For much of the past two decades, China has been the main driver of global oil demand growth. In the coming two to three decades, China is expected to become the leading determinant in global natural gas demand as well, outpacing the U.S. as the biggest natural gas consumer at some point between 2040 and 2050.
Economic and industrial production growth, coupled with efforts to reduce stifling pollution levels, will lead China’s surging natural gas demand over the next couple of decades, according to analysts and international projections.
The latest forecast for China’s upcoming leading role in the world’s natural gas market comes from Sanford C. Bernstein & Co, whose analyst Neil Beveridge said in a research note earlier this week:
“China’s gas market has entered a new golden age.”
“Growth in 2017 has shown significant improvement over 2016, as government policies to stimulate gas demand growth are starting to pay dividends,” Beveridge says in the report, as carried by Bloomberg.
China’s gas consumption is expected to rise to 300 billion cubic meters (bcm) in 2020 from 206 bcm in 2016, and surge to 600 bcm by 2040. After that, China is seen outstripping the U.S. in natural gas consumption to become the biggest user of the fuel in the world, according to Bernstein.
The biggest risk to the expected natural gas demand surge is renewables rising more than currently projected and therefore narrowing the timeframe in which gas will serve as the ‘bridge fuel’ between coal and clean energy.
Other analysts are bullish on China’s natural gas prospects, too
The International Energy Agency (IEA) sees global gas demand growing 1.6 percent annually until 2022, with China making up 40 percent of this growth. Consumption in China is expected to increase to almost 340 bcm by 2022, of which imports will account for 140 bcm, up from 70 bcm last year, according to IEA’s Gas 2017 report. In addition, China’s domestic production is seen growing by around 65 bcm to 200 bcm by 2022, with annual growth of 6.6 percent, which would make the country the world’s fourth-largest natural gas producer by 2022.
China is already setting the stage for a natural gas import boom, with imports running at record rates as Beijing pushes on with its cleaner energy agenda that should see the country satisfy 10 percent of its energy needs with gas in 2020, from 5.9 percent in 2015.
By 2035, Chinese gas demand will be treble the 2016 levels, according to Wood Mackenzie.
Last year, China’s gas demand accounted for just 6 percent of its fuel mix, but the government aims to increase this to around 15 percent by 2030, WoodMac’s Kerry-Anne Shanks, Vice President, Gas & Power Asia-Pacific, said in the five takeaways from a recent Gas and LNG Summit.
“While it is unclear if this fuel mix goal will be reached, even minor gains in share translate into big numbers. Presenters showed forecasts for China’s gas demand increasing to 450–600 bcm by 2030,” Shanks noted.
According to industry observers, China needs further gas market reforms in order to reach the full gas potential and make gas for industrial use cheaper—and thus more competitive—than coal and oil. In addition, the more flexible and lower-priced LNG market is bound to benefit Chinese gas importers, WoodMac says.
The BP Energy Outlook 2017 sees China’s energy mix evolving through 2035, with coal’s dominance dropping from 64 percent in 2015 to 42 percent in 2035, and natural gas nearly doubling to 11 percent.
BP sees Chinese demand for oil surging 61 percent, and gas demand soaring 186 percent by 2035. The UK supermajor also expects China to become the world’s second-biggest shale gas producer after the U.S. in two decades’ time.
Almost everyone expects China to become for the natural gas market what it is for the oil market now—the leading consumer with the largest demand growth. Whether these projections will materialize will depend on Chinese economic growth, urbanization, energy policies, global gas supply, and last but not least—the pace of renewable energy and storage solution technology and adoption.