All Eyes On India, Not China, For Future Oil Demand

For decades, China has been the leading driver of global oil demand growth thanks to an economy that maintained a blistering growth clip for a long stretch. China’s economy managed to expand at nearly 10% annually ever since Beijing embarked on economic reforms in 1978, ballooning from $1.2 trillion by the turn of the century to nearly $18 trillion in 2021.

But as the law of large numbers dictates, that era of exemplary growth could be in the rearview mirror. Economic pundits have predicted that China’s growth rate will slow down to between 2 and 5 percent in the coming years thanks to a declining population and slowing productivity. Further, analysts warn that China is set to give up its status in global oil markets to India, which is fast becoming the key driver of global demand growth. Over the past decade, the Asia-Pacific region accounted for 79% of global oil demand growth with China alone accounting for 58%.

China’s role as a global oil demand growth engine is fading fast,” Emma Richards, senior analyst at London-based Fitch Solutions Ltd, has told The Times of India. According to the analyst, over the next decade, China’s share of emerging market oil demand growth will decline from nearly 50% to just 15% while India’s share will double to 24%.

Over the medium-term, commodity analysts at Standard Chartered have predicted that China’s oil product demand growth will slow to 516 kb/d in 2024 from 819 kb/d in 2023, the result of a fall in GDP growth to 4.8% in 2024 (from 5.4% to 2023). They have also  forecast India’s demand growth will increase to 331 kb/d in 2024 from 268 kb/d in 2023, helped by favorable base effects and only a slight slowing in GDP growth (6.0% in 2024 from 6.1% in 2023).

A rapidly growing population, which has likely surpassed China’s, is expected to be the main driver of consumption trends in India. Meanwhile, the country’s transition from traditional gasoline and diesel-fueled transport is expected to lag other regions, in sharp contrast to China’s skyrocketing adoption of electric vehicles and clean energy in general.

India was always going to exceed China in a matter of time in terms of being the global demand growth driver, mainly due to demographic factors like population growth,” Parsley Ong, the head of Asia energy and chemicals research at JPMorgan Chase & Co. in Hong Kong, has told Bloomberg.

China’s adoption of electric vehicles has been lightning fast, a trend that does not bode well for gasoline demand in the world’s biggest car market. EV sales in China nearly doubled to 6.1 million units in 2022, compared with just 48,000 units sold in India, according to BloombergNEF. BNEF has revealed that EVs are already displacing over 1.4 million barrels a day of oil use globally.

On its part, India is in no hurry to abandon traditional fossil fuels. Earlier in the year, India’s coal minister Pralhad Joshi announced that coal will continue to play an important role in the country’s energy sector until at least 2040, referring to the fuel as an affordable source of energy for which demand has yet to peak in India. “Thus, no transition away from coal is happening in the foreseeable future in India,” Joshi said, adding the fuel will continue to play a big role until 2040 and beyond.

However, India is unlikely to replicate the mammoth scale of China’s expansive oil network any time soon, with the latter currently consuming three times as much oil. India’s oil consumption grew by ~255,000 barrels per day (bpd) during the first seven months of the current year, helping to grow total consumption to 135 million metric tons in the first seven months of 2023 compared to 128 million metric tons for last year’s corresponding period. However, that growth clip was considerably slower than 415,000 bpd posted in 2021/22 as economies rebounded from the coronavirus pandemic and lockdowns.  

By way of comparison, U.S. consumption growth was 1 million bpd in the first five months of this year; however, it is important to note that the U.S. typically consumes nearly 4 times the amount of oil as India does. 

Robust Commodity Demand

That said, fresh data coming from the Middle Kingdom suggests that the economy still has enough momentum to remain the leading consumer of critical commodities such as oil and copper for years to come. Wall Street investment bank Goldman Sachs has reported that China’s demand for many major commodities has actually been growing at “robust rates,” thanks in large part to its booming clean energy sector. 

According to GS, China’s demand for copper is up 8% Y/Y, while demand for iron ore and oil are up by 7% and 6%, respectively, exceeding the bank’s full-year expectations. China’s green copper demand rose 71% in July from a year ago. China is the leading importer of oil and the largest consumer of copper, iron ore and aluminum in the world.

This strength in demand has largely been tied to a combination of strong growth from the green economy, grid and property completions. The most significant strength has come on the renewables side where related copper demand is up 130% y/y year-to-date, led by surging solar related demand,” the Goldman report has observed.

China’s hegemony in global clean energy markets does not appear in any imminent danger. A June report by the Global Energy Monitor revealed that the country’s operating solar capacity has hit 228 GW, more than the rest of the world combined. China is now on track to double its wind and solar capacity a good five years ahead of its 2030 target.