For the first time in more than a century, a country other than the United States consumed more energy than any other nation, as China grabbed the top spot last year.

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A chimney billows smoke behind electrical wires in central Beijing last year. China surpassed the U.S. in energy consumption in 2009, the IEA says. ((David Gray/Reuters))

Citing data from the International Energy Agency, the Wall Street Journal reported Monday that China was the world's most voracious consumer of energy in 2009.

China consumed 2,252 million tonnes of "oil equivalent" last year, topping the U.S. tally of 2,170 tonnes by roughly four per cent.

Oil equivalent is the term the IEA uses to bring all forms of energy into a comparable form, including crude oil, nuclear, coal, natural gas, hydroelectricity, wind and solar power.

China was forecast to overtake the U.S. at some point over the next decade. But the global recession appears to have sped up the process as its economy continued to expand at a double-digit pace while the U.S. economy declined and oil consumption flatlined.

Only 10 years ago, China's energy consumption was half that of the United States.

"The fact that China overtook the U.S. as the world's largest energy consumer symbolizes the start of a new age in the history of energy," IEA chief economist Fatih Birol was quoted as saying.

China had already passed the United States as the world's largest polluter several years ago.

With a population of a little over 300 million, the United States still uses much more energy, per capita, than China does.

In terms of the use of crude oil specifically, the IEA says the United States remains well out in the lead, consuming some 19 million barrels per day. But China's economy relies on coal for much of its electricity generation, and its crude consumption is also climbing from its current level of just over nine million barrels per day.

China's electricity demand is forecast to increase by 1,000 gigawatts over the next 15 years — equivalent to the U.S.'s total electricity output at the moment.

Corrections

  • A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the U.S. is the world's leader in per-capita energy consumption, which is untrue. In fact, the U.S. is not the world leader, but does use more energy per capita than China.
    Jul 19, 2010 1:22 PM ET