Analyst presentations can be tedious affairs, often an equal mix of the obvious and the dubious. But one I saw about China’s Five Year Plan’s implications of Australia really had me listening closely. The visiting China-based analyst was showing a slide of the projections of the growth in “low carbon” energy out to 2015. It was startling: 40 gigawatts nuclear power, 63 gw for hydro, 22 gw for gas fired, 48 gw for wind, 50 gw for solar and ….. 260 gw for coal generation. “The coal business is going to be huge for Australia for the next 30 years,” the presenter said. “Carbon emissions in China will be up by 426% by 2020,” he continued. By 2035, China’s use of energy will be more than all Europe’s, Japan’s and America’s current energy use.
China has masked what is happening by using proportions. In the Five year Plan, they say they want to raise non-fossil fuel energy to account for 11.4% of primary energy consumption, up from 9.6%. Energy consumption per unit of GDP is to be cut by 17%. The forest coverage is to be increased.
All very laudable, but it does not take into account the economic growth likely to occur over the next two or three decades. It means higher consumption of energy, which will mostly come from fossil fuels. I am not one of the camp who argues that Australia should do nothing about capping emissions until China and America act. That looks suspiciously like a ‘two wrongs make a right’ argument to me. And besides, even if emissions grow, limiting that growth is better than not doing so.
But with China increasing its fossil fuel consumption by such a quantum, whatever Australia does — and for that matter most of the rest of the world does — will be a sideshow.
If global warming pessimists are right, as well as as making our own cuts, we had better start making preparations for a more dangerous environment.
The other big economic shift acknowledged in the 5 Year Plan is the inevitability of higher labour rates, especially on the East coast. Inflation from China is coming. The Plan forecasts annual wage growth of 20%. Last year it was actually above 30% in many regions, and it is continuing at that rate this year. This is a predictable development in a country going through industrialisation, but it does spell the end of cheap wages in China. The government is building heavily inland in order to shift the industry base to the West to leverage low wage labour there. But that is only a temporary reprieve. China will soon be a medium wage country, and that has big implications for the developed world (as WalMart recently flagged).
It means consumer price inflation is probably coming, which, unlike asset inflation, cannot be ignored by central banks. That in turn means higher interest rates, which for the Australian housing market will be devastating. At least the Australian government will probably have a lot of tax revenue from the commodity boom when it is has to nationalise the banks.
China is a giant, and transforming the Australian economy as the graph above shows. It is also going to transform global energy use, irrespective of what any developed economies do. It will probably also transform consumer prices irrespective of what developed economies do. How can the Fed or European Central Bank set interest rates to suppress inflation when the wage rates are being set in China?