growth approach a peak in the short term of 2015 for both CIS and AIS, and industrial energy use will gradually decline as a proportion of the total as transportation and building energy use growth dominate demand through 2050

Transportation. Urban private car ownership is expected to increase to more than 356 million by 2050, with 30% of these being electric cars under CIS. Increasing this proportion to 70% in the AIS scenario reduces gasoline demand by 82 million tonnes in 2050. By 2050, personal car ownership reaches 0.68 per household—extremely high compared to current values but still below current levels in the United States and Europe.

Passenger Transport Activity by Mode. Click to enlarge.   Passenger Road Transport Stock. Click to enlarge.

The reduction in gasoline demand produces the unintended result that China becomes a gasoline exporter, as demand for other oil products is not reduced commensurately. Energy use for freight transport remains important in both scenarios and has a strong impact on the structure of petroleum demand. Although foreign trade becomes less important in 2050 as China relies more on domestic demand, bunker fuel (heavy oil) demand will continue to rise strongly. Increased fuel efficiency of trucks for road freight, higher levels of electrification of the rail system, and more efficient inland and coastal ships moderate diesel demand growth, but diesel remains the largest share of petroleum product demand.

Power decarbonization has important effects on the CO2 emissions mitigation potential of switching to electric vehicle (EV) technology. Greater transport electricity use under AIS could result in net CO2 emissions reduction on the order of 5 to 10 Mt CO2 per year before 2030 and as much as 109 Mt CO2 by 2050 because AIS power supply is less carbon intensive than CIS power supply. However, in the absence of any decarbonization in the power sector, EVs will increase CO2 emissions.

The report was summarized in a briefing to US Congressional staffers. The study was carried out under contract with the US Department of Energy, using funding from the China Sustainable Energy Program, a partnership of the David and Lucile Packard Foundation and the Energy Foundation.



Wouldn't it be more beneficial to put our combined efforts into solving the current financial crisis and its many associated problems instead of trying to predict what will happen to China by 2050?

Without any exhaustive studies, it is fair to predict that China will be the world's top economy as soon as 2030 and the leader for electrified vehicles by 2020 and thereafter.


I think it would be safe to say that India, China and others will demand more oil year after year. Since we import more than 60% of the oil we use, we are on the world market bidding with everyone else.

This puts us in a tough position going forward, if we do not get alternatives and efficiency going and keep going, the oil situation will get more difficult every day. Let's get a real energy policy that lasts more than a year or two.


Actualy they may be right there are signs china is running out of steam and may crash massively. Thinga are unraveling fast now and the signs point to some realy nasty stuff ahead.


The report says they will have 250 Million cars still burning gasoline in 2050. THIS, if true, will collapse Chinese expansion since the fuel will be extremely costly ($10-15/gal) and hard to get. And China has next to zero alternative fuel industry in place(CTL probably the most advanced.)

Good time for China to start investing in biofuels.


W2000....wishful thinking?

Reel$$...China will do it at a faster pace. may be right. With so many deniers around, it is becoming almost impossible to get anything done.


Hardly wishful thinking if china tanks that hard its gona be a nightmare for everyone not to mention alot of people will suffer horribly. Only a twit would wish that.


Unless China can make money on refining margins minus shipping, it's crazy to think China will export gasoline. A nation run by technocrats will see the value of using e.g. heavy-duty GDI engines in lieu of diesels, and reduce oil imports along with the shift in fuel consumption.

One exception is if the mercantilists see an advantage in trade dependency of nearby nations on refined fuels. A triangle trade of crude to China, gasoline to Malaysia and Thailand, and only going empty back to the ME may cut transport costs and increase Chinese leverage in the region.


I am also skeptical of their projection, they base their reasoning on a non constrained supply side, according to their projection the consumption of oil by China would grown by a factor 5 so 30 millions barrels a day by 2050, no way the oil production can follow along with India growing too. The price of oil will fast overshoot in the current decade and flatten these predictions.


When the outcomes are higher prices and/or less usage you end up with economic constriction. Some might call that a self regulating feedback loop, I would call it trouble for a lot of people.


China is the nation that mandated a one-child birth control policy. When china needs to make something happen, they take action. They're already setting the pieces in place to assure whatever oil they can get (chavez, etc), and ramping up their nuclear program.


Oil consumption will probably start to flatten by 2030 and may have decreased by xx% by 2050 due to the massive switch to non-ICE vehicles and trains.

China has the capability to adjust. However, it may very well consume 30% of the world crude by 2050 instead of the current 10%. That would be representative of their growing share of the world economy.


You put time on the X axis and world oil consumption on the Y axis and you see demand rise over time. The curve may head more parallel to the X axis over time, but what causes that?

Do we hit peak oil because we hit peak demand? Or does that curve flatten because there is just not enough oil available to meet world demand? Or does oil just go to such high prices the world can not afford to buy more oil? Inquiring minds want to know....


SJC....all those factors will play a role. Eventually, heavy machinery, ships and airplanes may be the only main users left.


The point being, the curve may flatten but what will be the cause? If we were to read a report 10 years from now without knowing what transpired, would we be able to guess what happened?

I would prefer that we curb demand due to alternatives. Whether that be EVs, PHEVs, OFS, synthetic fuels or all of these. Conservation and efficiency can only go so far, substitution is one proven remedy.


Why did wood burning go down (except in a few third world countries)?

It was replaced by other energy sources. So will be liquid fuels.


That may be, but it is what we do between now and then that will determine if we even get there.

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