Signposts for the gas outlook - IEA's
Global gas markets, business models and pricing arrangements are all in a state of flux. There is great dynamism, both on demand and supply, but still plenty of questions on what the future might hold and what a new international gas market order might look like. The World Energy Outlook doesn’t have a forecast for what gas markets will look like in 2030 or 2040, but the scenarios and analysis provide some insight into the factors that will shape where things go from here.
The China effect on gas markets
Gas accounts for 7% of China’s energy mix today, well below the global average of 22%. But China is going for gas, and this surge in consumption has largely erased talk of a global gas glut. China’s gas demand expanded by a dramatic 15% in 2017, underpinned by a strong policy push for coal-to-gas switching in industry and buildings as part of the drive to “turn China’s skies blue again” and improve air quality. Liquefied natural gas (LNG) imports grew massively, with China surpassing Korea as the second largest LNG importer in the world. Preliminary data for 2018 suggest similarly strong double-digit growth, putting China well on track to become the world’s largest gas-importing country.
In the IEA’s New Policies Scenario (NPS), the share of gas in China’s energy mix is projected to double to 14% by 2040, and most of the increase is met by imports that reach parity with those to the European Union. Demand for LNG is set to quadruple over the same period, accounting for nearly 30% of global LNG trade flows. China has long driven global trends for oil, coal and, more recently, also for many renewable technologies. The “China effect” on gas markets is now becoming a pivotal element for those working in gas markets; this is a key reason why gas does relatively well in all the WEO scenarios.
There is no such a thing as ‘emerging Asian demand’
While China has been grabbing headlines with its unprecedented growth in demand, other emerging Asian markets – notably India, Southeast Asia and South Asia – are also increasing their presence in the global gas arena. Emerging economies in Asia as a whole account for around half of total global gas demand growth in the NPS: their share of global LNG imports doubles to 60% by 2040.
However, although the region is often dubbed “emerging Asia” as a whole, it is difficult to generalise about its gas prospects. Gas has been a niche fuel in some markets (such as India) while it is well established in some others (parts of Southeast Asia, Pakistan and Bangladesh). While there appears to be plenty of room for further growth in aggregate, with the share of gas in the region’s energy mix at less than 10%, this does not necessarily mean that all emerging Asian markets are poised to follow the path that China is taking. A wide variety of starting points and policy, supply security and infrastructure considerations make each emerging Asian market quite distinct. This requires a much more granular approach to understand the outlook for gas across this region.
Economics and policies need to be aligned for gas to grow
The case for gas can be compelling for countries that have significant resources within relatively easy reach, such as those in the Middle East or in much of North America. In these countries, there is scope for gas to displace or outcompete other fuels purely on economic grounds. However, the commercial case for gas looks weaker in many parts of emerging Asia, a key source of demand growth in our projections to 2040. Gas needs to be imported and transportation costs are significant; competition is formidable from amply available coal and renewables; gas infrastructure is often not yet in place in many cases; and consumers and policy makers are sensitive to questions of affordability.
Gas can be a good match for the developing world’s fast-growing urban areas, generating heat, power and mobility with fewer CO2 and local pollutant emissions than coal or oil. In carbon-intensive systems or sectors, it can play an important role in accelerating energy transitions. But – as China has shown – economic drivers need to be supplemented by a favourable policy environment if gas is to thrive. Without such a strategic choice in favour of gas, the fuel could be pushed to the margins by cheaper alternatives.
The main growth sector is no longer power
For now, power generation is the largest gas-consuming sector. Gas has some important advantages for power generation, notably the relatively low capital costs of new plants and the ability to ramp generation up and down quickly – an important attribute in systems that are increasingly rich in solar and wind power. But this is also the sector in which competition is most formidable; lower-cost renewables and the rise of other technologies for short-term market balancing – including energy storage – diminish the prospects for gas growth in the power sector, particularly in the Sustainable Development Scenario (SDS). A similar dynamic is visible in the use of gas to provide heat in buildings, where prospects are constrained by electrification and energy efficiency.
The largest increase in gas demand in the New Policies Scenario is projected to come from industry. Where gas is available, it is well suited to meeting industrial demand. Competition from renewables is more limited, especially for provision of high-temperature heat. Gas typically beats oil on price, and is preferred to coal for convenience (once the infrastructure is in place) as well on environmental grounds. Gas demand in industry is also projected to be more resilient in the SDS than power generation, where demand is far more sensitive to growth of renewables.
The rise of industrial demand in gas importing countries can provide the sort of reliable, ‘baseload’ demand that can underpin new upstream and infrastructure developments around the world. However, it also means less flexibility to respond to fluctuations in price, as industrial consumers can rarely switch to other fuels if gas prices rise, while power systems typically are more responsive and flexible in modulating their fuel mix.