Coal No Longer King as China Spurs Shift to Cleaner Energy

China’s domination of energy markets — long the driver of soaring fossil-fuel consumption and rising carbon pollution — is now turning the planet in a cleaner direction.

The biggest energy consumer is moving toward the end of an era after it burned the least coal in six years, became the number one producer of renewable energy and even lowered its emissions of climate-warming gases, according to data from BP Plc.

“China matters in a big way to the energy market,” said Giovanni Staunovo, an analyst at UBS Group AG. “There is an aim to move away from coal consumption towards cleaner energy sources.”

Weaker industrial growth meant China’s consumption of middle distillate fuels, which include diesel, fell last year for the first time in at least a decade, BP data show.

That “reflects the structural rebalancing of the economy towards more consumer and service-related facing sectors,” Spencer Dale, BP’s chief economist, said at a briefing in London on Tuesday. “But the scale of the slowdown suggests some bounce-back is perhaps likely.”

Increasing prosperity means people are driving their cars further and flying more often, driving demand for gasoline and jet fuel, Dale said.

Total consumption of oil products rose 3.3 percent last year, compared with an average annual expansion of 5.7 percent in the previous decade. Even at that slower rate, China’s additional 400,000 barrels a day of demand was the largest contribution to global growth in 2016, the BP data show.

The slowdown in China is reflected in the world’s carbon emissions, which saw little or no growth for a third consecutive year in BP’s data. Global emissions grew at an annual average rate of about 2.5 percent in the 10 years to 2013.

China has alone helped eliminate most of that growth. The country’s emissions have dropped in the past two years after growing by almost 75 percent in the previous decade, Dale said.

“It’s a new China, a different China, but still very relevant in the energy world,” said UBS’s Staunovo. “The hunger for energy is likely to continue to dominate.”

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