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European Business Correspondent Eric Reguly (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)
European Business Correspondent Eric Reguly (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

Energy exporters beware: China is looking out for No. 1 Add to ...

Russian President Vladimir Putin must be laughing. He has snatched Crimea from Ukraine with barely a shot fired. The sanctions imposed by the United States, Canada and the European Union have, so far, been the equivalent of a classroom scolding. The International Monetary Fund, not Russia itself, is taking on the expense of bailing out Ukraine.

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All in all, not a bad outcome for Mr. Putin.

He doesn’t even seem to be rattled by the American Republicans’ threat to make it legal for the United States to export gas to Europe, in the form of liquefied natural gas (some of which could come from Canadian LNG terminals). The lawmakers would see this as a double win.

Thanks to the shale gas bonanza, the United States is sitting on a glut of gas that needs to find paying customers, anywhere. At the same time, gas exports to Europe would play a nasty, but ever so pleasing, geopolitical game. It would deprive Russia of some of its 30-per-cent share of the European gas market.

But even the prospect of American gas (and possibly Western European shale gas) displacing Russian gas in Europe does not seem to bother Mr. Putin. The reason: What Russia loses in Europe would be made up many times over in China, the world’s second-biggest economy and one that is galloping along at a 7.5-per-cent growth rate.

Mr. Putin’s apparent assumption is that China will take as much oil, gas and coal as Russia can pump or dig out of the ground. He may be right in the short term, even the medium term. But pinning Russia’s long-term prosperity on ever rising energy exports to China looks risky. It’s not just that China’s growth rates are slowing; it’s that China is embracing the green revolution a lot faster than the oil and coal barons realize.

Yes, China is building coal-burning electricity plants at a pace that is terrifying climate change scientists. But it is installing renewable energy capacity – wind, water, solar – at an even faster rate. The trend, in time, will twist the energy markets beyond recognition.

Research published this week by John Mathews of the management school at Sydney’s Macquarie University, and Hao Tan of the business school at Australia’s University of Newcastle, leaves little doubt that a green revolution is under way in China, despite endless videos and photos of skies blackened with soot.

Poring over official Chinese and U.S. data, they have determined that China and the United States are going in the opposite direction on the energy revolution curve. China is clearly becoming focused on renewables while the United States is becoming ever more dependent on fossil fuels to make electricity.

The numbers say that 2013 marked the first year in which China installed more electricity-generating capacity powered by renewables – just under 60 per cent – than from fossil fuels and nuclear. In the United States in the same year about 37 per cent of the newly installed generating capacity came from renewables, with the rest coming from hydrocarbons, such as coal seam gas.

China’s massive investment in renewables means that 30 per cent of its generating capacity can be classified as “green” and the proportion is bound to increase. Of course, the trend does not mean that China will consume less oil, gas and coal in, say, 10 years than it does now (though a price spike like the one seen in 2006 and 2007 could flatten the hydrocarbon demand curve in a hurry); it does mean that any company or investor betting on endlessly soaring hydrocarbon demand in China may be in for big disappointment.

Professors Mathews and Tan don’t for a second think that China’s pursuit of renewable energy is motivated by saving the planet from crispy bacon status by reducing its carbon footprint. Instead, they think it’s all about energy security and industrial development.

The Chinese have, in effect, chosen to manufacture their own energy security by producing vast quantities of solar panels, wind vanes, hydro turbines and all the paraphernalia that goes with them, such as “smart” transmission grids. The other option is to import energy from afar, but sometimes wars, revolutions and resource nationalism get in the way.

Manufacturing your own energy security comes with a pleasant byproduct in the form of jobs. Engineers have to design the products, factories have to build them. Importing hydrocarbons creates jobs in other countries.

Mr. Putin is not the only leader of a resources-rich country that may have his China calculations wrong. Ditto Canada. It wants to build a pipeline from the Alberta oil sands to a shipping port on the British Columbia coast. Australia is apparently under the impression that China will absorb as much Australian coal as fast as it can be gouged out of the ground.

At some point, other emerging powers such as India and Brazil will imitate China’s renewable energy model. Then any country that is pinning its future on hydrocarbon exports – Russia, Canada, Australia – might be in real trouble.

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